I wrote this essay as a birthday card to my dad last year. When sitting down to write him a Father’s Day card this week, I kept thinking about this gift to him. On that birthday night, our whole family sat down to a celebratory meal at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Marina del Rey, where I read my piece aloud. I tried to keep my composure as I read, which was a challenge when I could see out of my peripheral vision the tears welling up in my dad’s eyes. The waitress, a true professional, did not interrupt. She sensed the importance of the moment and waited until I was done to take our dinner order and I was always so grateful for her giving us that space. Later, my mom, who generally doesn’t approve of my habit of sharing my life so publicly, suggested I submit this piece for publication. But no, this was one story that was sacred. I wrote it for one person only: my dad.
A few days ago my best friend from childhood, Nan, lost her dad. He was 94. He had a good, long, healthy life. Even on his last day on this planet he was well enough to go fishing with some friends from the nursing home. His passing was another reminder to cherish every moment and always say what you need to say–before you can’t any longer. My dad is still with us–he’s 81 now, still drinking martinis, still giving me advice and still reminding me to embrace the goodness in life. I can’t think of anything more I’d like to do to honor him on this Father’s Day than share my very personal, very heartfelt gift to him with you. I hope you are all honoring the fathers or father-figures in your life–not just this Father’s Day weekend but every day.
For Dad on his 80th Birthday, May 16, 2015
You always said, “The best birthday present I could ask for is a card telling me how much you love me.” This is a lucky break for me because (A) I don’t really have a lot of money to spend, (B) you can be a little hard to shop for since you are already the “man who has everything”—not to mention, I don’t really like shopping in the first place, and (C) I write for a living so writing you a card is like getting off easy. Not just because writing comes naturally to me, but because telling you how much I love you is one of the most effortless things in the world. Effortless, yes, but you are turning 80 and the list of reasons I love you and appreciate you has kept growing with the years, so this is going to be a long “birthday card.”
You have taught me so many important lessons that have carried me through my life. Your wisdom, your strength, your passion and your humor have shaped the person I have become. And I’d to think I’m speaking for the other four kids, your five grandkids, and even your two granddogs. While this is only a small sampling, I’ve come up with a list of 10 lessons I learned from you, lessons so valuable that I have made it my mission to share them with others.
1. Surround yourself with positive people
You have always told me to surround myself with positive people. This is one of the single most important pieces of advice I have ever had. It is so simple but so powerful. I might have inherited my “people radar” and healthy skepticism from mom, but it’s your voice I hear when I realize I need to move on from certain friends or situations that are too negative. It’s a formula that works. I have traveled far and wide, alone, and I have never had anything bad happen, because you taught to me stay away from the “ass-hoooooooles” (your favorite line from “Meet the Fockers”) and focus only on the good.
2. It’s OK to tune people out
I sat in the passenger seat of your car when I was 10. I had just gotten publicly reprimanded and humiliated by Mrs. Wonderlich in front of my whole fifth grade class. She told me I needed to come down off my pedestal. Which, looking back, is the same thing as saying, “I will not allow you to be your big, beautiful, confident self.” As I sat in your white Mustang—or maybe it was your brown Gremlin—you told me I did not need to listen to her, that I could just tune people out. To this day, I think of you propping me up that afternoon and I am so grateful for that advice—and for what may be considered your unconventional parenting style. You helped me to understand that people put others down only to make themselves feel better. And then you taught me that I didn’t have to listen to the naysayers, that I could just do my own thing, and that I could—and should—become the big, beautiful, confident self you raised me to be.
3. It takes 37 fewer muscles to smile than to frown
Long before the “positive mental attitude movement” came along, you were extolling the virtues of turning a frown upside down. Of course as a dentist you had to put it in dental terms by defining the number of muscles it takes to do this. And that alone, to this day, makes me smile.
4. Follow your passion
Unlike you and your early and unrelenting love for dentistry, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. You might have had some suggestions for me along the way—like be a dental hygienist or an executive assistant—but because you told me it was okay to tune people out, I didn’t listen—even to you. Why? Because you also taught me to find my passion and follow it. The words I can still hear you saying—and on more than one occasion—were this: “As long as you can convince me why what you want to do is important to you, I will support you.” I convinced you. And you supported me. Just like you promised you would. Even when I did things that challenged you as a parent. Like graduating early from high school to do a NOLS semester. Going to Africa alone at 24. And more. How lucky can a kid get to have a dad who supports their passion, even when that passion turns out to be wanderlust?
5. Give to others
You spent your whole career as a healer. It was one thing to see how many people’s lives you improved by taking care of their teeth, but I also watched people come away transformed just from your touch. You made people’s health a priority. You made our family a priority. You always put others first. It would be hard to rank all the lessons you taught me in any given order, but this one has to be in the top three. You recently reiterated to me a phrase that I have been leaning on more than you know—one I will take with me as I go around the world. You said, “When times get hard, just remember what you are doing is helping others.” What kind of dad says that? I’ll tell you what kind. The best kind. The very best kind.
6. Always eat well — and remember to say thank you
You have always had a great enthusiasm for food. Good food. Our family dinners provided a
foundation for our lives, not just by having healthy home-cooked meals but by being encouraged to engage in open communication around the table. With that, we were nourished in both the body and the soul. Beyond the home, you expanded our appreciation of delicious food—and created a love for a wide range of dining experiences. It started back in the Ottumwa days with banana cream pie at The Canteen Lunch in the Alley and hot fudge sundaes at Dairy Queen. And then it progressed all the way to the top of the scale with filet mignon and Grand Marnier soufflés at Café Martinique in the Bahamas. The extremes may have balanced out with spaghetti and meatballs at “the garlic place” (Alejo’s), clam chowder at Blue Water Grill, and tostada salads at El Pollo Loco, but the appreciation for eating well remains strong. What you also taught us is that a dining experience isn’t just about the food; it’s about the importance of saying thank you. Beginning a meal with a heartfelt blessing of gratitude and remembrance of others less fortunate, and ending a meal with an acknowledgement of thanks to the cook, the host, or the person treating, this kind of mindfulness is the starting point for making the world a better place. This is one of the earliest and most valuable lessons I remember learning from you.
7. Cocktail Hour is sacred
You were there for me when Marcus died. You came to Portland and joined me at the hotel where I was staying with Nan. We were on our way out for dinner but you insisted on having a martini before we left. In my harried state I scolded you, saying, “That’s alcoholic behavior.” Your reply was quick and light and unabashed. “That’s not alcoholic behavior,” you said, “it’s cocktail hour behavior.” Nan thought that was the most brilliant philosophy ever. And now that the fog of grief has lifted, I can see you were right. It’s that simple. Life’s rituals are important. They keep us in balance. Cocktail hour is like a religion. And drinking a martini is a holy, spiritual experience that honors and celebrates the day. Not to mention, it’s way more fun than going to church. You taught me that. Along with the importance of putting three olives in the drink.
8. Silence is sacred
Cocktail hour isn’t the only sacred experience you taught me about. Silence is another. As you recall, I didn’t take well to Catholic indoctrination. But Tom Howard showed me another way to find God. It was called silence. This wasn’t about tuning other people out. This was about tuning yourself out and going deep within. And while meditation is one way to do this, I am not good at sitting still. But you showed me a way to access the stillness while moving. First you taught me how to ride a bike. Then you taught me to drive. Then you taught me to sail. You helped me discover that nature was my true religion, the place where I could feel closest to a higher power. And then you came with me on trips—motorcycling through Europe where we couldn’t talk and instead just focused on feeling the wind in our faces. That was magical. But there was nothing more divine—divine in the literal sense—than walking in silence in the Sahara Desert. I will always marvel at how we did not plan to be silent for those several days, but how the power of the endless red sand dunes and expansive blue sky seemed to require it. In that silence I’m not sure I ever felt closer to the Great Creator—or to you.
9. Solitaire is a competitive sport
While these past few months have been challenging for me, one of my favorite memories I will take away is the fun we had playing Solitaire—and how we turned it into a competition. It was silly and pointless in a way, but fun to put a new spin on a solo game. We weren’t really playing to beat each other; we were just bonding in the race to improve our game and beat our own best time. For a long time I poo-pooed people who played Solitaire, but now I appreciate it immensely, how putting the cards in order gives a sense of order to life. It’s better and cheaper and faster than Prozac! Out of curiosity the other day, I looked up the origins of Solitaire. In some countries it is actually called “Patience” and in others, “Success.” You possess these traits in spades. No wonder you love the game! Another name for it is “Kabala,” which means secret knowledge and it seems your favorite game has been used as a means of fortune telling. But you don’t need a game to see the future. You have psychic abilities. When you predict things for my life, I hang on to every word. And if I end up working for Hilary’s campaign when I get back from my travels—or fall in love with an Australian and move to his seaside ranch—it will be further proof that your psychic powers reach far beyond a deck of cards. As for our competition, we are both winners.
10. Have more fun by breaking the rules and teasing a little
If I learned nothing else from you, Dad, it is how to laugh. We have had such a fun time in our family teasing each other—and then spending the following decades reminiscing about how fun it was to pull that prank or tell that joke or light that fart. I still think of the times you took us out for hot fudge sundaes before dinner and made us promise not to tell mom. She always found out anyway. “Tooo-oooom,” she would say, drawing out your one-syllable name into two. We laughed when you got scolded, because we kids were complicit in the act. It was sweet and innocent fun that taught us it was okay to bend the rules, to not conform, and most of all, just to embrace life. Also on the subject of how we learned to be naughty, it amazes me to think that I still hold the record for the biggest—or one could say, worst—prank in the family. You know the one, that time I asked you to look at my tooth and then I burped as soon as you looked in my mouth. I officially apologize. But it’s your own fault for raising us to be the little pranksters that we became. Still, I learned that teasing is an expression of love, the relaxed kind of love that comes from being secure in a relationship. You brought the fun, you and mom added the security and the love, and the rest is history. And, PS, it’s not too late to retaliate for the burping incident.
So with all that, let me say Happy 80th Birthday, John Thomas Howard. I hope this card is the best present you could ask for. Because you are the best dad I—and all of us—could ask for.
ALL MY LOVE,
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