Maybe They *Don’t* Make ‘Em Like They Used To…

Happy Birthday, Dad!Photo: Classic Models

Today is my father-in-law’s natal anniversary. Though I’ve no doubt he sometimes feels his age and then some, as all of us do, he remains marvelously youthful in his wit and charm in general, and like a certain favorite toy car of a somewhat similar production date (one passed around by kids in our family for many happy years), has all the more appeal, truth be told, because of all the stories behind the few dents and scratches.

Not only am I most fortunate among persons in having found life partnership with a best friend who suits me in ways I could never even have imagined, I got a fantastic package deal, his parents being from the beginning the best sort possible. I knew before I met them that they must be rather extraordinary to have produced such a dandy son who really liked, loved, and respected them, so I wasn’t all that nervous about the meeting, a fact all the more remarkable when you consider that I still struggled with a fairly extreme level of persistent anxiety at the time. I was more afraid of meeting my beloved’s then part-time housekeeper, an old-school German lady who clearly thought anyone hanging around with her adopted charge had better meet her rigorous standards. Maybe Irma paved the way to make Mom and Dad Sparks seem that much less intimidating. In any event, from that first time I met them I was quickly falling in love with them, too. In any case, it turned out that I had attached my heart not only to a great life partner but to a great life partner with great parents, who immediately became my parents along with the ones who gave me my birth.Photo: Elegance on Wheels

Our Dad S is a thoughtful, gentle, good-humored, positive person who served honorably in the Army, who with Mom S raised a pair of superb sons, who worked with computers from those early days when a single one still filled a massive, refrigerated room to when they became ever so much smaller yet far more powerful, and even trained for and had a post-“retirement” career as a Myotherapist. He continues to be curious and dedicated enough to keep taking classes, traveling, and beginning new adventures as a seasoned but lively octogenarian. He is indeed a man of a ‘certain vintage’ by now, having had many adventures and being the repository of myriad stories as a result, but never fails to have new tales to add to the inventory because his spirit is so lively.

Most of all, he has as loving and generous a heart as he always did, and makes me hope that he will have not only a lovely and fulfilling birthday celebration (or ten) for his birthday but as many more as possible. He is, after all, a classic.Photo: Classic Good Looks

Slipstream

Digital illustration from a graphite drawing: SlipstreamPeople often speak of the person ‘behind the power,’ the right-hand associate who always plays a large role in making the boss look good or the spouse who remains relatively unseen in the shadows while his or her partner is the well-known face of the duo, but I rarely hear anyone mention the full benefits of this kind of relationship. There are, of course, plenty who abuse such an arrangement as purely a platform for self-aggrandizement and advancement and treat their faithful supporters as unseen and unacknowledged slaves. An image comes to mind of the great old Jean Cocteau film ‘La Belle et la Bête,’ wherein the prince’s entire household was condemned by the curse he’d earned and continued to serve him, but even more abjectly, as virtually invisible helping hands. Even in the case of spouses and assistants and supporters who are treated with fairness and generosity and given regular recognition, however, there remains the probability that in normal circumstances, one is more visible and probably more publicly compensated than the other.

There can be, though, a handful of fine, if unexpected, benefits to this arrangement for the person behind the scenes. I think I can speak with a certain amount of authority, having been in this position both by default and willingly in various ways all of my life. I have always traveled in the slipstream of the leader, the marquee character in the act; I fly somewhere behind the lead bird in the V formation, hunt behind the chief lioness, swim behind the flashing silver of the strongest swimmer in the school of fish. I live in the slipstream of those wiser, braver, and more skilled than I am. And I like that very much. It allows me to see at close range where I am headed, led by the example of someone better prepared, while maintaining a sense of safety in my innate introversion and fearfulness from having to set the example or blaze the trail myself It offers me opportunities to find ways to help showcase those I admire in what they are and do best. It puts me on the periphery of events I would never, on my own, have had access to and often gives me the awestruck feeling that my privilege extends, through those I love, respect and admire, beyond any level I could hope to achieve or acquire alone.

I started early: as the next sibling born to a first child who was, and is, extremely bright and wide-ranging in her interests and accomplishments and unabashedly her own opinionated, funny, clever and challenging self—and admired by a great many others for it—I could easily have been, or felt, eclipsed by her. Instead, I tended to feel shielded and guided from the start; others (along with me) generally found her a more interesting focus for their attentions, so she bore the brunt of any critical scrutiny before I would ever feel any, and if there was any entertaining to be done, she managed quite effectively to keep the occasion afloat intellectually and/or with her trademark smart-alec witticisms. That she did all of this shielding of me and leading the way without my hearing much complaint or entitlement either one from her remains a marvel.

On top of that fortuitous training of mine in playing a willing and contented behind-the-lead role, I had parents who were the leaders in their community, too, and in a particularly exemplary version of this star + supporting player arrangement. Dad, the natural extrovert, led active congregations in his primary work role as a pastor and later, bishop, but always had parallel roles as chairman of this, board president of that, and consultant or advisor to the other; Mom, as his one-woman entourage, managed the household so that he was both free to do all of this stuff and looked after enough to be healthy, fed, rested and prepared as well as possible to do so to the best of his abilities. She was also his sounding board at home for anything of import that was underway in his life away from home, helping him to find his way to tough choices and decisions and think through all of the permutations of those situations that anyone tends to carry outside of official work hours. She stood as his consort for official functions, his representative when serving on committees and boards and doing community work as well.

Besides that my father’s work and status allowed me, again, to be quietly in the shadows while attending and participating in all sorts of events and occasions I’d never otherwise have had opportunity or reason to do, my mother was equally quietly setting an example for how to take advantage of all of that in a way that was mutually beneficial. During and through all of those years, I saw Mom come into her own as an equally respected leader among their community, a person looked to for influence and inspiration and committed, intelligent work, but all in her modest and unfussy way. When I finished graduate school and started working at my undergraduate alma mater as a teacher, it was near enough my parents’ house that I simply moved back in with them and paid the cheap rent that put me close to work affordably and, it turned out, in a position to train as the next-level behind the scenes person. Living there, I could keep the household running when they were on the road for work, be assistant-to-the-assistant when they were home by helping to set up for a few of the social obligations or special events tied to their work, and even get assistance from them when I was beginning to have such obligations of my own. By the time that I first went out with the man whom I got to marry, I was remarkably well-versed in the ins and outs of this sort of partnership.

I did, of course, have to learn new variations and nuances to the operation when he and I got together. My spouse is a music conductor. He teaches classes, like I did, but beyond this similarity of standing in front of classes and the variety of preparatory work that gets teachers ready for the classroom time, he had, and has, a much more publicly visible leadership role when he is in conductor mode. I am very glad to stay out of the limelight at those times!

The administrative and preparatory work, the selection of literature, score study, negotiations with guest performers, board interactions, service in the community, publicity commitments, writing program notes, collaborations with commissioned composers—these and so many other aspects of backstage life remain hidden from the public yet can’t be accomplished without time and concentration that are harder to afford if I’m not there to keep him in clean clothes and check that he’s had a meal or two, to chauffeur him to and from places where there’s no parking close enough to get him to a rehearsal on time, and yes, to be a sounding board for him when tough choices or decisions loom. I’ve learned a few things about music along the way, but not so much that I fancy myself anything like a musician or music scholar. But it’s the other parts of his life that I consider the arena for my contributions and participation. It’s the stuff that gets him to the podium that I think I can do best.

When my husband is conducting singers and/or instrumentalists in a concert, my role is to happily sit in the audience and bask in the music along with everyone else. My vocation, my modest part in earning our living, is to slide along in his slipstream and do what I can to keep impediments from holding him back or dragging him down, and whether that happens because I stand near him and shake hands with his bosses and supporters after a concert or because I took the car in for service while he was in administrative meetings doesn’t matter. I’m happy to be a small fish in the big pond as best I can.

Foodie Tuesday: Dad Goes Grocery Shopping, Too

Photo montage: Grocery BonanzaNot everybody grows up with a dad who likes grocery shopping, but I got lucky. My father was the son of a grocery man and had his first real job working for the same grocery business as Grandpa did, so it was not entirely unusual that Dad would be the one who took us kids grocery shopping when it was time to stock up again. Even summer vacations followed a little in Grandpa’s tradition; instead of the stereotypical roadside tourist attractions, he was wont to stop at any grocer’s the family passed on their travels, wanting to see what ‘the competition’ was doing and reveling in the interesting inspirations he might find along the way. My dad, too, had enough of the bug from watching his father in action that when we did go to the grocery store, it wasn’t one of those stomp-through-at-top-speed reluctant shopper experiences that so many have with their parents, notoriously fathers most of all.

We meandered up and down every aisle, having a happy, leisurely look through everything on display, and more often than not, we came home with something new or unusual or just plain frivolous. Much to the delight of Dad’s junior shopping contingent, of course!

Mom was a good grocery shopper and fed us well, and taught us the kitchen skills to use the stuff we were buying, but Dad got to play the primary role of finding the unusual fun in visiting the store. Between the two, then, they gave us kids not merely those practical survival and sustenance skills we needed but a sense of pleasure in exploring what food does beyond keeping us alive and healthy. Thanks to their teamwork, it became a focus for community, artistic invention, entertainment, and exploration, and this all made it easier to expand those ideas far beyond our home walls.

That my parents’ ideas about division of labor and gender roles was generally more practical and individualized than American, middle class, mid-twentieth-century standardized was a boon to us as we grew in many other parts of our lives. It was Mom who taught me by example to do the fix-it stuff for general home maintenance, having been brought up in a carpenter’s household herself, and both parents took part in helping us with homework, counseling us, playing with us, and much more. Dad was a neatnik by inclination as much as Mom was a careful homemaker, so there wasn’t much obvious differentiation when it came to keeping the house up and running on a simple organizational basis.

But that’s all peripheral to my thesis, which is that I was fortunate to have two parents, not just one, who took an interest in the choosing and assembling of what we ate. Dad never demonstrated a huge urge to Make things with recipes, so sandwiches and cereals and the occasional barbecue tending was his main realm of preparation, but he did those with aplomb and enthusiasm and played sous chef many a time. Mom was the chief in the kitchen. Having two skilled shoppers in the house, though, that was, and still is, inspiring, and I am the better and happier for it. If your household consists of more than your lone self, or you share meals and their preparation even occasionally with younger people, I hope you’ll consider creating such an atmosphere of joy and adventure in the process as well!

My First Valentine

Long, long ago, in a state far away, there was a small, screaming infant being baptized by her father, a pastor, on the Sunday that fell on this very date, his birthday. I can only assume that my ornery howling was not the most perfect birthday present he’d ever had, but since Dad didn’t toss me in the dustbin either on the occasion or shortly thereafter is testament to a tiny fraction of the loving kindness he showed me then and continued to shower upon me, no matter how fractious I might have been at times, throughout the following years. That sort of tolerance alone is a good reason I’ve been very fond of the fella from the start. I’d say it’s also a good indicator that Dad always tended to have an excellent sense of humor about the silliness of real life.digital illustrationCommemorating that day is likely a good enough sampling all on its own of the man-of-many-parts that is my father, but it’s far from all. His long career as a Lutheran pastor and then bishop was complemented by plenty of stellar adventures as a leader, chairman and member of innumerable committees and boards from university to seminary to hospital and community. He traveled to and worked in dangerous and war-torn places like Honduras and El Salvador and early-1970s Chicago but still managed to come back regularly and be Dad at home to four daughters and help Mom keep the home fires burning while donning his ecumenical-superdude cape for quick service in his myriad day jobs.digital illustrationBetween his understandable popularity with many folk—even, I daresay, thanks to his unpopularity with a small contingent of people who didn’t approve of his frankness or his willingness to stand up for certain causes, a trait of courage and/or foolhardiness I would happily have had him pass to me genetically—and the careful scholarship that underpinned his good-humored to life, he’s always been a major influence on me. You can certainly see why I would consider Dad as fine a first Valentine as anyone could have. Happy Birthday, dear Dad!

Housekeeping with a Flamethrower

Why should I do anything on too small a scale, with too little passion? If I’m going to go to any trouble at all for any sort of reason, why shouldn’t I just take it to the greatest extreme I can manage? Anything worth doing, as my father has assured his children all of our lives, is worth overdoing. This, of course, is the same man who told us that ‘they put low dosages on these’ before taking double or triple the prescribed quantity of medication, and who when sent out to prune the trees left something that to his loving spouse resembled less a suburban backyard than a moonscape. Still, he’s managed to live a pretty healthy life and hold down very respectable jobs and raise happy daughters and all of that sort of thing, so he can’t have been all that far off the mark.graphite drawing with digital highlightsAnd, truth to tell, I think that engaging our full strength and will and enthusiasm whenever we can is a pretty good strategy for living altogether. Even though I’m an admitted loafer and a lollygagging lout at heart, I do believe that if I’m going to go to any effort, it might as well be to do something to the best of my ability and, if I’m dedicated and lucky enough in the process, something of value. And I can either thank or blame Dad for my belief in that. (I guess it means that you can, too.) Why, when I got old enough and lucky enough to attach a second Dad, my father in law, to the family, I quickly learned that he has a similar attitude about doing things with complete dedication and raising kids who show that same kind of committed involvement, so I can say that in my experience of fathers in general, they have a remarkable aptitude for living life to the fullest. And really, isn’t it that fine idea after all? I know it inspires me!

Happy Father’s Day to two standouts in the field!

Foodie Tuesday: Birthday Dessert (and Boy, Wouldn’t This Taste Great with Some Chocolate Ice Cream!)

He’s a wacky fella, my dad. One of his finest features has always been his excellent and distinctive sense of humor, and there was never any question that having a father who’s delightfully silly is one of the finest advantages a kid could have in her upbringing. No surprise that, with Mom being the sort of hospitality genius that everyone loves and Dad providing much of the comic relief in that hospitable package, our household was always a popular place among the friends and classmates of all of their children. Both were also compassionate and reasonable and practical parents, and I don’t have to tell you what a rarity that is in general, so our home was a kind of hangout-central among the school-kid cognoscenti.

Since today is the anniversary of the birth of that Hardest Working Dad in Showbiz, I am drawn to reminisce on the many years of service that my father has given as the resident chief goofus in our family.photoThat in itself is gift enough, but his life of service has always been so much broader and deeper than mere lightheartedness. As a pastor, as Chairman of the Board of Regents for a university, as bishop, and as president of a hospital board, among many other roles he’s filled in his life’s work, Dad has never taken his labors lightly, even when the best tool he had for doing any or all of these jobs may have most often been the humor he brought to the table. He’s just never been one for sitting around and letting the world rush on around him.

photoI wish I could say that I inherited a tenth of his sense of humor, let alone a hundredth of his ambition and work ethic. Instead, I guess I should thank him once again on his birthday for not only being a dandy dad but also helping to fill the requirements of the universe in these services where I may have left some gaping gaps. So thanks, Dad, from the bottom of my full heart, and may you have not only a very happy birthday but all the warmth and laughter that can be wrung out of many more years. Oh, and cake. And, since you clearly are your father’s son when it comes to all of the characteristics noted above and we all know Grandpa would have felt the cake was best completed with some, have your cake with a couple of sizable scoops of chocolate ice cream.

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Okay, this one’s not ice cream, but it’s chocolate dessert and it’s homemade. And it tastes pretty great, if you ask me. (1 ripe avocado, 1 ripe banana, 1 heaping tablespoon of cocoa, 1 teaspoon of vanilla, a pinch of salt, and honey to taste, all blended together until the pudding is smooth.)

Hot Flash Fiction 1: Pedigreed

I know it’s been around, arguably, for generations, but the extreme short story seems to have undergone quite the revival in recent times, being popularly called in the English-speaking and -writing world Flash Fiction. Me, I’m an old lady and slow to keep up with any sort of trend. Or, to give myself partial credit, I am so old that I was already around the first time half this stuff was popular.

Never mind all of that. In the way of condensed arts, I’ve always been particularly enamored of short forms, miniatures and compact performances that have rich enough content to hold up under speedy scrutiny yet continue to beckon one for a second and third and thirtieth look, or at the very least, to get one’s nose a whole lot closer to the subject before waving farewell. That applies to works by others (short stories, small photos and drawings, children’s books, one-act plays, songs comprising one or two brief movements, and snappy quatrains), and very much to my own productions. Since you lovely people already know full well that I have the attention span of an end-of-season Mayfly, you can easily surmise that this obsession with tiny-tude is merely a natural outgrowth of my laziness and tangential, caroming path through life.

Which is, of course, partly true. But I’ve also been known to commit to larger-scale projects and yes, in real life, honest-to-goodness fact, to complete them, too. Sometimes, I’ll readily admit, this happens at a very, verrrrrrrrrrry slow pace. But though I have made murals twenty feet wide, rebuilt gardens from the bulldozer up, written and/or drawn every single day for years at a time, my heart does retain its deep affection for the minute, yea verily for that minutiae that can happen in a minute. But only if it’s worth the effort. There are still those larger goals to be achieved and metaphorical mountains to be climbed that require my continuing attentions between spurts of compact acting. And it’s the very change from the massive to the mini that makes those idiosyncratic idioms of iota-size such excellent crevice fillers and so appealing as a respite from larger concerns.

So, old though I may be, I’m trailing in the dust of your every trend–unless you’ll allow that I am only lapping myself in circles, having written couplets, sketched 3-second figures and made one-bite desserts since I was hardly bigger than a molecule myself. I like to think that I’m gradually getting better than I was back then, at least. Practice, practice.digital collage

They were justifiably proud of their daughter’s pedigree, but it was precisely this family resemblance that first drew the unkind attentions of those catty girls in the sorority.

When a Boy Grows Up and Becomes a . . . a Much Older Boy

photoHappy Father’s Day, Dad! I know there was a time when you might’ve wished you’d had actual children and got us instead, but since you never left childhood entirely behind yourself, I think we can call it even. And just think, your offspring are following blithely in your footsteps to keep our own youthful high spirits intact via non-emergence into full adult behavior, so between us we’re all waving the old family flag pretty handily indeed. We’re only so good at it, of course, because we’ve had such an outstanding and irrepressible example in front of us all along.photoI’m grateful for the training in reckless enthusiasm, Teflon ego-building, rampant silliness, and all of the other life skills you have generously shared with us by guidance and example all along the way. I like to think I’m getting fairly good at all of that myself, but will never tire of knowing that it’s shared and that I perform my junior jollities in the shadow of a true master. A good father gives his offspring a happy childhood; a great father carries it on with his children so they never have to give up its joys completely. Thanks to your showing me the way, I can’t imagine ever losing my delight in the mystery and adventure and simple goofiness that life can bring, and that is a fantastic gift anyone less happy would have to envy. I hope you know how deeply–and yes, seriously–it’s appreciated, not just on Father’s Day but every day I can celebrate an untainted sense of the grandest laughing love of life. Thanks for that.

And as with mothers, I am doubly blessed, as I realized pretty much the instant I met the man who would become my other Dad, my husband’s father. It took no time to see that there was a kindheartedness and a very merry twinkle in the eye with which I felt utterly at home, familiar and safe, and these last sixteen-plus years have continued to prove my first assessment correct. To have two fathers who keep the days filled with generosity and warmth and love and my face always turned toward the smiling sun is truly a treasure that will never, ever grow old.photo

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Overdoing

There was a boy . . .photoHe was remarkable, special and fabulous in every way . . . by his own admission. That sounds like a pretty smart-alecky remark from his bratty second daughter, doesn’t it, but you know, he’d be the first to tell you that it simply never occurred to him to doubt himself. Teflon ego? Naive puppy? No, he’s just a pretty cool guy and didn’t see any need to worry about it along the way.

People liked him; he liked them back. One thing leading to another, as they always do, he grew up and became, in various turns, a college graduate, a husband, a father, a seminary graduate, university board chairman, bishop, hospital board chairman, and oh yeah, all those other things. You know: the keynote speaker and community activist constantly playing both conscience and jester to the complacent. The nutty uncle who accidentally fades his snappy burgundy deck shoes to a flashy candy-colored light purple that becomes his infamously funny family trademark and then makes them the coveted trophy passed down from one to the next of all his nieces and nephews as they graduate from high school. The pastor who tells wacky tales from the pulpit that actually explicate complex biblical concepts and help to untangle earthly Issues for everyday humans. The bishop who travels with a phalanx of fellow bishops to act as bodyguard for their danger-exiled brother Bishop of El Salvador in Guatemala and escort him safely for a visit to his people at home. The respected administrator who sees a busy hospital through the building of a whole new hospital campus. The husband who woos his ever-tolerant wife with anniversary gifts of snow tires and garden manure but always remembers a card with an actual romantic note to accompany it. The dad who sends excuse notes involving kidnap by Green Gremlins to the principal’s office after his daughter’s flu absence from school.

My father’s stated policy, from a rather early time in his life, was that Anything Worth Doing is Worth Overdoing, and if it was spoken with a jovial wink, it was and yes, still is pretty much his modus operandi, whatever the endeavor. Underachieving was never an option and half-hearted efforts the same as not trying at all. This insight of his came long before the appearance of the modern day’s sloganeering cheerleaders insistence that one Go Big or Go Home.

photoDad brought along with him from his earliest years that sense of ease with himself and his place in the world and built it into an expansive view of what he could and should do and what the world could be with a little effort. As much as he indulged his playful and witty side (surely one of his most endearing qualities in his every field of action in life) he has always harbored a tender heart as well. Any practical tendencies of his that might be seen as hardheaded or stoic, serving him excellently in his many leadership roles as they did, were at their root driven by a deeper need to look out for others’ best interests and work to keep his own in check. All of this shapes a man who manages to maintain the unusual duality of a highly accomplished Type A leader and the Class Clown, a rare and gem-like formation indeed.

And today is that remarkable, special and fabulous man’s birthday.

photoAs it happens, he’s right, you know: anything worth doing really is worth doing to the nth degree and then just a little bit more. He didn’t get to be this advanced in age and yet still a ridiculously charming kid just barely beneath the gloss of grown-up-ness without having practiced that art well and truly. Happy birthday, Dad!