If youth is arrogant, then I had swagger to beat the band. I was one of those creatures unique to the mid-1990s. I was a one-woman PC army! A liberal arts major, vegan feminist, and I honest-to-God knew it all. I was full of truth, armored for an everyday war on the banal, selfish, ignorant culture reflected by my parents’ world. I would teach them! I would show them the error of their ways. My enlightened existence would shine a beacon of truth onto the darkness of their cul-de-sacs and workaday lives. If that didn’t work, the witty and self-righteous slogans on my t-shirts would surely do the trick!
I now realize that I rubbed some people the wrong way. Chief among them was my dad. Although it was lost on me at the time, I can now clearly see why I was such a gigantic “pain in the patoot” as he called me more than once. (Disclaimer — I’m not sure of the correct spelling of the word “patoot. ” My dad’s swear word-avoiding lingo isn’t always covered in Merriam-Webster.) He told me several times that I had a chip on my shoulder and if he didn’t knock it off for me, the world would do him that favor in the fullness of time.
I remember a fight we had near the end of my college career about an upcoming job interview. He and my mom insisted that I should wear a skirt to the interview. “This is the real world,” they said, “…and you’ve got to play by the rules.” I insisted right back that I would not wear one and any company that cared if I wore a skirt instead of pants was not the company for me. I think the fight ended with me shouting something along the lines of, “And who cares anyway because I am right!” I say that not because I remember that part but because it is pretty indicative of how most fights between my dad and me ended around this time.
This was just one example of the types of arguments that were common between my father and me when I was in my early twenties. There were several years when we butted heads. He was not my biggest fan and the feeling was pretty mutual. This is not to say that there wasn’t love there because that reservoir was deep and wide. But he didn’t have much tolerance for the particular zeal with which I brandished my convictions and I didn’t have much tolerance for a suburban, meat-eating, Republican-leaning guy.
I was certain that I was destined for glory. I knew in my gut that the world would be a much better place once I got my hands on it. I would be a crusader! I would be a missionary for my causes. I wasn’t sure if I would be a journalist, an activist or found a nonprofit, but I knew that whatever it was would be important. In my head, I was envisioning a modern-day Gandhi for women but the details were still kind of fuzzy. I could have told you one thing, though: I was not going to be an Architectural Sales Representative for a Midwestern window company like my dad. Of that I was certain. I was destined for greatness and the world was just a shimmering, quivering mass waiting for my golden touch to change its direly fated course.
And then something happened. My dad began to talk to me about a project he had been involved with. He had worked closely with an organization in Minneapolis to build a large shelter for homeless men, women and their families. He started by getting his company to donate windows for the new building. Then, he realized he might be able to use his contacts to get some other companies to donate their materials. In the end, he helped to convince several companies to donate; saving the organization thousands of dollars. It was a huge accomplishment. It was a real and true good deed and it helped to change peoples’ lives. This Architectural Sales Representative for a Midwestern window company was doing what I wasn’t: He was changing the world for the better.
Many years later, as I live my happy, unremarkable little life here in Seattle, I am often reminded of this quiet lesson. My dad didn’t knock the chip off of my shoulder. He did something more amazing. He showed me that I didn’t need it there in the first place. I didn’t need to be so angry, grandiose and resentful. I could find that spot in the world where I am happy and use whatever gifts I have to help make the world around me a better place. We don’t all need to be Gandhi.
Today, I am a mom who is trying to raise two kind boys and do a little writing on the side. I hope to instill my values in my sons and hope that my legacy will manifest in the way that they treat others and carry themselves in this world. I work with my church, my neighbors and my kids’ schools to help make this world a better place. I’m not a revolutionary, but I am genuinely happy. It is a great gig for me right now. I’m grateful to my wonderful dad for helping me to see the abundant possibility of the workaday lives we all lead. Thanks, Dad, and Happy Father’s Day!
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Stephanie Olson is a mother of two boys who lives and writes in Seattle. She believes her golden rule in parenting, “Just wipe it off on your pants!” will be her epitaph someday. It has gotten us through pretty well thus far. Read more of Stephanie's work on her blog, Ma Swell Vie.