~ Matthew 11:29
“Be teachable, and you will make great strides,” wrote Desiderius Erasmus, the exemplary and indefatigable Renaissance author in his Paraclesis. The directive is reminiscent to me of my father who has now been gone fifteen weeks from this life. He also admired Erasmus. When I arrived at Oxford, I was sure to send my Dad an e-mail message about walking the same paths and halls as Erasmus did, as a C. S. Lewis Scholar-in-Residence. Dad remarked about The Praise of Folly, as well as Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. The wisest people we know are those who want us to be teachable. My pilgrimage of learning continues on, but without my father- without adding to our running commentaries. Of his best friend of many years, four years his senior, Dad said, “Jack introduced me to so many things,” particularly in their work as pioneer computer programmers and connoisseurs of classical music. When Jack passed away, Dad wrote me about how one day many years back, while they were working at IBM on Madison Avenue at 57th Street, “a security alarm sent everybody into the street. We had no idea how long we would have to remain outside the building. So we just walked over to nearby Carnegie Hall and, on seeing that the Cleveland Orchestra was in town and giving a matinée performance that very day, we decided we would take our surprise break as an occasion to enjoy Beethoven's Ninth as performed by George Szell. It was a spontaneous thing and an afternoon that we always cherished.” A wonderful story of two New Yorkers making the best of things.
In his reflection about his departed best friend, my father immediately remarked about how much he had learned. For my part, throughout these recent months, I’ve been taking stock of how much I learned from my father. Taking stock is the opposite of taking for granted, meaning a conscious cherishing of something valuable that is immediately at hand. It is a form of gratitude. Things of which I take stock are palpable consolations to me. To this day, it astonishes me to recognize how much I learned from my father. Last night during a lonesome road trip on the Maine Turnpike, I started imitating his voice, surprising myself as to how accurate I sounded.
Having a difficult time focusing my thoughts, I took Dad’s portable Royal typewriter (I now have all three of his) with me to write in view of Casco Bay. About sixteen years ago, he gave me his two portables- a customized Olivetti Lettera 32, and a small Royal Signet- which he’d often lend to me. Now I have the heavier Royal DeLuxe he used in school. With a sunny Saturday, I took the Signet with me to the park at the Portland Breakwater. Dad told me he had bought that typewriter in 1965 for $35 during a workday. At the time, company employees’ handwritten reports and letters were typed by a secretarial pool according to priorities assigned to the secretaries. Apparently, these were standard procedures. Dad didn’t see a point in having to wait to get something typed up for him, when he could very well do this himself. He descended to West 23rd Street, a very busy Manhattan thoroughfare- near the Flatiron Building, and walked to a typewriter shop to buy the Signet. From then on, he typed his own documents. Dad also explained to me that he favored ribbons that had both black and red inks, so that he could flip the lever to get red ink when he wanted to emphasize something to his recipients. With such spirit and ambition, success followed success.
The Royal Signet belongs to me, and I’ve proudly left the ‘60s embossed label with Dad’s name on the machine. As with many other gifts from him, this is a living treasure, because it gets used. Like the pocket watches Dad gave me, they work best as long as they are used. He taught me plenty about using and maintaining these mechanical marvels. Neither of us could type in the “proper” office ten-fingered way, but we both found ways to type quickly and effectively. In more recent years, he sent me a set of beautiful pens and I keep the letter which he put in the gift box which refers to our common passions that include fountain pens, opera, trains, and a good portable typewriter. And that was just the beginning of interests we shared and talked about. We did not agree about everything, to be sure, but we had enough in common to provide plenty of subject matter.
equipping for the rest of the way
In my father’s absence, a wise friend suggested that I write my gratitude for the ways I’ve been equipped to go the rest of the way. Typing in the park, using the Signet, I began writing about some of the essential things I’ve learned from Dad. Indeed there are many and detailed practical skills, beyond the tools of writing and the precise ways of play-by-play scoring of baseball games. To this day, whenever I begin a new notebook that does not have a pocket in the inside back-cover, I use a trick Dad taught me a long time ago: folding an envelope flap backwards so that the adhesive adheres to the back cover, creating an instant document sleeve. He taught me how to read and interpret maps when I was very young, showing me how to create a “trip ruler” out of a piece of paper, scribing the scale of miles on it and moving the paper along the lines that represented the roads. Dad taught me to drive, shifting the gears smoothly so that passengers would not sense the jolt of transition. And the deft art of feeding a toll booth coin bucket while still in second gear- and then rocketing out of the gantry at the “paid” signal. Knowing which portion of a subway train to enter, in order to alight at the stairs that will take you to the best street exit for your purpose. Dad taught me that in New York, and I translated that savvy much later in Boston. Numerous nuanced abilities, most of which had to do with making forward progress. He had lots of travel stories about having to combine air and surface transportation, in order to connect locations during weather-related cancellations. The important thing, he’d say, was to keep going in the needed direction. Logic took the forms of navigating, analyzing a baseball strategy, and DOS shortcuts. Always destinations to be reached, puzzles to be solved. As Dad used to like to say, “That keeps things interesting.”
I will always be my father's son.
As my recollections surface of practical skills learned, I’m writing about them in my journals. Transcending all of these things are the subtler abilities, more like traits, and they have occupied more of my thoughts when I consider what has been left to me for the long haul. The more I navigate the roads of this life, the more I see the extreme rarity of my father’s character: that consistent sense of understated dignity, genuineness, and humor. The torch extended to me, in his physical absence, is his gift of intellectual inquiry. By their examples, both my parents gave me the running start to be able to think on my feet. Question what does not look or sound right- not just ethically, but also aesthetically; this foundation is also owed to both my parents. Dad’s high standards, ever beyond my reach, are somehow also my high standards and expectations. But no two souls are alike, and I must keep in mind that our contexts are as different as our generations, pursuits, and paths. These things notwithstanding, I’ll always admire that practical style of integrity and quick-wittedness amounting to being nobody’s fool. If there’s any downside, it’s how the wit is understood by fewer and fewer by the day.
Dad once quipped that my keeping his typewriters working represents his legacy. Of course it was said in jest, in the midst of our usual multi-faceted discourse. His real legacy as I see it, is his consistent sense of decency. That’s the most important way that I want to be like my father. To be civil, classy, unclichéd and genuine; and to keep making people laugh- not at any person’s expense, but about the amusing and ironic things in life, along with that lighthearted way of pointing out such attributes. Dad’s jovial sense of decency. What a great way to be; the world is missing this trait. Amidst learning about high standards- higher than “just good enough”- was my growing to understand my father’s dislike of mediocrity and half-hearted efforts he called “slap-dash.” In this comprehension were his directives to be ambitious. As I got a bit older, more responsible and aware, I grew to also avoid the “slap-dash” in things- and occasionally in people, as well. Such awareness is not uppity, and sensibly unpretentious. It’s much more a judgment of oneself- to unceasingly seek learning, improvement, and continuity.
The clergyman who officiated the funeral service, a Midwesterner and also a friend of my father’s, reverently remarked that the breadth of Dad’s cultivated mind was “so very New York.” Undoubtedly, we all agreed. But one might say “urban,” to describe a spectrum of pursuits that encompassed worlds of the arts, sciences, sports, and politics. Yet to say, “so very New York” acknowledges more than the variety of pursued topics of interest: it’s the intensity and enthusiasm of the pursuits. Stereotype that it may be, there are still many who exemplify the energy of such a densely vast and extraordinary place. Enough has been said about the pluck of old-school New Yorkers to fill many volumes, so I’ll choose one exemplary comment: "You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with,” said the legendary actress Lauren Bacall. “I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you're a New Yorker? The world doesn't owe you a damn thing." Accomplishment must be earned, and the perfunctory is to be exceeded. The mindset is one that tends to be impatient with the mediocre and slipshod, and our quick wits and sharp tongues are often misinterpreted. We don’t think of our critical minds as being “attitudes,” but rather passionate convictions that need to be expressed! Urban common-sense is often vented this way, and notably so among New Yorkers. Dad’s living expression of this was nothing short of lovable. We used to sing Frank Loesser Broadway show tunes to each other on the phone.
Below: Dad's beloved Caffe Reggio, Greenwich Village.
In the spirit of a legacy that has taught me about ability and perspective, I’ll add what I call inherited instincts. Dad had an admirable knack for reading a situation. This reminds me of how he would say that part of the fascination in baseball is how analysis is built into the game itself as it unfolds. He loved the symmetry of threes and nines- especially in the National League. But reading a situation in real-time is also being a participant. Among the times during which I’m certain of an instinct inherited from my father is when I “break the ice” in a stiff room of inactivity. Another is how I’ve become able to speak with anyone- and getting them to talk. Yet another is having a healthy way of questioning what I perceive: There can be a negatory way of doing this- and I’ve also learned to tell the difference between constructive reflection and simply being a combatant that sets out to confuse things even further. Such traits, practiced at their best, are surely attributed to my father’s example. Finally, “keeping things interesting” is also knowing to have plenty of other things in my life, aside from employment and its related struggles. Learning and being teachable keeps the mind youthful and expanding. Indeed, continuity and improvement, one giving purpose to the other, must always ride together. And thus- like Erasmus of Rotterdam, and like Dad of New York- great strides are made.