I WON’T BE A KILLJOY THIS YEAR
By Sandy Kauten
My resolution is not so ambitious. I’ll explain it:
My daughter Marie phoned from college all excited. “Dad! You know how I’ve been helping the Latino workers at the college improve their English? Well, all that volunteering will get me a $1,000 scholarship next semester!”
“That’s great!” I said, then added, as involuntarily as a hiccup, “Just make sure you don’t neglect your studies.”
NEGLECT YOUR STUDIES? Who even TALKS like that? My dear, departed father, that’s who. In the face of good news, I automatically channel his spirit. Ted Epstein had more admirable traits than most people would feel comfortable with, but he could take the shine off any prize with a gloomy admonition. And so can I.
Marie said soberly, “Don’t worry; I’m keeping up with my school work,” plainly disappointed that I had failed to share her exultant mood. I should have; no one likes good deeds and hard cash as much as I do. But my subconscious has been brought up to think that a father’s job is to make sure that happiness doesn’t take over.
You see, my father believed in being smart and careful in a world of infinite danger. He handled disasters better than triumphs. When something bad happened to one of his sons, he’d be relieved because he’d been expecting something much worse. Car wreck? Financial loss? He’d invariably call it a “cheap lesson” and be almost congratulatory about it. His grim world view had been validated and so had all the warnings he dispensed so generously.
But let something good befall us, and Dad would be afraid success would intoxicate us and we’d let our guard down.
When I got accepted by a good college, he said, “Now just see that you don’t flunk out.” When I got my first job, he said, “If you want to keep it, don’t horse around like you did when you worked for me.” When I got married, he said, “Just make sure you spend enough time at home.” When I told him we were expecting our first child, he said, “Son, you are embarking upon an adventure the likes of which you never imagined.” (I took that as positive and encouraging, but looking back and considering how much my staid and orderly father disliked adventures, I now realize he was trying to tell his euphoric son that parenthood would be an ordeal filled with inconvenience, stress and bad surprises.)
All these warnings were valid, but the timing was bad.
So now I do the same thing automatically and I don’t like it. Certainly I have worse flaws that cry out for correction, but I prefer to focus on what’s possible. I phoned Marie back and apologized for my drippy response to her great news. I said, “The next time I do that, just call me ‘Ted’ and I’ll get the message.”
“OK,” said Marie. “How about when I was going to make the long drive to my boyfriend’s house, and you gave me a big lecture about not tailgating and how every moment on the interstate I should imagine that the car ahead of me is about to stop dead and burst into flames. I felt like you didn’t trust my driving and it made me really mad.”
You have kids, you refer back to your own parents’ style and pick out what you like and you reject what you don’t like, even when they’re both part of the same mind set. I do have my father’s almost clairvoyant ability to visualize horrible outcomes and I think it usually serves us well.
“No, dear,” I said, “As long as you’re my kid and as long as I love you, you’ll have to hear the warnings. You may as well listen to them and benefit from their wisdom. What I’m trying to do now is rein in that negativity when it’s time to savor something good. And your news about the scholarship was really, really good. Hurray!”
The “hurray” was a little forced, but it’s a fair start as I begin to creakily implement my new year’s resolution. I’d leap joyously onto a tabletop – were it not for a crystal-clear vision of a splintering crash, a painful impact, blackness closing in, my bereft readers raining tears down onto a new grave, and my impoverished wife and daughters living in a ripped tent by the railroad tracks.
Rick can be reached at [email protected]