Today, on what would be his 80th birthday, I'm going to talk about some of the lessons my father taught me. Max Leiba wasn't highly educated: he was a printer by trade, and later he taught printing in high school, assigned to Miami Northwestern High School. Having had no college degrees, he had to get BA and MA equivalencies, working on them at night, and I remember quizzing him on his assignments, much as he would quiz us on ours. What Dad had in formal education's stead was wisdom and education learned from the world, from the family, from life. He knew what was important, and it was those things he tried to teach me, leaving it to the schools to do the science, mathematics, and literature.
Always do the best you can.
This was probably Dad's main point, and the one he drove home the most frequently. Work hard. Never settle for mediocrity. If Dad had been Yoda, he'd have seemed natural in saying, Do, or do not. There is no “try”. His goal and the goal of his brothers reflected that of their father, my grandfather, Joe: raise a family that's happy and productive, and has more opportunity and a better life than the generation before.
The emphasis on hard work, education, and excellence kept the standards high, and the bar was difficult to jump over. But we all did, my brothers, my cousins, and I, and I'm glad we were pushed to learn and to grow.
Don't blow your own horn.
The other side of the “do well” lesson was the one of corresponding humility. If you excel, it will be obvious. Others will know, without your telling them. Let your actions speak for you. It's a weak man who has to tell everyone how strong he is.
Nothing is free in this world.
There was always a “prize” at the bottom of the Cracker Jack® box, always a toy in the box of breakfast cereal. Eagerly, I would dig to the bottom — sometimes comically, as I emptied the contents onto the table to get the freebie today, rather than waiting through a few more days of breakfasts. But, said Dad, the toy isn't really free. Its cost is part of the cost of the cereal.
And so it is with everything, a concept that I now know as “TANSTAAFL”, “There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch”. Dad never read Heinlein, but he knew the concept well. Look for the hidden cost in everything; it's always there. That's not bad; it just is. Be aware of it. Know what you're getting, and what it's costing you. Make your decisions with the full understanding that nothing is free of some sort of cost — and it isn't always monetary.
Everyone is alike; value comes from inside.
This was his second most important point. Max came from a time in which one paid attention to the ethnic backgrounds of everyone. He could never tell a story about someone without associating the subject with his ethnicity. “I met a fellow today, nice guy, Italian guy,” he might say. That was supposed to tell you something about the man. But it was always clear to us that what he was conveying by that was superficial, purely descriptive, as though he were telling us that the guy was blonde, or wore a blue shirt.
Inside, he taught us, was whence a person's value came. White, black; Italian, Chinese; Jewish, Catholic, Muslim — they're all superficial differences, and we're really all alike. Look inside a man or woman and see what's there. That's what you pay attention to.
Of all the lessons, this is the one I've most thoroughly internalized. It's why bigotry and intolerance are incomprehensible to me.
This is a free country, the best in the world.
Joe came here from Romania in the first decade of the 20th century. He came because he wanted to be a part of what he thought to be the best country in the world, to have a better life for himself and for the family he hoped to build here. Max and his brothers learned from Joe to value America and the freedoms we have here, and those lessons came on to my generation as well. Dad grew up in the 1930s and '40s, and did his military service in the Coast Guard just after World War II (it was part of the military then, much as the National Guard is now).
I grew up in the 1960s and '70s, with Korea and McCarthy/HUAC as recent history, and with the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and the antiwar protests as current events. What Dad said at the dinner table underscored what was going on in America. I learned about freedom of speech, freedom to petition the government, freedom of assembly (which wasn't always “peaceably” done in those days). He taught me the importance of voting as a way of making your voice heard. I grew up learning of an America in which people didn't always agree, and in which things didn't always go smoothly — but in which dissent was always accepted, and in which we were free and encouraged to do our part to participate and to change what we felt was wrong.
As with the other lessons I'm talking about today, I live this one in my daily life. My writings here, my vote on election day, my letters to my legislators, my participation in protest marches all are part of my participation in the freedoms that are in turn part of living in what my generation and the two in my family before me have considered the best country in the world. And I'm deeply disturbed by the changes this country has made in the last six years, the erosion of personal freedoms and the rollback of civil rights that I saw people fighting so hard for when I was a child.
I still see hope that America can again be the best country in the world, but we have to fight for it, fight to regain the ground we've lost. And we're not fighting now against men in combat boots with guns and missiles, and not against men putting bombs in trucks and buildings. We're fighting to protect our country and our ideals and our freedoms from men in suits and ties, men who are on television telling us that we must be afraid, and who use that fear to make us less free.
I'm just glad that Dad's sleeping peacefully, and doesn't have to know what they're doing to his best country in the world.