For some reason today I’m thinking about my father. My father was the smartest person I’ve ever met. I’m told that he started playing serious chess before he started school. There’s no way to confirm that story today, but I believe it. I played many games of chess with my father. I remember one time, not long after moving out. It was one of my first trips home, probably about 1979. I was about 18. I’d been playing chess pretty seriously with some friends of mine, playing every day. I even bought some chess books and was studying various openings. Dad, on the other hand, hadn’t played in years. We got out the chess board, and about an hour later, I was actually up material! I was winning. A few minutes later, I made a mistake, which he immediately capitalized on, and he beat me. I never beat him. Not once.
I only saw my father lose one game of chess ever. We had some people staying with us. A family friend Norman, was pretty good at chess. I played him a number of times. I won a couple of times. But he was pretty good. That night, we decided just for fun that Dad would play three games at the same time. Typically for my dad, that wasn’t enough. He had an hour talk to give the next day, so he was going over his outline. And we were playing in the family room with the TV on. Norman actually beat him. He won the other two games, and gave a great talk the next day.
Dad put himself through college about the time that I was born. He went to school full time while also working full time. He had two kids before he was finished. In less than four years he graduated from San Jose State with a CPA.
His first job out of college was as the interim controller at Stanford University Hospital. This was a sign of things to come. A few years later he became the chief financial officer of Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, which was the second largest hospital in California at the time. Later in life, he was invited to be a federal judge on the Medicare Reimbursement board in Washington DC. This is an appellate court that handles nothing but Medicare cases against or filed by hospitals. It’s the only US federal court where you don’t have to be a lawyer to serve as a judge. The cases that he handled either ended, or went next to the US Supreme Court. On one such case, he had written the minority opinion for the case. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of his board, citing the arguments in his minority opinion.
I’ve tried to find this case but can’t. If any of you lawyers out there know how to go about it, I would love to read it for myself.
Dad was always thinking. He had a system for doing everything. Like his chess game, he was always thinking several moves ahead. For any trip, he knew six ways to get from point A to point B, and knew which one would be fastest at any time of day. He kept lists of everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept lists of lists.
Dad loved all kinds of puzzles. I remember when the Rubik’s Cube was the fad in the ‘70’s. My dad was the only one I knew that could do it. He did some reading about it, and commented that some were talking about its application to group theory. I studied group theory in a class in abstract algebra some twenty-five years later. I can see how they are related (or at least I did at the time), but I still couldn’t tell you how the Rubik’s Cube could help you understand group theory, or how group theory could help you solve the puzzle. To my knowledge, dad never took a math class beyond calculus.
Like all of us, he had his flaws. He had an explosive temper. He was never physically or even emotionally abusive. I don’t remember ever getting a spanking that didn’t come from my mother. But there was plenty of shouting, and we kids learned to be wary of making Dad angry. Thinking as he did about everything, I think it was really frustrating for him when people did things without thinking. That’s how I look back at it now. At the time, all I remember, is “Dad’s mad.” He definitely mellowed as he got older. Probably because he turned his thinking on his own behavior and came up with some system for dealing with his frustrations.
He was a good provider that always put his family’s material needs first. Even with six kids, we never wanted for anything. My mother never had to work outside of the house. And with six kids, that was a blessing. She had work enough to do. We always lived in good neighborhoods, and most of us got our own bedrooms.
There’s a lot of my father in me, both the good and the bad. I, too, have a system for everything. I try different routes to places I go to regularly. I don’t just think I know the fastest route to take. I know the best lane to be in during rush hour. (I think I actually got my aggressive driving skills from my mother.) I definitely have Dad’s temper, and I definitely get frustrated when other people do dumb things because they haven’t thought about them. Or maybe just because they haven’t arrived at the same solution I did. I do understand that this is probably my perception, and definitely my problem, not theirs. And, like my father, I definitely have gotten mellower over the years.
I love learning, and read voraciously. I like to know something about everything, and everything about some things. An impossible task, but I love the chase. I don’t do it consciously, but I think I’m still competing with my father. I know I’m not as smart as he was, and never will be. But I am a better man with the role model that he left for me.
My dad left us in 1995. I went back to school a few years later. In 2003, I graduated from UC Berkeley with degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science. Now I work as a software engineer for one of the world’s largest software companies, which basically means that I get paid, probably too much, to think about problems and create systems to fix them. I think Dad would have been proud.
I may have been thinking about Dad because I went to the Giants game today. Most of the time I spent with Dad after leaving home was at Candlestick Park watching the Giants. We were there together for the 87 playoffs, when the Giants won the pennant in 89, and when they lost the World Series the same year.
I’m going the game again tomorrow. If the Giants win, they will again go to the playoffs. If they lose, I’m glad he won’t be there to share the heartache. But if they win, I’m sorry he won’t be there to share the joy. Either way, I miss you Dad.