With thanks to my Dad on his birthday


Family has been one of the constant themes on this blog, since I started writing it more than five years ago. I’ve put over 1,500 entries into this space since then, but I didn’t get through the first ten posts before I mentioned my dad for the first time. Since I’ve always been one who prefers writing over speaking, this is the best medium for wishing my dad well on his 70th birthday. I hope he still has many more birthdays ahead of him, too.

Parenting is great for many reasons, but perhaps the best one is that it wakes you up to how just difficult it is to raise a family. My own daughters don’t understand that yet, and I’ve told myself that one day, if they’re lucky, they will. But it will probably take arriving at the gates of parenthood to drill that point home. That’s certainly how it worked for me.

My dad gave me his name, and for many years I hated being a Junior. But now I’m OK with it, and I like his (and my) distinctive middle name. The world has thousands and thousands of Robert Harrises, but at least we have an interesting way to stand out in that crowd.

I’ve also written about being left-handed on many occasions, and I get that from my dad. It makes me different from most people, since we lefties are never in the majority anywhere (except for the cast members of Seinfeld, where Julia-Louis Dreyfus is the only righty in the bunch). I also enjoy counting Jimi Hendrix, LeRoy Neiman, Barack Obama, and David Bowie–among many others–in my lefty tribe.

But the thing I’ll always be most grateful for is that my dad taught me to learn how to love baseball. I had no idea about what baseball was as a kid in the 1970s, but that summer my dad took me to St. Louis to see a doubleheader against the Mets in the first Busch Stadium.

I’ve written about this before, how being a part of the baseball experience shaped me like nothing had before, and not too much has since. The best way to get into a sport is to go and see a game for yourself, and that’s probably always been the case. I’ve been to hundreds of ballgames since then, but that first game still remains a treasured memory. At one point in the game, Ted Simmons doubled off the outfield wall, and everybody came to their feet and cheered. All subsequent baseball memories have built upon that moment for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked my dad for taking me along that day, but I need to do that here.

The Dad memories don’t stop there, either. I remember playing Pong with my dad in either a department store or a grocery store, back in the 1970s. The sensation of being able to move a controller and have it move something on a TV screen was pretty revolutionary to the young kid I was at the time. Today’s kids won’t ever know what that feels like, but I remember it because I was playing a game with my dad.

My dad also took me to see Star Wars back in 1977, around the time that I turned nine years old. Before that, the only times I had been to a movie theater were old Disney movies with my mom. Those were fun, but Star Wars was different. Seeing R2D2 on screen again in The Phantom Menace a year ago reminded me of how excited I was to see him for the first time. And without my dad, that moment wouldn’t have happened.

So as my dad celebrates a big round number for his birthday this weekend, I’m happy that he’s made it this far in his life’s journey, and that I was along for a good chunk of the ride.

What’s in a name?

robert harris loading coffee

I have a new-found respect for the work of William Shakespeare, after seeing Romeo and Juliet performed onstage these last couple of nights. He tells a great story, and the words coming from the actors’ mouths are secondary to the emotions being displayed. That’s what doesn’t come through in simply trying to read the plays. The annotations get tiresome, and the fact is these plays weren’t written to be read; they were written to be staged. For the first time in my life, I understand that.

Maybe Shakespeare’s most well-known line–and he has many of them–is in the balcony scene, where Juliet calls “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” People who don’t know the first thing about Shakespeare know that line, 400 years after Shakespeare first penned it. But there’s another, also well-known line that Juliet speaks in the same scene.

Juliet is trying to come to terms with the fact that Romeo is a Montague, and she is a Capulet. Their families are enemies, and Juliet cannot understand why that should get in the way of her feelings about him. She asks the audience “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would, by any other name, smell just as sweet.” And he’s got a point there.

Abraham Lincoln–who was known to be an avid Shakespeare enthusiast–would ask this question of his son: “How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” His son would answer “Five legs” and Lincoln would say no, reminding his son that calling a tail a leg did not make it a leg. The gist of this, I think, is that you can name something whatever you like, but that does not change what that thing actually is.

I use Shakespeare and Lincoln, two men I have great respect for, to bring up the fact that I have a very good name, but also a very common one. I share my name with many, many people and, as I discovered this week, an AP reporter in Great Britain.

There was a band in Los Angeles in the early 1970s that called themselves Mammoth. They started playing in clubs, doing the things that a band has to do to get noticed, but they had a problem. There was already a band named Mammoth, and people were never going to get to know their Mammoth if they had to figure out which one it was. So the newer band changed their name to reflect the last name of the guitarist and the drummer, and so Van Halen took flight. I think that name change worked out pretty well for them, so I’m going to try it for myself.

I can’t use the more formal version of my name, since that’s also the name of an established novelist (and I’m very fond of his work). It’s the name of a coffeehouse chain in New Zealand, as well, and one of my goals in life is to one day go to New Zealand, so I can walk around with a cup of coffee bearing my name (and his). So that’s out, too.

The most logical thing to do, then, is to look to my middle name. I’ve written before about how much I admire Lincoln, and how fortunate I feel to carry his name around with me through life. I’ll never be Abraham Lincoln–nobody could–but I can honor him, while also setting myself apart from all the others who share my name. So my Twitter handle is now going to be my pen name, as well. And if there’s anyone else out there using that name, they’re just going to have to get used to the competition.