9 Lessons from my Father, Annotated

As we approach Father’s Day, we’re inundated with reminders to celebrate the man who taught us how to ride a bicycle, balance a budget or send an unwanted suitor running home to his mummy. The adverts range from predictably cutesy – the start-up promising to deliver a gift ‘as unique as he is,’ to  bafflingly creepy- the Aramis cologne advert that reminds you it’s father’s day, and swiftly follows up with the clip of a James Bond-type eyeing up a girl in a swimsuit from behind. Who can bear the thought of their old man as a player? Are they seriously suggesting that you hand him a bottle of Aramis with a wink and ‘Go get ’em Tiger?’

Dads are blown up to heroic proportions on father's day. Here's a gift suggestion from the British Museum.

Dads are blown up to heroic proportions on Fathers Day. Here’s a gift suggestion from the British Museum.

Anyway, though my dad  and I love each other to the moon and back, he didn’t teach me any of the practical things that the cutesy adverts promised he would.* (Luckily, I never caught him acting like the ‘dad’ in the Aramis advert either!) Still, his words and actions can be mapped into life lessons. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the beliefs I inherited from my parents, and how my own experiences have either confirmed or challenged them. More and more, I realise that truly becoming an adult is taking responsibility for your  life and learning to trust your own judgement. Yet so many of us struggle with the living legacy of our parents’ beliefs. We oscillate wildly between reverence and rebellion, rarely taking the time to think about where we actually stand. So, I thought I’d list and evaluate the things I learned from my dad, to see what should be treasured, and what in the words of my spooky masseuse, Kryztina, should be ‘sent back into the universe for recycling.’

1. Read Homer, quote Homer Simpson.  Dad’s favourite Homer quotation is ‘Don’t try kids, because trying leads to failure and disappointment.’ 

I think that Dad means you should be learned, but not a humourless arse. I’m fully on board with this, and  especially feel shortchanged when people give conference papers without the flair of Homer or the ribaldry of Homer Simpson. How dare they take away half an hour of my life, not seek to entertain and move me!

2. People who grow up in conflict-zones (like him) are risk-averse, but people who grow up in relative peace and prosperity (like me and my brother)  are adventure-seekers.  

Learning this has been invaluable to understanding my Dad, and more cautious, as well as brave and resilient people like him. However, I’ve also seen the opposite: risk-averse squares with stable childhoods, who want carbon-copies of their parents’ lives, and folks who live on a whim because they have never had stability.

3. Days range from bad to exceptionally bad, but that’s the way life is, so be cheerful about it. 

I’ve learned that dad’s combination of pessimism, sensitivity and humour is actually quite rare.  I once dated a supreme pessimist, and was very naively waiting for him to laugh at his tortured soul, but he never did. There are no two men alike, and looking for someone like your dad, however unconsciously, is futile. The best you can hope for is someone who is wonderful on his own terms.

4. People who love you can disappear and go silent for a while, but they still love you will reappear when they’re ready/ when it suits them. (In the past, my Dad was periodically absent, but he always came back)

Guess what, people who don’t love you can also imitate these behaviours… And life is too short for an eternal game of hide and seek! I still struggle with comings and goings, if I’m honest.

5. Strong, resourceful, intelligent women are far more valuable than the delicate and girly ones. Dad loves telling stories about his infinitely practical mother and martial grandmother.

I admire the feminist sentiment here, but don’t feel that you can polarise women in this way.  From my experience, strength and delicacy are not mutually exclusive, and the brave, creative women I most admire are also exceptionally vulnerable. I am somewhat delicate, girly and impractical – maybe as a means of rebelling against my dad’s ideal- though I retain my share of grit.

6. Decisions are final, and have fairly predictable consequences. Dad likes to say ‘Is that what you want?, because that’s what’s going to happen!’ 

Only in a fairly predictable universe, so unlike this one. Actually, not all decisions are final, and the their is never what you think it is. However, you can hypothesise from patterns in your past.

7. Good books rely above all, upon a solid, stimulating plot. Homer’s epics are timeless, whereas Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness rambles will eventually become irrelevant. 

I disagree, but not as much as I used to. Woolf’s fluid narratives are of course vital because they convey the experience of living and being connected to other lives. They have already stood the test of time, and will continue to do so. But for the most part, beautifully-textured sentences can’t save a boring course of events, and there’s nothing like a pacy plot or fascinating character to make twelve Piccadilly line stations seemingly dissolve into three.

8. Vogue** and other lifestyle glossies are damaging because they plant unrealistic expectations of life into (usually female) readers’ heads. Dad imagines a scenario where a girl, usually one with the wits of one of Marilyn Monroe’s 1950s secretary characters,  goes wildly into debt for the love of a Chanel handbag.

Over three centuries ago, the proto-feminist Mary Wollestonecraft expressed similar fears about the expectations of women who read novels. Dad, Ms Wollestonecraft, it’s OK, women read for reasons other than to imitate the lives of It girls called Cressida, or Gothic heroines called Emily. I once tried to explain to Dad that people don’t read Vogue like the Ikea catalogue, with a red marker in hand, drawing rings around covetable items, but for escapism and inspiration. He wasn’t convinced.

9. You can be stingy with yourself, but not with others. Dad only updates his wardrobe when his clothes fall apart, but considers scrimping on food and wine for his guests a major social faux pas.

Agreed- though I’m not especially stingy with myself, and don’t buy the most expensive wine for parties where the primary purpose is to get lashed.

Questioning your dad's advice can feel like turning conventional wisdom on its head.

Questioning your dad’s advice can feel like turning conventional wisdom on its head.

Over the years, I’ve wrangled with my Dad’s lessons, some of them preached, some of them gleaned from his way of doing things. They’re my inheritance, to be dipped into like a wise, if sometimes exasperating favourite book. Yet there are other books to read, and perhaps even write. It’s been liberating for me to learn that I can be open to my dad’s love and advice, and simultaneously form and trust my own opinions.

* Mum taught me to ride a bike and balance a budget, and Madame de Lafayette gives some elegant tips on dealing with unwanted attention.

** By some weird coincidence Dad shares a birthday with the formidable American Vogue editor Anna Wintour. They’re both intelligent, ‘take-charge’ Scorpios. That’s about all they have in common. 

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