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The On Being Project

Maxims for Father’s Day

Father’s Day is this Sunday, June 21st. So this week I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad, Max Palmer, who died in 1994 at age 81. I’m one of the lucky ones who can say that my father was the best man I’ve ever known.

A Chicago businessman well-known for his honesty, kindness, and generosity, Dad came from a blue-collar background in Waterloo, Iowa. His formal education ended with high school and he never took a philosophy course. But he had an uncommon capacity to learn what it means to be fully human from what some have called the School of the Spirit.

Dad lived by the Golden Rule, but there was nothing heavy-handed about his ethics. His teachings often came in the form of maxims he passed along to my sisters and me — partly as guidance, partly in jest. A sense of humor was not optional in my family! As Chesterton said, “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Here’s a small sampling of Max’s maxims:

“Remember, kids, there’s only one letter’s different between hero and zero.” (Groan!)
“Add a little ‘oomph’ to ‘try’ and you’ve got ‘triumph’.” (Double groan!)
“The only difference between a rut and a grave is dimension.” (Try to figure that one out at age ten!)
“Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster.” (This one was never aimed at my sisters, but always at me. I wonder why Dad thought I had special need of this counsel?!)


The photo was taken in 1914 in Waterloo, Iowa, when my dad was two years old. With him are his father, Jesse Palmer, and his mother, Jennie Parker, who are the reason why I ended up with two last names! 

I’ve spent a lot of my life pursuing the “higher learning,” taking those courses and reading — even writing! — the kind of books that were not part of Dad’s life. I value my education, of course. But what I value most is what I learned from my dad: the highest form of thinking is that which we do with the mind descended into the heart. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our heads with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge and we can become more fully human.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thanks for all the wisdom, all the laughs, all the love!

Finding a Box of Family Letters
by Dana Gioia, from “Pity the Beautiful”

The dead say little in their letters
they haven’t said before.
We find no secrets, and yet
how different every sentence sounds
heard across the years.

My father breaks my heart
simply by being so young and handsome.
He’s half my age, with jet-black hair.
Look at him in his navy uniform
grinning beside his dive-bomber.

Come back, Dad! I want to shout.
He says he misses all of us
(though I haven’t yet been born).
He writes from places I never knew he saw,
and everyone he mentions now is dead.

There is a large, long photograph
curled like a diploma—a banquet sixty years ago.
My parents sit uncomfortably
among tables of dark-suited strangers.
The mildewed paper reeks of regret.

I wonder what song the band was playing,
just out of frame, as the photographer
arranged your smiles. A waltz? A foxtrot?
Get out there on the floor and dance!
You don’t have forever.

What does it cost to send a postcard
to the underworld? I’ll buy
a penny stamp from World War II
and mail it downtown at the old post office
just as the courthouse clock strikes twelve.

Surely the ghost of some postal worker
still makes his nightly rounds, his routine
too tedious for him to notice when it ended.
He works so slowly he moves back in time
carrying our dead letters to their lost addresses.

It’s silly to get sentimental.
The dead have moved on. So should we.
But isn’t it equally simpleminded to miss
the special expertise of the departed
in clarifying our long-term plans?

They never let us forget that the line
between them and us is only temporary.
Get out there and dance! the letters shout
adding, Love always. Can’t wait to get home!
And soon we will be. See you there.

A Palestinian man sits with his son looking at the sea in the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City. (Mohammed Abed / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)


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