Thursday, July 31, 2008

Lessons learned

Long ago, I wrote a post on my own blog about my father. It was perhaps the most difficult, soul-baring post I've ever written, and I've since taken it down. It was just too much to have out there. I've thought about re-posting it, but there's more in there than needs to be shared. At the time, it was rather cathartic, just getting it all out there. Now, it seems unnecessary.

Here's the short version: My pop used to beat the hell out of me. Not regular, sustained violence. Not constant abuse. But when I did something wrong, or when he lost his temper, his wrath was a fearsome thing. Somewhere in the vast difference between spankings and trips to the hospital; that's where we were. Certainly nothing as mild as a spanking on the bottom. But... belts? Closed fists? Bruises and shoves to the ground?


My father, like me, had a lot of rage.

My father, like me, has also changed.

My father, when I was 17, apologized. I'd never even heard of a father doing something like that. But there it was. It changed everything.

Anyway. That's what I wanted to write about - my father taught me something that I don't know could be taught any other, or better, way. That there is an astonishing capacity for change in people. That, barring the more extreme exceptions, no one can't be salvaged. You don't need religion - my dad was, is and always will be a staunch Atheist. I'm sure it would be different for everyone - for my dad, it was a moment. At least, I think it was a moment. We were unpacking the dishwasher, joking around, and my dad reach above my head to open a cupboard. I flinched.

That was our moment. A strange, seconds-long moment where literally nothing happened, but everything changed.

Sometimes it only takes a moment. Sometimes it takes an intervention. Sometimes it takes reading the right book. Who knows? But in the long and varied list of life lessons I learned from my dad, that's the one at the top of the list: People can change. Followed by: Learn to forgive.

My dad turned 70 last week. If I live to that age and am half the man he is, I'll consider it a life lived well.

Friday, July 25, 2008

What He Gave Me

In the end, it comes down to the two things my father gave me: a good name and my education. Each was a small miracle in its own way.

My father was escorted out of his dysfunctional home when he was about 16 years old. He lived on the streets, trying to survive in a society where your name and family were your line of credit. His name did not inspire trust or acceptance and he and his family had come to a mutual decision to despise each other for a few decades. Most people in those circumstances survive by racing to the bottom. My father pulled himself to the top, because for him there was no other option.

He slept in parks, until he gained the trust of a mechanic who hired him and gave him permission to sleep in the shop. A few years later, he was no longer an apprentice, but a trusted assistant. He planned carefully, charming customers with his attention to detail and stories, making friends along the way. Those friends remembered him when he started his own business and supported him. A few of the older customers adopted, fed and advised him. When he was ready to marry, it was these men and women who vouched for his character, spoke to my maternal grandparents and accompanied my mom to pick a wedding gown. It was their affection and optimism that made them forget his rage, temper and stubbornness. Everyone wants to see a happily ever after for their underdog.

By the time I came along, he was a successful young business man, almost cleansed of the name and past his parents had left him with. By the time I came along, he was careful to give me a name that would be a perfect reflection of what he saw in me. He studied the names in the city registry as my mother lay in the hospital. He concluded that I was 'Like an Angel'. And I am.

Over the years, I knew him by his absence and his temper. I was his favorite, but that wasn't a shield against the sharpness of his tongue or the cruelty of his humor. We did not understand each other, no matter how much he loved me or how much I tried to embrace him. He had learned everything he knew the hard way; a self-made man who had no use for books or education. He learned by asking; everything had come to him the hard way. I threw myself into books with reckless abandon, and sought refuge in school--confusing him to no end with my talk of people who only existed on paper. I knew I was going to go university, read great books and think great thoughts. He knew I was going to live in a house close to him, raise a family and organize family gatherings--everything he had ever wanted and did not have.

It was a predictable battle of the wills, with each of us sticking to their own vision of what my future would be. He outsmarted me by bringing me to the US in the middle of my college preparations. I outsmarted him by going along with it. He broke my spirit over a month; I prayed to be left behind. He boarded a plane home, and my prayers were answered. I stayed with the promise to follow him in a week--a promise I didn't keep. I quietly applied to universities and filled our forms, he promised to come back and get me--a promise he didn't keep. In the end, he challenged me in every conversation, attacked my abilities, doubted me, distracted me, threatened me and predicted my failure; yet he continued to pay for my 'madness'.

My senior year he asked me, "What kind of man builds his own prison? What kind of man works as hard as I do to keep his only source of joy away?" And all I could say was, "A man who knows better than to imprison his joy." We both thought my response was ridiculous. We both continued on our chosen path.

In the end, he worked hard to give me what he had wanted his whole life--and what I wanted for all of mine. My dreams contradicted everything he believed and wanted, but he still helped me. I cannot forgive the hurts he has inflicted on me and those I love. Nor can I forget what he has given me.

A Grey Wedding

Walking down Michigan Avenue, my father’s fiancĂ©e comments that she may come up to Chicago to buy her wedding dress. “Don’t worry,” she whispers to me, “I’m not going to wear white.”

“At least you’re honest.” What else can I say to a sixty-four-year-old retired school teacher? A born-again Christian who told my father, a never-born Christian, to be baptized or she wouldn’t say Yes, Sarah is a woman who screams Middle America Grandma in the knickknack, homemade sweater kind of way.

I look at her and, though my parents have been divorced and ignoring each other for the past twenty-two years, I feel like screaming, “You’ll never replace my mother!”

Sarah knows that, though. She knows other things as well. She knows that there are family grudges and pains that she will never be able to smooth. She knows that I have siblings who don’t talk to other siblings and cousins I’ve never met. Sarah is joining our family and I fear “For Better or Worse” is in bold print on the marriage vows.

My father, a man who will probably be found dead at his desk, seems to have calmed down over the few years I’ve know him. I assume, like other members of my family, that it’s directly because of the death of his own father last year. Sixty-five is an age when mortality really begins to sink its teeth into your neck. Especially when you’re now the oldest member of the clan.

Dad is someone who shouldn’t be called Dad by his own admission. I decided to slap him with the olive branch when I was eighteen and what has developed is a friendship between two adults. Two adults with a forty-year age gap. We find each other amusingly bizarre. He is the youngest member of his district’s Lions Club (average age is 76) and volunteers to park cars in people’s yards during the Indy 500. When I showed up to his office with a barbell in my eyebrow, he actually sneered. We now have calmed down to pleasant, honest conversation and no longer try to antagonize one another.

But, Dad is getting married. In the year they’ve been dating, he has actually left his desk for longer than a day. He’s gone on trips out of state and laughs constantly, baring his upper teeth like a hungry man in front of a hamburger.

Sarah has asked me to stand with her at the wedding. Sarah is the one who convinced my dad to visit me in Chicago, allowing a chance to accept my live-in boyfriend and his tattoos. Dad can now deal with my irrational work schedule and short hair and city bicycling because, hell, I’m still going to do it anyway.

“He’s gone crazy,” is how my brother puts it. Which is the greatest of compliments--this change of a man who swore he never would. Mostly, we just can’t figure him out anymore. Which is awesome.

I look forward to the wedding. Forward to standing at the altar beside his new bride and trying not to imagine the honeymoon.

“We’re going to Aruba,” Sarah whispers to me, continuing our walk through the busy city. The sun has set and we’re headed back to my place. I settle into the back of the car and, again, try not to imagine the honeymoon. Or my dad’s bathing suit choice. I’m just glad he’s swimming.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Characters Welcomed

My dad and I have a very complicated history, so choosing this month's particular topic as my inaugural post on "Blog Me a Tale" probably wasn't the smartest way to go, but anyone who knows me understands I rarely take the easy way out.

Well, to start, my dad's a real character - so much so that if I'm ever missing him, there are a couple of TV reruns I can watch to feel as if he's right there in the room. I swear people, he's a cross between George Constanza from "Seinfeld" and Louie DePalma from "Taxi."

Don't believe me? Here's a slew of fact-imitating-fiction moments I've collected in my dusty brain box:

- When he went to the movies, if anyone had the nerve to sit in front of him, he'd start this pretend hacking cough that sounded worse than a TB hospital ward, accompanied by snorting, wheezing, and the occasional saliva spray mist. It worked every time.

- He has an overactive fear of sharks after watching "Jaws" back in the 70s - so much so that when he drives by the ocean, he double-checks the locks, because as he says, "You just never know now do you."

- My dad can't stand the sound of liquid being poured into a glass. It makes him nuts. I've even seen him leave a room or turn up the volume on the TV just to block out the sound.

- Ever wonder what kind of people actually bother to call those 1-800 numbers on the back of the label if they're dissatisfied with a product? Yep, that would be him. He's also the one who regularly writes Letters to the Editor, and - if some lowly employee makes the mistake of giving him lackluster service - he'll loudly complain to the manager, and if STILL not satisfied with the results, he'll start a letter campaign to the head of the company until he gets what he wants.

Oh and hell hath no more trecherous fury if that complaint is disability-related (he has MS and uses a scooter)...he'll do all of the above PLUS write about you in his syndicated disability-rights column. And if you're STILL not giving him a proper reconcilatory response, he's going to report you to the Better Business Bureau and call his local Congressional representative and put them on your case as well.

And to answer your question: Yes, he's retired. From what? Accounting and law. Explains a lot actually ;-)

- This is a man with a law degree, two master's degrees, and a slew of professional accolades. He used to travel all over the place and he's dined in some of the most recognized restaurants in the world (although he could care less about that stuff now). His column on disability-rights is syndicated and can be seen in papers across the country. Yet he still thinks it's the most hysterical thing when he asks you, "pull my finger."

- No surprise, "Blazing Saddles" is one of his favorite movies of all times. And he knows he's a lot like the aforementioned characters George and Louie - and he actually gets off on the comparison.

While some of you may think I'm slamming my dad with these stories, I promise I say them with love. It's true that growing up I would have much preferred one of those "Daddy's Little Girl" fathers, but one of the lessons I have learned from my relationship with my dad is to love and accept people for who they are, not for whom you want them to be. And I'm not going to rehash all the bullshit from the past, because we've reconciled, and I've made peace with that. And the most valuable aspect of forgiveness that I've learned is to let go of the pain and to stop rehashing all the things a person has done wrong before. That is a defamation of spirit for everyone and unworthy of our best selves.

My dad taught me many things, such as no matter how magical a time from the past was, you can never go back. He taught me the importance of a good work ethic and follow-through. I learned how to debate like a lawyer, and the value of bullheaded tenacity. My dad told me until you see what people do, the rest is lip service. I inherited my father's looks (in blonde version), his passion for music, and his need for regular, isolated down-time. I have also learned through the years I can come to him with any problem at any time, and he will be there. He's a master in a crisis.

Like many children, I thought my dad was an invincible force growing up. He could recall conversations like a stenographer, he was a demon on the racquetball court, and he could occasionally predict the future. Seeing him struggle with multiple sclerosis has been mind-blowing, to say the least. Now, my dad needs a scooter to get around, his recall isn't quite as razor-sharp, but his mind is still quick. In fact, he has mellowed considerably, and I am so grateful that his symptoms have stayed about the same for a while now. I am enjoying my relationship now with my dad more than I have ever in my life, and while I would never wish this illness on anyone, I wonder what role it has played in our reconnection. Or maybe all this just comes with age and maturity on both our parts. I suspect that the happiness he has found with my stepmother, Sy, may also be a larger contributor than I would have previously credited.

I also learned things in spite of him, by watching his mistakes and trying not to let the sins of the father become my regrets. I have triumped and failed on many of those. My dad's a tough nut to crack, so I try to be open and trusting. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and to not hold a grudge. I let the little things go and I try not to plan every moment of life anymore.

I mention these foibles not to bring him down, but to show him as the complicated person he is - that we all are. When I hear people give these verbal portraits of their parents as these perfect people, I tend to think they don't know them very well. Because our parents are just like everyone else...they're human.

And while we lose our hero-worship by getting to know our mothers and fathers as they truly are, we gain a more nuanced, three-dimensional picture in return - one we can at least attempt to pick and choose what is to be passed down and what should be cast aside.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I think I was five years old the last time my dad and I had an argument. My dad is, for the most part, a serious looking man with a good pokerface. However, being half Italian and half German, when his temper flares he suddenly becomes an animated caricature of his usual sober self. His stance widens, knees slightly bent so he can bounce a bit to the rhythm of his yelling and carrying on, his arms wildly gesturing as his voice rises with his temperature. The sudden change in demeanor would crack me up as a kid and I ended up laughing hysterically even as he was trying to scold me. He eventually gave up yelling at me, finally realizing his attempts at punishing a giggling five year old were futile. We've gotten along ever since.

My dad is an old Air Force guy. He used to take us shooting in the woods where he would set up beer cans for us to fire at. I remember one time we had paused so that he could set up more cans, I was holding the pistol with the barrel pointing up as he had instructed. Unfortunately, I had failed to keep my finger off the sensitive trigger and the gun accidently fired straight up in the air. My dad, who may have actually shat himself when the gun went off, hotfooted it back to me all the while trying unsuccessfully to form a comprehensible sentence.

"Give me what yer...don't hold the...gimme that!"

To his credit, he didn't get angry he just took the gun from my stunned little hand all the while rolling his eyes at me.

My dad liked to mess with my friends all through my teen years. He was a gun enthusiast and had a room in the basement where he would work on restoring and cleaning his collection. He would emerge from the basement, knowing that my friends and I were upstairs playing video games, and stand quietly in the doorway of the family room lovingly stroking a pistol with a grease stained white cloth until one of my friends would turn around and notice him there. My friends often decided they had to go home shortly thereafter.

When I was twelve we moved to a suburban neighborhood where most of the men went off to work everyday in a collared shirt and tie, and spent the weekends around the house in khaki shorts and a polo. My dad worked for the Air Force National Guard and went to work in fatigues and on the weekend could be seen mowing the lawn in ripped up cutoffs, combat boots, and a faded black shirt/jacket thing that was held closed with three ties down the front that he most likely picked up overseas somewhere when he was still in the Air Force.

My dad retired from the National Guard five years ago. His plan was to find a part time job that would give him something to do and yet require him to have only the most minimal responsibilities. It took a few tries since it's in his nature to take on responsibilities (his opinion is that people are idiots and if you want it done right, do it yourself) but he finally found something he enjoyed that only took up a few hours at a time. My dad is now a hot air balloon wrangler. His job, along with a couple of other guys, is to get the balloon and basket set up and then hop in his truck and follow the balloon across the southern end of the county until the pilot finds an open farm field to land in. Then they wrangle in the balloon, deflate it and pack it up. Think of it as a tamer version of tornado chasing. He's quite fond of the job and it allows my mom and him to go on their camping trips whenever they want. It also allows him to enjoy his other favorite past time, military reenactments. Because what else is a retired military man supposed to do with his time?

What else can I say, the man's a legend.

(*yes, that's my dad's name. It shouldn't come as a surprise that most of my friends were perfectly happy calling him Mr. Dunkle)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


“Tell me a story.”

I focus the camera on my dad as he stands in the dark hotel room. The videocamera was graciously “borrowed” from Best Buy, and would be returned with receipt within the 30 days grace period. My cousin Michael was graduating from law school in New Hampshire, and his mother was in a hospital bed recovering from surgery to remove a tumor. As the lone film student, my job was to record the ceremony for her to watch. So I was testing out the new camera.

“C’mon, fatman. Say a funny.”

My dad and I share a baked-potato like appearance so much so that our elderly neighbor often confuses me for him when I’m home from school. Except, where I am merely a late-twenties lothario, my father is hardened steel gone soft in the wake of recently receiving his AARP card.

He stares out the window for a second and then he kind of leans forward on one foot, like a tubby flamingo, and does this strange little hop forward. Once, twice. Bouncing with his arms stretching like wings. Then he goes back to staring out the window.

I turn off the camera, satisfied that my rudimentary first level white balancing skills and slow zooms will be more than enough to capture the diploma dispensing. I return the camera to its box.

Then my dad explains his phone call.

Minutes before, as I was doddering about with the lenses and instructions, he took a call on his cell. He’d just started a few months ago with a new company. After 25 years as a vice-president of construction management, in an industry where they told him he’d never make it anywhere as a Catholic, the company he had bled and sweat for had fucked over his entire retirement. And here he was, overqualified for everything, unable to find an employer who wasn’t trying to mine him for his industry contacts and then chuck him aside before he could ditch them for something better, working in a new job as essentially the knowledgeable one who went to construction trade shows and answered questions. Had he not had two sons to put through college, he would have started his own contracting company, and been a goddamn millionaire. Instead, here he was, answering questions on his vacation.

I had only caught snippets of the conversation. My dad was defensive and embarrassed. He said, “No, I’m fine. Jerry. You don’t have to… Well, you can call it whatever you want. I don’t want you to… I don’t want…. That’s silly. Don’t call me. Well, I don’t agree with that, but whatever. Fine, you’re welcome. Okay. I will. Take care.”

So with the camera safely packed away, and my mother getting ice, my dad decided he’d honor my request. He told me a story.

He had just come back from a trade show in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, at their convention center. They decided it was a moot point, and wanted to beat the traffic back into the civilization of Pennsylvania. He had been packing away their stand, and he and a co-worker were helping the woman who had been stationed next to them load up her car. My dad had placed his materials in the van that he and his buddy had driven down, when he realized that he had forgotten his glasses.

This comes as no surprise. My father needs to wear reading glasses, which he’s not accustomed to, and so he purchased cheap-ass half glasses which he constantly has to tilt his head and peer down through. My brother and I call him Geppetto. He has about four or six pairs scattered among glove compartments, briefcases, offices, coffee tables, because he almost always forgets them, and so multiple pairs mean there's a better likelihood one will be at hand.

My dad pauses in the story, rubbing the back of his head. He looks at me, “I don’t want you to tell your mother about this.”

My father and I are both short, stocky little brick shithouses. The man’s got a head like a damn cannonball, bald and mighty. But we’re both well under 5’6”, and each of us keep competing to see who can stay 40 pounds overweight in the gut. My dad was an athlete, a goddamn machine. He didn't fight in Vietnam, he was in Laos and Cambodia in 70-71, where he was an Airborne Ranger. While overseas, he studied Aikido. The shit that Steven Seagal does. He failed his third degree test, because after he defended himself seven times from upwards of eight men at a time, he got a glancing blow from the FOURTH SWORDSMAN as he was hurling the first swordsman at the second and third. The final test, he failed. So he’s only a second degree.

My brother and I used to mess with my dad. I’ll never forget the day, as we were leaving a Pizza Hut, after my dad met us on his way home from work, when my brother was slapfighting with my dad. The day was waning as we crossed the parking lot and my brother kept sweeping in, slapping my dad on the back of the dress shirt, and feinting punches at him. As I walked a few steps behind them, my dad does this amazingly graceful skip to the right, kicked down into the back of my brother’s knee, and my brother drops like a lead zeppelin. All without hurting anything but his pride. We all laughed, even my brother, because that was fucking AWESOME.

But that was a whole lot of report cards ago. My dad was sprouting a whole of snow around the summit now. And there are a few more Deep Dish Pan pizzas in the bellylands.

As he walked out to the car, he saw four guys helping his friend load stuff into the car. He got closer, and realized they weren’t helping. One of the guys was holding his co-worker’s arms while the other was punching him in the face. The other two guys were in the van, pinning down the woman. One held her, while the other tried to pry her legs apart.

My dad pauses for a moment before sprinting across the parking lot. He tucks himself into a ball and tackles the guy punching his friend, knocking him sideways to the ground. My dad struck the guy at an angle, so their combined weight snapped the man’s leg like a fucking pencil. He falls to the ground screaming, my dad on top of him driving an elbow into his cheek. My dad said he turned around after he felt a thud. That would be the second attacker, punching my dad in the head. All my dad saw was him clutching his knuckles. Two of which he broke when he tried to hit my father. My dad sprung up and turned to the guy who tried to hit him. He swings at my dad again, who tucks the guy's fist under his armpit and strikes the guy in the forearm, snapping his arm in half.

By this time the third guy, the one trying to rape the woman, runs after my dad. My dad lets the guy swing twice before hitting him in the ribs, breaking most of them. The guy was hopped up on something, and goes at my dad again. My dad punches him in the nose, shattering the guy’s nose, spraying blood all over himself. He stops his return strike at the last minute, because he realizes he’s about to drive his palm heel into the guy’s nostrils and jam the bridge of his broken nose into his brain, killing him.

Meanwhile, the fourth guy gets out of the van, and starts running away. At this point, almost all of the middle aged construction workers from the trade show had been piling out of the convention center and noticed the ruckus. So all these fat balding guys in suits and ties chased down the fourth guy, knocked him to the ground and started kicking and punching him until the cops showed up.

News vans pull in. My dad is totally fine, except he’s worried that his name is going to be in the paper, because he doesn’t want people to make a big deal about it. He doesn't want it getting out, the news that an overweight, senior citizen ex-Ranger just fucked up four guys dusted out of their minds. He doesn’t want people calling him a hero or anything. He doesn't want my mom to hear the story. The police have to take his name, in case (get this shit) the guys he fucked up want to press charges. My dad leaves, drives his friend home, and then goes home.

He sneaks up the side stairs and quickly changes his shirt so my mom wouldn’t notice, so she wouldn’t worry about him. He just wants to let the whole thing blow over. The next day, they got in the car and drove up to New Hampshire for my cousin’s graduation.

My dad delivers this entire speech to me while standing against the television, staring at the carpet. Not once does he look up. He’s almost ashamed to tell me the details. Meanwhile, my mom had come in the room around the middle of the story.

He explained to her that that was what the phone call was about. That was his boss, calling to ask if he was okay. The guy he saved had come to the office and told everyone what he had done. He was calling him a hero. My dad didn’t want any part of that. He just did what he had to. He asked me not to tell people what happened.

He told my mom that’s why he hadn’t said anything when he came home. He just didn’t want her to see the blood and get scared that he hurt someone. He’d not a fighter. My dad’s the kind of guy who’ll buy drinks for the bar. He’s a goddamn teddy bear. She was okay, she just wished he told her what happened.

He then shrugs, smiles and says, "Let's go get dinner."

I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t believe you didn’t turn on the fucking camera.”

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

July Theme: Who's Your Daddy?

It's already July, people. I'm not sure I'm ready.

I was recently talking to my friend and she was telling me about her husband's reaction to the birth of their daughter: he became a teary puddle of mush. Before they left the hospital, he had already promised to never let a anyone break her heart. This was a stark contrast to his reaction to the birth of their son--he took his 3 day old son outside as he grilled kabobs, thinking the boy could take the heat.

July is all about dads. Sure, everyone has already celebrated Father's Day with ties and golfing (is that how Father's Day is celebrated?), but have you shared your stories? I didn't think so. It's time for you to share your favorite Dad stories. Are you about to become a dad? Do you remember when the father-child relationship changed? What is your favorite Dad memory?

The rules are the same. Tell us your stories.