My father taught
me many lessons—of life, of love, of dreaming. He taught me
with his actions and his words, with his mind and with his heart.
He taught both by conscious thought and by unknowing instinct, each
according to the lesson's need. Some lessons, I recall, were harder
bought—my certainty of them purchased only with heartache
and pain—and some proved less true for me than they were for
him as different times formed our different lives.
Many of these lessons he remembers teaching—the
basic strictures like "Don't play with fire," "Always
look both ways," and, one of his favorites, "Never turn
your back on the ocean"—but the lessons that have shaped
me most, the lessons I carry closest to my soul, are those that
are so much a part of who my father is that he cannot remember teaching
them. These simple truths became a part of my most basic core, and
continue to shape my expectations, my actions, and my dreams.
I was eight, and focused on the final stages of
making a boat with my Vac-u-Form, a small toy that heated a plastic
film and then used a vacuum to shape it over a cast-metal die. I
had glued together the top and bottom of the boat, and I was painting
it in what had become my own individual style. This "style"
was expressed in ever-thickening coats of contrasting color, each
one layered upon the last until eventually they filled in any definition
or detail that the original form might have held.
Knowing my father to be an artist, I asked him
what he thought of my work. Upon watching me gather up another dollop
of color by dipping my red-tipped brush into the blue pot, he said
"A good artist knows when to stop."
This gentle rebuke sunk into my mind like a seed,
undigested and unappreciated, and it lay there for many years untouched.
Ages later, after I had begun my travels through the mysteries of
music, it grew and emerged fully fleshed. The notes with which I
struggled—the intricacies of Bach, the wildness of Hindemith—came
alive only when I stepped back and let them speak for themselves.
When I forced them, they strangled. When I listened to them, they
sang. I learned, as an artist, how not to stand in the way of the
On Paternal Pride
On one particularly sunny day in my early adolescence,
I was consumed with the suspicion that I'd somehow disappointed
my father. I had failed in something, and though today I don't remember
what my failure was, at the time it was something I was sure removed
my every chance to someday make my father proud. I stood before
him, the sun hot upon my hair and my brow bound by worry, and confessed
my fear. In answer, he said:
"I don't care if you grow up to
be rich or famous. As long as you're happy, I'm happy"
The immediate release these words provided was
so profound that I never forgot them. They told me that neither
by my successes nor by my failures would my father ever take my
measure. I have at times forgotten this lesson and worried about
whether or not I have made my father proud, but eventually I do
remember the lesson, and doing so I realize that my worry is the
one thing most likely to displease him.
Growing up, the world around me struggled to realize
the dream of racial parity. At school, my teachers pried at the
doors of my white-bread world to show me the truth of a color-conscious
world. My family counted among its friends families both white and
black and some that were mixed, and I learned early on to see beyond
the color of a person's skin. Our black-and-white TV showed me black
men and white men as they spoke, marched, fought, preached, protested,
and prayed in an ongoing dialogue that was peaceful at times, and
violent at others.
In the spring of '68, that dialogue turned deadly.
My family watched as the news of blood and death spilled out into
our living room and when it was done, my father turned to me and
"You are one of the luckiest people
in the world. You were born white, you were born male, and were
born in America. Always remember that, and be grateful."
His words puzzled me. They painted the world with
an inherent unfairness that I neither understood nor believed. I
looked for it, though, seeking it out and in time I saw that it
was true. I was lucky. I did have more than many, simply because
I was a white American male. But this knowledge did not cause me
guilt or give me reason to grow complacent about my future. Rather,
it heightened my awareness of the opportunities before me, and taught
me to be grateful for them and, most importantly, not to waste them.
As a skinny, myopic boy with a bookish nature and
a talent with the violin, I was an easy—if not an obligatory—target
for the stronger boys. I was often punched and teased and beaten
on the school tarmac. Several times I was "called out"
to the churchyard: appointments I never kept but instead walked
past, shamefacedly heading home while the gathered boys jeered.
I kept these trials to myself—for to admit them was to admit
my weakness—but one evening after one such "missed"
appointment I complained to my father, bemoaning the fact that I
would never be as strong as those others. My father did not puff
me up with empty promises, but rather told me truly:
"There will always be someone
smarter or richer or stronger than you. Be happy with who you are
and what you have."
At first I rejected those words and their unflinching
precision, but they haunted me through the months that followed.
I refused to accept, at the age of nine, that I would never achieve
the thing that I then perceived to be the only purpose of life:
that is, to be the best at something. But as I wrestled with the
concept, I realized that indeed there could only be one person who
was the richest, one who was smartest, one who was strongest in
all the world; that most people could never be the best. To be the
best, I saw, was not the goal, but only to be the best that one
could be. It's a lesson I still must learn and relearn periodically.
It was not until my years in high school that my
father talked to me of love. By that time, of course, I had succumbed
to my fair share of crushes, passions, and fascinations (including
one young girl who treated me so ill that I carved "LD"
into the sole of my boot, that I might grind her name into the dust
with every step.) But by my sixteenth winter, the tenor of my heart
had grown beyond such childish attitudes and toward more meaningful
relations. One girl in particular had affected me deeply, and though
my feelings were still full of flight and built of fragile glass,
love is what it was and I felt it as deeply and soberly as I was
able. The day it all crashed down, the day that I at last admitted
to myself the futility of my unrequited suit, I retreated to the
blue shadows of my downstairs room, threw myself upon my bed, and
Hours later, after I'd grown quiet, my father came
downstairs and knocked upon my door. He came in, sat on the edge
of the bed and, unexpectedly, he asked me about the girl: who was
she? and how did I feel about her? Unreservedly I told him all.
When I was done, he did not try to cheer me up.
He did not say I would "get over it." He did not tell
me that the pain I felt was just a phase or anything less than love.
What he told me was:
"When your heart gets broken,
it's bigger when it heals, and the next time you fall in love, your
love is deeper and stronger than the time before."
This has proven true throughout my life. Each time
that I have loved it's been the deepest, strongest, greatest thing
I've known. Each time, the newer love puts former passions all to
shame for pallid renderings of true adoration. And each time, I
wonder if before I ever loved at all. The dark side of this lesson,
though, is that with deeper love comes the risk of greater pain,
but if not for love, then what else is worth the risk?
These are the lessons that have stayed with
me since the moment of their teaching. I remember them, and they
have become a part of who I am. I am not the best person in the
world, but I am a far better one for having been taught these things.
My father never considered himself a teacher, but he is, and continues