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Things I Learned From My Father

Advice from the happiest 60-year-old I know.

Hiking in the Colorado wilderness.

The first book in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is dedicated to listing the influences in his life and what he learned from them. The majority of his praise and thanks go to his adopted father, Antoninus Pius.

While reading this section last night, I thought about all the things I’ve learned from my father. Today is his 60th birthday and he is as happy and healthy as ever. Despite his faults (and we all have many), he is a huge influence and role model in my life.

Here are just a few of the many lessons I learned from him:

There is always someone out there who’s better than you.

I think my dad started whispering this into my ear as a baby. It seems like this saying has always been with me. More realistically, he probably started saying this when I had aspirations of sports superstardom. My older brother and I were always in our backyard playing sports — soccer, hockey, basketball, football.

This was his way of saying that hard work and practice are more important than talent. That if you work harder than someone more talented, you can beat them.

I grew up in the ’90s and my dad is a big basketball fan, so Michael Jordan was always the perfect example. He would say that there are better players than Michael Jordan, but MJ put in the work.

I vividly remember a movie my dad rented to demonstrate this philosophy. It was the story of the greatest basketball player of all time (played by Don Cheadle) who struggled with heroin addiction and failed to live up to his full potential. Based on a true story, legend has it that Earl “The Goat” Manigault was able to grab dollar bills off the top of the backboard and leave change. While the main lesson here was that talent isn’t everything, I’ve never done heroin, so I guess that’s a valuable life lesson as well.

This is also a useful lesson in humility.

Always have a hobby.

Some of my fondest memories from growing up are falling asleep to the sounds of my dad playing guitar in another room. He’s played guitar all his adult life. It’s his escape.

About 15 years ago he got into cycling, bringing the whole family along with him. For several summers riding bikes across the entire state of Iowa (or acting as the support crew) was the highlight of the year.

From him I learned that having a hobby is important because it prevents idleness. What’s that old Proverb? “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” I guess it’s something like that.

He’s always supported me when I pursued new hobbies. First it was sports, then it was skateboarding and snowboarding. And it has been skateboarding and snowboarding ever since. Without the loving support of my mother and father, my interests would have never lead me to the life I live today.

“It’s not about the bike.”

This quote is the title of Lance Armstrong’s autobiography (written before any public scandals). I’m not sure what it means in the context of the book, but to my dad it meant the bike (material things) is unimportant compared to the engine (yourself). To my brother, this saying is about “not attaching too much value to things or appearances.”

When I was in junior high my dad drove what I thought was the ugliest car in the world, a Ford Taurus station wagon — seafoam green. He picked us up from school and I was embarrassed by it. But now I’m proud of it. He didn’t give a shit (sorry mom) that it wasn’t the nicest car. It got him where he needed to be, plus there was room in the back for our 100 pound dog.

A tired dog is a happy dog.

Speaking of the dog, I never understood the relationship my father had with the family hound, Fonzie, until I got a pup of my own. Until the day Fonzie died, my dad would take him on long walks two times a day. Most days he would go to the local hiking trails, other days he would walk the same large loops around the neighborhood. I’ve adopted this practice in my own life and it’s actually become one of my favorite hobbies.

It’s when I’m walking my dog early in the morning with my pants tucked into my socks to prevent cold ankles that I start to think, “I’m turning into my dad.”

You’re never too old to try something new.

My dad just bought his first drum set. After a week of practice he is already recording backing drums for songs he’s written (check out some of his songs on Youtube). He downloaded an app on his iPad so he can record different tracks and mix them together. He is a one-man, five-piece-band. At the age of 60. And he is just getting started.

He ran his first marathon this year. He’s always been into exercising, but he was never a runner. But he decided he wanted to be a runner and got it done.

In my own life I try to tackle new activities with the same curiosity and tenacity as him. Whether it’s learning a programming language or backcountry camping, I know that I am not too old to give it a try.

It takes a real man to do unmanly things.

My dad was the body builder type most of my childhood. He still has his weight lifting equipment in the basement and uses it regularly. He likes sports (he still claims he’s a great “streak shooter”) and rock music and other manly things. But he was also the matriarch of the family in some ways.

He worked nights so he could watch the kids during the day while my mom was at work. He did all cooking and most of the laundry. In the words of my brother, “He did a lot of parenting stuff that a lot of men from his generation ignored.”

This is a lesson in taking care of things that matter and ignoring things that don’t (like other people’s opinions). To me, that is the definition of manliness.

You’re never too full for ice cream.

The legend of my dad’s ice cream habit grows with age. A couple years ago he went to the ice cream shop down the street from my apartment twice in one day. The second time he went alone because no one else wanted to go. When he’s in town visiting, it’s assumed we will make at least one ice cream or frozen yogurt stop on the trip.

Maybe the lesson here is to enjoy the little things in life, but he’s never said that. It might be all about the ice cream, and that’s fine with me.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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