It’s a little early, but I want to talk about my Dad.
My Dad is one of the smartest guys you’ve never heard of. Seriously smart. The kind of smart that forgets to zip up his zipper and tie his shoes. The kind of smart that forgets how many times he’s explained a particularly complex theory, and starts in at the beginning every time he has a conversation with you.
Growing up, I lived in dread of hearing “Now. Let’s take that to its full and logical conclusion.” Because whatever I’d just proposed (more freedom with the car, later curfew, big party, etc.) was just going to be broken down to its third and fourth order effects. Once he got there, whatever it was that I wanted just wasn’t going to happen. I hated it at the time. God, Dad. Why do you have to worry about what it means three months from now? But as an adult, the drive to think further is a secret source of pleasure.
When I was about 13, I made matching dresses for myself and the little girl I babysat. The dress was anything but stylish — blue plaid flannel, as I recall. But I did it right. I mean, really right. I matched the plaids, I turned the facings so no raw edges showed, I hand-stitched the hem. If you don’t sew, this won’t seem like that much of an accomplishment; but at 13, I’d made my Dad proud of me. Not the dress explicitly, but by knowing the difference between right and half-arsed, and choosing to do it right.
My mom was detailed like that too, but for different reasons. For my mom, right was about external approval and what other people thought. Dad was indifferent to external judgement. Right was an internal hunger.
He taught me how to hang wallpaper, and his faith that I could do it was both unjustified by experience (I’d never hung wallpaper before – I was 14) and complete. He told me the basic theory; told me what to be careful about; handed me a drywall spatula and cautioned me that it could nick the wallpaper if I wasn’t careful; and let me at it.
He taught me to pay attention to plumb walls and shoddy workmanship. He taught me to see.
Dad was the first one that pointed out to me that raw intelligence was not an asset in the pursuit of happiness, nor was it a determining factor in success. In fact, being happy often gets in the way of both happiness and success. Being smart means knowing how dumb you really are when compared with all the things there are in the world that could be known and understood. Being smart means being acutely aware of how wrong you can be. No, success is built out of daring, determination, and a blissful ignorance of (or indifference to) all the things that could go wrong. And smart is a liability, because seeing through the bs in a world that is made of little substance and much style makes everyone else REALLY uncomfortable.
And I watched the consequences of that too. Like the time my Dad was in the room with a bunch of suits and uniforms, all the way up to 2-star officer types – I don’t remember if it was generals or admirals – and explained to them how their pet project was a waste of time and energy because it was going to cost a lot of money and it wasn’t going to do what they wanted it to, but if they did this project instead, it would give them a return on investment that exceeded the project they proposed, it just didn’t happen to be quite as sexy.
Yeah. Generals and Admirals don’t like being told they are wrong. My Dad was right of course, but right doesn’t always equal follow on business.
For as much as he (correctly) believes that his ability to out-reason most people is more of a liability than an asset, he’s also carried with him an incredibly tensile optimism about what might happen tomorrow. Somehow, setbacks never set him back for too long. It’s never been just a saying for him: tomorrow really is a new day and it’s always full of all that could possibly happen. I don’t know if it’s been a choice or a habit or a quirk of personality, but those possibilities have always been opportunities in his mind, never problems.
The past ten years have been full of setbacks, including a year with no contracts to sustain his business and many truly lean months where the financial margin of error was razor-thin. In that time, he’s managed his anxiety in much the same way that I manage mine: by making things. “I’m going to go make sawdust,” he announces to the room. By the time he comes back, he’s filthy and full of a new avenue to reach his goal.
And this week, he got two parties to sit down at a table. It’s taken him ten years to pull this feat off, but it is the beginning of a project that matters. I mean, really matters. Not just today. Don’t get me wrong, it’s effing brilliant today. But it doesn’t stop there, because the third and fourth order effects are brilliant too. It solves a problem. A real time problem for several different entities and it solves it in a way that is ultimately constructive. There’s no pushing the problem down for a generation or two. There’s nothing short-sighted here. It’s elegant, it’s simple, and it matters.
That’s my Dad. His fly might be gaping wide, but he’s the smartest guy you’ve never heard of.
**I want to tell you something else about my Dad. He got diagnosed with MS a few years ago, and the doctors filled him up with all kinds of terror about the possible origins of MS. One of the things they said to him was that they didn’t know how MS was acquired. They also told him he couldn’t give blood anymore.
Now, my Dad is one of the rare people in the US that doesn’t have antibodies to any variety of the herpes virus. That puts him in a group of people that make up less than 20% of Americans. So when he went to donate blood, he knew that his donation was quite likely to be whisked off to save an infant. He put the uncertainty about where the MS came from and the fact that he couldn’t donate blood together and came to the conclusion that might have unwittingly given a child MS.
I’ve seen him cry twice. Once was standing in front of his parents graves. The second time was over the idea that he might have given a baby MS. He cried harder over the latter than the former. His grief wasn’t about what a serious diagnosis meant for him and his future (he’s one of the lucky ones, he’s had a pretty mild form of MS), he cried for children he’d never met.
That’s my Dad too.