Thursday, December 27, 2012

TING AND I: Being Dad

From TING AND I: A Memoir...
Never having played soccer, I started merely helping out at Phil’s soccer practices. I came to understand soccer by analogy to basketball and hockey, with which I was more familiar. The youngest kids swarm like bees around the ball; but as they get older they learn to spread out, get clear of defenders, give and receive passes to put themselves in scoring position. I became a soccer coach. It was a pleasure to coach Phil and his friends, almost all of whom were very nice. All the players were to get at least half of the game playing time each game. Beyond that, the better players played more. One parent, of an obnoxious underperformer, berated me for not being more egalitarian. What seems fair to the less able can be unfair to the more able.

I helped Phil learn to swim, and he made very good use of the pool.

When Phil left Chicago with Tina, I was “Doug,” not “Dad,” to appease Tina’s husband, who was Baba, Chinese for Papa. In my heart I was Dad, and years later we changed to that. I was determined be a loving father to Phil and to have whatever relationship would be allowed with Ted. For years Ted was estranged from us, and I am still “Doug” to him, but “Dad” to Phil. Ted and I are, at least, good friends.

Phil has his parents’ genes, with brains, good looks, a strong, tall body. People have commented that his gestures and speech resemble mine, which makes me happy to hear. I say that he has my smile. Tina and her ex-husband are both very serious people. Ted is quiet and somber. Phil is outgoing and cheerful. He has had our love and encouragement, but not the pushing that some parents exert.

When Tina was a young girl in a suburb of Rochester, she and a few friends had a tree house, where they would get together as the “Gloom Club.” Play and poetry were somehow part of this, but I don’t know the mix. She was a very quiet and serious child. We have a picture of her at about 5, neatly dressed in a jumper over a sweater over a blouse. She is refusing to smile for the camera. She is adorable. It’s on my dresser, “To Doug, Love, Ting.” Close by is her engagement picture, a large version of the one that ran in the New York Times, in May 1967: beautiful, though still serious. A portrait based on this is to be on the cover of this book. Next to that is one of Tina and Phil (age 6), and me, all smiling radiantly. History summed up in three photographs.

Two more pictures emphasize a similar message: a poster-size photo of Phil at age 2, happily cuddling a small stuffed St. Bernard toy, and a smiling Phil at nearly 29, triumphantly graduating from the University of Chicago’s top-ranked business school with his M.B.A.

When he was around six, we entered Phil in a Saturday “Chinese School,” where he would be with other Chinese-American children, learning a bit of Mandarin. He didn’t like it. After a couple of months to be sure, we let him drop it. He is an American boy, of Chinese ancestry, with the emphasis on American.

Did he want to play soccer? Fine, I’ll be an assistant coach. Basketball? Let’s do it. Swim? Here’s how. Build muscles? Great idea. Saxophone? Give it a try for at least a year. Within the confines of my “tough love,” or “tough, love” philosophy, he had lots of room for choices, to see what fit him and what did not.

Phil was not a typical only child. His brother was in Chicago. His father and Ted would call weekly and arrange very rare visits here or there. At six or so, he flew to Chicago on his own. What made a bigger difference than a brother and a father in a distant city was Tina’s slowly developing incapacities. She, not he, was the center of concern in our home. He made his own breakfast often, helped with chores, was master of his bedroom domain. He was a help and a pleasure. We rarely disagreed. Praise was a better incentive than criticism, and the latter was minimal. What was there not to love about Phil?

He is second only to Tina in the hierarchy of those I love. He understands that I have tried to lead by example, “do as I do,” while recognizing our differences. We both admire strength, intelligence, honesty, warmth, a sense of humor. He embodies these. He understood Tina’s progressive disability and has treated her lovingly, tenderly. To me he was both loving and respectful, just what I wanted.

Tina did nothing to interfere with my parenting. There was no second-guessing. no disagreement that led to “But Mom says....” We discussed what we were doing, agreed on a course of action, backed each other.

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