80th Birthday Living Eulogy

September 10th, 2022

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” –Aldous Huxley

“It is simply this: do not tire, never lose interest, never grow indifferent—lose your invaluable curiosity and you let yourself die. It’s as simple as that” –Tove Jansson

Those who know my dad well know that he values a good quote, so I am beginning with two that illustrate what keeps him young: endless curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning. Surrounded by thousands of collected books, the man reads incessantly and relishes what he discovers about world history, art, poetry, music, religion, and food, to name a few. Ask my dad what he is studying, and you’ll enter a river current of thoughts and anecdotes from no fewer than five books he is presently devouring. At times I have phoned him with something specific in mind, and after discussing Miles Davis, Elvis, Taoism, Emily Dickinson and indigenous people of Florida, I’ll say goodbye only to realize that I never asked him my question.

Reading brings my dad pleasure and comfort, and he often says, “It’s easier to find a good book than a good person.” This says more about his reverence for books than his distaste for people, though. My dad can talk to anyone. Just as his love of the written word spans many genres, he genuinely likes to trade stories with folks from a range of backgrounds and is interested in the unusual. In fact, as editor in chief at major publishing houses in New York City, bringing over one thousand manuscripts to life, he talked to people about their ideas for a living. Equally at home in conversation with Allen Ginsburg as with the man who owns the local ice cream shop, my dad understands that meaningful connections can happen with anyone.  Watch out, though. If you start discussing the weather, he may quickly pivot with a question like, “So, who’s your favorite Beatle?”

As much as he delights in others’ stories, my dad has an extensive collection of his own to share. I’m shocked by how I haven’t heard all of them yet. There was an apartment building set on fire by a jealous ex-girlfriend, an eccentric landlady with a van full of poodles, cars that wouldn’t turn left or go in reverse, a post-concert hang with B.B. King, parties with Charlie Mingus and John Cage, a pig in a basement, an iguana in a bathtub, and a prank that involved secretly painting his father’s Cadillac pink. Thankfully, he also loves to write, and his sense of humor and adventure is preserved in stacks of journals, hundreds of pages on his computer, and even in colorfully worded postcards to me and his grandson, Henry.

My dad obsesses over food. The more bizarre, the better. Mom says he is in search of the undiscovered taste. The last time we ate together at a restaurant, he ordered snails and spicy goat intestines prepared in a southern Indian style. As a kid, I sometimes woke to the smell of boiled pig’s feet (a stench not easily forgotten) wafting up to my room on Saturday mornings, and I like to therefore credit him for my vegetarianism. One time my dad agreed to let his friend, Palo, hang and skin a dead deer from his back porch. Intrigued by the process, my dad watched the entire ordeal, and then he joined me as a vegetarian for a month after.

An avid traveler, my dad spent a year in France at age sixteen and has since explored the world. He keeps a running list of spots he’d like to visit. Sometimes his adventurousness has gotten him into trouble, though. In my early twenties I had a boyfriend in Slovenia. Wondering exactly what I had gotten myself into, my dad accompanied me there one time. While exploring the countryside outside Ljubljana in a rental Yugo, he spontaneously drove across a dried-up lake, ignoring signs advising otherwise. Subsequently, one of the tires burst, and it was comical to watch him try to convince the rental company that the car must have been defective. On our way home from the Balkans, we had a layover in Zurich, Switzerland. With four hours to kill, my dad wanted to explore the city. We got lost and worried we would miss our flight. What was the word for airport in German again? Neither of us could remember, but he went with “flügelhof”. He pulled the car up next to pedestrians and shouted, “Flügelhof?! Flügelhof?!” as they stared blankly back. Somehow, we found our way to the airport on our own and much later realized that “flughafen” was the word we had wanted. “Flügelhof” means “wing farm”.

How can I write about my dad’s passion for learning without mentioning the piano? While he earned a master’s degree in classical composition, playing the piano has brought him the most musical joy throughout his life. Formally taught at an early age, he felt drawn to the work of Fats Waller, which he learned by ear off records. By the time I showed up, he also knew a range of pieces by artists like Willie Dixon, Fats Domino, Frogman Henry, Ike and Tina Turner, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman. On Saturday mornings, my dad’s playing and singing filled our home. It brought life to all our family and holiday parties, and to this day he continues to learn new songs and ways of improvising.

As an only child, I’m in the unique position of knowing my dad as a parent. While I can share funny stories about how he gave me bubble gum ice cream at age four (and just watched as I connected the chewed-up gum from my mouth to my knees to my ankles to my hair), or how he rented  “Nightmare On Elm Street” for my third grade birthday party, or how he drove me to junior high school in a rusted Lincoln Continental with a leaking roof while blasting “Little Red Rooster” by Howlin’ Wolf, or how he smoked pot out of bowls made from apples with me and my high school friends, he has many qualities as a father for which I’m extremely grateful.

My dad is generous with his love, support, and time. Often, he stayed up half the night with me in high school proofreading essays due the next morning. During my first year in college, I had a lot of anxiety, but I knew I could call him any time. Even if he had been sleeping, he would never admit it. He would always talk. We sometimes chatted for hours, which comforted me. I knew he had paid attention because upon arriving home for vacations, I always found a curated book collection in my room representing my latest interests. When I needed to find a high-quality cello before moving to New York City for graduate school, my dad took me to London, where I tried over sixty instruments. He listened to each one and meticulously kept track of their strengths and weaknesses with a multi-category rating system in his journal.

When I struggled with a flying phobia, my dad took a flight to Boston and back with me. From his own experiences with aerophobia, he knew I needed to get myself on a plane as often as possible to gain more comfort with it. While he has witnessed me experience many panic attacks, I never once felt judged. Instead, my dad has been a source of strength for me, loving me patiently and unconditionally. “Everything is going to be ok,” he’d say, “And even if it isn’t ok, everything is STILL going to be ok. “

My dad is emotionally strong. For years, he drove me as a grumpy teenager to therapy sessions. I rolled my eyes and said things I regret, but he never retreated.  When I had my tonsils out at age eighteen, he took care of me for days as I lay on the couch, unable to eat to the extent that I lost ten pounds in a week. He doesn’t shy away from tough conversations and has always said he can take it. It is such a gift to know I can say what I think and feel to him.

Above all, my dad is positive and has extended this to his support for me as a person. He has responded to my life choices and endeavors with encouragement and trust in my judgement. From my childhood days, when I wanted to be a ghost hunter, a meteorologist, or a private investigator, to college years, when my interests ran the gamut from psychology to anthropology to creative writing to comparative religion to east Asian studies, and finally my adult life as a cellist, teacher and writer, my dad has listened to me intently and responded with warmth. In the end, we all want to feel seen, heard, and accepted. My dad has given this to me, and for this I am so grateful.

One of my dad’s favorite quotes comes from Gertrude Stein on her deathbed when she asked Alice B. Toklas, “What is the answer? “

When Alice remained silent, Gertrude continued, “In that case, what is the question?”

Thank you, Dad, for sharing your commitment to learning, for helping me find my own questions and answers, and for laughing at the absurdity of it all with me. I love you.

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