Tuning out and tuning in

I hadn’t realized I needed the break until we were there. That may sound a bit daft – how could I not know I needed to get away? That some time off would be a good idea? Wouldn’t I understand my own self?

The answer, apparently, was no. I knew I was looking forward to our trip to Puerto Rico, to sharing the island that Nick and I loved with Ella and Annie, introducing it to my dad and Meg, celebrating my dad’s birthday. I knew I was psyched to be on vacation for six delicious days(!). But I didn’t discover just how stressed and anxious I had become, nor how liberating it would feel to lose that stress and anxiety, until we arrived.
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Fresh tropical popsicles at check-in make everything better.

IMG_0161So does the local rum in your hotel room.

It wasn’t until then, when we were essentially forced to take a break from life as we know it, that I understood not only that I had been feeling tense, but why: politics. More specifically, the ever-present coverage of politics on the news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, every time I turned on the radio.

Politics. Every. Where.

 

In our house, this is not business as usual. Until this last presidential election, Nick and I discussed politics basically never. (Obviously, social justice is a big deal in our family; I know that LGBT concerns, racial prejudice, and women’s rights have become political, but to me they’re just human issues.) It wasn’t that we didn’t care; we did. We had opinions. But, by and large, we trusted our politicians – even those with whom we disagreed – to take care of politics.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York Magazine: “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.”

For the past 16 months or so, I’ve thought of politics virtually daily. And I don’t like it. It’s exhausting; it’s maddening; it’s disheartening; and, without my realizing it, it was seriously stressing me out.

When we got to Puerto Rico, we got out of the news cycle. I unplugged and breathed.
It was glorious.
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Yes, I still checked in; I was aware of what was happening on the mainland. But I didn’t take time to dwell.

Avoiding politics became a deliberate decision. My dad and stepmom, Meg, are often at opposite ends of the political spectrum from Nick and me, so it would have been simple to fall into a debate, even accidentally. We chose not to let it happen. This was a family trip to celebrate my dad’s birthday; that was our focus. (I mean, if I hosted myself a party and someone went on about how awesome the Red Sox are, or started dissing the Yankees, I’d be pissed, y’all.) On this – my dad’s birthday trip – I had no desire to do that to him, to us.

At first, it was actually somewhat challenging; for months now, politics has been dominating my daily life. (And if I believe the news or my Facebook feed, politics is the only possible topic worth discussing or contemplating.) I didn’t know what else to talk about. We began with some slightly pregnant silences…  but they soon abated. How refreshing and renewing it was to consider books, family, movies, school, work, music, travel, food… You know – life outside politics.

IT DOES EXIST.
Sweet fancy Moses!
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Some liberal folks might say it’s my duty to bring up politics, to continually acknowledge that our current political environment is not normal, not okay, should be challenged. I agree that we cannot sit back and do nothing. We must remain aware, engage, keep at it.

But sometimes, it’s okay to sit one out. My friends know how I feel. My family knows how I feel. My dad and stepmom know how I feel. Staying quiet for a few days was not only acceptable, it was necessary.

See, at some point, this political cycle will end. Change will occur. I don’t know how or when or what it will look like, but I do not believe, in ten years, that the world will look as it does today. What I do know is that I adore my family, both my immediate family and my extended family. We may disagree politically, but they’re good people; in fact, they’re some of the goodest people I know. I respect them. I love them. When all is said and done, I want them in my life; I need them in my life.
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Decked out in our matching night kayaking jackets…

Sometimes, the right choice is talking things out. Other times, the right choice is taking a knee. This time, we knelt.

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the awesomeness of our our trip and my taking a break from contemplating politics, but there’s no doubt that it played a significant role. How magnificent it was to not be consumed by fear and anxiety, to not fight the urge to check the New York Times homepage or refresh my Twitter feed – to just be, to enjoy the moments.

How delightful to savor my daughters running in the surf; my dad knocking on our patio door just to say hello; my stepmom being the first to brave the ziplines, despite her fear of heights; my husband being pooped on by a seagull (<– maybe savor is a strong word).

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IMG_0684Zipline-ready!

I ignored my timeline updates and instead presented my dad with his birthday video, discussing it for days thereafter. There was no news, no politics, getting in the way of hearing Ella’s delighted gasp as she dipped her hand in the glowing lagoon of the bioluminescent bay.

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I was able to revel in Annie holding an enormous, rainbow-colored conch during our night snorkeling adventure.

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Night snorkeling: awesome. Also: TERRIFYING.

I gave no thought to the latest headlines when Nick and I took everyone to our favorite restaurant in the world, our hopes high that they would enjoy it too, nerves dancing as we waited for them to take their first bites… followed by relief and glee (and ridiculously full stomachs) as they agreed with our assessment.
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It mattered not what the president was Tweeting when my dad and I got ridiculously tiny (but delicious) coffees at an Old San Juan cafe. I didn’t care what the pundits were saying as I immersed myself in Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography.

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There was no newsfeed calling my attention away from watching the girls make memories with their grandparents: laughing as they sat on bubbling jets in the pool; splashing each other in the ocean; sharing dessert (or sometimes not sharing; hey – it’s dessert); exploring 400 year-old fortresses; .
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Instead of my pre-bedtime ritual of scanning the day’s Top Stories, I sat with my legs in the plunge pool, the ocean 25 yards away, listening to the omnipresent chirping coquis.

I can’t remember the last time I truly missed being on vacation; I’m always bummed to leave, but usually the relief of being in my own bed and returning to routine makes the trip a happy memory. This time, I actively missed it. I’d awaken in the night and think I was back in the hotel, feeling the crushing weight of disappointment when I remembered where I was. It took me several days to even want to look at our photos and videos; I was too sad that we were no longer there.

Looking back, I can easily pinpoint the reason for this: pure. joy. Remarkably, I enjoyed every single minute with my family, my dad and Meg. We had no arguments. No disagreements. For six whole days, we relished one another’s company. The entire trip! (Seriously, what were the chances?) What an absolute gift it was to be able to spend time with these people who I love so fiercely and cherish every moment of it.

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I know that experiences like this are few; next time, the girls may not want to look at us, much less have fun with us. So I’m appreciating the heck out of this one.

Maybe some of that was coincidental. Maybe some of it was luck. But maybe a lot of it had to do with making the conscious decision to tune out and tune in. Yes, it’s a luxury to be able to do so; I know many people cannot afford to turn off politics… which makes me so grateful that I can, and so glad that I did. (Plus, now I feel far more energized to continue persisting and resisting. WIN-WIN.)

In the end, I missed nothing – it was all waiting for me when we returned, believe me – but what we all gained by focusing in instead of out is immeasurable.

Yes, we’ll always have Puerto Rico… but even more than that, no matter what, we have each other. Muy delicioso, indeed.

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Bee’s Knees

When the house phone rings at 8:20 on a weekday morning, there are really only two possibilities as to who will be on the line: Nick or my dad. If Nick is out of town, there’s a good chance it’s him, calling to say hello to the girls before they get on with their day. If Nick is home, it’s definitely my father.

Prior to his retirement last year, my dad did not call us on weekday mornings. In fact, I’m not sure that I can recall a single time when he phoned me while he was at work, ever, unless he needed an immediate answer to a particularly pressing question. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to speak with me, but rather that, when he was at work, he was working – hard – period, the end. Once I graduated college, we chatted fairly regularly, but always after 5 p.m., save for the pressing question times.
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Together on his birthday this year, one of few we’ve been able to celebrate together since moving to Rochester nearly eight years ago.

When my dad phoned us that first Monday after he retired – just because he could, because he wasn’t at the office, didn’t have any meetings to attend, didn’t have an agenda that had to be considered – it was a fun novelty, but I assumed it was a one-off. Lo and behold, however, the calls kept coming; not daily or even weekly, but every couple of weeks, the phone rings at 8-something in the morning and my dad is on the other end.

He doesn’t want to speak with me, though. No, he’s calling to talk to Ella and Annie, and they know it. “Oh – it’s Papa calling again!” they’ll say as they scramble to pick up the phone.

Occasionally, if they’re in a particular rush to get out the door or are moving at a snail’s pace and are behind in their routine, they’ll hear the familiar ringing and whine, “Mom, we’re too busy! Do we have to answer?”

And every single time, my response is, “Yes, you absolutely do.”
And every single time, they do. And, when they hang up, they are glad that they did.
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Kiawah, spring 2015

Because they know why their Papa is calling; I’ve confirmed this, just to be sure.

“Mom, why does Papa call us so much?”

Why do you think he does?

“I don’t know. Because he wants to say hi?”

That’s part of it.

“Because he wants to hear our voices before we go to school?”

That’s another part of it.

“Because he’s retired now so he likes to call just because he can?”

Yep, that’s another…

“Oh! And because he’s thinking about us and he wants us to know!”

Yes, there’s that, too. But you’re forgetting the biggest reason why Papa calls you in the morning.

“What?”

I bet if you really think about it you can figure it…

“Do you mean because he loves us?”

NAILED IT!

“Well, duh. We knew that.

So, to recap, their Papa calls them on school days because he is thinking about them, so that he can hear their voices, and so that he can tell them he loves them. Those are pretty damned good reasons to pick up the phone.

This past year since my dad’s retirement has been, hands down, my favorite of our relationship. Seeing him more often, being able to truly enjoy him and vice versa, has been an incredible gift. I’ve always known that my dad thinks I’m awesome; seeing him pass the same message to my own children is one of the greatest things I know.
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At the girls’ final swim meet of the year, which was in February. Given that my dad and GrandMeg had just come to visit us over Christmas and had – unexpectedly – been able to attend a swim meet, I’d told him that they didn’t have to come all the way back in February to repeat the adventure. My dad’s response: “Are you kidding? We wouldn’t miss it!”

Because that’s what we all want, isn’t it? To know that someone thinks you’re awesome? That you’re the bee’s knees? To believe their feelings down to your core?

Annie and Ella are fortunate enough to have dozens of family members who think that they’re the bee’s knees. Their own daddy is no exception. Nick was away this weekend participating in his annual guys’ day tournament; we’re used to him being out of town, but being gone on a Saturday or Sunday is unfamiliar. When the tournament was first scheduled and I knew that he’d be flying back on Father’s Day, I assumed that he’d sleep in, hang with the guys, take a flight that best suited him, and return later in the day. After all, on Father’s Day, he should spend his time exactly how he wants.

Instead, he booked a 6:30 a.m. flight, landing in Rochester before I’d even awakened… because it was Father’s Day, and what he wanted most of all was to spend it with his kids.

He thinks they’re that awesome. And they know it.

I don’t know much about actual bee’s knees, but I do know that being the bee’s knees feels pretty damned fantastic.
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Father’s Day surf and turf!
I love the way Ella is looking at her daddy in this photo.

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Because I have been thinking of it all day, I would be terribly remiss in not giving a shout-out to another man who thought that Ella, Annie, Nick, his sisters (Nelle and Em) and their families and I were the bee’s knees: my father-in-law, Bill. Today* would have been Bill’s 72nd birthday. A double-whammy: Father’s Day and a birthday. I so wish he were here to celebrate with us – to see his oldest grandson turn five yesterday, to see his middle grandson sing Frozen songs, to meet his youngest grandson, who is just six weeks old.

We love and miss you, Grandpa Bill, and think you’re the bee’s knees, too.
(Which is probably a good thing, because you had bad knees.)
Happy Father’s (Birth)Day!

* This was written on 6/21 but, due to a scheduling snafu (i.e. time for bed!), won’t be published until 6/22…
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Change Is Good

For as long as I can remember, my dad and his job have always gone hand in hand. Sure, there were other ways that he filled his time – for example, he loves to golf. He plays tennis. He enjoys history books (I believe that the Civil War and presidential biographies are particular favorites). He golfs. He sips a glass of wine with his wife in the evenings. He reads The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal religiously (and frequently sends me links to articles with nary an introduction). He runs and works hard to stay healthy. He loves being a total goofball with his granddaughters. And have I mentioned that he likes golf?

But, alongside all of that, my father worked. Every morning, he would awaken at the crack of dawn (for real, like four- or five-something a.m.), put on his suit and tie, and take the train into Manhattan. He would walk to his high-rise, almost always arriving to his desk before 8 a.m., work all day, and then reverse the process back home, usually pulling into the station around 6 p.m. When I think of him commuting, he is always wearing a long tan trench coat, smooth and crisp. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the rush of air that accompanied him in the door – clean and leathery – and feel his cool cheek, chilled from traveling in the autumn air, against my face.

He took a briefcase with him, too – when I was a kid, one of those hard-backed kinds, the ones with the brass-colored latch that would snap and lock into place, and more recently a briefcase that was more like a leather satchel (although never, ever a backpack or man-purse). Growing up, I didn’t really understand what he did – something with stocks? Assets? Investments? (Not a trader, but he did work in the investment industry.) I did know, however, that he was good at it – really, really good.

I remember a math assignment in 5th grade where we had to pick three stocks from the NYSE – any stocks we wanted – and follow them for a few weeks to see if the prices went down or up. (I’m using very technical terms here, I know; do try to keep up.) The top three individual stocks – the ones that had earned the most over the course of those weeks – would receive a prize, meaning that three different students should have received top honors… except that I swept the awards because my three stocks – chosen with my dad’s advice – were the most successful. (Lest you think this was a fluke, three years later when my brother and a friend tapped my dad for his advice again on this very same assignment, they each swept their class’s awards, too.)

Work defined my father. I don’t mean this in a negative way at all, but simply that his job was an incredibly important part of his life, of who he was. He put in long hours, sometimes traveling around the country and the world, but although the commuting was a drag, he truly loved what he did. He came alive at the office  – not more than when I saw him at home, but different. It was challenging and fulfilling and you could just see it in his eyes, that spark of curiosity and intelligence. Although I didn’t visit him at the office very much when I was younger, as an adult I loved watching him interact with his coworkers; he spoke with authority and honesty, and they so clearly respected him.

There were times when my dad’s job was hard for me – when he had to travel and missed piano recitals, when he had to work late and wasn’t home for dinner – but I was proud of him and what he did. I couldn’t imagine him not doing his job; it was woven into his fabric. For forty-three years, dad and work were practically synonymous with one another…

… until this past June, when he retired.

I’d long known it was coming. He’d made the plans well in advance, rather giddily – he even had an app on his phone that counted down the days and hours until he was done. He’d loved it, had put everything he had into it, but enough was enough. I understood – he wanted to live life while he could, it absolutely made sense, I was so happy for him – but it felt weird. You mean you’re not heading into the office today? You don’t have any meetings scheduled? We don’t have to wait to call you until after you get home? WHAT IS GOING ON??

The first day of his retirement, my dad called us at 8 a.m. and asked to speak to Ella and Annie. “Do you know why I’m calling you right now?” he questioned; they were stumped. “Because I’m not working, so I can! How about that!” When he said that part of what he hoped to do when he retired was visit more often, I nodded politely but didn’t really put too much stock (oh ho, a pun!)  in it – not because I doubted him, but because the idea was so foreign. (Just come visit? Not during a holiday or school break? For no reason other than because? Really?) But then last month I got a call from him saying that Grand Meg was going out of town for a few days in September, and he would also like to take a trip… to Rochester. To see me. And the girls – because he wanted to, because he could.

It happened that Nick was slated to be out of town then, too, and so this past Sunday the girls and I found ourselves being paid a visit by my dad – just to hang out. Although he’d visited me in college (making a point of arranging business trips nearby so he could check out my dorm room and take me out to dinner), this was really the first time that it had been just me and my dad in, maybe… ever. I will admit, there was a small bit of me that was concerned – what would we do all day??

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.

We played with Ella and Annie. We went out for dinner. He walked the girls to school.   IMG_8600

We took the dogs for long walks around the neighborhood. He threw the ball for Langston. We visited the girls at school and ate lunch with them.
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It tickles me to no end that my dad – the former super-duper investment guy – ordered a school lunch. 
He chose the fruit and yogurt option and totally cleaned his tray.

 

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We talked. He patiently occupied his time while I did work. We went to one of the girls’ swim practices. He peeked into their classrooms and they showed him their desks.

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We drove around town. We checked out some TV. He looked over the girls’ school papers and listened while they read to him. He endured watched as they attempted to perform magic tricks. We ate dinner at home and tucked the girls in at night.

In short, we did a whole bunch of stuff but also nothing at all except be together, and they were some of the best two days I’ve ever had.

It’s still a little strange thinking of my dad without his job, but I believe I’m liking this retirement business. It seems to be suiting him well, too. Whereas there was a time – all of the years, really – when he didn’t seem too interested in pop culture (save for what’s discussed in the WSJ and NYT), now that my dad’s days are a little less busy, he has the opportunity to explore certain cultural touchstones that were previously off limits. Just yesterday, he emailed my brother and me to express his concern that Cameron Diaz is dating Benji Madden. In what quickly became one of my favorite email exchanges of all time, he then explained that he had read this news… in People magazine. MY DAD IS READING PEOPLE, Y’ALL, AND IT IS AWESOME.

Yes. I’d definitely say that this retirement thing is working out quite nicely.

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To the point

It’s *occasionally* been remarked upon that I tend to talk a lot. (Or, as I like to put it, why use a few words when dozens will do?) Sometimes, this is a nuisance – not only for those listening to/reading what I have to say (because there are only so many hours in a day, I get it), but also because my brain simply does not think in small phrases. One of the reasons I have yet to Tweet – despite having a Twitter account so I can follow random celebrities (especially of Harry Potter movies fame *ahem*; also Ken Jennings and Eric Stonestreet are hilarious) – is that I absolutely cannot condense anything into 140 characters. Even ordering a pizza takes me a good while.

On the other hand, being overly loquacious has sometimes come in handy, like when I’m teaching and need to fill the last few minutes of a class with anything to keep the kids occupied. I might have even won several Talk-Offs (you know, those “competitions” where you and an opponent are given random topics to discuss and whoever stops talking first loses. The word “competitions” is in quotes because, people, please), and I carry a certain swagger in my step as a result of those definitive victories.

My father, on the other hand, is a man of few words – and even that might be an overstatement. He’s not one of those stoic, grunted-response kind of guys, but more someone who speaks as succinctly and pointedly as possible. This has certainly gotten him very far in business, but when I was a kid, we didn’t really have a lot of heart-to-heart conversations. (I did tend to use up all of the oxygen in the room, so there’s that.)

As I became a teenager, my relationship with my dad began to change. It’s not necessarily that we began having long, detailed conversations, but rather that I began to appreciate his way of communicating just a bit more. (In fairness, although I think he’s often practically knocked over by the steady stream of words coming out of my mouth, he has always seemed to appreciate that that’s just how I roll.)

He would write me cards for all sorts of occasions – birthdays, milestone events, just because – and, rather than gloss over them because of their lack of expanded prose, I began to see them as perfectly him: direct; to the point; honest. I called them “Dad Cards” and saved every one, tucking some of my favorites into scrapbooks and diaries.

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His penmanship is not quite as clear as his message, but it all evens out in the end.
Somehow, this looks like it was Photoshopped – very weird!

The cards continued all through high school, college, and beyond, with more and more arriving for no reason at all other than that he wanted to let me know I was on his mind. A cute card, a few words (unlike the paragraphs I would write to my friends). Each time I received one, it was like a smile coming through the mail.

In addition to the cards, with the advent of cell phones, my dad began calling and leaving voicemail messages. Some asked me to call him back because he had a matter to discuss with me, but more often than not they simply said, “I just wanted you to know that I’m thinking about you. Talk to you later!” 

As email has taken on increasing importance, so, too, has my dad adopted communicating with me electronically – in brief. Every once in a while, I’ll receive a message that requires me to actually scroll past one screen on my iPhone, but the vast majority are one or two liners that convey exactly what he’s trying to say. In fact, because he now frequently sends them via iPad – a device whose keypad is not exactly conducive to typing long diatribes – his emails are consistently just a few words per email. (For example, to comment on one of my blog entries, I’ll receive an email whose subject line is the title of the blog and whose message says: “Great post” or “Never knew you liked olives.”)

Just as often, he’ll forward me an article from the Wall Street Journal with no preamble or additional writing at all. Although I usually understand why he’s forwarded me the story (Ah, yes, a discussion of Disney Cruises), I’ll sometimes have no idea if the article was meant as an encouragement or an admonishment (Wait, does he think I should be drinking Starbucks beverages daily, or is this a subtle hint that maybe I’ve got a problem?).

No matter, the underlying message remains the same: You’re on my mind. You’re awesome. And I love you.

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Vermont, 2011

My dad and I do talk a lot more these days than we used to when I was growing up – like, actual, for real, back-and-forth conversations. Admittedly, I’m probably responsible for 85% of the words used between us, and his responses are still short and sweet – but hey, old habits die hard. At least there’s dialogue.

Still, despite our increased discourse, some of my very favorite communications – not just from my father, but from anyone on the planet – are the brief cards, emails, and voicemail messages from him that are so perfectly Dad. There’s no one (at least, no one I know) who doesn’t enjoy being remembered, being thought of. Far harder (for me, anyway) is actually taking the time to reach out and let that person know that they’re on your mind.

For a man of few words, my dad is an expert at this. He has taught me that communication comes in all forms, and that sometimes, bigger isn’t better. Obviously, I haven’t quite managed the art of this myself, but I know my dad doesn’t care. (Although if I receive the link to a Wall Street Journal article detailing the detriments of too much talking, perhaps I’ll change my mind…)

So, this post is my very long-winded way of simply saying:
I know this is a day late, Dad, but I’m thinking about you.
You’re awesome.
And I love you

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My first birthday, 1976.
I am undoubtedly getting ready to say something to him.

A Few Good Men

When I was a kid and Father’s Day rolled around each year, the only person I made rubber-cement-and-glitter cards for and gave “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD” mugs to was my own dad. My grandfathers were dads, of course (the word father being in grandfather is helpful; thank God for college), but they were my parents’ dads, so I didn’t really give it much thought. And although my mom always made certain that my father received gifts from my brother and me (likely with input from us; lots of ties, if I’m remembering correctly – sorry, Dad), I still viewed him as my dad — or my brother’s and my dad — and not really as a person connected to anyone else.

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It never occurred to me that, in addition to thinking of her own father on Father’s Day, my mom might also be thinking of the man who was the father of her children.

Until Nick and I had kids of our own.

Suddenly, Father’s Day became a time to not only remember my father (although I’ve moved beyond ties), but a time to celebrate Nick (and by “celebrate” I mean, at the very least, that he doesn’t have to feed the dogs in the morning; I’ve always been generous). And I find that pretty damn cool, in a whole circle-y, past, present, and future way (don’t worry, I’m not getting all new-agey or anything. It’s just kind of neat is all).

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My dad and Nick really couldn’t be more different, and it’s truly a great testament to both of them that, despite these differences — in personality, in political beliefs, in likes and dislikes — they get along so well. And it’s also a testament to my dad, to both of my parents, that they clearly encouraged me (and my brother) to search for partners in life who best-suited us and made us happy, rather than fitting some kind of pre-determined mold that they created for us.

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And yet… There are similarities. My dad and Nick both make me laugh. They make me smile. They make me shake my head at their ridiculousness. They make me think, often when I don’t want to (which, I’ll reluctantly admit, can really be the most important time to think). They support me (or at least don’t disown me) through all of my crazy decisions. They make me feel lucky that I have them in my lives, and they make me incredibly grateful that Ella, Annie, and I get to have them as our fathers (even when they make us sigh and roll our eyes). Perhaps most of all, they love us, their daughters, unconditionally and wholly.

Happy Father’s Day to two of the best fathers I know, and certainly to the two I love the most.

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That’d be my brother with us.

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I would be highly remiss today in not mentioning my superb father-in-law, who also makes me do all of the things above, especially laugh. And think. He’s much more than just a father-in-law to me – he’s Bill – and is one of the three best dads I know. And certainly the third I love the most.

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