I wrote this letter to my dad on his birthday 3 years ago. I’m sharing it today to honor him on Fathers’ Day and put a bit of gratitude out in the world.
I’m writing you a letter. I know that we might equate writing a letter to some form of protest or complaint. I remember so many times where an injustice like a parking ticket, or poor customer service, or some nonsensical bureaucracy left you venting with the threat of “I’m going to write them a letter.” But this is not in that spirit, rather, it’s your birthday and I thought it’d be nice.
Often you call me to tell me you’re thinking of me. I as well call you to tell you I’m thinking about you. It seems we both think about each other. What a wonderful thing for a father and son to share. This behavior is one of the amazing things I’ve learned from you. The art of self-reflection, of being introspective, of thoughtfulness. When I think about you, I think about how much of myself I owe to you.
The measure of a father is perhaps the success to which he imparted any wisdom he has gleamed to his children. By passing down what you know and what you think and who you are we hope to provide a better life to our children. One of your goals, I imagine, was to teach me what you knew and how you’ve lived so that I might have a brighter future. I’m so lucky to have had such a wonderful teacher. I guess I’ve always seen you as a teacher. And I suppose, without ever realizing it, I’ve followed in your footsteps.
I want to remind you of three stories where what you taught me has made me who I am.
The first goes back to Dr. Warshall’s 10th grade Spanish class. I had an assignment to make a commercial for a product in Spanish. We would have to write a 30 second script and record a video. As you would so often, despite protest, for our own ultimate benefit, you insisted on helping me with the project. That’s something I always remember you doing. You always ensured you worked with us on our work. Mom too. Whenever the field matched one of your expertises, you both made time to work with us. That’s special. I know that we rebelled to demonstrate our independence, but you did it anyway. Thanks for doing that.
I thought this particular project was stupid. First, what does being able to record a video or write a commercial script have to do with learning Spanish? It seemed to me that this assignment had more to do with a student’s ability to be clever and cinematic than a mastery of a foreign language. I was really excited about doing the bare-minimum work required, writing a grammatically correct script, filming something silly and quick, and turning it in. But then you caught wind of the project and got involved.
We came up with the idea for the “Corbataria Automático” — a device that would automatically tie your tie. We wrote a script whose narrative was based on the life of a Ramaz student that never woke up on time. The student would sleep through his alarm, wake up in a panic, and have to rush to get ready for school. With an infomercial style, the student would struggle to make his tie only to end with a devastatingly poor knot. And then we’d cut to a second attempt where the student would use the Corbataria to great success, instantly leaving him with a perfect tie. We’d close with the classic infomercial sales pitch, for a limited time only, buy two for the price of one. Great script.
But how would two inexperienced directors ever capture this narrative arc and supply the required special effects to make an imaginary device seem real and functioning? How would we make it look like the Corbataria actually worked? Oh and because I’m the laziest person ever, I left this to the night before it was do. So we had, I don’t know, maybe 3 hours. And we fought and filmed and we didn’t have anything to edit the video so we had to basically do all these takes using precise pause/record sequences. We had to pause the video for the trick take where the tie was automatically made by the cardboard box we used as a prop for the Corbataria. Off camera, I then had to actually tie the tie, stay in the exact some pose, and you had to press record in a manner that created a near graphic match so it looked like a seamless action with no cut.
I don’t know how many takes we tried or how long the process took, but I know, in the end, somehow, we managed to actually articulate our original overly ambitious and totally unnecessary vision. We made a 30 second commercial that was pretty fucking good. It looked real. It was funny. The impeccable Spanish was the least impressive part. It was easily the best in the class.
At the time, I thought little of that experience. I felt it a burden. Just another example of my perfectionist parents always wanting me to get the best grades and putting too much pressure on me to succeed. I envied my classmates whose parents didn’t even know they had this assignment. They were able to turn in lesser work, get the same grade as me, and move on with their life. Why did I have to suffer through an entire night of the creative struggle for this stupid project? My life it seemed was so unfair.
People ask me where I get my creativity from. How am I able to dream big, spectacular, and grand? Why am I able to believe I can achieve anything and have the courage to do it? What allows me actually see those ambitions through and make them real. There are countless exercises you put me through like the story above. To whatever extent I’m an artist, I owe it to those lessons. You taught me to expect more from myself, to not just meet expectations, but to far surpass them and make them my own, and that with a will and hard work anything is possible. I’ll never be satisfied with good enough and will always strive to make something great, to do what is hard, and to achieve what is amazing. It was never about the grade was it? It was always about the work. Do the best work you can, always, no matter what.
The second story is about Boat-Sheva, our canoe. But it’s also about roller skating and skiing and magic the gathering and all my varied hobbies. I have, it seems, an insatiable curiosity about life. But what makes me special is that I have no fear about exploring every unknown adventure I have the slightest inkling toward. Where did I learn that?
From a young age I was enthralled by nature and the wild of the outdoors. I don’t know if you ever actually shared that passion, but I do know that you went to great lengths to provide me with opportunities to follow it.
You bought our Stowe red fiberglass canoe that we named Boat-Sheva. I can only imagine the protest and shit you got for that purchase. Where would we keep it? When would we use it? But one day we had a canoe. And we’d drive out to Croton-on-Hudson and canoe up to the reservoir. We’d swing off ropes into the river, we’d wade the canoe over rocks in low-tide, we’d dock onto that small Island and fish and run around and make camp fires and cook hot dogs. And it was so much fun. Just for me. I loved those trips.
But they weren’t easy. One time we decided to go without the Pickett’s. It was just you and me. We strapped the canoe to the roof of the explorer best we could and we ventured up the Saw Mill to Croton. As we drove the boat shook the car. Did we tie it correctly? Would it fly off the car and into traffic? What would happen? The trepidation and fear was palpable. But you did it anyway for me. You just swallowed all your hesitations and uncertainty so that we could have a day on the river together. Tying boats to the roof a car and going canoeing alone was never your thing. So much could go wrong. But you went through with it.
And then the worst happened. As we were driving up the Saw Mill the canoe came undone. We saw the straps break loose and begin swinging against the windshield. The front of the ship began swaying to-and-fro, left-to-right, across the top of the car. Every movement of the boat threatened to detach it from the car and onto the highway to disaster. We pulled the car over safely to the shoulder of the highway to try to fix the situation.
I remember thinking to myself, just stay cool. Don’t panic, we can deal with this. The calmer I could be, the better the situation. And as cars whizzed by us, we did our best to retie the canoe. We swallowed our fear and together just dealt with the situation. We continued driving and the boat stayed on the car. We made it to the river and had a great day. I also remember that you told me how much you appreciated “how cool” I stayed during it. That compliment meant so much to me.
I think back on this a lot. First, I’m so appreciative in the thousand ways you encouraged us to pursue our interests growing up even if they weren’t your own. I liked rollerskating and you’d drive me out to New Jersey and Chelsea Piers and Riverside Park. You even dislocated your shoulder trying to roller skate. You took me canoeing and camping. You bought me a hatchet. You’d drive me to Magic the Gathering tournaments. You’d take us skiing and sit in a lodge all day waiting for us. Anything I wanted to try you’d find some way to support it. And now I try everything. I experience everything. I ski, sail, skate, run, fly, snorkel, DJ, and go on survival retreats. And I have the courage to do and try all this because you always showed me that doing things, no matter the hassle, are worth doing.
But the real take-away from that experience was the value of being cool. I mean no offense, with all do respect, when it comes to keeping a calm head and a cool reaction, you don’t always excel. But you value it. You know it is important. If you’re going to try hard things, if you’re going to be an adventurer, seek-out the contours, and suck all the marrow out of life, you need to be able to keep a controlled disposition in the face of inevitable adversaries and challenges. And I can do that. I learned how to do that on that day, keeping calm and having you tell me it helped the situation. You taught me something you didn’t have. How did you do that? How is that even possible? You taught me to aspire to be something you weren’t always capable of being. That was big for me as a kid and as a teacher now. Both the value of staying calm and the ability of a teacher to teach a value they might not embody but value.
Finally, I want to share with you something you taught me that isn’t embodied in a single memory. You’ve taught me to have a sense of duty and responsibility to my life. You’ve shown me that while my life is my own to live, it also demands fulfilling a commitment to our family and future.
The narrative as I understand it, and I’d really love to hear it from you, is that you were growing up in Buenos Aires working at the hardware store your family owned, excelling at school, and having colorful political affiliations with Communists and Zionists.
I’ve heard that to go to the state medical school in Buenos Aires at the time you had to be in the top 500 students of the country. You were, or at least achieved a similar feat because you did go to medical school for what I assume was basically a paid or entirely free scholarship — how else could you afford it?
Once there, even though you struggled with anatomy, you continued to excel. You discovered the cool bow-tie wearing nephrologist and picked a medical focus that was future facing. You graduated and to further your ability to provide, moved to the US. You completed your certification or residency in West Virginia where everyone sucked and you were a young Jew from Argentina. But I think you had a Camaro. And after a certain time, and maybe even other jobs at hospitals, I’m not sure when you worked in Coney Island or other hospitals, I’d love to know the details, but I know that at some point you left for Israel. And I know that during this time you sent money back to your mother and your sisters. You became a doctor and met Mom and moved to NYC and totally crushed working at Memorial and became the chief and always, no matter what, provided for your family.
But you did it through doing what you love, by pursuing something greater, so that you could provide something better for your family than what you had. And that is a sacred oath sons and fathers must make, we must promise to provide a better life for our children. And you did that. I will do that because you were my father and I see this value in everything you do. You want the best for us and are willing to do whatever it takes, to sacrifice anything, for the chance of providing your family with the best.
When I think about you, this is what I think about. How strong you are. How committed you are to your family. How far you went into the unknown so that you could provide us with something you might never have dreamed of. How hard it must have been for you. How alone you were during this struggle. How relentless you were through it. How long it must have taken. How committed you stayed. How much you must have sacrificed. And all this that I can’t articulate or begin to imagine, for what? For us. For me. And for this I’m forever grateful and appreciative. For this, for what you have achieved, I am committed to doing the same for all of us, for our our family, and for myself. My life is mine, but I want it so that I can serve us, just like you do.
Dad, you’re the best teacher I’ll ever have and I love you so much. On turning seventy, you should reflect and remember all the things you’ve done, good and bad, regrets and successes, and know that all of them have come together so that you could experience this moment. Reading a letter from your son where he says that you are the most important thing in my life, that I love you, that I will always remember the time we have shared together, and that without you I wouldn’t be the man I am today. I know you’re proud of me and you should know I’m in awe of you.
To the wish of spending many more years together teaching each other about life and love and movies and women and liquor and music and writing and driving and everything. Happy birthday, I love you,
Avi Flombaum, your son (incase you’ve gone senile and forgot).