Hammer Time: Mere Stones
Son: Can you call me Doug?
Dad: Maybe in the next life Douglas. Listen. I am very proud of you for the good grades in college. You’re really applying yourself. So I’m going to match your funds and help you buy a car.
Son: You’re kidding! You realize that my savings are well into the four figures these days and not the three.
Dad: Yes. And you realize that I am going to expect to have some authority over what you buy.
Son: You mean veto power.
Dad: And then some…
Think about what you just read… and then consider these questions.
1) Who is Dad?
2) Who is Doug?
3) Who are you?
These are not easy questions to answer because when it comes to life, most folks are a combination of Dad and Doug. Usually the currency is knowledge instead of money and the exchanges go both ways.
Allow me to explain…
Eighteen years ago I started out as a pure Doug. In fact, Dad was my own father. My daily driver had been totaled by a crazy old Greek man driving a meat truck. We both were lucky in that accident. But after seeing my life flash before my eyes and my old Celica mangled to a pulp, I wanted a long break from the rigors of daily driving.
The problem was that this was impossible. I had an internship at the Canadian Consulate and a job at a popular bookstore in downtown Atlanta. Both jobs required a car. Both positions were among those rare enjoyable jobs that are usually in short supply when you’re young.
I had to get something!
A week beforehand my parents had discovered that their lifelong C+/B- student, whose high school friends ranged between hoodlums and felons, had suddenly become an A/A- with two part-time jobs. I had been waking up at 7:00 AM every morning and not stopping until 11:30 at night for the majority of my work days. I had been enjoying my freedom from a rough life in New Jersey. So much so that I seriously considered dropping out of school.
My work life was far more interesting. I dealt with an endless array of intelligent and genuinely nice people. Read everything I could get my hands on. I even had a gateway to a full-time job at the consulate that I thought would likely outpay anything I could find at graduation.
So I told my parents that I would be taking a year off from school. A year off to me meant, a year off. I would catch my breath. Figure out what path I wanted to take in life, and then proceed forward from there.
Except I knew my future would not involve boring endless lectures and pointless cram-filled exams. I was going to succeed… in spite of academia. The sooner the better.
There was just one thing I hadn’t counted on. Guilt. Oh boy! Could my parents smack me with a two by four of guilt. Dad lost both parents and survived the Holocaust. Mom survived a working class upbringing in the bad part of the Bronx.
Me? I was just working hard for the first time in my life. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as two years of hard work that would immediately lead to lifelong dividends.
Dad: “Why do you want to destroy everything you have done?”
Mom: “Do you really think that you’re going to do the same work for the next 50 years?”
My Dad had been a food importer for 45 years. So that wasn’t outside the realm of possible. I knew I would do other things as time went on though.
So who needed school?
The arsenal of reason and guilt missed their target for a good twenty minutes.
Then it happened….
Dad: “I would like to see you graduate before I’m dead.”
That line would seem incredulous to most young adults. But that line hit me hard enough to daydream about it nearly two decades after they were uttered. My father was 70, had high blood pressure, and my brother Michael had passed away from testicular cancer four years earlier. I had regrets and nightmares, even after all those years, that still wouldn’t leave my mind.
Sometimes the nightmares would take place during the day, and they would serve as a second wind of energy and a reminder that I needed to achieve all my goals in life. Because someone else I truly loved never got that chance.
“Let me call you back.” (click)… I would spend the next several minutes immersed in brutally intense and random thoughts. The type that usually lead to either a breakthrough or blind rage.
I was being emotionally blackmailed. They weren’t bad people. “Why am I being pushed? When the hell am I ever supported in this family?”
For some reason, my thoughts turned to my father’s grandparents. I never knew either one. Grandma died from food poisoning during the Depression and Grandpa fought for his country. He was even awarded several medals. Along with an all too rare promotion that was given to a Jew in the German military during WWI.
Then the bastards took a business that he built from scratch, stripped him of all his property, terrorized his children, and murdered him.
My Dad went through a real hell. What I was going through didn’t even qualify as hardship. It was opportunity. He had gone through 45 years of the same indepedent employment because he had no options. I needed to leave mine open. At the very least, I needed to honor the fact that he had a far better perspective about life than I did.
Then I saw the greater, piercing reality of it all. Both my parents had fought uphill battles in their lives. We all do. Everyone struggles. There was a book I read. I had forgotten the name, but the words that stayed with me were…
“Those who carve with mere stones must be envisioning a cathedral.”
Somehow the word ‘gather’ got mixed with ‘carve’ in my memory.
Then in that moment, I remembered both words!
“Two paths.” I thought. “You need to gather. You need to carve.”
“You will need school. You will need work. You will always need both.”
I graduated. Eighteen years later, I am still gathering. I am still carving.
But sometimes I just take long walks. Think about Dad, and Michael, and everything else in life.
Their cathedral lives on.
Today the Dad is me and Doug is my son. The stones are all the people we meet, and experiences that change us. The cathedral is life.
I just figured that out. Took long enough. Now, where the hell do cars fit into all this?
Note: The original saying is likely, “We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.” which was written either by a quarryman, or someone who had the fortune of avoiding that fate. Sometimes the stones that are sayings get molded into new shapes and before we know it, we are misquoting some long dead fellow who would have been much happier had he been memorialized in a Monty Python sketch.
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"Now, where the hell do cars fit into all this?" My dad spent time having me help with car maintenance when it would have been easier to just do the work himself or pay a mechanic. He was a Chemistry professor with the job security of tenure plus social pressure to "act professional". Instead, my dad spent his weekends doing lots of "working class" labor including carpentry and car maintenance. We went foraging for parts at the junk yard. He even did a couple of engine swaps with help from friends. I held the drop light, retrieved wrenches, and learned by observation. However, the big lessons were 1) reasonable smart individuals can learn many different DIY skills and 2) its possible to learn from the people with their name on their coveralls, not just people with "Dr." in front of their name. There was never any doubt that I would go to college, but learning to get my hands dirty has helped my Engineering education and career.
Thanks for the memories . My whole life the old man and me had never clicked ( like you I was guilt -tripped into staying in college when I wanted to drop out , parents saying because my siblings had all flunked out of college that they wanted one child to graduate )as he was a bit remote , often would lose his temper , usually directed at me . After I graduated I moved back in with the parents for a few months and was always glad I did because then Daddy and I talked at length about his early life that put it all in perspective . His father who abandoned the family during the Great Depression ,leaving granny to sell eggs and his sons to chop cotton to survive , beat him routinely , treated his brothers and him like farm equipment and came crawling back to poor granny when his health failed . Daddy was of a different generation without the touchy- feely ideas of a later age . Yes he could be bad- tempered and angry , even abusive to me but I miss him deeply and feel lucky that he lived to be 90 .