Monday, January 21, 2008

Toy Box

It is time to try something new. In my constant search for inspiration, I have found something worth exploring. The concept of artistic collaboration has been an underlying theme that I've been looking to experiment with. But until recently, I didn't know how to go about executing this process. Now, after doing some reading and conversing with a fellow artist, I've found a small toy chest of opportunities to play with.

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It's taken a while to figure out when was the best time to write this one. I've been thinking about it off and on for some time now. And since Dad would always tell Seth and me “Remember, your mom's birthday is coming up,” and “Don't forget to get something for your mom,” I thought this would be a pretty good time to finally put these thoughts down.

I learned to love Dad. I didn't think he was the greatest dad around when I was young. And I suppose he wasn't. But he was a lot different then. At least it seemed that way to me. He could be gruff and blunt. He didn't always seem interested in what we were doing. He definitely wanted us to be quiet and not cause a lot of racket. But there were a lot of unique things about him, some that I picked up over time and some that I didn't realize until much later.

He was a morning guy. An early bird. Some of that had to do with the fact that he had to be at work so early in the morning, but I'm sure most of it was just his personality. The early mornings were his quiet time. He would spend that time sipping coffee, reading the newspaper and getting ready for the day. I never much understood the allure of this lifestyle, being a late night person, myself. I found it particularly distasteful when he would wake me up before I wanted to be up. His signature move? Flipping on the light and going back to the living room, making me get up to turn off the light, subsequently ensuring that I wouldn't be able to get back to sleep. I also remember early Saturday morning lawn mowings that seemed to linger right outside my window. At least I thought they were early. He'd probably been up for over four hours by then.

Because he had to be at work so early in the morning, this meant that he was finished with work fairly early in the afternoon. This enabled him sufficient time to partake in one of his favorite chores/hobbies: fixing dinner. The kids at school thought this was a little strange, having your dad cook rather than your mom. But I didn't care so long as somebody was making dinner. Of course, he had his favorites and sometimes it seemed as if we were on a never-ending cycle. Monday was pork chops. Tuesday was cube steaks. Wednesday was goulash. No matter what day it was, though, there was going to be some sort of meat served. The weekends were reserved for other meat-themed treats. Saturdays often found dad out on the deck grilling the biggest burgers you'd ever seen. And Sundays were always pot roast, slow-cooked in the crockpot all day. Unless he was feeling adventerous. Then he would give the crockpot a little variety and cook up the best chili in history. Whatever it was he was cooking, he enjoyed the process, the creativity.

Creativity was something that I had no idea my dad possessed when I was young. I always just thought that he was a slave to routine and didn't want to venture outside the unknown. But looking back, I realized that this wasn't true at all. Dad seemed willing to take on new things and try out new ideas. Not all the time, but often enough to make me understand that he wasn't as boring as I thought.

He and his buddies built a deck in our backyard. I remember thinking how cool it was that my dad had all those tools and actually knew what to do with them. He had a quadrophonic stereo system, basically surround sound for the 70's. I always wanted to duplicate that in my own place. When he had an addition built onto our house, he employed alternate energy sources, like passive solar and a wood-burning stove. He built the coolest bunk beds that two kids could ever want. He embraced soccer before the term “soccer mom” was ever invented and even bought season tickets for the local indoor squad, the Kansas City Comets.

His passion for soccer, though, was a mixed bag for me. He thought the sport was so great and fun that he wanted Seth and I to play. And we did. A lot. And it was fun and we were good. Dad even coached my team for a while, which was great. What I didn't realize at the time, though, is that my great passion was being squelched.

I had always loved baseball from as far back as I can remember. I owned a 1980 “George Brett for President” bumper sticker and a Hal McRae t-shirt. I had a sack full of 1982 Fleer baseball cards. I played Whiffle ball in my grandparents front yard, drawing up the lineup cards of the current Royals teams and pretending to be each one of them as I threw the ball up to myself and hit it around the neighborhood. But I never played organized baseball as a kid because Dad had convinced me that soccer was the greatest thing going. And, like I said, I was good so I didn't really complain too much because it's always fun when you're good at something. But as time passed and my passion for baseball grew, my interest in soccer waned.

I told Dad and everyone I knew that I wanted to be a Major League baseball player when I grew up. Dad always did his best to keep me well-grounded by reminding me that the chances of becoming a baseball player of that caliber were slim to none. Regardless, he took me to the batting cages and even bought me time with an instructor. I fought hard and made the baseball team at Shawnee Mission North my junior year, but by then I realized that he was right; I might be good enough to make my summer league all-star team but I wasn't going to the Major Leagues unless I bought myself a ticket.

The best thing about playing baseball for those few years came one summer when my summer league team was short on pitching. My coach asked if I would be willing to try pitching. I had never done it before and I knew my arm wasn't particularly strong, but I agreed to do it anyway. Since I knew very little about how to pitch, I asked Dad. I had heard stories about how he was a pitcher when he was a kid in Little League, so I knew he would be able to at least give me the basics of what I needed to know. So, out to the yard we went. He would tell me how to set up on the pitching rubber, how to throw from the wind-up and the stretch, how to keep an eye on the baserunner to keep him close to the bag. I would throw and throw, doing my best not to chuck it past him or throw it in the dirt. He would occasionally grimace when the ball would hit his glove. Of all the times he tought me how to do something, this was the only time I can remember not really getting frustrated. I somehow managed to appreciate the moment of him taking time to show me how to do something he had once done in an area of interest I loved so much.

And while I never became good enough to play baseball beyond high school, Dad still managed to connect to my passion through another one of his creative ideas: He decided to buy the baseball card shop that I'd spent so much time (and his money) at as a kid. The baseball card industry was booming at the time and he must have figured that it would be a decent risk to get in the game. I was like a kid in a candy store. I was now required to spend my time at the baseball card shop now, instead of having to beg to go there. My expertise was leaned upon as Mom and Dad learned the ins and outs of the baseball card business. I learned a lot about retail business, people, baseball and my dad because of that shop.

By this time, my dad had become less gruff and more personable, less irritable and more patient. I appreciated the fact that he listened to and respected my input regarding the shop, even though I was still young. Of course, he would still get on me if I did something stupid. For instance, the time that he came to the back room of the shop and asked my opinion on whether Walt Whitman was any good or not. I was sitting right by the door when I laughed and said that, yeah, I'm sure he was a pretty decent poet but I didn't know about his basketball skills. Dad shot me the evil eye and whispered at me to shut up, that the customer who had asked about Walt Williams was standing right outside the door and that I should be more respectful of customers and less of a smart-ass.

The shop seemed to be successful enough that eventually Dad decided to retire early. This was another decision that wasn't exactly by-the-book, but one that I thought was cool nonetheless. He didn't have to work the crummy job he'd been working at for over 20 years and that seemed to breathe some life into him. Enough life, in fact, that he started drawing up designs on his next big idea: permanently moving to Hawaii.

After the baseball strike in 1994, the shop took a hit and never quite recovered. Eventually, Mom and Dad closed it up and started figuring out how to take this next big step. Dad had seen his mom die young, crushing his dad and their dreams together in the process, and decided that he wasn't going to let that happen to him. So up they moved, Mom and Dad, to Hawaii to live out his dream. I thought it was a bullshit move at the time, because my two kids were under the age of five and I wanted them to know their grandparents like I had known mine. But after I had visited them their the first time, I realized how right it was. And while I still wish that we would have been able to spend more time together, I'm proud of my dad for taking the risk and living out his dream.

Unfortunately, he didn't get to live his dream as long as he might have wanted. While he got to spend a quarter of his adult life (10 years) with Mom out in paradise, he didn't make it to his 60th birthday. But he lived his life pretty fully and I learned a lot from him. I may not have learned how to change the oil in my car from him or how the stock market works, but I learned that it's okay to pursue your ideas and dreams, even if they're unconventional. He and Mom bought me the computer that I'm writing this on as an encouragement to keep pursuing my other passion, writing. And I know that he was proud of me for what I've written and what I will write. And I know he loved me. And I know that I loved him and still do.