A Father’s Day to My Dad: The Confucian Griswold

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I don’t have a lot of hobbies that I still keep up with. If I did have to say I have one, it would be watching movies. For a young man eager to understand and wide-eyed about the world, they are a visual window into a thousand worlds, both real and imaginary. That principle is true for films about fathers as well. As a lifelong lover of film, I’ve always picked up different character traits and “dad-to-be” pointers over the years in a never-ending search to figure out what it would be like to be a father…without having to be a father. What better way to think about a fantasy life than in an endless stream of make believe? Just like other teen movies, college films, or romantic comedies, the reality was far different than the fantasy world immortalized on the silver screen. Then reality hits. Just like other teen movies, films about college, or sappy rom coms, the reality of life as a father is far different than the fantasy world immortalized on the silver screen.

Which dad would I be? The cheap and uptight kind like Steve Martin in Father of the Bride? Ed O’Neill’s loveable buffoon character in Dutch? The proud yet tortured soul embodied by Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Pretty in Pink? Or (hopefully) not the John Ritter full-on sad bastard of Problem Child.

Some may look at To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch as the quintessential father figure from film. That is wrong. In my humble opinion, the greatest dad in film history is Clark Griswold. Why? Among many other humorous reasons, he reminds me the most of my own dad.

My dad is in interesting guy. It wouldn’t be fair if I compared him to JUST Clark Griswold. That’s not quite his style. Sure, he loves vacations and had the potential to go overboard in “dad mode” on several occasions growing up. It’s not enough. It’s more complex.

If I had to put my finger on it, I would say that he is the perfect mix of Clark Griswold and Confucius. He is a dad who has always given me little pearls of wisdom throughout my life. They were never exactly worth of the Dialects, but nonetheless important. These lessons, at first dismissed as mumbo jumbo by yours truly, have become the guiding principles for my life and, subsequently, fatherhood. I didn’t appreciate them before, but I sure as hell do now. I use them every day in my attempt to be half as good a father to Zelda as dad was to me.

Like Griswold, dad always found a way to tell me these important life lessons while on vacation. So in honor of those long road trips and the myriad advice he gave to me from the driver’s seat, here are the top five life lessons my dad, AKA “The Confucian Griswold,” has taught me over the years about life and fatherhood.

  1. Follow Directions – I think there are always occasions to go by the book, and other times to deviate from the prescribed path. Most of the time in my life, however, I should have listened to my father and followed directions. I can remember him saying it over and over to me as I cried over Geometry homework. How many times did I fail at something when I should have just read the manual first? TOO MANY. Now, he gives me step by step instructions on what to do with Zelda if she is showing signs of sickness. Every time I screw something up as a dad, I think about my own father and his words of wisdom.
Putting together Zelda's crib (WITH instructions)
Putting together Zelda’s crib (WITH instructions)

I recently found out the hard way that following directions will be an important trait to pass down. When we were preparing Zelda’s nursery in the late fall of last year, I figured I could put together simple Target shelves together. You know which ones I am talking about. I’m sure you’ve owned some at some point in your life. Anyways, I felt that I was already a pro because of all the IKEA furniture I put together, so I left the instructions in the box when it came time to putting the Target shelves together for Zelda’s baby books. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I ended up putting the shelves together correctly…just backwards. I wish you could have seen the look on my face when I told Angela with glee that I was done, only to find that I had it wrong and needed to take it apart completely. Apparently it was priceless, but you’ll (hopefully) never get to see it again. That was too rough for words.

  1. Take pictures of Everything – My dad’s vacation outfit is pretty much the same: khaki shorts or pants, collared shirt, and brown Sperry’s. This is hilarious, because I am starting to look like this all the time:

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The only thing missing from that outfit that fits my dad to a “T” is his camera. He takes his camera everywhere. Lord help us if he missed out on a photo opportunity growing up. Of course, we have it much easier today with cellular phone cameras. My dad was hardcore: camera bag, 18 rolls of film, and an itchy trigger finger. But it is nonetheless an important lesson: always be ready to capture a moment that will last a lifetime. My dad taught me that no opportunity is too small for a photo. He has proof. Lots of it.

Every time we come home to visit my parents, one of the first things I always do is look through my dad’s countless photo albums. He has kept a meticulous record of our family from before my sister was born up to their grandchildren. In all, I would say my dad has 60 or 70 of them. My dad always said that if the house was on fire, the first thing he would go for would be his photo albums. As he once told me, “they are the legacy of our family. They are more priceless than gold.”

Of course, this brings up another Father’s Day project for dad: digitization. But having physical print is so “dad” that I can’t fault him for it. For now, you do you.

  1. Keep a Diary – My dad has written in a diary every day for the last two decades. Although I was never allowed to read it, I would sometimes sit in his study and watch him write. For him, it is a way to keep a written record of his life. In some cases, this blog was meant to be a poor excuse for a diary; a digital catharsis. That might be the case if I kept up with it. I’ll work on that.

I would like to keep a diary, like the photographs, as a record of my own memories and personal experiences with me and my family. I hope I can pass that down to Zelda one day.

  1. Make Traditions, Even if They Are Stupid or Embarrassing – As a Kid, my dad loved to embarrass me. The more embarrassing, the better. They came in all forms, shapes, and sizes. The most common were of course staged photographs:

“HEY  MATT, GO STAND BY THAT MIME. HE WON’T TOUCH YOU.” (He did)

“HEY MATT, GO STAND THERE NEED THAT MAN AT THE NUDE BEACH. IT’S HILARIOUS.” (I did, and it was, because he had old gross balls and was listen to a Bob Marley cover band from the sand. Those balls haunt me to this day, and I still can’t hear “Stir it Up” without thinking of floppy testicles.)

Like Clark Griswold, his embarrassments were (and remain) endearing. I think that’s a safe way of saying that it’s always better in hindsight. It’s funny how much I thought it affected me back then, because I find that it’s pretty much all I talk about now.

I can’t wait to embarrass the shit out of Zelda. In some cases, I already am:

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Along those lines, one of the traditions of my family did growing up that I have extended to my family is developing a distinct language. For instance, “stank” might need something smelly to you, but to the Eng family, it means to “be mad at.” An “Eng’s Mix” means nothing to you, but if I told my mom and dad I wanted one, they’d make me an orange juice with ginger ale. Angela and I have developed a distinct language of our own in the few months since Zelda has been born. Here is your vocabulary lesson:

“wipes and dipes” – “You need to change Zelda’s diaper.

“C.W.A.N.” – Cold water at night (aka bringing a glass of water to bed).

“Jamz” – Poop.

“bobo” – Fake, not the real thing (as in using a chicken patty for chicken parmesan, AKA “bobo parmesan).

Don’t get me started on my nicknames I’ve come up with for Zelda: Z-Gram, La, Le, Z Baby, World War Z, Plump, Tubbo, Mini me, etc. to name a few.

  1. Family is Everything – The last one is the most important. It is the guiding principle from my dad that I will never forget. No explanation necessary:

Above all else, family is everything. Work hard, but love your family harder. Nothing else matters.

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Happy Father’s Day. Love you, dad.

Routines and Curveballs

By Angela

Ok, I’m guilty. We haven’t updated in awhile, mostly because we’re finally starting to fall into some kind of rhythm. I’m guessing that’s part of this whole parenting thing: finding a routine that works and keeping in line with it. In some ways, I’m good with that. There’s a small measure of comfort in routine. In other ways, the former version of myself wants to fight it. I never liked routine. To me, routine was one step away from being an automaton.

Right now out routine goes a lot like this: I wake up at 5:30 in the morning to feed her during the week, and the second she sees me I get a huge smile. I love that. I feed her, get her milk and diaper bag ready for daycare, and get my makeup on. Sometimes Matt changes her, sometimes I do. It depends on who’s further ahead with getting ready. We drop her off and are on the road to DC by 7 AM. I’m at work sometime between 7 and 8, depending on traffic. At 4 PM, I pack up and ride the metro home. From there it’s dinner, feedings, and killing time until bedtime. Then rinse and repeat. On the weekends I feed her at the usual time, then go back to sleep till the next feeding. We lounge around in bed with Zelda and  the dog until we decide to get moving for the day. So far as routines go, it’s not bad. Sometimes we get a curveball with fussiness or blowouts, but for the most part the days are similar. Of course, this routine could change at any time, but for now I’m content.

Then we have nights like tonight. I was trying to feed her and was getting frustrated about her nails raking all over my skin. Those little nails can get sharp! I insisted that we cut them with some baby nail clippers, because last time we tried a file it didn’t go so well. She screamed so much she vomited her last feeding. This would be much faster and more efficient, right?

What they don’t tell you: this dolphin can bite. 

WRONG.

Matt did great with the first three nails, but on the index finger he cut some skin by accident. We both went into panic mode because there was so much blood. Blood all over the place and Zelda was screaming. I had Matt wrap the finger and apply pressure, but I didn’t know how the hell to administer first aid to a four month old. If it was me, I would have slapped on some Neosporin and a Band-Aid, but I didn’t even know if you could give a baby Neosporin, or if using a Band-Aid was a good idea. So I called the doctor.

A half-hour later, she’d finally stopped bleeding and crying. In fact, she was passed out in Matt’s arms. We finally had a good look at the cut, and it looked like a really bad paper cut, nothing more. The doctor advised using Neosporin, but no Band-Aids. Keep her hands out of her mouth and watch for infection.

Okay, I take back what I said about routine. Routine trumps curveballs, especially where nail clippers are involved.

Matt nursing her wound.