When I was young, I didn’t understand it.
Some things just don’t make sense to a kid mind…or even a teenage mind. But I think I finally get it.
I think I understand why my dad bought old minivans.
No man grows up dreaming of driving a minivan. Fact. Most guys are a combination of James Dean, John Wayne, and Vin Diesel…in their own minds. Somewhere, lurking near the forefront of every male mind is the completely certain belief that we will one day in the un-distant future be flying down a highway in southern Mexico, on the righteous run from some bandoleros, cigarette in the side of our mouths, handgun in the console, left hand on the wheel of a ‘76 turbo-charged Camaro.
But boys become men, and men become husbands, and husbands become fathers. And fathers don’t spend their lives reliving scenes from The Fast and the Furious. Fathers give. Dad gives Mom a van. Mom drives the kids to soccer in the mini-van. Dad takes the ‘92 Corolla with 900 million miles on it to work everyday.
My dad bought a new car once in his life. He said it was the biggest waste of money ever, and he’d never do it again. He then stuck to that promise with sometimes embarrassing alacrity. Our family never had the cool cars. We never really had cool…anything. As a kid I didn’t notice much. As a teenager I wished he’d just buy something new. Anything. A new baseball hat would have sufficed. As an adult I realize how incredibly cool it was that he didn’t.
My dad also had a weird habit of wearing the same running shoes…for about 10 years at a time. The heels used to wear off so bad that the rubber would come undone and the heel would start flapping, all cockeyed and crazy, as it came apart from the shoe. So my dad (and to this day I have no idea where he found this stuff) came home one day with some kind of red-orange rust colored unmarked bottle of super glue. Okayyyy Dad. He then went out the garage and glued a few pairs of shoes (and his old softball cleats…which must have been at least 20 years old) back together. He came back in smiling, proud of himself and his unmarked mythical super glue, and proceeded to show us how the shoes, with just a little “of the right stuff” were now, “good as new.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the gross orange-red rust glue smeared across the heels made it look like he’d gone initiated his shoes in some kind of voodoo blood ritual. I don’t think he really cared.
And that’s when it started to dawn on me.
My dad wasn’t “cool.” He didn’t watch sports on TV. He was too busy teaching me how to play them. Or better yet – he was playing them himself. My dad didn’t glue his shoes together because he wanted to see how cool rust-colored glue looked on the heels of his Asics. He glued his shoes together so I could have new ones.
Our whole family was together this Christmas. We started watching old home videos at my grandma’s house. And there I was, tiny and clumsy and goofy, with the batter’s helmet basically down to my ankles. It was a mid-summer Saturday, sometime probably in the middle of July. T-ball at the local YMCA. It looked like it must have been a hundred degrees out. And there were all the dads. Standing in the infield, shouting instructions to the outfield. “No, Junior, glove on the left hand. No LEFT. No, this one. No, you have to stand up. Stand up now…you can’t play second sitting on the bag.” Then there was always that unfortunate dad, the batter’s box helper. It usually went something like this: First swing. Miss. Dropped bat. Second swing. Miss. Third swing. Bat flies out of your tiny hands. Hit the dad behind you in the shin. Woops.
“No, that’s ok, that’s ok,” he’d laugh and smile and hop around a little bit shaking it off. His shin must have been throbbing, his head ready to about explode from the heat. But his voice would calm to a level whisper of instruction. He’d you how to hold the bat just so, tilt your hands up above your shoulder, pat you on the back. “Ok, you’re ready. You’ve got this one.” And his voice was the voice of God. Nothing could have been more calming, assuring, omniscient.
…The ball dribbles off the tee.
“Run!!!” And everybody would cheer like they were experiencing a walk off home run in the bottom of the 9th in the seventh game of the World Series.
“Geez Dad,” I said as we watched. “I don’t know how you took it. That looks soooo boring.” We laughed.
“Ah, not at all,” he said, smiling with a kind of nostalgic far-off look in his eye. “It was fun.”
(No it wasn’t.)
But that’s what Dads do. They work so you can play. They drive the crappy vans so you can have a car and ride around and try so very hard to be cool when you turn 16. They pick you up from practice instead of going for a beer. They glue old shoes together so you can have a pair of Jordans. They come home and dip your Mom and kiss her in the kitchen even when they don’t feel like it – even when they’ve had a hell day at the office and all they feel like doing is curling up for a nap. They do that because it’s important for you to see it – for you to know that your dad loves, even when he doesn’t feel like it. Dads spend hundreds and thousands of utterly thankless hours at local ball fields and cruddy middle school gyms teaching you and a bunch of your munchkin friends how to swing a bat and hit a layup. They spend their weekends teaching you how to ride a bike and shoot a BB gun and build a tree house.
And then they say it was fun.
A few years ago my dad was putting a new roof on our house. My brother and I were helping. Kind of. But I was popular and had friends to go hang out with; and my brother was headed to watch a baseball game or something. Unannounced, my friend’s dad (also our church pastor) pulled in the driveway. He hopped out wearing knee pads and a tool belt, and greeted my brother and I, heading down the ladder, with his usual smile. “You guys heading out?” he said. We said yeah, and that we had to be such and such a place, and do this and that. Young guys think they’re such big deals. “Well, hey have a good time!” he said – and meant it. Then he climbed up the ladder. I drove away to the sun setting and my dad and my friend’s dad on the roof, laying shingles.
My generation of we-all-want-to-be-really-big-deals finds itself lost in the search for meaning. We throw cliches on our Facebook walls like all the memes are going to finally actualize and miraculously give us self-validation. We search for meaning. The twitter hashtag from Nike takes up more space in our heads than any verse from the Bible or proverb from Ghandi or George Washington. #Makeitcount. “Make it count!!!” We scream to ourselves. And then we run around, like the lunatic rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, never enough time for anything; volunteering to make ourselves feel good, trying to record the next YouTube sensation to make ourselves famous, and “networking” on a hundred different social networks and online dating sites, all because…YOLO! (You only live once). Are you kidding me? What an utterly banal platitude. You only live once. Wow. Ya don’t say. Thanks for that.
We search for meaning and print it in cliches. We meet our friends to have a collective sob-fest at the local bar about why we’re still single, or how much it sucks to have a job where you sit in air conditioning and spend most of your time emailing…but only get paid $15 an hour. We all want to be Ghandi or Paul McCartney or LeBron James – and preferably all at once – or maybe each one for a little while, preferably in 10-year increments. Prophet, priest, king. Hey, we don’t want to get bored.
But I think that teaching your kid how to tie his shoe and throw a curveball means a lot. I think coming home from work to be immediately thrown into an impromptu game of hide-and-go-seek before dinner – and then participating with an energy to match a 7 year-old’s – means a lot. I think standing on a baseball field in the sweltering heat and getting hit in the knees with aluminum bats – and then saying it was all fun means a lot. I think driving an old van means a lot. In fact I think it means much more than I yet know.