I HAVE NO CLUE WHAT it’s like to be a dad. So this isn’t about how to get yourself to change diapers without being sick or how to save for college or explain sex to an eight-year-old.
But I do have the experience of having a dad for quite a while. So that’s something.
I’ve also met an interacted with many dads over these past 30ish years— the dad’s of my extended family and friends, the dads of fame and fortune, and even the dads of various fictions.
And based on that experience, and in the spirit of Father’s Day (a day that also falls quite close to my dad’s birthday), I decided to undertake the ambitious, way-over-my-head, task of sorting out what sets apart those truly great dads. The ones that propel us ablaze upon the back of their effort, courage, and care.
Being a three-decade-plus beneficiary of one of these rare, great dads— a dad who, himself, received similar benefits from my his dad—I was able to witness a kind of multi-generational, power-dad-hood (to us a term of art). And based on that good fortune, I have some good experience from which to draw.
So, that’s my task and those are my qualifications. The first admittedly towers over the second, but, hey, you gotta start somewhere.
FIRST, LET’S TALK ABOUT good dads.
A good dad takes you to the baseball game and brings you gifts from a business trip. He takes you out for ice cream after Little League and let’s you sit on his lap and take the wheel (even after he errs one time and you crash into the garage).
A good dad takes the family on skiing trips, even though his skiing is about as graceful as a cat rollerblading on glass.
A good dad sends you to sleep-away camp (a Jewish good dad), let’s you go over your friends and let’s you stay up late if you don’t tell your mother.
A good dad teaches you how to play catch and shoot a basketball and hit a tennis ball. Then he let’s you start working out because you want to have muscles like your uncle, or you want to beat Apollo Creed in a foot race, or win three championships like MJ and Scottie’s Breakfast Club.
A good dad is silly. He tells you jokes both when you’re happy and when you’re sad. He can impersonate Donald Duck and he can also make the adults laugh.
A good dad has standards. He won’t let you quit the baseball team, or give up on a class. He won’t make that call that you are avoiding or clean up your room for you. He will expect you to excel and achieve. But then, if you don’t do well, or you screw up, he won’t forsake your vulnerability with reprimand. He will proceed with what Will Durant says of the good philosophers— with qualities of understanding and forgiveness. And, then he’ll repeat and re-instill this message: that he mostly expects you to do and be good. He will make the distinction clear, and then, he’ll throw in some dad-humor for good measure.
A good dad will tell you stories and teach you lessons. He will warn you of crazy things he did that lead to bad outcomes as a warning, and then stories of effort and perseverance to inspire. He says things like, “every Monday morning, act like you’re out of business.”
A good dad is worried about your safety. He will not allow you to go to Owings Mills mall or the movies without urging you to be safe. You roll your eyes, but you know that he means it, and underneath that thick, cool teenage façade, you’re glad that he cared.
A good dad will tell tall tales of your legend. You may have scored one goal, but he’ll say three. You may have won most-improved player, but he’ll say MVP. You may have gotten a few As but he’ll call them “straight.” You may be just a regular guy or gal, but he’ll tell the world of your greatness and carve your name in the stone.
A good dad buys you things. He’ll get you the arcade game or Sega Genesis. He’ll buy you endless amounts of WWF figures and Ninja Turtle gear. He’ll throw you a a big Bar Mitzvah party (if he’s a Jewish good dad) and he’ll buy you a car. And he’ll get you your first guitar when you move away to school, and then he’ll cry.
A good dad will make sure you get a good education. He’ll make sure you do well in school and pay for tutors. He’ll try to convince you to go to private school for your own good even though you’ll turn him down because you don’t want to leave your friends or wear those horrible uniforms. He’s willing to send you to Michigan for $40,000 a year and won’t tell you that he probably shouldn’t because money will be tight with your brother and sister already in college, grandparent expenses, a club membership, six cars, and god knows what else. It will take a good mom in this instance to tell you that you should probably just go in-state. But then he’ll make more money later and send you to law school.
A good dad leads by example. His friends tell you how good of a dad you have. They all love him because he lives for their friendships and he would die to protect them. And he’ll do the same for you.
And he’ll always give gifts and favors and the benefit of the doubt to people, no matter where they are in the societal ladder or his family tree. He “brings donuts” and teaches his kids to do the same.
THROUGHOUT MY LIFE, I had this good dad. And though he was the primary source, he wasn’t the entire extent of my good dad experience. I had multiple second-dad-like figures growing up, and they were similarly instructive in goodness. Maybe it’s like the saying goes— it takes a village.
One dad took me to WWF wrestling matches and showed me how to dance crazily, and one fixed my foot when I stepped on a nail.
One taught me math, and gifted me Rich Dad, Poor Dad and took me to Maryland games and showed me how to walk in rain without getting wet. One showed me how to cook, shoot pool, and let us play poker in his basement.
One dad talked to me about movies and always had jokes and let me play with his daughter everyday after school. One took me “crabbing.” One invited me over their house all the time for spaghetti and meatballs (which his wife cooked masterfully). He also always hugs me and asks, genuinely, how I’m doing.
One dad teaches me something every single time I see him. He also straightened me out one time at dinner when I was being a little shit. Another taught me about the law and gave me an internship. One jokes with me endlessly about nothing. He taught me, as his catch phrase goes: to “keep smiling.”
One dad always invited me over and took me and his son to Oriole games. Great seats, behind the dugout. One dad showed my how to catch high-pops, and goes biking with me, and taught me how to fish, and invites me over all the time.
One dad took me to HFS Music Festivals and to lacrosse practice and to Cancun and taught my ignorant, younger self about why the Beatles are great. One taught me not to be such a know-it-all. One taught me medical terms. One dad showed me how to choke up a golf club when I was sucking.
One dad teaches me about business and took me to Italy and showed me how to give one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen to his daughter at her wedding. Two other dads showed me how to be as sincere and vulnerable as possible at their daughter and son’s wedding a couple Octobers back.
One dad fixed my injuries and played basketball with me, and showed me how to run a huge family, even in the midst of great and repeated tragedy.
THESE DADS TAUGHT ME A LOT. They are all very good dads in their own ways. And, they might be great dads— I suspect many of them are. But I wouldn’t know.
Because perhaps the only people who can truly know the greatness of a dad are the ones of their primary concern. This great dad does not necessarily have to be made of your blood; but he must, at least, adopt it and own it. This is where sons and daughters come in.
The quality that gets us to this next level seems to me, like many, many seemingly timeless principles and values, is deceptively simple. So simple so as to be easily missed for the ones not carefully observing..
WHEN I THINK ABOUT WHAT made my dad so very good, I think back through these times and I wonder. What was it that I loved so much about them? Why is it that just writing about them creates near volcanic emotion. Why do I cry when Rod Stewart sings: “be courageous and be brave”?
Then I think….
Would I have enjoyed the baseball catches quite as much if my dad had merely hired a nanny? Or even a professional baseball player to teach me? I’d learn to throw, but would I care as much?
Would I have liked the gifts— even better, more expensive gifts— if he didn’t hand them to me? If he sent them, say, from wherever it was that he had traveled? What if he just FaceTimed me after I opened them?
And what about the sports. He paid for the equipment and the league fees and the travel. But would it have been as good if that was all he had done? If he paid for it and sent me off with the neighbors carpool?
And how about the mall or the movies? Would I have liked them so much? Would I have felt so safe if he hadn’t cared enough to worry?
On those trips to the beaches or the ski mountains or Napa— what if my dad would have sent the family and went on his own vacation? What if, instead of making a fool out of himself on the mountain, he decided to stay in the ski lodge? What if, as I was skiing straight down the mountain, it wasn’t him I passed, laid out there on the mountain, skis spread-eagled along the snowy bank? Would it have been as fun?
What if he didn’t, in person, urge me to always be good and try hard and always be a good sport and do the right thing? Would I have done it as well or as much just for myself? Would I be trying so hard? Would my conscience kick in when I know I’ve broken his tacit code? The one that he hold himself to?
And what if he didn’t, by his living, breathing actions, day in and day out, teach me to be generous and think of others and “bring donuts,” and be ethical and honest, and always, always, always, keep my sense of humor. Would I be any of those things? Would I even be attempting such a hard, life-long task? What if he had merely written it in a letter or blog post? Same sticking power? If he didn’t act out his own legend, would I want so badly to create my own?
And what if he didn’t show up for me, countless times at 3am when I needed his help. What if after that car crash, in the middle of the night, on the middle of the highway, he just ignored the phone call, or if he called me a cab or AAA? What if he didn’t get there in what seemed like seconds during those kind of horrible moments that can seem like hours? And what if, when he got there, he didn’t make a joke and give me a hug and tell me everything was going to be alright? Would I be alright?
A THANK YOU TO MY DAD SEEMS IN ORDER. But he might be surprised about which things I am most grateful.
Because although I loved the WWF figures and the guitar and the trips to Utah or Florida or the Bahamas. And although I value my college and graduate education and I loved the Ravens tickets and the dinners and the Springsteen Broadway show. And it was great playing golf and tennis and having the equipment and coaching to play high school sports. They are not what makes him a great dad, though it does make him very, very good.
What makes him a great dad is simply this: he shows up and he cares— which are the same thing.
For I’d be just as happy to stay at a Motel 6 as I was to stay at the Atlantis; I’d have been just as happy to watch the game on the TV as I was to sit in the Club Section; I’d have equally cherished having a catch in the driveway as I was to play in front of him in the state championship; I’d rather take a long walk down the block with him, then hike the tallest mountains without him.
Just as as long as he was there. That’s the only requirement. And, history has shown, he will be there, as he has been. He seems unable to not be.
My dad’s never missed a game or an award. He never missed a visiting day or a graduation. He was there on all of the trips and hand-delivered his gifts and his donuts. He taught me, face-to-face, how to play catch and exemplified how to be a man. He showed me how to treat your friends and even people who aren’t so nice.He showed me how to not be mad when your kids disappoint you, but how to also care enough show us the harder, higher path.
And that, my friends, is what makes him great
FLASH FORWARD AND IT’S SIX MONTHS FROM NOW. I’m visiting my dad in Florida.
It’s about 4:30 PM. The hot Florida sun relents, dipping down towards the horizon and the oppressive heat is replaced by breezy, cool air. Suspended in this effortless setting, I recall the thoughts I shared here.
My dad and I recline on padded lawn chairs, the music playing softly on the Bose speakers— Bruce or Rod or Frank, perhaps. We both have our books — I, a novel or some classic, meaning-of-life-ish book, my dad, having absorbed quite enough meaning, a legal or spy thriller.
He may have a beer or a cigar. I’ll bring a sweatshirt. Eventually, we both fall asleep.
For a couple hours, we lay here. In this most perfect version of life, I rotate my gaze and mind from page, to sky, to him. There, feeling free and protected, and so damn lucky, I think to myself: what a wonderful world.
In those evenings, lying there, contented, we say nothing.
But he’ll be there, and that— that says it all.
To a great dad who’s always there.