Wednesday was my dad's birthday. I called his cell phone and sang happy birthday into his voicemail. He didn't call me back until today.
Dad is sixtysomething -- early sixtysomething. I've talked before about his badassitude. I am everyone's favorite cocktail trivia friend, as my dad has a crazy job. He's an electrical engineer -- he has a company that makes radio and television towers. This company was founded by my grandfather.*
So, my dad, he climbs towers. Like, the tower on top of the Empire State Building or the one on top of the Hancock Building here in Chicago. He's been doing this my whole life. I don't think too much about the potential dangers, here -- probably for the same reason people don’t think about the potential dangers of splattering on the highway or getting electrocuted by your toaster. You’re not going to stop driving or toasting, so as long as you’re doing it safely, it’s best not to ponder the worst possible consequences.
Once, a few years ago, I was in NYC for business, and I got an email saying something about dad being in the New York Times. Huh. I went out and found the paper, where my dad's picture took up the entire top half of the metro section, in full color. I've since seen that picture in a lot of places, including in a random email forward. That's my dad in the second picture. With the big, bald, unprotected melon head. I suppose his story caught the imaginations of a lot of people -- he's since been featured there three times. He was also, among other places, featured on 20/20, NPR, Ripley's Believe it or Not (are you completely impressed?), some Discovery Channel special, and some weird game show on Lifetime. He was photographed for National Geographic -- the photograph of my father was the last photo in the magazine that included the twin towers in the background. His photo is in this book, and this one (where you can actually look inside the book and see his pic -- but because Amazon is lame I can't link to it).
So, right. Here's what happens if your dad is a big bad macho tower climbing maniac:
- people think you're cool at cocktail parties. (mentioned above)
- people think your dad is super cool. producers and photographers and writers and such call him.
-your dad starts thinking he is the total fucking bomb. You get some killer anecdotes, like this one:
Dad and I go see "The Ring" together. After the movie, dad provides this review:
Dad: You know, the press often accuses me of being an adrenaline addict. . . but that movie had more adrenaline than even I like!
Me: Was that out loud? Dad, shut up.
- your dad enters his fifties, his late fifties, his early sixties, and he's still climbing towers. You enter your twenties, your late twenties, your early thirties and start to think about your father as someone who will -- who is -- aging.
Imagine you're a man who has literally climbed to the top of his field. You're someone who is notorious for doing things that even freak out Barbara Walters. You regularly climb on the tower on top of the Empire State Building. That's what you live for.
Some people have to face telling their parents that they can no longer drive. I have to suggest to my father that he give up climbing towers on top of buildings. I once had this conversation with my father, a few years ago. He was 58.
Dad: It's the strangest thing. My knee keeps going out, falling out from under me.
Me: Dad. That scares me. What if that happens while you're climbing?
Dad: (completely logically) Oh, it doesn't happen then.
Me: Dad, have you thought that you might have to give up climbing at some point?
Dad: I figure I have at least ten more years.
Me: Dad, I don't think you're going to be able to climb until you're 70.
My dad was gone -- working -- out of town -- more than he was around when I was growing up. He has been traveling and climbing and working nonstop my entire life. He thoroughly identifies himself with his job. He is that guy who climbs towers.
For years I have been quietly worrying about what is going to happen when he can't climb anymore. I have this fear that he'll have no coping mechanism in place when this happens -- that he won't know how to identify himself anymore -- that he won't be able to find reasons to live anymore.
He and my stepmom, Sally**, got a dog last year. This dog has transformed them, in a way. It is their child, their focus. I think this dog has been the catalyst for my dad to start to look at life differently, to transition from king kong to something else, something more earthbound.
A few weeks ago, Dad and Sally bought two horses. Buddy and Bandit. I had no idea, until he casually mentioned the horses, that he even had an interest in the equine arts. Apparently, Dad is now planning on retiring to a ranch, where he will rope cattle.
While I find this surprising, I am also pleased. This is the first time I've seen him even consider retirement. I think it's exciting that he's envisioning a life for himself beyond his current one.
However, I am still really amused at his approach.
Apparently, the reason he didn't call me back all week is because he was in Arizona, taking some sort of ranching class.
He called me this morning to tell me about it:
Me: Dad. Why didn't you call me back?
Dad: I was at a ranch in Arizona! I didn't have cell phone access!
Me: What were you doing?
Dad: I was learning ranch roping and riding technique.
Me: What is ranch roping?
Dad: Well, it's similar to team roping, but it's about caring for the individual cow. It’s the technique you use if you want to give shots to cattle or care for them on the prairie without hurting yourself or the cow.
Me: Right. On the prairie.
Dad: I did get to observe an advanced class, they're doing more advanced cattle roping. The key is to wind a double hitch knot around the blahdy blah -insert many technical terms I cannot accurately reproduce here without doing some internet searching - my goal is someday to do some ranch hand work for a couple of weeks. Maybe in Wyoming or Montana.
Me: How do you do that? Can you, like, do that as a vacation?
Dad: I need to meet some people with a ranch. Then get invited.
Dad, happy birthday.
I'm kind of confused, but in a good way. I'm excited to meet your horses and I hope that someday you will get that ranch. I’ll totally come visit and learn how to tie a hitch knot or something.
*My dad has three sisters. I have one sister. The fact that my dad had no sons and the subsequent impact on the business is a post for another time.
**Technically, they're not married, but have been together for the last 17 years. She does wear an engagement ring. She’s had it since 2001 or so. A few weeks ago, they were in town and my friend Sarah (god bless her) said, “So, are you getting married?” Sally said, “Yes, we were thinking we would this summer!” That was total news for me. That’s all I’ve heard of it. I guess that's a story for another day, too.