…my Dad shouted, when my brothers and I left it wide open in the chilly Boston winter,
“you trying to heat the whole world?”
Now many people say that’s exactly what we’ve done, heated up the planet through excessive use of fossil fuels. Looking back, Dad said lots of prophetic stuff like that. If we left the water continuously flowing when we washed dishes Dad would say “you waste water like that, someday it will be too expensive to drink.” Little did we imagine that one day people would pay more per ounce for bottled water than we pay for gas.
We realized that our Dad was different from other kids’ parents. We much preferred it that way. Dad was cool! He read us Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh Zen Bones at bedtime and Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan; he played the tenor banjo and sang sea shanties. And though we didn’t phrase it this way at the time, we knew intuitively and unequivocally that Dad was no “Muggle.”
Dad was into organic gardening and home brewing beer; he marched to a different drummer and taught us to do the same—which isn’t so easy to do when you’re 10 or 12 years old. I remember the lunches that we brought to school and how mortified we were by the thick, uneven brown slices of homemade bread we pulled out at lunch time when all the other kids had nice, white, perfectly uniform slices of Wonderbread.
My Dad’s ability to discern between the authentic and the artificial is uncanny and so is his ability to sum it all up in one pithy comment. Regarding the first Earth Day in 1970 he said,
“I hope they’re wearing bio-degradable protest buttons.”
By example my Dad ingrained in me a strong sense of responsibility for the world. Walking through the woods Dad would pick up any trash that we came across and when we said “Dad that’s not our trash” Dad would say “it’s our world.”
My Dad is a bit of a mad scientist (it’s traditional in my family to speak of “the madness” in boastful tones). When I was a kid, Dad would be down in the basement every evening, making things like a model 19th century circus or cutting gem stones. From my father’s passions I learned that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.
I also learned that when “the madness” strikes and there is something that you absolutely must create or do, you can begin it by going to the library. I went to the library with my father many times when I was young. While he looked for books about making marionettes, or colonial period clothing, or gemology, I was reading about Indians, and Druids, and plants.
Sometimes our passions settled on the same topic. One year Dad read Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. That summer we ate cattail pancakes and elderberry jam washed down with sumac lemonade. I was, excited by the idea of “living off the land.” Eventually, I spent a week on my brother Dave’s land in New Hampshire living only on what I could gather. I mostly survived on daylily tubers and ketchup.
When my Dad was about the age that I am now he lost his job as an electronics engineer. That was the beginning of a difficult period for Dad, looking for jobs and interviewing, but never again working in his chosen field. In retrospect, I’m sure he would say that was the beginning of some of the best parts of his life.
Dad went back to school to get a biology degree from Harvard (just for fun) and graduated when he was 64. At the age of 75, Dad still works at the Boston Museum of Science, a role that combines two life-long passions: science and teaching kids new things.
Dedicated to David A. Tolstrup – A cool guy.