Lessons I Learned From My Father (Part 1)

American River,   March 2015

Self-Actualization. Sacramento River
March 2015

Last night, I hung up the phone with my father, and began to silently debrief the whirlwind conversation we’d just had. Anyone who has ever engaged in a discussion with my dad will know exactly what I’m referring to. He has this tendency to barrel his way through an issue in a no nonsense kind of manner, and then quickly switch to another idea before you’ve even have a chance to formulate a response to the first topic. Sometimes I feel like I’m performing verbal acrobats when I’m talking to him, although no manner of appropriate pause or clever interjection will ever make communication with him any smoother. It’s not that he’s insensitive or dismissive. Not in the least. It’s just that his thoughts are almost always two steps ahead of his words, so much so that he’ll literally hop up mid conversation and leave everyone rushing to finish their closing statements.

The question of “Where’d Dad go?” has become a running joke in our household, because if  family conversation or household activity pauses long enough, he’ll just quietly excuse himself to a more productive venture. Sounds peculiar, I know. But I promise you, his loved ones find it one of his most endearing quirks.

I used to be embarrassed of my dad. In retrospect, I see that it’s normal for children to be ashamed of their parents at one point or another as they are growing up. But my embarrassment had less to do with who he was, as it did with how I feared his uniqueness would reflect upon me, especially growing up in a neighborhood that had yet to know diversity.

My childhood was spent in a suburban utopia, complete with wide tree-lined streets, top-notch public schools, and neighbors that brought homemade cookies each year during Christmas time. My parents sacrificed many things to ensure that my sisters and I were raised in the neighborhood that we grew up in. I see that now. We often have gain clarity  as seasoned adults that we lack as carefree youth.

I was embarrassed of our old LTD cars, and dad’s hobby of tinkering with them incessantly. And I’m not talking about souping them up, lowrider fashion. I’m talking about FIXING them. They were constantly breaking down, and dad would patiently put them back together, garage door open, tools strewn across the driveway for the world to see.  “Why can’t you just buy something NEW?!” I’d complain, glancing enviously at the shiny station wagon my classmate was dropped to school in. But dad wasn’t about new. Nope. In fact one of my earliest memories is of our weekend trips to thrift stores, where my sisters and I happily pick out bags of mismatched toys from the 99 cent bin. That is until I was old enough to realize that my classmates ruthlessly bullied any kid that dared to wear threads bought at a second-hand store (This was all long before hipsters & Macklemore made thrift store shopping a trendy activity).

What I didn’t understand then, was that my dad’s own childhood profoundly impacted the way he operated as an adult. Though Sacramento was a long way from the dingy garage he lived in in East L.A., and even farther yet from the Texas cotton fields he played in as the toddler son of a migrant farm worker, he brought the principles of poverty with him even as he purchased his first home in Sacramento’s coveted Pocket area. Principle 1: Don’t buy new if you don’t have to.

I didn’t understand a lot of things back then. Like the fact that my dad was right when he told me to be proud of my beautiful brown skin, even as some of my peers were poking fun of my pigment and my surname. I couldn’t comprehend why my parents took it so seriously when, later, I reported that there was a severe bullying problem going on in the upper-grade classrooms of my elementary school. A problem that had all the tell-tale ugliness of race and class discrimination. When my dad insisted upon meeting with the teachers to bring the issues to light, I remember wondering if my folks were overreacting.

Back then I couldn’t make sense of why my father felt the need to repeatedly recount to my sisters and I, the lessons he’d learned as a young boy in East L.A. And why his standards for us were so high, in regards to both education and personal conduct. Or how he’d often sit at the dinner table after a full day’s work, starring into space at some far away memory that we were not a part of. On those nights, sometimes I’d catch glimpse of a tear sliding down his cheek. I didn’t understand that either.

A few weeks ago, my dad celebrated another birthday. He talked about the accomplishments in his life, as well as the struggles. And, like always, he ended the momentary bout of reminiscing on a high note with an optimistic tribute to all the blessings in our lives.

My dad has never been one to purchase frivolous things. New cars, designer clothes, custom accessories…they aren’t alluring in his eyes. Because of that, he isn’t much of a gift giver, not in the traditional sense, anyway. Birthdays and events roll around and it’s likely that he won’t go out of his way to buy something just for the sake of marking the occasion. Someone asked me recently if I’ve held onto any of the jewelry my dad bought me as a child. I laughed.

Dad never bought me jewelry, but he’s decorated my life with a thousand pearls of wisdom. I wear them proudly every day, head held high and the confidence  of knowing that I am equipped with the skills needed to gracefully navigate through life and all of it’s thrilling complexity.

Coaches & Critics

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Early this year I had the opportunity to accompany my 7 & 11 year-old-sons to their  annual baseball tryouts. The tryouts take place over the course of two weekends, and land in the  middle of January which means parents  & players alike withstand the bitter northern California chill for several hours as coaches draft their teams. Though my boys have been playing little league for years, this was the first time I’ve ever attended tryouts. Typically, this task has been delegated to their father, however circumstances had it that I was the chaperone to what my children claim is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the season. My boys were excited but jittery as we arrived at the field that day. Nerves aside, the overall energy of the place was infectious. Clearly, everyone in attendance that morning was excited to be kicking off yet another season of baseball, even if it was at an ungodly morning hour in the biting cold. As the young players formed lines and greeted friends from seasons past, I found myself hanging back a bit (partly due to the fact that I was one of only a handful of mothers in a sea of dads). As I sat on the bleachers inhaling my warm coffee, I quickly fell into observation mode. 
I watched as each child took their turn at the designated drill and quickly began to notice a pattern of interaction and reaction from the parents of the players. Save for a few outlying personality types, I had the overwhelming sense that the parents on the sidelines fell into two categories: the coaches, and the critics.
The coaches were pleasant to watch. These were the parents who, even after their child missed a pop fly, struck out, or failed to field a grounder, maintained a positive approach to their young player. Encouraging, and reassuring, they offered constructive criticism & instruction without being demeaning.
The critics, however, were by far more difficult for me to observe. If you have ever attended a children’s sports events, you’ve seen this parenting style, and perhaps, like me, find yourself cringing at the tactics used. Critics can be ruthless. Rather than pointing out the players strengths, and acknowledging the effort, they go straight into attack mode. 
My grouchy, judgmental self got the better of me that morning, and I found myself silently criticizing the “critic” parents for their lack of understanding and encouragement, and their failure to praise their youngling’s accomplishments before offering suggestions for improvement. As I ushered my kiddos into the parking lot after tryouts had ended, I felt smugly confident in my superior communication skills, and was sure my children were better off for it. 
That high-and-mighty phase lasted all of five minutes because as soon as I returned home, I was greeted by a hungry toddler who was literally throwing herself against the fridge in a desperate attempt to find a juice box and a teen complaining about how his brothers are constantly finding ways to break into his bedroom in search of gum, money, pocket knives, and anything else  that might be of value to them. It was there that my refined parenting skills were forgotten. In frustration, I swooped up my blubbering toddler and stuffed a banana into her mouth (to take the edge off her hunger, of course). Then, I went after the boys. I began this completely disjointed tirade about how I remember how maddening it was to have a younger sibling rummage through my stuff and how-ironically- at one point I was ALSO the younger sibling who had complete disregard for her older sisters things and because I was a middle child I could relate to BOTH ends of the issue BUT that the bottom line was that everyone needed to shut up & relate to MY needs as a mother whose only desire was to come home from a long morning at tryouts to a quiet home, free of bickering and screeching 3-year-olds. (*deep breath*) When I had finished yelling, I realized my kids were staring at me blankly as if I’d gone mad. (I had). My 6-year-old then politely offered me some sunflower seeds as my toddler smeared banana onto the back of my neck.
For the rest of the month, I unintentionally analyzed each and every conversation I had with my children to see if I was coaching or criticizing. I found that, especially when the stress levels were high, my tendency to be a critic was more frequent than I’d like to admit. Not only that, I took notice of how my children reacted to each style of communication. When I was even-tempered and fair in my reactions to things such as unfinished homework assignments, botched attempts to load the dishwasher, and sibling warfare, my children were infinitely more receptive to my intervention & instruction. When I was short and critical, they quickly shut down and we’d get no where. 
 This is true of almost every interaction we have in family life–whether it’s with a spouse, co-parent, or stubbornly autonomous two-year-old–we are generally  able to accomplish more through warmth & constructive feedback than we are with aggression & criticism.
Not long after the tryouts, my 11-year-old pulled his favorite Aesop’s fables book from his shelf and brought it to me for bedtime readings. By coincidence, I opened to the story of the The Wind & The Sun. For those of you unfamiliar with this tale, it begins with the wind and sun arguing over who was most powerful. As they are bickering, they take notice of a man strolling along the road below dressed in a heavy winter coat. They decide to see who will be able to persuade him to remove his coat. The wind blows with all his might, but the man only draws the coat tighter around him in an effort to fight off the cold. All at once, the sun shines her warm beams upon the man, and he quickly takes off the jacket. In short, the moral of the story is “gentle persuasion is stronger than force.” As I finished reading the fable, my 7-year-old turns to me and says, “We sure are lucky you are warm like sun. The wind is cold-hearted!” 
And there you have it. The wind blows.
Pass the sunflower seeds. 🙂