educator, writer, speaker, devoted family man, amateur philosopher, chess enthusiast, basketball junkie, connoisseur of fine hip hop, and purveyor of wit and wisdom
My father’s birthday is today, and every Fourth of July, I devote a bit of time to just sitting and thinking about him. For my father, July 4th was never about fireworks or America’s independence because he always celebrated his birthday. The late 1980s and early ’90s were the best because I was old enough to take note of what was happening around me. I remember that my father would buy lots of meat (ribs, steaks, links, burgers, chicken) and he would begin grilling on his birthday pretty soon after he woke up that morning. My father’s birthday meant the intoxicating aroma of grilled meat, the intoxicating sounds of Maze or the O’Jays filling the house, and my intoxicated father enjoying his day.
I’ve been thinking about fathers lately (probably because son #2 is set to arrive in about 3 months.) I’ve been ruminating on what our fathers teach us, and why we’re so affected by them. From what I understand, most writers (especially male writers), have a poem/novel/essay/blog/story about their fathers. I’ve written three “father” poems (two that are included in my first volume of poetry, and one that will be included in a later volume). But I realized that I’ve never written about my father outside of poetry.
So this is my blog posting about my father and some of the things I learned from him. After reading through all of this, please leave a comment about whatever you wish–comment about your fathers, comment about fathers in general, or comment about something else that comes to mind.
Chess Lessons I Learned From My Father
1. You can’t play the game unless you know how the pieces move. Sometimes, I’ll ask someone if s/he knows how to play chess. Very often, I’ll hear something like “Not really. I just know how the pieces move.” That’s a common phrase—I know how the pieces move. The thing about that phrase is that everyone knows exactly what it means…even though that phrase doesn’t really answer the question. Bobby Fischer knew how the pieces move. My grandmother knows how the pieces move. Most times, yes-or-no questions deserve yes-or-no answers. Sometimes, the answer to “Do you know how to play chess” is simply “Yes”…even if you ONLY know how the pieces move. By saying yes, you place yourself in the game against someone better…and that is how you begin to improve. On the morning of my high school graduation, my father taught me how to tie a necktie. He only knew how to tie one knot—the “schoolboy knot” (some people call it the “Four-in-hand knot”). This knot is simple enough for men to use for most everyday situations because it’s a good pretense of the Windsor without all the twists and turns. Looking back on it now, I realize the life lesson here. When someone asks my father if he knows how to tie a necktie, his answer is yes. He doesn’t answer with “Not really…I just know the schoolboy knot.” His answer is simply yes. You have to start somewhere, but recognize that starting is important because that first step means you’re announcing to the world that you’re ready to play the game.
2. Real men play on real chessboards. I love everything about chess…the strategy of the game, the history of the pieces, the intricate details in some of the more expensive sets, the ways in which people reveal their personalities over the board. I currently collect chess sets of all kinds, and my collection includes a Jack Daniels set shipped directly from Tennessee, a chess board and pieces made out of Lego blocks, and a set containing African animal pieces. But I don’t actually play games with those sets. A real game deserves a real board. My father had only one chess set, and it was a truly awesome and “masculine” chess set. It was a large wooden folding board and was deep enough to carry the pieces, the tallest of which was over seven inches high (the king, of course). Travel boards were reasonable to play with outdoors. However, at home, there were no games on novelty boards…just the simplicity of light and dark pieces, but with the heft and girth of solid wood. The type of board on which a man regularly plays speaks volumes about his personality. These days, I regularly play online or on a vinyl travel board because I try to catch games quickly whenever I can. It says a lot about me…it says that I am far too busy for the luxury and relaxingly slow pace of a quiet chess game at home…maybe with a Wes Montgomery record in the background and a glass of Amarula with two ice cubes. My father was not a frequent gift-giver, and definitely not the greatest planner or organizer. But when I got married, he bought me a $50 bottle of scotch and presented it to me the night before the wedding. I regret being too ignorant at the time to realize the true value of that gift and what he was trying to tell me.
3. When the student is ready, the teacher will emerge. My father taught me how to play chess and backgammon early when I was around four or five-years-old (I have a beautiful picture of me, my brother, my mother, and my father on a blanket in the park. I was maybe five-years-old, and my father and I are playing backgammon on the blanket.) Kindergarten is not really a time when most kids play chess and backgammon, but I was glad my father did not think like that. My family told me that I showed an inclination toward reading and math, so he probably thought “why not?” I was ready to play, and he was ready to teach me. Likewise, I taught my son Donovan, how to play at a very young age. (He was three when he learned how to move the pieces. Like every kid who learns chess early, his favorite piece was the knight because of its ability to jump over pieces. He has improved since then.)
4. Play chess standing up. Human beings, especially men who are locked in battle, often have a tendency to be a bit short-sighted. They become so engaged in the obstacle in front of them that they sometimes miss the danger creeping up from behind. This tip about standing up to play was the only tip I remember my father offering me about actually playing the game. When he noticed I was about to make a mistake, he would simply say “Stand up.” Standing up with a bird’s-eye view allowed me to see the whole board at once. It allowed me to see the intentions of pieces that were off to the side…those pieces that were not posing any immediate danger, but were well-positioned and waiting to move when the time was right. On and off the chessboard, I have tried to hone this skill of viewing a situation from all possible perspectives. For him to say “Stand up” was simultaneously simple and profound…but I suppose every piece of wisdom is profound in its simplicity.
5. The queen is the most powerful piece on the board. When many chess beginners learn how the queen moves, they are suddenly hit with its potential for serious damage. It has the most freedom of movement, it is coveted most by beginners, and most amateur players simply resign if their queen is captured. There’s no denying that the queen is the most powerful piece in the game. On the other hand, chess is called the “game of kings.” The king is the ruler of the kingdom, and the object of the game is to capture the king (not the queen). Besides…my father knew that chess was always a man’s game (yes, I know there are female chess players, but they are rare…like Black hockey players, or like Republicans who use the word liberal in a positive way, or like dads who gain sole custody of children. But I digress…) It was hard for my father to reconcile the fact that, although it is a man’s world, he was utterly controlled by the power of women. This is a difficult lesson for most men to learn, and it was especially hard for my father. He loved women. He loved every woman. But he was not in control. I’m not talking about in the milquetoast wimp type of way…I mean the exact opposite. Women were like a drug to my father, and in most cases, the drug eventually overcomes the addict. Women had a pull on him that he really couldn’t control. Thinking back on some of his actions, and some of the things he said, I think that, deep down, he hated female power because of its ability to pull him in different directions. He confided in me twice—once when he remarried in the mid 1980s, and again before I got married in 1999—that my mother was the best thing that happened to him, and he regretted that he couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It was odd hearing him admit that he messed up and that he didn’t really know how to fix it. He is simultaneously drawn to, and confused by, women. But I suppose most queens will do that to a man.
6. When the student is ready, the teacher will disappear. My father was a fairly good chess player (as far as casual players go). I had played him off and on since I was a kid, and I always lost. He would occasionally let me know when I was about to make a bad move (see lesson #4 above), but for the most part, we just played for fun. One night, when I was around 14 or 15-years-old, I finally beat him. We quietly put the pieces away, and that was our very last game. Ever. After that game and to this day, he never challenged me, and I never challenged him. It was odd. It reminded me of those old kung fu movies from the ‘70s when the student finally beats the master and realizes that there is no more to learn from this man. The student begins a new journey in search of a new teacher. The beautiful thing is that the world is never short on teachers. I learned that beating one master is the beginning of a new challenge against yet another master.
7. Learn how to lose. In order to improve in chess, one must play stronger opponents. I mentioned earlier that my father used to win every chess game we played throughout my early childhood. After a while, a player gets tired of losing. He begins to analyze lost games to determine what went wrong. He starts to wonder what needs to be done differently on the next game. Every time I hear someone explain how s/he came to play chess, there’s always the part in the story that goes something like this: “My dad (older brother, cousin, best friend, teacher) used to always beat me. One day I just got fed up with losing and I wanted to learn how to really play the game and not just how the pieces move.” It is at this point when losing becomes the motivation needed for improvement. When I finally beat my father (see # 6 above), the new lesson I had to learn was branching out of the family in order to play and lose against others. Several years later I grew stronger because I learned how to lose. I learned that to succeed in anything, people must fail their way to success. BUT, it’s not just about losing…one must learn how to lose. John Dewey is credited with stating that the best teacher is not experience…the best teacher is the reflection on that experience.
8. Know when to resign. This was not an explicit lesson, but rather, a lesson I learned indirectly from watching my father’s life play itself out. I remember playing and chatting with an opponent online years ago, and in this game, I made some early mistakes and began losing pieces all over the place. It was obvious that I was not going to win the game…but for some reason, I just would not resign. My opponent asked me to, and I told him “No. I don’t resign. You’ll just have to checkmate me because I’m not a quitter.” That’s when he told me the real reason why players resign. It has nothing to do with quitting or showing weakness. Instead, wise players resign out of respect for the opponent and for the game itself. There is something graceful in surrendering. It is very different than quitting. To surrender means to let go of things beyond one’s control. To quit means to let go of things within one’s control. I did not have control of that chess game, and as such, needed to surrender to the one who really controlled it. The act of surrender demonstrates that I recognize where the control of the situation really exists. My comment about not wanting to quit was childish…I can’t quit doing something that I never really controlled doing in the first place. In that chess game, I was the true pawn…and my opponent just pushed me around the entire time. That is the lesson that I think my father’s life is teaching me. He was so out of control—with women, with alcohol, with employment, with his children—that he had to simply resign and walk away. The act of walking away demonstrated that he recognized where the control of his situation really existed. I think he understood that. To other folk outside of the situation, he simply seems like another no-good father (most people use the term “deadbeat dad” but that is a phrase I truly wish would disappear). I think the truth is more complicated. I think my father knew that he was simply not cut out to be a husband and a dad and an employed professional. He tried to take back control three times starting up three different families (that I know of), ultimately fathering six boys (that I know of). His sons are all men now (I’m the oldest at 37-years-old, and the youngest is 19-years-old.) As much as he may have wanted control of his life, the final result was always the same—he just couldn’t figure out how to put all the pieces in play and make something work. And so he simply disappeared. (I have no idea where he is now, but I’m sure there’s a relative somewhere that knows how to find him.) My 19-year-old half-brother told me that he hates our father for bailing out and saying some of the things he said to his brother and his mom. Honestly, that is too much negativity to carry around in one’s heart at only 19-years-old, and he fails to see that he is allowing our father’s absence to control his life. What he does not see is that our father may have had to leave on bad terms to make it easier for his six sons to forget him and move on. Leaving on positive terms would cause his sons to try to convince a man to stay in their lives when all he wants is to resign the game. The truth of the matter is that I can respect a man who knows how to resign a game that was out of his control. When the players know the outcomes of all the moves, and the winner is obvious, then it is simply time to move on.