On Friday night, I watched a Dateline special on Tim Russert. It was about as poignant as Dateline gets, frankly, and knowing that Tim Russert — an unpretentious man with such zeal for his work, with such a beautiful and endless curiosity (a man much younger than my father, by the way) — had slumped dead at his desk earlier that day filled me with a bit of dread, with a minor-note feeling that has been hard to shake all weekend. Watching footage of Russert, I was moved by how he championed his hometown of Buffalo — an unloved city, if ever there was one — but mostly how he admired his father, a whom he always referred to as “Big Russ.” Big Russ never bullshit. Big Russ worked two jobs. If Big Russ thought you were a phony, you were done.
Russert wrote a book about his dad, a career sanitation worker and truck driver; in fact, he wrote two books about fatherhood, and it's more than a little heartbreaking that the sudden, shocking end to his life came on the one calendar weekend set aside to celebrate the very subject about which he was so passionate. It's hard to be sincere and earnest about parenthood without making readers want to cling to the rim of the toilet bowl; it's kind of like writing about your cat. But when you think about all the book deals and the careers built on trashing our fathers, Russert's sweet little ode almost seems punk-rock.
Anyway, I was struck by something Russert said about his father: He never complained.
It's a subject I've been thinking about lately, because it's something I find myself doing too often. (Did I just complain about complaining? Well, so be it.) I complain about the construction noise outside my window every morning. I complain about the heat. I complain that there is no decent coffee in this neighborhood, and if there is, a latte costs $4. (Four dollars!) I complain that the subway is too crowded, takes too long, and all of this complaining takes place before I get to work. And what I rarely do, what I wish I did more of, was appreciate how profound it is that I am living in New York, working at a job I genuinely enjoy, and that I can call my father at any time — he is now retired — and I can complain to him, and he will listen.
My father is not a complainer. He is a quiet man, sometimes subdued in his temperament — the stoic Finnish yin to my mother's fiery Irish yang — but he is not a complainer. I know this, because I cannot tell you the opportunities I have given him for complaining –the times I have had to borrow money, the do-it-yourself projects I carelessly bellyflopped into, quickly becoming a dad-does-it-himself project, the hours he has waited for me to show up from some other place — a little girl at soccer practice, a teenager with her friends at the mall, a college kid lugging her laundry home for Thanksgiving, a young woman flying back from New York. My dad is the one there, waiting for me when I arrive. I may complain about a lot of things, but even a whiner like me knows when to shup up and count your blessings.