Today is my dad’s birthday. Or would have been my dad’s birthday. I’m not quite sure how you’re supposed to say that. He’d be 68 today. He died almost five years ago. It’s hard to believe that much time has gone by since my dad died, but I can tell that much time has gone by because I can think the thought “my dad died” without having tears involuntarily stream down my face. At the five year mark, you can finally appreciate a dead person and miss them in a way that isn’t choked with grief, which is definitely the phase my dad would have been most comfortable with. He was a very no-nonsense guy who had such a trademark personality, it’s almost like he’s not gone. His spirit lingers, not because he refuses to leave, but because everything he did, everything he embodied and stood for is omnipresent in the house he built and in the air around it.
I’m there now, in upstate New York. The weather is perfect! Warm and breezy, slightly overcast with pops of bright sun. This is the kind of weather my dad loved because it’s working weather. If my father were alive, he’d be outside right now, putzing around in the garden or clanging something out in the garage. When he came in to get a glass of water, he’d say, “Get off that fuckin’ computer! Jesus ta mingya what are you wasting a goddamned gorgeous day on that fuckin’ machine for? Get out there and help me clean the pool!” And he would be totally right, as he always was, even if he didn’t understand I actually get paid to work on the “dubya dubya dot com.”
As my life moves on and I experience different things, I often hear my father’s reaction to what’s happening. I can tell you exactly what he would say and just how loud he’d say it. I can imagine what he’d find fault with in the apartment I live in now (the bathroom), what he’d like about my neighborhood (plenty of coffee!), and who he would want me to date (nobody, “Why don’t you move home and be a teacher?”). I learned so much from him, not because he went out of his way to teach me things, but because he set a very consistent example. Here are some of the great life lessons I learned from my dad:
1. When dining out, always, always, always put on a show for the waitress. Go out of your way, no matter how your day was, to make her day better. Try an opening joke like, “I like my coffee like I like my women, hot and black.” When it’s time to order, say, “Get me a rubber band sandwich — and make it snappy!” When the check comes, say, “You feelin’ lucky today? I’ll flip ya for it double or nuthin’. We can even use your quarter.” The waitress will laugh and bump her hip into your shoulder which will make you feel good and then you will leave a nice tip. Everyone wins.
2. Drink coffee at all times. Like non-stop. Never wonder why you get up so many times in the middle of the night to pee or have trouble sleeping. Collect an array of thermoses so when some idiot comes to your house who doesn’t understand that you have to have a canteen on you at all times for your coffee, you have one to give him. Drink coffee in your car on your way to get coffee from the coffee shop, then go to the mall to get a cup of coffee. Have a cup of coffee before, during and after dinner. Then have after-after-dinner coffee. Have coffee before breakfast, take a coffee break, then have lunch. During lunch have milk, BUT NEVER PUT MILK IN YOUR COFFEE. Coffee should be hot and black. (See above.)
3. Cleaning is woman’s work. If you don’t know how to do it well, you have no value as a woman. But no one can clean as well as a man.
4. Work. Work hard and work often. Work is all there is. Except when it’s time to play.
5. Play hard. Acceptable play activities include socializing around food, telling jokes and stories, yelling, fishing and going for a drive.
6. When you go for a drive, be prepared to entertain the kids with made up facts about hill cows, wars that never really happened, scary old ladies who put a curse on their house, etc. Take all the back roads, even if there is nothing but back roads. Take the backest road. It has the best view.
7. When you can’t remember someone’s name, you can figure out who they are if you work long and hard enough describing strange details to your relatives about their relatives and friends. For example, “What’s his name … the one whose cousin lived in the house on 5th. Yellow house, garden in the back. They used to play softball out there with Timmy’s son’s sister-in-law. Her father was the lawyer who sold the dairy barn to the ones who came up here from Arizona. Their dog used to swim in the pond out at what’s his face’s. Yeah, Jim. This was Jim’s friend the lawyer’s daughter’s in-law’s friend’s neighbor’s cousin. Tony! Yeah. Tony.”
8. Fishing is like yoga for people who aren’t educated idiots. Plus, you can eat fish.
9. There is nothing more important than being honest, even to a fault. Except being loud.
10. Wearing suspenders over a naked chest makes you look like a sexy clown and leaves you with great tan lines.
11. Human beings can survive by eating only crackers and butter, but you will have a heart attack at some point.
12. Smoking is bad for you. Especially smoking two packs a day. You will have a heart attack at some point and probably die of lung cancer.
13. You don’t need much land to be self-sufficient. You can grow everything you need to eat and more on a very small plot. You can store stuff for the winter, even make your own pasta. Living the old way isn’t that hard if you know what you’re doing.
14. Being outside (and out of your head) working with your hands is better than anything else. It’s a good way to help others and save yourself. If you don’t have a yard, go clean up your city park. You’ll see what I mean. None of us does this enough.
15. You don’t need to drink to laugh and have fun. Sometimes wine just puts you to sleep.
16. John Wayne is a man. Westerns are underrated. Country music is better than you think it is.
17. You should let your mother live with you when she gets old.
18. If people were just good to each other, we wouldn’t really need God. But church BINGO sure is a hell of a lot of fun!
19. Some people are terrible pains in the ass. Some people are downright awful. Don’t be afraid to tell those people to their faces where to stick it. Also, tell good people how much you appreciate them.
20. Drive a truck. But drive it slowly. There’s no rush. If you want to know where all the traffic is coming from, the answer is “that way.”