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Godfather G

Thanks to those who’ve taken the time to follow these posts. It’s been a bittersweet journey, but a valuable one for me.

This week, I went down to help my close up shop on my father’s life. For a poor kid from the backwoods of western Marin, grandson of an Italian immigrant, a high-school dropout who left home at thirteen and slept above the lanes when he worked as a pin-setter at the local bowling alley, he did pretty well.

His life was filled with love and grief. He had four talented children, but saw one of them succumb to addiction. He loved two wives, but saw them both die before him. He did not have a great number of friends, but those he had he treasured deeply.

I will miss him. I already do.

But all his troubles are now become as smoke, leaving him once more free of pain and worry.

Ciao, Papa. And thanks.

k

It was not until my high school years that my father talked to me of love. By that time, of course, I had succumbed to my fair share of crushes, passions, and fascinations (including one young girl who treated me so ill that I carved “LD” into the sole of my boot, that I might grind her initials into the dust with every step I took.)

By my sixteenth winter, though, the tenor of my heart had grown beyond such childish attitudes and sought more meaningful relations. One girl in particular had affected me deeply, and though my feelings were built of fragile glass, it was my first true adult love and I felt it as deeply and soberly as I was able. The day it all crashed down, the day that I at last admitted to myself the futility of my unrequited suit, I retreated to the blue shadows of my downstairs room, threw myself upon my bed, and wept.

Hours later, after I’d grown quiet, my father came downstairs and knocked upon my door. He came in, sat on the edge of the bed and, unexpectedly, he asked me about the girl: who was she? how did I feel about her?

I told him all.

When I was done, he did not try to cheer me up. He did not say I would “get over it” or that there were other fish in the sea. He did not tell me that the pain I felt was just a phase or that it was anything less than love. What he told me was:

“When your heart gets broken, it’s bigger when it heals, and the next time you fall in love, it will be deeper and stronger than the time before.”

This has proven true. Each time that I have loved it’s been the deepest, strongest, greatest thing I’ve known. Each time, the newer love puts former passions all to shame for pallid renderings of true adoration. And each time, I wonder if before I ever loved at all. The dark side of this lesson, though, is that with deeper love comes the risk of greater pain, but if not for love, what else is worth the risk?

k

As a skinny, myopic boy with a bookish nature and a talent with the violin, I was an easy — if not an obligatory — target for the stronger boys. I was punched and teased and bullied and beaten on the school tarmac. Several times I was “called out” to fight in the churchyard: appointments I never kept but instead walked past, shamefacedly heading home while the gathered boys jeered. I kept these trials to myself — to admit them was to admit my weakness — but one evening after one such “missed” appointment I could contain it no longer. I complained to my father, bemoaning the fact that I would never be as strong as those other boys. My father did not teach me to box nor puff me up with empty promises. Instead, he told me truly:

“There will always be someone smarter or richer or stronger than you. Do your best, and you can be happy with who you are and what you have.”

At first I rejected those words and their unflinching precision, but they haunted me through the months that followed. I refused to accept, at the age of nine, that I would never achieve what I perceived to be the only purpose in life: to be the best at something. As I wrestled with the concept, though, I realized that logically there could only be one person who was the richest in all the world, one who was smartest, one who was strongest; the vast majority of us could never be the best. To be the best, I saw, was a not a reasonable goal, whereas working to do one’s best could bring satisfaction in many ways.

It’s a lesson I must still relearn periodically.

k

A child of the ’60s, I grew up in a world struggling to realize the dream of racial equality. At school, my teachers pried at the doors of my Wonder Bread world to show me the truth of a color-conscious reality. My family, active in the civil rights movement, counted among its friends families both white and black and some that were mixed. Playing with kids of different skin color and ethnic backgrounds, I quickly learned that these all were superficial traits and that, beyond them, we are all very much the same.

The black-and-white TV showed us black men and white men as they spoke, marched, fought, preached, protested, and prayed in an ongoing dialogue that was peaceful at times, violent at others. Then, in the spring of ’68, that dialogue turned deadly. My family watched as the news of blood and death spilled out into our living room. At one point, as cities burned and people ran riot, my father turned to me and said:

“You are one of the luckiest people in the world. You were born white, you were born male, and you were born in America. This gives you opportunities that others will never have. Always remember that, and be grateful.”

His words puzzled me and even scared me a little. They described a world with a built-in unfairness that I neither understood nor believed. Alerted to its presence, though, in time I saw that what my father said was true. I am lucky. I do have more than many, simply because I am a white American male. And yes, it is unfair. Deeply unfair.

This knowledge did not rack me with guilt, though. Rather, it heightened my awareness, taught me to see the opportunities before me, and to appreciate them. With regard to others, I learned to empathize with the less fortunate. Women, people of color, LGBT folks, immigrants, they all face challenges I do not, challenges maintained and bolstered by a society controlled by people who look like me. I became determined never to judge someone by appearance or background, but only by their individual actions and words. I also decided to support every proposal designed to even the scales.

This past year, though, I’ve learned something new. I’ve learned that my view of the world is still shaded by my own inherent privilege. Unequal treatment is still rampant, and white hatred of “The Other,” after lurking in back rooms for decades, is now taken up as a rallying cry. Any progress made toward equality in one area has been offset by burgeoning bigotry in another, and I despair.

I know we can be better than this; I’m just not sure we want to be.

k

My father was not a demonstrative man. Raised by cold and distant parents, virtually on his own from the age of thirteen, he learned early on to be self-sufficient and contained. He rarely exhibited anger (though, believe me, we kids got him there on occasion) but also rarely did he exhibit overt love or tenderness. He was gentle while being stern, but he never doted on us, and thus he was particularly hard to read.

On one particularly sunny day in my early adolescence, I was consumed with the suspicion that I’d disappointed my father. I had really screwed up at something — though today I can’t remember what it might have been —and I was sure this failure removed every chance that I might someday make my father proud. Trembling, I stood before him, the sun hot upon my hair, my brow bound by worry, and confessed my fear. In answer, he said:

“Don’t worry about the level of your accomplishments. Just be happy. As long as you’re happy, I’m happy”

The immediate release these words provided was so profound that they stuck in my psyche. They told me that neither by my successes nor by my failures would my father take my measure. At times, I have forgotten this lesson and worried if I’ve failed him, but eventually I do remember and in doing so I realize that doubting his approval is the one thing most likely to displease him.

k

In 1966, when I was eight years old, my birthday present was a Vac-u-Form. For those unfamiliar with this “toy,” here’s how it worked:

Shaped like a rectangular box, the Vac-u-Form had a heating plate on one side and a vacuum platform on the other. Between them, a “window” was hinged so that it could swing to cover either the plate or the platform. To operate it, you first put a mold on the vacuum platform; the kit supplied several molds of cars, boats, etc., but you could put any small (heat-resistant) object on there. Then you put a sheet of styrene plastic in the “window” and closed it over the heating plate. When the heat sufficiently softened the plastic, you swung the window over to the other side, covering the mold on the vacuum platform and, using the side lever, pumped out all the air. The vacuum sucked the softened styrene down around the mold, making a 3D impression of the shape beneath. With a razor, you trimmed off the excess plastic, freeing the molded pieces, which you could then glue together and paint, making a toy boat or car or whatever was used as a mold.

Think about that for a second.

My parents — by all reports and observations two reasonable and responsible adults — gave their eight-year old child an open hot plate with which he could melt plastic to create shapes which he then cut out with an X-Acto knife, glued together with airplane dope, and colored with flammable paints. All unsupervised.

Different world, eh? Continue Reading »

Dad at Work

Ronald Achilles Giambastiani
05 Nov 1929 – 13 Jul 2016

My father taught me many important lessons: lessons that shaped the way I see the world, the way I approach my work, the way I conduct myself, and the way I treat others. Naturally, he taught me the basics — “Don’t play with fire,” “Always look both ways,” and his favorite, “Never turn your back on the ocean” — but his most formative lessons were often just bits of wisdom he tossed my way with the casual nonchalance that one uses to state the patently obvious. Well, they may have been obvious to him, but to me, they were revelations.

Last week, Dad passed away. Since then I’ve been thinking back on the relationship we had over the years — sometimes rocky, sometimes smooth — and reviewing the many, many ways in which he made me who I am. These lessons, for him but the work of a moment, were each an integral part of who he was, an irreducible truth, so simple and clear that they required no further explanation.

They still have great pertinence to my daily life, and so I thought I might share them with you during the next several days. Five lessons from my father: On Creativity, Parenting, Opportunity, Humility, and Love.

Watch this space.

k

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