Why the Tie, Why the Canoe

A giant of a man in a small place

  • There is nothing better for a man but that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.
  • — Ecclesiastes 2:24

My father’s birthday was April 4. My wife, being the outstanding daughter-in-law that she is, went out and bought him exactly what he wanted: a tie. Also, a dress shirt, but that was Mom’s idea. Dad asked for a tie, the same thing he’s asked for every birthday and Christmas for the past five years. It would be nice to ignore his avowed desire and get him something he really wants, but here as elsewhere, there is no guile in my father, no distance between what is expressed and what lies within. He asked for a tie not because it was relatively inexpensive, nor because it required relatively little effort. He asked for a tie because he needed it for work.

Somewhere around age five, I drew a picture of my family and labeled each member with a characteristic trait. I put “strong” for myself, “smart” for my brother, and something sweet for my mom. Under Dad’s picture: “Good typist.” The old electric Sperry-Remington has been gone from his office off the dining room for years, but I will never forget its ratchety bark, nor the sight of Dad bent over it, banging away.

My dad works a lot, almost more than I can believe. I can recall 18-hour days, Mom calling down at two or three in the morning for him to quit the desk and come upstairs. It is not uncommon to step into the office and find him on the floor, perfectly composed and looking not unlike a corpse in state, snatching five minutes of sleep before returning to his chair.

The work doesn’t exactly consume him — he remains — but some part of him is suspended, hibernating. When we go on vacation, he eats easily twice as much as usual, sleeps for long stretches. His bodily life returns. (Still, the briefcase usually makes the trip with him, and at some point he skulks off to grade papers in paradise.) For a long time, he used to get irritable when he was hungry — a normal enough condition, but I wonder if it wasn’t compounded by his frustration with the body’s intrusion into whatever he was doing.

Dad is not a workaholic, drawing satisfaction and meaning from work as if it were some kind of drug, filling a void that ought to be filled with family, with political and religious life. He spends roughly an hour each morning in prayer and is forever pricking my lazy soul with offers of a family rosary. He spends outrageous sums each Christmas, Easter, and summer to bring the entire family together and has always spent what free time he did have with us. No golf, no bowling, no drinking buddies. No hobbies that sent him into his workshop for hours on end. No television, except for college sports, and then only when I was watching too. No superfluous appetite to feed. Hence, the tie.

The only indulgent purchase I can recall — a 20-foot red fiberglass Old Town canoe, bought maybe 20 years ago with the $3000 he was paid for a book excerpt in Redbook magazine. Even that lacks the aspect of a purely private delight — the canoe is too big to be easily used by one. With two, it feels empty in the middle, like one of those enormous dining room tables you see in parodies of rich people, where they have to shout at one another to pass the salt. It’s a family canoe, ideal for Mom, Dad, and a couple of kids — though Dad and I have taken several splendid trips down the Tioughnioga River. The gap in the middle seems less when the boat is paddled by two men.

A powerful memory from childhood: chunks of Saturday afternoons spent addressing roughly a hundred envelopes — half to New York state newspapers and half to major newspapers around the country — then stuffing them with Dad’s latest comment on the abortion issue (he is deeply opposed), sealing, stamping, and sending.

The scenario catches something of the flavor of his working life — striving to exert a national influence from a tiny base of operations. Officially, Dad is a professor of education at a state college best known for its P.E. program. Unofficially, he is regarded as one of the heads of the character-education movement in public schools, and he spends what seems like half of every month on the road, giving workshops at this or that conference, speaking at this or that school. These workshops are what require the ties.

He is deeply optimistic, in spite of a grueling attention to the more dreary details of public-school education, and fiercely committed. His work has the features of a cause, and that helps explain his devotion to it. He is a giant of a man in a small place, though not exactly a big fish in a small pond — a prophet is not without honor except in his own country. (On the same day he appeared on Merv Griffin’s TV show to pitch his book about raising good children, I was sent home from school for biting a girl on the leg. Though it was wildly out of character for me — a freakish bubbling up of fallen nature — it was tough for some to resist the easy shot.)

My mother recently observed, with a tone of regret, “It’s a shame that everyone who loves your father couldn’t come to his funeral. It would be packed.” But the souls are too far dispersed — a nun in Mexico, teachers and educators across the country and the world, homeless people in every major city, foster children in Africa and South America, various charities, well-tipped hotel staff, students, parents… Like Paul, he has been poured out like a libation. For himself, he asks only a tie.

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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