In response to an assignment this week to write about our fathers, I’m posting several photos of my father, with snippets from the assigned piece. For the record, this is about my father, Seymour Thomas (“Sy”) Nelson, and not my stepfather, Jim Katzenstein.
My father skipped two years of high school and two years of college and is generally considered to be a genius. He was the first person in the world to know that our nation’s first satellite, Explorer I, had successfully achieved orbit around the earth. He had programmed a small (refrigerator size) computer to convert the raw telemetry data into the coordinates needed as input for the “big” (house size) computer to calculate the orbit.
It was launched January 31, 1958. As soon as the mainframe computer had verified that Explorer 1 was indeed in orbit, he relayed the news to Werner von Braun, who was in Washington DC at the time. At 1:30 a.m. EST, they held a news conference in the Great Hall at the National Academy of Sciences to announce it to the world.
My dad was born and raised in New York. He’s traveled the world, as I have now, and he’s lived many places, just like me. He hasn’t lived on the East Coast in twenty-six years, but he still has a thick New York accent. Bronx, to be specific. I was only seven when we moved to California, but I still say some words with that accent—like Flahrida—and can slip into it pretty easily. His natural voice is also deeper than my natural voice. When he yells it gets deeper.
I learned about situational irony from my father, but I don’t think he realizes it was one of the lessons he was teaching me. Often when he said things that were meant to be deep and meaningful, they were in fact inversely proportional to the manner in which he was behaving.
A funny example of this is whenever he talks about the importance of listening.
Sy has notebooks full of graphs, data, diagrams, and technical specs for inventions that never got off the ground, but which would make him a billionaire if they did. I’m not at liberty to discuss their details.
I recently have tried to get into sports more. I never watched football or basketball, let alone played them, and I seldom paid attention to baseball outside the World Series. I was in Little League for a couple years. The one time my dad took me down to the local schoolyard to play catch with our new, carefully oiled mitts, I tossed one a bit high and he reached for it and sprained his ankle pretty bad. He doesn’t follow sports, either.
When my dad was living in a beige stucco apartment building out in San Bernardino near the base where he worked, I would go to visit him and he would show me how to make ramen, straining the noodles before adding the packet of seasoning. A dash of soy sauce and a cut-up hot dog from Costco—Hebrew National or Nathan’s—and voilà! My first cooking experience.
Here are some Zen things my dad likes to teach me:
- True freedom is not doing what you want to, but doing what you have to.
- Attention is the only thing that matters.
- Everything is equally important.
- You have to really listen to what someone is saying. Really listen.
- No decision is irreversible. Pick one, you’ll get the other one next time.
They’re all different sides of the same coin, kinda.
The only time I ever saw him meditating he was at his big desk in his office—which a year later would become our bonus room after he moved out—and his eyes were open but he wasn’t moving. It freaked me out, and I knocked on the sliding glass door. “Dad?”
For my thirteenth birthday my dad took me backpacking for the first time. We did it the right way, getting internal frame packs and loading up on lightweight gear and freeze-dried food. We went to the best place, Mosquito Flats, near Bishop, just a few peaks over from Mount Whitney. We hiked up to the Hidden Lakes area on our crisp topo maps. I was fat and dad was fatter, but we made it to our first camp.
That night I became terrified as I drifted off to sleep. I imagined my dad’s face becoming grossly elongated, pointed like a heron’s bill, with sharp little teeth and empty eye sockets. I imagined him rolling over in our two-man tent and attacking me. I took a gambit and told him what I saw. It was dark, but I think he cried a little.
The next day I got sick and didn’t want to help with breaking down camp. Dad scoffed at my laziness but when he felt my forehead I was running a fever. I don’t remember much discussion; we just turned around and headed back. Later I would learn about altitude sickness, and regret not sticking it out a day or two until we got acclimated. But when we got back, he took me to Sizzler and I drank five glasses of Coke and we went and saw a movie, so it was okay.
He called me the other day. He had just read a piece I had posted to my blog, written for this very class at Hugo House. The assignment was to write about a relationship as it relates to a job, or vice versa. I wrote about the time I moved from Berkeley to Seattle, leaving my job to be with a the woman who is now my wife. I could hear him shaking his head, something he does when he is being emphatic.
“I just want to tell you, that blew me away. Blew. Me. Away. You are a writer. A real writer. You have such heart, and it really comes through. I’m no expert, but whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Forget about the other crap you wrote, the science fiction and the weird stuff. Just aim for the heart.” He actually spoke for twenty-six minutes uninterrupted, so I’m paraphrasing.