Saturday, August 11, 2012
The Second Greatest Gift
I Have Received...
Having just posted below about "the greatest gift I have received", which I feel came from my mother, here's a post about the runner up.
The second greatest gift I have ever received came from my father. It isn't easy to pin it down to one clear thing...but if I had to generalize I would have to say that from my father I learned how to use tools to solve problems.
The first tool he taught me to use was my eyes. And the problem at first was, What's this? He would point things out to me at an early age, usually Nature related because he was a biologist and avid birdwatcher. As he did this, he would often show me layers of meaning in what we were looking at...almost like bait intended to get me to keep looking. For instance, I remember one time he woke me up in the middle of the night when we were living in Italy (1967-8) to show me this tiny little gecko that was sitting in the bathtub. Then he caught it and showed me up close how small but really alive it was. Then he gently turned it over to show me that its skin was so thin at that size that we could see its inner workings, including its heart beating. So first of all he taught me to look at Nature, and then to keep looking because there's always more there.
The next tool he taught me to use was probably my mind. In addition to showing me things, he would also start to ask me questions about what I was looking at, questions that would get me to think about what I was looking at and maybe to draw some conclusions about it. For instance, he showed me that mosquitoes tend to lay their eggs just above the water line in a puddle or bucket or pond. He told me that the eggs need to hatch in water and that the larvae of the mosquito needs water in order to live. So why, he asked me, did I think the mosquito laid its eggs above the water instead of in the water? In other words, what would be the survival advantage to doing this? Well I never figured it out, I was probably about 10, but I did wrack my brains for an afternoon trying. (Laying their eggs above water assures that whenever the water gets to the eggs and they hatch, it will be rising water. This means that they'll be a better chance of there being enough water to support the larval stages of the mosquito. If they always laid their eggs in the water, some of the water sources would dry out and the eggs or larvae would die. That was the best explanation he had been able to come up with himself.) He would also quiz my brother and me on things like simple math problems and brain teasers. If we couldn't figure a problem out, he would often ask us questions in a sequence designed to show us how we could. So he taught me to look and he taught me to think.
Ingrained in all this looking and thinking was a sense of Nature appreciation and wonder at the balance of it all. We were looking at Nature to see how amazing it was. We were thinking about how it works in order to better appreciate it and also to learn from it.
Around the time I was 8 years old my dad noticed while he was pushing me on a swing that I was singing a song to the rhythm of the swing and thought I might have musical talent. He himself was an avid folk-music fan and struggled to play the guitar and sing himself. I think he was hoping I'd be better at it than he was. In any case, he bought me a guitar and found a guitar teacher for me. I started out on a classical guitar with nylon strings and learning classical guitar basics. At first my fingers hurt and I told my dad I didn't want to keep doing it. He said, "Well everybody's fingers hurt at first but they get used to it. I tell you what, if you still don't want to continue in 6 months, you can quit then." I think it was 6 months, maybe it was 3. But to me as a kid it seemed like forever. But he was right and in a matter of weeks I was liking it and didn't want to stop. Then we moved to Italy for a year and I had no teacher. So my dad taught me all the basic chords and I had access to his folk music song books. Sometimes he would have students over to the house and if one of them played guitar they would show me a little something. This continued when we went back to the states. Although my dad was always very encouraging of my budding musical efforts, I never really got back on track with solid basic training though, so while the tumult of moving to a different city and my parents divorce was going on, I developed some eccentric ways of playing within my fairly limited musical palate. This gift was less complete than the others but it turned out to be a very important one to me. No matter what my particular skill limitations, I have learned to use the guitar to express my thoughts and feelings in ways that are extremely pleasurable to me and therapeutic as well. I can't imagine my life without making music.
Another important tool I learned to use from my dad was humor. He was a very funny man with a huge joke repertoire who came from a family on his mother's side of very funny people. I don't recall any lessons or even conversations about humor but it was such a big part of how he related to the world, that I consider my sense of humor to be a gift from him. Partly it was learning by example how to put together the right ingredients to tell a funny joke or story, or make a funny comment. But it was also learning about what to use humor for and what not to use it for. By observation and example I was able to develop my own sense of humor and put it to my own uses, some of which are similar to the ones my dad put his humor to and some not.
The basic message I got from my dad was that I had tools, my eyes, my mind, my guitar, and my sense of humor and that I could use them to solve problems and make my life better. My eyes could help me see and appreciate what was going on around me, particularly in Nature; my mind could help me notice patterns and draw conclusions or theories from them; my guitar could express my thoughts and feelings for me and help me to understand them better; and my sense of humor could help me release tension as well as connect with other people in a direct and unmistakable way.
So my father gave me some concrete tools and pointed me towards the work those tools could do. My mother gave me the space to figure out who I was so I could use those tools with a sense of personal purpose and meaning. I didn't end up a scientist but I do love Nature and have spent the better part of my life studying unforced balance in a pretty scientific manner. I didn't end up a full-time musician or comedian either but music and comedy are still central parts of my life. Basically, I ended up a T'ai-Chi teacher with a sense of humor who writes a lot of songs. I feel like this is the perfect life for me but without those tools, and without the space to figure out what really mattered to me, I don't know if I would have found it.