My father is a “Show, Don’t Tell” kind of guy. He doesn’t so much lecture about how you should act, as set an example. It’s what’s currently called “modeling behavior” by child-development experts. In his day, it was simply called “parenting.”
Without discussing it among ourselves until afterwards, both my brother and I adopted a “What Would Dad Do?” life philosophy to deal with any problems that come up (I realize other people reserve that pithy aphorism for a higher power, but I expect they never met my dad.)
Not that I blindly follow in all of his footsteps. In honor of Father’s Day coming up, below is a list of the things my father taught me which I will be passing on to my children—and the ones I won’t.
What I’ll Pass On:
1. Price is Always Negotiable
In the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat”, Eddie Huang laments that his Asian-immigrant mother never figured out that you can’t bargain at JC Penny. That’s because, silly, spoiled, American boy, you actually can. Maybe it’s a floor model. Maybe there’s a scratch on it. Maybe the salesman is willing to waive his commission to move the last piece of inventory out.
In a single day last summer, my father got a store to mark down a set of eight glasses because they were all supposed to be different colors, but two turned out to be the same and a supermarket to lower the price of a fish, because my father was willing to buy the whole thing, including the head. “You see,” he proudly beamed, “this is why we live so well in America!”
2. There Is No Such Thing as Garbage
Just a couple weeks ago, I wrote about how my father made a changing table for my kids when they were babies by digging a computer station someone had discarded out of the trash, dragging it home, and re-purposing it. Currently, my 11-year-old’s bike and my 8-year-old’s scooter (Barbie!) were both rescued from the curb on trash day. Nothing a little grease and polish couldn’t fix.
3. If All Else Fails, Read the Instructions
When my brother was a teenager, he mindlessly echoed the familiar, stand up comic’s cliché, “Men never stop to ask for directions, do they, Dad?” My father looked at him like he was an idiot. At our house, we have our own version of Robert Frost’s poem. It goes, “And I—I took the road less traveled by. And that is why I am lost.”
4. I’m Just a Simple Caveman Lawyer
Long before the late Phil Hartman introduced that bit on “Saturday Night Live,” my father was cranking up his Russian accent and playing dumb to lure an opponent into underestimating him. I’ve read about how women will apologize before correcting someone, and plead ignorance or confusion, and how we shouldn’t be doing that; it’s detrimental to leaning in and diminishes our power in negotiations. As far as I know, it’s not a trick exclusive to women. And, oh yeah, it works.
Who’s actually got the power—the person who blurts out everything immediately and loses their cool when they don’t get their way, or the one who keeps their cards close to the vest and picks the precisely right moment to play a winning hand nobody saw coming?
5. Judge Everyone on Their Own Merits
As the “Avenue Q” song goes, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” (Anybody who says they are absolutely, positively not is lying; either to you or to themselves.) In that sense, my father is very much a product of his place and time (born in 1941 in the Soviet Union—not one of history’s shining hours). But while he may harbor politically incorrect, sweeping views about entire groups of people, he has always, always, always judged each individual on their own merits.
Now, granted, a lot of that time his judgment is that said person is an incompetent idiot. But it’s applied broadly, without regard to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference. That also goes for when he meets the rare individual who isn’t, in his view, an incompetent idiot. My father lives in a pure meritocracy (came in real handy when I married my African-American husband. Once he proved he could take care of me and the kids—and handle basic household repairs, naturally—it was all good) though my father certainly doesn’t expect other people to do the same. See: Being born a Jew in the USSR at the start of World War II, above.
And now the not-so-good stuff:
My father has a PhD in biochemistry. So he’s not some uneducated yokel getting his scientific and medical info from badly designed websites. We were eschewing soda, processed foods, and eating organic long before that was a label option, because my father said, “I know exactly what each of those chemicals is—and what it does to the human body.”
But, on the other hand, because he grew up in a time and place when fresh fruits and vegetables and adequate protein were sorely lacking, he still believes in things like getting a sunburn is good for you (how else would you absorb Vitamin D?).
Because he worked as a paramedic in a country where scoring basic medicine and care was nearly impossible, he developed his own treatments, and still swears by them to this day. Got a cold? Stick some eucalyptus leaves up your nose and breathe steam. Then rub mustard on your chest, pour alcohol on a bandage and tie it around your neck, and dunk your feet in boiling water. Choking hazard? Alcohol poisoning? Burns? Only if you do it wrong. And what kind of incompetent idiot would do it wrong? Follow the instructions! (Read more about My Soviet Immigrant Father Versus Modern Medicine, here.)
I’ll admit, when I was a kid, his constant bargaining, not to mention the dumpster diving (again, before that was the word for it) was embarrassing. I’d cringe in department stores and restaurants, anticipating what was about to happen. However, I was never so embarrassed that, when I wanted something for myself, I didn’t send my father in to have a little chat with the person giving me trouble. Nor did I turn down a particularly nice item from the trash after he’d fixed it up good as new.
And that, my own children, is why we live so well in America.
And why I made you this handy cheat-sheet, just in time for Father’s Day.