Hey, Dad!


courtesy echoroo/flickrTwo simple words  that for nearly two decades I have been unable to speak. Two words that, for much of my life, prefaced any number of of statements and questions, from the sacred to the silly to the profane. The two words that reflected one irrevocable fact that shaped my life more than any other. I had an awesome Dad. And, as a man, in many ways I am just like him. My father was an engineer who liked to tinker with things, figure out how they worked, how they broke and how to fix them. I cannot remember ever having a repairman in the house. I, being the only child with any aptitude for such things, became his gopher (as in, "Avery, go for a phillips head screwdriver")  and learned by observation, as children do. I learned how to rewind transformers, fix a faulty TV, wire a house electrical circuit and fix a toilet. Dad hated fixing toilets. Which is probably why ours broke down so often.

I translated that talent for fixing what's broken into being a doctor. Helping to fix a person is infinitely more complex than diagnosing and repairing a major appliance, but the fundamental mental processes are the same. Questioning, observing, probing, changing something to see what happens -- this is what he taught me. This is what I know.

Dad also had a philosophical bent. When his lifelong employer, AT&T, moved Dad into an executive track, they also sent him back to school. At the time -- the late 50s -- AT&T was promoting many engineers into management, and they saw that the engineer's traditional tech-only training was insufficient to prepare these men for the more complex task of managing people rather than managing circuits. So they created a special one-year school in Philadelphia, where these electrical engineers were submerged in the works of Plato, Kant and Kazantzakis. They studied art, they read literature, they explored classical music.

Dad absorbed it like a sponge, and transmitted that love for the big picture to me. I will always remember our "Culture Hour Sundays," in which Dad would play some music and talk about the composer, or introduce a Big Question, like "Who are you?" and make us discuss it. I thought it was all pretty silly, as a child. But it clearly rubbed off onto me, as I went to a college in which I studied things like the similarities between Cubist art and Einstein's theory of relativity, and read Kant, and Hannah Arendt, and tried to answer the Big Questions, like "Who am I?" I graduated with a Bachelor of Philosophy degree. Dad was proud of me.

Dad was, by his own description, "the man in the gray flannel suit," one of the army of men who, after returning from World War II, went to work in the companies grown large by the demands of the war and changes in technology, and became cogs in the machine of extraordinary economic progress that was America after the war. He was a corporate man, learning to work his will in a bureaucracy unyielding to personal intent.

But within him seethed a man wanting to break free of that bondage, to create that what he would, to be master of his own fate rather than one hand of many on the tiller of a great ship. Somehow -- I have no idea how -- he snuck that into me. In spades.

This was my father's greatest gift to me, or perhaps it was a curse. I'll never be sure. But it became clear to me early on, that I would never become the baby boom generation's version of the corporate man. I was too infected with Dad's questioning spirit and his suppressed demand for independence. I realized in my 20s that I would never be happy working for anyone beside myself. So one day I closed the door on my own budding career in management and decided that I would make it on my own or not at all.

As a father myself, I have tried to emulate my Dad as much as possible. It's still a little too early to tell how I did on that score, but I'm sure my girls will let me know. One has already launched and is, as I write this, achieving orbital velocity. The other is moving inexorably toward the launch pad, and already my heart grows heavy with her impending departure.

When I graduated high school, my parents gave me two gifts which have lasted me a lifetime. The first was a typewriter, through which I found my voice and which was the heart of my first career. The second was a train ticket to Boston, the city in which I found my destiny and that eventually became my second home.

I will never forget, the day after my last class, looking out the window of that train, and seeing my father with tears running down his cheeks and a huge smile on his face as he waved goodbye to his son. Many years later it was my turn to say goodbye, as I held his hand and looked into eyes rapidly fading as a the hemorrhage caused by a massive stroke flooded his brain like a a slow tsunami. I, too, had tears in my eyes and a smile on my face for the man who had given me so much -- had given me the core  of the man I had become.

Hey, Dad, thanks for everything. As long as I live, so will you.