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I'm not entirely sure whether it's a sign of pragmatism or just an advanced stage of whistling in the dark, but as I get older I seem to be having a lot more conversations that begin with this: "If I died tomorrow..." Actually, that's not quite right. Other people put it that way. I like to be more folksy. I always say, "If I stepped in front of a bus tomorrow..."
Which almost turned into a prophecy on a warm afternoon some months back, when I very nearly did just that. I damn near stepped in front of a bus.
It wasn't the bus that almost killed me, at least not at first. It was the panel truck that the bus blocked from my view. I stepped off the curb of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-third Street, certain that I could cross against the light; certain that I'd gauged the speed of the M3 bus correctly and, with just a slight jog, I would be on my way to the subway that much faster. Somewhere between being right in front of the driver and having cleared the bus entirely, I realized my mistake -- and I stepped backward as the truck blew past me. I stepped backward into the path of the bus. There was a horn; I can't tell you whether it was the truck's or the bus's, or whether it was just the noise adrenaline makes when it's being pumped to one's every extremity at once, because I remember only the sound. And I remember the sound only because it somehow wove itself into the intense and immediate sense of panic I felt. I don't even recall looking at the bus driver or how my legs got me back to the west side of Fifth Avenue. I know only that the bus kept going, missing me by a very littlebit, and I got back to where I started.
Here's an interesting medical theory: If the heart races to five trillion beats per minute, short-term memory ceases to function. Maybe it's a problem of blood flow.
However I avoided becoming a part of New York City's asphalt, the important part of the story is not that I was lucky (and how!) nor that I was incredibly stupid (guilty as charged, Your Honor), but rather that my goose was very nearly cooked. This was suddenly for me not some lofty conversation about how I would like to be remembered, this was "Ohmygod I nearly widowed my wife and left my children fatherless." This was also the first time I could ever recall feeling the need to do a little inventory on that part of the soul where regrets are stored.
And you know what? I couldn't find any. While there were plenty of things I felt bad about, and even more that still make me flush with embarrassment, there was nothing that had any urgency to it. Nothing that I hadn't done that would've caused me to lose sleep; no serious trespass against anyone that I hadn't asked forgiveness for.
For a guy who'd just stepped in front of a bus, I felt pretty good. Except for one nagging thought. Call it a pre-regret, if you'd like. If I had stepped off the curb in front of that bus and died stupidly and tragically -- or even if I had died heroically, pulling children (and nuns and puppies) from a sinking boat in the East River -- my last thought would have been this: I haven't shared with my daughters all the things I meant to as they grow up, like telling them all of the experiences I've had that might actually be of some use to them as they make their way in life. I would have regretted not passing along to them the lessons that I've learned from the mistakes I've made, the things I've gotten right, and the good advice that I've been given.
That night, after squeezing my wife and daughters just a little tighter than usual, I lay awake wondering if there was a way to avoid that regret. Maybe for the first time since becoming a dad, I thought about how I would talk to my girls about the really important stuff, and when. Should I wait until things come up in their lives, and try to comment on them as they happen? Should I hold my tongue until I'm asked? Should I be reading 548-page books by guys with degrees in child psychology and taking notes? What if my daughters won't listen to me? What if they think I'm too pushy/annoying/dumb/out-of-touch? What if I give lousy advice? Needless to say, sleep did not come easily.
Over the next few days, I thought a lot about the best advice I've gotten, and where it came from. I realized pretty quickly that the stuff that's helped me most in life came from all kinds of different sources, but always in the same way. Supportively. Conversationally. I don't think I've followed a single piece of guidance that was given to me by someone who was lecturing; nothing that started with "Let me tell you something" or "You need to listen to this" has ever sunk in very deep. All the good stuff has come in conversation, usually with people who were simply passing along their own experiences.
Suddenly parenting didn't seem quite so daunting. Maybe I didn't need to have a series of lectures prepared -- they'd likely fall on deaf ears, anyway -- but instead I could focus on explaining to my girls how I had come upon my own beliefs. I needed to be able to tell them not only what I'd learned but also how I'd learned it.
Of course, that still left the problem of the bus. On the chance (hopefully slim!) that the Grim Reaper should decide to visit me anytime soon, I figured it would be best if I wrote down the things I most wanted my daughters, Anna and Maggie, to know. About the same time that I started seriously thinking about what I hoped would eventually be a bunch of letters to my girls, I found myself writing letters to my friends' daughters, to mark big events in their lives, both good and bad. It was my grateful friends, telling me later that those notes served as good conversation starters with their girls, who gave me the idea for this book.
It occurs to me that there's a benefit to passing experience on by writing it down, and that's distance. Most advice, most life guidance, is given in some context. It's given at the moment it applies, which means that it's often tainted by the particulars of that moment, for example:
If the day comes that either of my girls comes home from high school with a forty-year-old boyfriend, I sincerely doubt the twin Furies of fear-for-her and rage-at-him will allow me to give a reasoned argument as to why he's not a great choice. (Even if I could, I suspect the homicidal way I'd be looking at him would make listening to me pretty hard.)
Writing it all out removes the limitations brought on by context; limitations not just on a dad's ability to give counsel, but also on a daughter's ability to hear it. My wife and I are learning -- slowly, but we're learning -- not to let discussions of important things go on too long if one or both of us are angry...especially at each other. Angry minds are seldom open, and I would guess scared or miserable minds function the same way. That is, they don't function. Distance, whether it's achieved by walking around the block to cool off or spending the time to put what you feel on paper, is the most important tool you'll have in dealing with situations in your life. Distance dampens anger and calms fear; it'll serve you well, if you let it.
Consider all that follows on these pages as a father's advice, given as he would most like you to hear it; guidance that's from the heart and the mind and not from the reactive gut. These are life lessons that are passed along with a sense of hope, not a sense of urgency or resignation. This is guidance that comes with a healthy dose of distance.
But understand that the word "distance" refers only to the removal I feel, as I write this, to the specifics of the questions a daughter might ask and the situations that she may be in as she grows up. There isn't the slightest bit of distance in the feelings that I have for my girls as their father. The chapters ahead are a distillation of what I know about the world, which I hope you'll use as you see fit. First, though, let me tell you what I know about being a dad:
Daughters are dreams come true. For me, that's literal: it was always my dream to be the father of girls, just as some men dream of playing center field and others dream of running large companies. I wanted daughters. It'd be swell to be able to explain why to you, but I can't. Whatever the reason, getting what I wanted has proved humbling, in that it has revealed the inadequacy of my imagination -- I never in my wildest dreams imagined the depth of emotion being a dad has brought out in me.
I realize the sappiness of writing that last bit...but I revel in it. And perhaps that's the greatest gift a daughter can give her father. Because they haven't yet amassed a lifetime of hang-ups or gender notions (or any of that fun stuff that cost my fellow New Yorkers two-hundred dollars a forty-five-minute hour to hash out with professionals), my girls have helped me see what's missing from a life led with emotional caution. They've taught me that there's no shame in the tears that form when one of them tells me, solemnly, that they love me "bigger than the moon and stars," and that there's plenty of shame in not recognizing such moments as the best that life could ever offer. Having daughters has taught me that the words "I love you" shouldn't be saved for private moments, but should be shouted across Grand Central Station at the height of rush hour. The good stuff -- love, happiness, and pride -- needs to be celebrated openly and regularly. I plan on spending the rest of my life thanking my girls for teaching me that.
One other thought before we start, a quick note on what I guess I'll call "Dead Bird Syndrome."
Some time ago, I was walking my younger daughter, Maggie, to the garage where we park our car. She was singing that god-awful "Titanic" song for the millionth time to me while I was remarking upon how grown up she seemed now that I no longer had to carry her. (My knees and my back were particularly thankful.) We were both smiling and chattering away...until I saw a dead bird in our path. So I did what parents do: I distracted her until we were safely past the brown shape on the sidewalk. And she did what children do: she laughed when I scooped her up and swung her around, and she remained wonderfully oblivious to my reason for doing so.
It was only later that I realized I'd done Maggie a disservice. My intentions were good, but in shielding her from evidence of a very basic fact of life, I robbed her of the ability to notice it and to talk about it and maybe to put it in its proper place. I'm not melodramatic enough to think that the one instance has any great significance -- like it would cure her of the fear of death, or anything -- but I do believe that my impulse was wrong in that case. It's the little, everyday examples of tough things like death that help prepare you for the big, infrequent examples.
So, I'll continue to hustle her out of the room when the evening news wallows in the latest mindless act of cruelty, but I'll try a bit harder to stop acting like a human blinder. I'll try a bit harder to let her see the whole world, and the flaws included therein.
That includes my flaws, many of which are detailed on the pages that follow. I hope that it won't embarrass you, kind reader, to know some of the silly and stupid things I've done over the past forty-two years. Please also know that it doesn't embarrass me to tell you about them. Like that dead bird on the sidewalk, most parents think their own blunders are unpleasant realities best hidden and forgotten. But I've learned a little something about mistakes: They are the truest measures of you, both in what prompted you to make them, and what (or whether) you choose to learn from them. They are what define you and what teach you. And they are maybe the only things in your life that are truly your own. Everyone will jump in to grab a little glory when you do something right; mistakes are yours and yours alone. The trick is in how you make use of them.
That's confusing, I know. Let's try it this way:
My older daughter Anna and I once built a fort out of cushions and blankets and towels and chairs. It was incredibly elaborate, as those things go; we even brought a battery-powered lamp into it, to read Yertle the Turtle by. It took us about half an hour to get it right. About ten minutes into making it, she wanted her Barbies to sit along one stretch of blanket by the coffee table and started piling them on. The whole thing collapsed. Anna pouted for a minute, then said, "Wait, I know let's do." (It's remarkable how much I miss the garbled syntax of her four-year-old self.) She got a box from the dining room, set it up on the coffee table, and draped a blanket over that. Just about each and every Barbie fit on that contraption.
And when her grandmother came over, that was the only part of the fort Anna wanted to show her. Her silly father was crowing about the door flaps and the reading room, and about how the American flag blanket was draped just so over the side of the dining room chairs, and Anna made sure her Nana saw how a strategically placed box could hold the weight of a dozen dolls. Because she'd made a mistake and because fixing it took some thought and effort, that part of our fort was the one that she was proudest of.
Most folks think that mistakes get bigger and more important than that as they get older, but they don't, mostly. Except for the major errors that destroy lives, most mistakes are about as consequential as the temporary collapse of that fort. The only difference is that as you grow up you find your mistakes more embarrassing...the world has a way of convincing you that if you goof something up, you're somehow diminished. That to admit failure, no matter how small or correctable, is a weakness. That's just completely absurd. If you're willing to learn, each false start is more experience to help you trust the path you eventually find. Each mistake is a chance to show yourself that the things worth achieving are worth the effort of trying again and again.
So here's my first piece of advice to you, and maybe the most important one between these covers: Make glorious mistakes. If you can, try not to make them out of laziness or meanness. Make them instead because you are overreaching your abilities. Make them because you bit off a bit more than you can chew. Make them because they will prove to the world -- and more important to yourself -- that you are striving, and not coasting. Don't be too self-critical; no one who really loves you expects you to be perfect. Count on failing every so often, so when success comes, you'll know you've earned it.
Oh, and listen to your old man, from time to time.
Copyright © 2005 by Philip Van Munching