Saturday, August 25, 2007

my dad

What made me who I am? I'm a theatre director, a computer programmer, and a technical writer. My father, Harry Geduld, is none of those things. Yet, as I look back, I realize that he's responsible for nearly every career choice I've made and many of the (hopefully endearing) quirks of my personality.

My dad is a Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature, West European Studies and Film Studies. He retired a few years ago as chair of his department. But while he was running his department, he surprised many colleagues by "ruling" with an olive branch instead of a whip. Those of you who come from academic backgrounds know how political they are: how axes are always grinding and grudges last for decades. Over the years, my dad had accumulated plenty of good reasons to be vindictive. As a younger professor, he was often ill-treated. I don't know all the ins and outs of the situation, but I think it boiled down to the fact that he taught Film Studies. Nowadays, that has more cache, but in the 60s and 70s, scholars sniffed at it.

Student's didn't. Student's ate it up. My dad's classes burst at the seams, while those other professors -- the ones teaching German Literature classes (or whatever) -- were lucky to get three students. So snobbery combined with professional jealousy. Added to this, my dad was a writing machine. He churned out books -- over twenty-five when I last counted. He wrote papers and essays and reviews. His department supposedly had a "publish or perish" rule, but I think my dad was one of the few who took it seriously. So he was a little like "the teacher's pet," following the rules while the other boys stood around on street corners, whistling at girls. Only there wasn't a teacher to pet him. He just believed in hard work and took joy in work well done.

I'm sure many facts in the previous paragraphs are wrong. I was a kid when it happened and it was all very confusing. But I was left with the impression that my dad was working incredibly hard, taking a stand against the world. It really seemed like him against everyone, but he didn't back down. He just kept working hard and fighting the good fight, and after years and years, he finally got the recognition he deserved. And, when he finally got some power and could have rained sorrow down on the heads of those who had belittled him, he instead treated everyone with kindness. That was a wonderful lesson for a child. Though I was brought up in a Jewish home, I learned from my dad to "love thine enemy" and "turn the other cheek."

Since he was a Film Historian, our house was always flickering with movies. Back before DVDs or VCRs, my dad would project movies onto our living-room wall. This is how I first saw "Vertigo," "City Lights," "Gone With The Wind," "2001," and "Sunset Boulevard." Later, my dad bought one of the first consumer video-tape recorders. It was a reel-to-reel machine! Each reel could hold an hour of footage. And I remember when a good movie came on TV, I would try to tape it. Halfway through, I would frantically thread a second tape through the machine, hoping to miss as little of the movie as possible. I got to the point where I could do this in about 30 seconds.

All these movies now float around in my head. I fell in love with stories -- the type people used to tell in old movies, when a good yarn was what was most important. From as early as I can remember, I was awash in stories. Which, I'm sure, is what made we want to work in the theatre. As a director, I'm not interested in making a point or advancing a theme. I just want to tell stories.

Actually, there was another influence on me as a story maker. When I talk to people about what made me decide to become a director, I always bring up the movies on the wall. But there was an earlier influence, and it also came from my dad: he read to me. From when I was too young to remember to when I was eight or nine, my dad read me stories. I'm sure, when I was really small, he must have read me picture books, but what I remember are the novels. He would read me a chapter every night, making all sorts of voices and playing all the characters (the start of my romance with acting?). This is how I first encountered "The Time Machine," "War of the Worlds," The Narnia Books and "The Hobbit." I became a life-long reader, and in addition to printed stories, I also listen to audiobooks. I think they make me nostalgic for those days when my dad read to me.

One time I had to go on a long road trip, and my dad actually recorded himself reading the whole of John Hersey's "Hiroshima" on four or five cassettes. It was harrowing. I'll always remember it, but I've never wanted to reread it. I want it in my head, spoken with my dad's voice.

In addition to Film Studies, my dad also taught English Literature. He is an extremely well-read, cultured man. So he may have been disappointed when his son became more interested in comic books and sci-fi than in Shakespeare and Melville. But if he was disappointed, he never showed it. He never forced Chaucer down my gullet or made me feel ashamed of my lowbrow tastes. Quite the contrary, he BOUGHT me comic books and recommended sci-fi books to me. Eventually, in my own time, I got tired of the "kiddie lit" and graduated to the classics that were stacked on shelves throughout the house. So my dad did the best kind of teaching with me. He let me be my own sort of person but gave me the tools to "better" myself -- when I was ready to do so.

Seemingly without trying, my dad taught me to be a good writer. He tapped away at his manual typewriter (using his two-fingered, hunt-and-peck method, he was faster than any touch-typist I've ever seen), churning out books at the rate of a dime-store novelist. But he wasn't a hack. He was devoted to clear, evocative prose. He introduced me to writers like Orwell and showed me how they structured their sentences around strong, simple verbs. More important, he taught me that all writing was worth doing well. I write much less creative stuff than him. He wrote studies of D.W. Griffith and Chaplin; I write computer manuals. But I labor over each sentence like a poet, and my readers seem to appreciate the effort.

One day, as a teenager, I came home upset about some fight I'd gotten into at school. My dad told me that if I really wanted to win arguments, I should study logic. And he presented me with a dog-eared copy of some logic book he'd had for years. It was a tiny, Strunk-and-White-sized book, but it started an avalanche in my brain that's still rumbling around in there today. I took to logic immediately. I loved how it clarified my thinking and writing, but I wanted to touch it in some purer form. I eventually found that form via computer programming. I think I became a programmer for two reasons: because I wanted to grapple with logic in some tangible form, and because I was transfixed by HAL 9000 when, as a boy, my dad showed "2001" on our living-room wall.

Before becoming a programmer, I spent ten years teaching computer courses. I was a great teacher. If there was a five-star rating system on evaluations, I pretty much always got five-out-of-five stars. I have a legion of former students who keep in touch with me and ask advice. I'm continually invited to speak at national conventions. I owe it all to my dad. Some professors are good writers or researchers but lousy teachers. Not my dad. He worked just as hard at teaching as he did at writing, and he always spoke to his students as equals. When I was a kid, our house was generally filled with grad students, who seemed like friends. Though, as a kid, my schoolteachers were mostly incompetent martinets, I learned from my dad that teaching wasn't about being in charge. It wasn't about discipline or proving how smart you are. It was about communicating complex ideas clear and helping people grow.

My dad filled our house with music. He's been collecting L.P.s since he was a teenager. By the time I came along, he'd acquired shelves and shelves of them. From my friends, I learned about The Beatles and Disco. From my dad, I learned about Shostokovich, Judy Garland, Old British Music Hall ongs, Miklos Rozsa and Stephen Sondheim. These all still play on my stereo today. But more than for the specific music, I thank my dad for making music as essential to me as food or water. I have over five hundred albums on my iPod. I wish I had room for more. When I get done writing this, I'm going to play Shostokovich's Eighth String Quartet. And then maybe the original cast album of "Company."

One thing I didn't appreciate about my dad until I was much older: he was a good husband. As a kid, I witnessed all of my friend's parents separating, divorcing and remarrying. Most of those friends are now divorced themselves. But my dad and mom have been together for almost fifty years. I can't yet claim such success. I've only been married to my wife for eleven years. But things are going well and marriage to me feels like something sacred and worthwhile. And I owe that to the example I witnessed as a child.

In many ways, I'm very different from my dad. I'm not sure what he believes, but I don't think he's a staunch atheist like me. He's a proud Jew, whereas my Jewishness has never been all that important to me. He also an extremely political man. I, on the other hand, rarely think about politics. I suspect sometimes my lack of interest in my roots -- and my head-in-the-sand attitude about politics -- upsets him. I don't blame him for this. I'm a little ashamed of these aspects of myself, too.

I know he's the way he is because, as a child, life treated him harshly. He was a small boy in London during The Blitz, and twice his homes were bombed to smithereens. He was evacuated into the country, separated from his mother and father and subjected to all sorts of anti-semitism. I can't even imagine. I can't because he worked hard to make my life different, better. And it was -- and is. And since he sheltered me from many of his hardships, I can't completely relate to what he wend through. In addition to all the intellectual and emotional gifts he gave me, he gave me the gift of security.

How can I thank him? There are no words.

3 comments:

ckaiser said...

Very nice gift to your dad and to all those you've touched in life, including me.

Anonymous said...

Saw your link of BBQ. Great read.

Julia and Peter said...

What a lovely, moving statement about your father. Besides the affection we feel toward him and your mother, we also respect their unique spirits. What a privilege to have them as friends! This father of yours is one of the rarest and finest people we have ever met. You understood more than you realize about the conditions under which he worked...we worked, but most of all you see so clearly his unique talents and best qualities. We, too, have learned--and continue to learn--from him. Bravo, good son, for this fine tribute.