Oct. 20, 2016
We are here to celebrate the life of William Peter Pihos.
And I’ll talk about him. But, first, let’s talk about me.
My brief moment of greatness came when I was just nine years old. In the spring of 1986, as third grader, I entered an essay contest put on by the old Daily Journal, a small newspaper published in Wheaton. According to my mother, I “prayed every night that I would win.” I did win, and on Father’s Day of 1986, my dad was named Superdad. We got our picture in the paper, and a big article written about us by a real reporter, and I won a $50 gift certificate to take my dad out to dinner at Kai’s Restaurant.
I had the roast duck.
I’ve always been so proud of these 50 words:
My dad is great. He encourages me to study and do my best. He sets a good example by his hard work. He tries to give me everything I need. He teaches me right from wrong. He’s always there to help. My dad is no ordinary superdad – he’s the greatest!
As a writer and a teacher, I might have a few suggestions for little Petey. How about varying your sentence structure? Maybe add some figurative language? Nonetheless, thirty some years on, the words of my nine-year-old self ring true. They describe a manner of being in the world that—while not unique to my father—was particularly well lived by him.
In re-reading my essay, it is the actions that I described that stand out: My dad encouraged, he set an example, he gave, he taught, he helped. These are not the kinds of actions usually associated with men who wear colorful capes and tight pants. No surprise, since my Dad did not like to dress up. After my mother forced him to wear high-fashion Missoni sweaters during the late 1980s he begged us to get him what he called “regular guy” clothes.
Yet, even in his regular duds, my dad was a superhero. This was not because he was a man of action, though he could be. Did you ever see him waterski? It was a thing of beauty. There was no sight that I found more inspiring as a child that that god-like man slaloming across the wine-dark lake, spraying water in the early morning. And, truly, it must be said that he had almost super-human stamina, best exemplified by his marathon present-wrapping sessions every Christmas eve.
Nor was it because of his superpower, although he had deservedly legendary skills as a handyman. He could drywall, paint, and plumb. He knew electricity and engines. His carpentry work in our Brooklyn apartment was gorgeous, as was his impeccable laying of a set of incredibly uneven terra cotta tiles. Over the six months that he rehabilitated our apartment, Stefania and I had the true and abiding pleasure of watching a master craftsman at work. And this was just his hobby.
My Dad’s handyman skills are symbolic of his larger orientation to the world. He possessed a systematic knowledge of how shit worked. Not because anyone taught him, nor because he read it in a book. He understood the physical world because he was curious, because he did stuff, and because he never, ever stopped trying new things.
As he taught me early on, you don’t get a fast pinewood derby car by building just one, or two, or even three. You build track that is an exact replica of the official track, and then you test dozens of different components. There is no other way to know what works. Lots of his ideas and efforts failed, and not just in the pinewood derby. For the rest of my life, I will be waiting for him to come fix the sixty-year old ceiling fixture base that he broke seven weeks ago in our new house in Durham.
* * *
Neither manly heroics nor superpowers made Bill Pihos a Superdad. What strikes me so powerfully about my essay is that even as a nine-year old I knew that my father’s greatness stemmed from how he interacted with other people. All of the actions I mentioned in my essay were relational. They all highlight how he parented. My Dad was a Superdad because when it came to his children, he felt no need to be the center of attention. Rather, he worked tirelessly to support our dreams and to foster our capabilities.
There was no task too onerous for my Mom and Dad, if it would provide an opportunity for one of their children. He would drive anywhere at any time for us – like, taking me to private skating lessons in Glenview at 6 in the morning before school. Like Handyman Bill always said, “No job was too small.” He made lunches, helped with Halloween posters, and made pancakes at pancake breakfasts. In addition to the many responsibilities he took on at school and in our extracurricular activities, he was quite simply always there—sitting in the stands through countless games and events, including my brief stage career as an extra in Oklahoma and an endless senior season of basketball bench-warming.
In recent years there has been a surge in advice books extolling various approaches to parenting. Given the market, it’s a shame we never branded the Superdad philosophy. My father’s explanation of his parenting guides how I aspire to raise my daughters. As he said to the Daily Journal reporter:
Take a sincere interest in everything your children do. They grow up so quickly. The time you have is so precious, and there’s not very much of it. Punish them when they deserve it, correct them when they’re wrong, praise them when they deserve it and love them a lot.
Thirty years ago, even while we his four children remained so young, my dad expressed the importance of being present as a parent. He was. He took a sincere interest. He loved us a lot. Our time was precious.
And still, as his death painfully reminds us, there is never enough time. We learned this lesson in the harshest possible fashion when my brother Michael died more than 17 years ago. Being involved in his death was the worst thing I have ever experienced. But if anything comes close, it was calling my parents to tell them that their beloved baby was gone. Because I refused to talk about my brother for almost a dozen years after he died, I’m not sure that I ever properly expressed gratitude for my parents’ profound love in the aftermath of that phone call.
Michael’s death changed my Dad. It changed all of us. When faced with failure or disappointment, my Dad always encouraged us to forget about what was past. “It’s ancient history,” he said. But Michael’s death could never be ancient history; it was an ever-present absence that shortened the length of every minute, compressing its possibilities. In nearly every picture that was displayed yesterday, you could see my Dad’s brilliant smile and twinkling eyes. And both of those remained with us up until his final days, but after Michael died they sparkled less frequently and less brightly.
Over the last seven years, I have had the great pleasure of watching my dad be a grandfather. When I look at candid pictures of him with his grandchildren (and other people’s), I recognize so much about what made him a Superdad to me. In those shots, you can usually find him in one of two poses. He is so often teaching: showing kids how to drive a boat or guiding them as they take baby steps. But even more often he is on the ground—doing: Building Legos with his grandsons Kosta and Markos. Yelling at the top of his lungs with my daughter Michela. Sliding down a slide made for children. Through his mode of being with his grandchildren, he taught them—and us—how to take pleasure in giving to others. The smiles that radiate out of these of these pictures mark the presence of Superdad like the bat symbol on the Gotham skyline.
* * *
That Daily Journal article ended with a final quote from my dad. He said, “I really enjoy being with my children.” If there is anything I learned from him it was this. So thank you, Superdad, I really enjoyed being with you.
In the great rivalry between Muddy Waters & Howlin’ Wolf, I’m with Muddy. But, damn, sometimes the Wolf’s growl just knocks you out. After one such punch yesterday, I thought I’d look up what others have said about the Wolf’s voice.
The most famous description, which everyone quotes but (insofar I could find) no one attributes, is that it is like “the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road.”
My favorite line comes from Ronnie Hawkins, who said that the Wolf’s voice was “stronger than 40 acres of crushed garlic.”
In a long riff, Tom Waits once claimed that Howlin’ Wolf’s sound was inimitable. “You can scream into a pillow for a year and never get there.”
And, finally, the great bluesman himself reflected: “I couldn’t yodel but I could howl. And I been doing just fine.”
This is a draft of my dissertation.