Sunday, June 17, 2012

On a Roll with the Old Man's Lines

My old man said, "Nine out of ten deals are no good, but the tenth one bails you out."

This line from my father floated in from nowhere, for no particular reason. It may be because my sons are working hard at a business startup, or it may be because my personal real estate business has not gone as planned so far this year.

Or, maybe because it's Father's Day, and random memories of my father drifted in from my subconscious. Or, just as likely, his essence may have hopped aboard the dock that just beached in Newport from last year's Japanese tsunami. 

When my father was cremated in 1992, he'd arranged for his ashes to be pitched off the back of a boat at the entrance of San Francisco Bay. I figure his ashes would have just completed their twentieth circumnavigation of the Pacific Current anyway, and knowing him as I do, hitching a ride on tsunami flotsam would be a no-brainer.

Whatever else my father offered as a father--or, more appropriately, did not--he left behind some great lines. I've found the one that begins this screed to be very true, that while business deals often fail, those that work make up for the failures. I think it's also metaphorically true. A personal triumph can make up for a dozen humilations, especially if you chase it with club soda.

Some of his best remarks came near the end of his life. He'd had a bout with bladder cancer in his mid-eighties, and at the Scottsdale hospital, my brother asked him how he felt. "The lights flickered a little," he said, "but it looks like I'm gonna pull through."

A couple of years later, in San Francisco, he said to me, "What do you do when the Grim Reaper is knockin' at your door and you're not quite ready to answer?" And later, when he had fallen down for no apparent reason and had become very low, I tried to buck him up and told him that I'd always imagined he'd make it into the 21st century. "There's arguments both ways," he said.

Although I never thought I would, I have pretty well forgiven my father for his shortcomings, for the way he'd often belittle me, sometimes publicly, or for the ways he'd favored two of my brothers at my expense. Despite the birdswarm of personal hurts, I've come to think he did the best that he could.

He was born in a modest house in Cedarville, CA, in 1903. His father was an abusive drunk and, when he worked, a teamster--the real kind, who drove a team of horses pulling a freight wagon. The family briefly moved to San Francisco in 1906 but left before the earthquake--it's only sensible decision therefore being an accident--and settled in Lakeview, OR. "I was popular," my father joked. "I was the only kid in town whose father was in jail, and we'd all go down after school and talk to Papa through the window."

My grandfather, whom I never saw because he died of debauchery years before I was born, left home in 1910 to see the Johnson-Jeffries "Fight of the Century." He neglected to come home again for several years, leaving my grandmother to run what the family lore euphemistically called a boarding house. It pretty much was, but that's another story.

By 1919, my father had saved enough money for a year of college, despite not having finished high school. He and his best friend set out for Corvallis from Lakeview in a horse and wagon "with nothing but two clean shirts and a bottle under the seat," as he put it. The bottle was empty before they hit Frenchglen.

Whenever he told a story, he'd always spin it to sound like a joke at best, a happy memory at worst. In Corvallis, he developed scarlet fever and had to drop out of college, but he made it all seem like a grand adventure nonetheless. 

So it wasn't really a surprise when, many years later, my brother found a copy of my father's high school yearbook at the Lakeview historical society. His ambition, he had written at age 15, was to be the next Charlie Chaplin. It wasn't a surprise, but a secret revealed eighty-five years later can be more revealing than the secret, and I saw a side to my father after his death I'd never appreciated in his life.

Shakespeare wrote, "The evil men do live after them; the good oft is interred with their bones." To this day, I can't decide whether I agree. Or, as my father said, "There's arguments both ways."

If I have a takeaway from my father, it's to scoff at adversity, to make light of outrageous injustice, and to make a joke at misfortune, and if the latter was self-caused, then self-deprecate. To do otherwise is to let adversity, injustice and misfortune own you instead of the other way around. 

Humor is a sword, a shield and a disarmer. In my grandfather's words, "Fuck 'em all but six and save them for pallbearers." I never knew the SOB, but in his defense, he probably had a couple of good lines as well.

And not a day passes when I don't use my father's aphorisms. If a TSA official erroneously pulls you aside, for example, "It's like the dog who runs away with your hat. You want to kick his hind end, but you have to be nice to him until you get your hat back."

Or--and this just happened--I caught a colleague in a lie, and she beat a hasty retreat. "She was out of there so fast, you could play cards on her coattails," I thought.

Today is my thirty-ninth Fathers Day as a father. If my father were alive, it would be my sixty-fourth as a son. I'm pretty sure the former is better.

But as my father would have said, "There's arguments both ways." So it goes.

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