Playing the Alien Game With Dad
MY fondest memories of my father coincide with those times when he was doing what he loved most, which was teaching; when, for example, he would come to school with me in the morning, before driving to work, and be my Show and Tell.Chemistry, though not his trade, was his passion. The experiments he brought with him had, to us grade-school children, a wizardly touch. He would draw the blinds, spread a sheet of aluminum foil on a table, and from an old apothecary jar, pour out a cone of green powder a half foot high. Then, with a huddle of spellbound fourth-graders peering over each other's shoulders, he would light a long wooden match, wave it under his chin for ghoulish effect, and light the top of the cone, which would simulate a volcano - right there in the middle of Mrs. Doer's classroom. My father's greatest gift to me, and certainly one of the qualities I appreciate most in myself, is the ability to wonder, to find inspiration in the precious ordinariness of daily life, to discover in anything or anyone a story that's worth telling. In fact, his favorite game to play with me and my two brothers was what he called "Alien," in which he was a visitor from another planet and we were his guides on Earth. He would point up into a billowy sky, for instance, and ask, "What are those formations that move through the atmosphere?" "Those are clouds," we'd say with great confidence. "Clouds?" he'd respond quizzically. "What are they made of?" "Water," we'd all say at once. "How does the water get up there?" he'd inquire, "and what holds it up, and why does it move?" In no time at all it would become apparent to us earthlings that clouds weren't the only things that were over our heads. Entire afternoons could go by as we pondered the mysteries of water and wind, and how it's possible that we can know so much and understand so little, that we can live with something every day of our lives and never really come to know it. Another pastime my father relished, that likewise taught me the importance of taking nothing for granted, was reading to us from a book of "minute mysteries." These were usually short descriptions of crime scenes, and our task was to figure out "whodunit." For example: Dudley was found dead in the living room, his body surrounded by shattered glass and water. How did Dudley die? Answer: Dudley was a fish. What infused all these life lessons was my father's own exuberance for knowledge, for experience, for the mystery that similarly pervades all of life and to him was its very essence. What he taught me was to see with the eyes of a child - who, after all, in most ways is an alien to this world. It is one of the great challenges of my adult life to keep those eyes open, to awaken to the world every day as if there were new minute mysteries to solve, and to stay extravagantly attentive to whatever is before me. OR whoever. For me, the hardest part of practicing this lesson of seeing with the eyes of a child, is in applying it to people, approaching them with curiosity and not judgment. Sometimes I even think that one reason I became a reporter was that I thought it would be easier to keep this part of me alive if I could get paid for it. I often feel that I am not so much successful as a journalist, but because I'm a journalist, because I have been able to make a match between who I am and what I do. Even without the monetary incentive, though, and largely because of my father, the world never ceases to amaze me. "Geez, you act like you never saw a sunset before," a friend recently said to me as I stood slack-jawed while a fiery canopy spread across the sky from one end to the other, like a slow-motion explosion. He didn't intend it as a compliment, but I took it as one anyway. "I never saw this one," I replied, not meaning to be smug, but thinking like an alien and trying to remember what it was that could hurl such prodigious crimsons and violets and vermilions across the sky. My father would be proud of me. I don't just smell the roses, I inhale them. I lose my breath before the impossible blueness of dragonflies. I marvel at the murderous grace of stalking cats. I am dumbstruck that no two people, with as many of us as there are, either look or think or feel exactly alike. And sometimes, fixing my eyes on the horizon line at sunset, I can actually see this planet spinning colossally through space, and for a moment I am released from being pinned to the ground by the gravity of my earthly concerns. I never thanked my father for this gift. That is, until I met a man with the improbable name of Fred Funk - a man my father would have appreciated - a taxidermist for a local museum of natural history. On assignment a few years ago to profile him for a magazine, I spent a day following him around on the 3,500-acre nature preserve he took care of for the museum, nestled in the rolling hills of northern California. At the end of the day, as the late afternoon haze flattened the sun against the horizon and we drove along a dirt road from his barn-like studio back to the main house, he said, "You ask good questions. How did you get so inquisitive?" Without pausing to think, I said, "My dad." And then I told him about the alien game. He pulled his pickup truck into the driveway, rolled to a stop beside a mudhole filled with hogs, shut off the ignition, and then turned to me before stepping out. "Father's Day is coming up you know." That night I wrote my father a long thank-you letter. It was the last Father's Day card Dad would ever get from me. Six months later my father died. One of the first things that crossed my mind, during the phone call my older brother made to me telling me of Dad's death, was how glad I was that I sent that letter when I did. The night my father died there was a full moon. I sat in my office with the lights off, filled with emotion yet somehow numb, while the cool night air poured in through an open window, rustling the pages of a paperback. I took out my binoculars, rolled my chair up to the window, and stared for a long time at the moon, slowly draining of color as it rose into the dark, wet sky, remembering my father telling me once that it was made of green cheese. A few days later, his obituary appeared in the paper and I was amazed to see that in among the multitudes of achievements that marked his life was a mention of his trips to school with me to appear at Show and Tell.