When we were younger, my sister and I bought my dad a mug for Father’s Day. It read Dad: Nature’s Money Tree. And while it’s true that my dad (sometimes) graciously acquiesced to our constant request for money or toys, now that I’ve grown up, I’ve found that my father is worth more than the mug claims. My dad is invaluable to me as a writer and as a support in a number of ways.
When I described my father to one of my college professors, my professor told me that Dad was “a writer’s goldmine.” The experiences I’d had with my dad, he said, could provide a lifetime’s worth of writing material. And this is to say nothing of the experiences I’ve had with Dad since then.
Today being my dad’s birthday—though I wouldn’t dare mention his age, and especially since he was very kind to me on my big 3-0—I thought I’d write him a tribute to all the experience I’ve taken from him thus far in life.
The Yes-No Game
Writers are seldom “normal” personalities. They all have quirks. One of my college professors reminded us that most happy people don’t write—they’re too busy being happy and doing happy things. Indeed, writing is often more of an obsession. Poe was obsessed and paranoid. So was Hawthorne. Writing for many is a way of making sense of their world. As Asimov said, “I write for the same reason I breathe: because if I didn’t, I would die.” Writing has always been inside me, and I’ve wanted to write since I could first hold a pencil.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my dad’s quirky characteristics helped develop the sense of creativity that has allowed me to express myself through words. My dad trained me never to be content, never to sit passively and let the world go by. I was always to be alert, questioning things, thinking of possibilities.
When I was only first learning language, he played a game called The Yes-No Game. You might have seen Bugs Bunny tormenting his rivals with it. The game might start with a question or a bit of conversation that ended with me saying “Yes.” In response, my dad would say “No.” We would go back and forth like that, YES-NO-YES-NO until I became nearly enraged and screamed the answer with all my might, not even sure why I was so adamantly arguing my point. And then my dad would flip things on me. He would say “Yes,” and I would—just as adamantly as before—shout “No!” Dad could substitute anything for “yes” or “no.” It could be RED-GREEN, COLD-HOT. It didn’t matter—as long as the two words were opposites.
Let It Be
Then there was the Crawling Baby. I had this little plastic baby toy that crawled when you pushed a button. My dad would spend what seemed (to a young girl) like hours building a huge castle—taller than me—out of wooden blocks. As he was building, he would casually mention how fun it was going to be for him to knock down the blocks. “When I’m finished,” he told me, “I’m going to have so much fun knocking down this castle.”
I sat there watching him build, working myself up to the point where I had to be the one to knock down the castle or I’d absolutely burst. When he finished his castle, he sat on the couch and held me on his lap. I was so infatuated with looking at the castle and imagining knocking it over that I would never notice the baby toy in his other hand. He pushed the button and set the baby on the floor. It took me a moment to figure out what was going on—to see that the baby’s trajectory put it on the path to knocking over the castle.
“Let it be,” my dad would say calmly as we watched the toy in its excruciatingly slow crawl toward the castle, its motorized whirr taunting me. Dad would hold me in his arms until I was fit to burst at the fact that the toy—not me—would have the honor of knocking over my dad’s castle. And all this time, my sister was off somewhere, calmly enjoying herself while I suffered in torment. My mother was probably in the kitchen shaking her head because she could hear us winding up for a brawl and knew that she would be the one to have to calm me down when it was all over.
At the last minute, of course, Dad would usually let me break free from his arms and race the baby to the castle. There was nothing like the joy of knocking it over, and by that time I was so upset at the possibility of being restricted that knocking over the castle was accompanied by ear-piercing screams of frustration and victory.
Even then, Dad had sewn the seed of determination in my young mind. And to this day, when I get a goal in mind, I won’t give up on it—and failure only makes me want it more. To this day, I cannot “let it be.” I cannot be content knowing that something out there needs to be done or accomplished. Knowing that there is a slow-moving crawling force making its way toward something that could be mine. Knowing that someone is holding me back from achieving what I want.
This illustration is The Knudge. My dad has been drawing him since before I was born. Notice the pincers on its hands, its most telling trait. That’s because it likes to torment others, albeit in a good-natured way (as its smile suggests). Just like my dad.
Case in point.
At night, my mother would spend careful minutes creating a halcyon mood before bed. My tiny sister and I would be tucked under the covers, our heartbeats low, ready for the sandman. But instead we got The Knudge.
Dad did everything in his power—in the most friendly way possible—to get our blood pressures soaring again and ruddy our sleepy cheeks. Sometimes he would pick us up and put us in each others’ beds. This would cause a fit of the giggles as we raced down the hallway, shrieking while we hurried to our own beds before he scooped us up and again deposited us in the wrong room. And always, there would be Mom, her disapproving scowl melting to kindhearted amusement at The Knudge’s efficiency in undoing her careful motherly work.
When my sister and I were older, The Knudge’s physical torments turned psychological, causing my sister to drop off the list of prey. Tucking her in, he’d turn one of my sister’s collectibles so that it faced backwards. “I bet you won’t be able to fall asleep with your frog statue facing backwards,” he said tauntingly.
My sister only shrugged, flipped over in bed, and closed her eyes. The Knudge, an entity that feeds on adrenaline and paranoia and laughter and aggravation, had met the only thing that could defeat it: cold indifference. It thrived on psychological torment and an opponent’s drive for revenge.
I was its perfect meal.
My dad came into my room. Now I’m not necessarily a neat person, and I’m nowhere near obsessive-compulsive. But I’m stubborn as a mule, and if I get an idea stuck in my head, there’s no talking me out of it.
“Your sister didn’t care,” Dad said. “Let’s see if your mind is as disciplined as your sister’s.”
Even without knowing what was going to happen, my blood started to boil. I had nightmarish visions of the crawling baby knocking over the blocks. Echoes of the Yes-No game. I was on full alert.
I remember it as if it was last night. It was a bright yellow, plastic lock I’d gotten in a box of cereal. It had a sticker of Tony the Tiger on the lock, and it glowed in the dark. When you turned Tony the Tiger sideways, the lock would open. When he was upright, it would stay locked. The lock was “protecting” a small safe I had (full of pennies) on my bookshelf. Right before bed, Dad tucked me in, but before he turned out the light, he said, “Just one more thing.” He walked to my bookshelf and turned the lock sideways. He looked at me and smiled and said, “Let it be.”
I let out a whimper. I was so warm and comfy in bed. He turned out the light.
“Oh,” he said. “You can see it glowing in the dark; you can tell it’s sideways. It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll bet Tony the Tiger likes sleeping on his side.”
He said goodnight and went out into the hall. I did not hear his footsteps disappear down the stairs. No. He was waiting.
I tried to push the image of the lock out of my mind, but it was just like the crawling baby. It was just like the Yes-No game. I was game.
I let out a scream and flung off my covers. I threw on the light and dashed to the shelf, fixing the lock. As I crawled back into bed, I heard uncontrollable laughter from down the hall. It was The Knudge, rejoicing in his victory.
“Mom!” I screamed, and my mother would race up the stairs and have to work her motherly charms to calm me enough to fall back to sleep. And then I’d hear her gently scolding her husband as they walked downstairs, my father still stifling his laughter.
The Wise Man
Now I could fill page after page with anecdotes about my dad. Like all the times he dumped a bucket of water on me from the third-floor bathroom as I was calmly eating at the summer picnic table. Like the time I had stayed bone-dry during a white-water rafting trip and he let all the other rafters know, causing a deluge of water from their buckets, all directed at me. Like the time he told me the moon has magical powers, or that trolls would turn me to stone if I stayed away past midnight. But I’m not sure all these stories could fit inside just one Internet. So I’ll stop here. But I will say this:
My dad has an expression he always used. “It’s not that I’m smarter than you—it’s just that I’ve been around longer to make more mistakes.” I didn’t believe him at first, but now I do. My dad recognized my quirky personality at an early age. My mother is one of those “happy” people my professor told me about, too busy being happy to worry about obsessive things like writing. So is my sister. Only my dad seemed—even if subconsciously—to see my true personality emerging. And his quirks and games helped me. I’m a compulsive worrier. If I don’t have something to worry about, I worry about why I have nothing to worry about. If I’m not overly busy with a list of tasks I couldn’t possibly accomplish, I feel unsure of myself. Growing up, my dad and his kind-hearted torment helped me with my obsessiveness.
Worrying about the Yes-No game, worrying about fighting a plastic crawling baby, worrying about whether I would turn into stone if I didn’t fall asleep fast enough… as crazy as that may sound, these things actually helped me. There was a time after the busy days of college where I lost myself. I was teaching, but I was sick in a way that medicine or sleep couldn’t help. I didn’t have a particular plan or goal or direction, and I didn’t realize what was wrong. But I know now.
While I was trying to figure out my life, I was sitting on the sideline. All around me were little crawling babies threatening to knock over castles that should be mine. And for a time, I wasn’t doing a thing about it. All over there were trolls trying to turn children into stone, picnic tables waiting for a bucket of water, moonlight waiting for a spinner of tales to harness its magical power. And I was just sitting on the sidelines, letting it all pass me by.
And one day, it came back to me. All the quirks, all the adrenaline, all the desire to improve my situation. The world had told me “No,” but I wasn’t going to have it. I saw in the distance an impossible task, a huge castle looming in the distance: I wanted to be a writer. And there was the world, a slow-moving baby approaching the castle and whispering “no” to me. “No, no, no. It can’t be done.”
I picked up a pen. My blood started to boil, and it made me smile. The world whispered “no” once again. But I just shook my head. And shouted “yes.”
Happy Birthday, Dad!