Never Take it for Granted

For those of you who are regular readers of my blog, I beg your indulgence as this post is going to be a little different, and a little personal.  I promise to get back on schedule with the technical/business posts, and I have my 2011 recap ready to go for next week, but this is something I’ve wanted to share for some time…

I’d like to introduce you to my dad, Rich Dooley.

Dad02Now, I know that everyone’s dad is special, but I’d like to think mine is a bit on the extraordinary side.  I think it would be awesome at some point to sit down with him and the people who know him and write his life’s story, since even the parts that I know about, as his oldest son, are pretty unique.  He spent 20+ years in the US Army, starting in tanks and moving into personnel and transportation as he and my Mom decided to have a larger family.  My brother and I were born while they were at Fort Bragg, and then we all moved to Oberursel, Germany for the next seven years.  In 1986 we moved back to the states, with my Dad being posted at USCENTCOM in Tampa, Florida.  After the first Gulf War, we relocated for the last time, moving to Vienna, Virginia so Dad could work for the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon.

My dad served as an enlisted soldier in the US Army for more than 20 years.  He served on the front lines in West Germany during the Cold War, served in the command center during the first Gulf War and then served in the Pentagon for everything since.  He’s played war games against the Russians, he’s processed visas for US troops in the middle east and he’s had people fly airplanes through the windows of the office building he works in.  He and my Mom raised six kids on and enlisted salary, took us all over the world and made sure we got the opportunities they never had.  They did all this, and still built for us a relationship with both of their families that lasts until today.  They even made sure that every one of us was actually born inside the US, no matter where we happened to be stationed.

Country Drifters 1985More than all of that, my father is a musician.  Not a sing in the car, karaoke after a couple beers kind of guy; a no-shit, world-class, unbelievable musician.  Long before I was born, his world revolved around guitars and bands with his friends, and that certainly didn’t change much with time.  After we moved Germany, my dad joined a country-rock band called the Country Drifters and we spent the 7 years we were there touring Germany.  He started off playing bass, and then moved over to lead vocals over time, and it’s still some of the best memories of my childhood.  Seriously, how many kids have heard crowds of people screaming at their dad to play “Freebird”?  You’d think that the band would be made up of all GIs, but it wasn’t at all.  With members from Germany, England and elsewhere, it opened my eyes to a larger world that most American kids don’t get.  To this day, I feel bad for everyone who spent their childhood in one place, or even one country.

The music business wasn’t always fun, I don’t think, but it was his passion.  Even a horrible car wreck on a snowy highway in Germany (FYI: semi-trucks always win in fights with VW Beetles) couldn’t stop him.  Once we came back to the states, he never joined another Dad01formal band, partly because us kids were getting older.  Instead of being a band leader, he became a Boy Scout troop leader and a Little League dad.  That certainly didn’t mean the music stopped, it just meant that it was an everyday thing instead of an event-driven thing.  Friends coming over?  Get out a guitar.  Holiday?  Let’s get the whole family singing.  For my dad, it was effortless.  Have you ever seen an athlete or a co-worker or someone who is so obviously, easily good at something they didn’t even notice it?  That was my dad with a guitar in his hands.  Literally, I used to try and stump him by asking him to play things that he’d never heard before, just to see if he could do it.  Once, I asked him to play an acoustic cut off of a Van Halen album (316, the 10th track off of 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album), and he did it, perfectly, the first time having ever heard it.  After that, I quit trying.

The funny part about being that good at something is that you tend to, whether you do it consciously or not, take it for granted.  It happens when you’ve been so good at something for so long, that you forget how much work it was to become good in the first place.  It’s even harder to avoid when you are naturally predisposed to being good at that thing.  I don’t think it’s a failing so much as it’s the natural way of things: we obsess about the things we want to be better at, not the things we are incredible good at.

In 2007, my dad had a stroke.

It wasn’t a bad one, in the grand scheme of things.  When my mom called and told me what happened, the worst thoughts possible came to mind.  There’s probably no need to recount everything that went through my head, I’m sure you can imagine.  The truth turned out to be both better….and worse.  My dad had been slowly losing his hearing for years, but the stroke went one step further.  It took away his ability to hear pitch, and to be able to make the connection between what he was hearing and what he was playing.  He lost the one thing he was better at than anything in the world.

On one hand, I’m worried about my dad.  He’s nearing his second (and hopefully) final retirement, but at 59 he’s still relatively young.  The frustration on his face as he tries to work through chord changes, and as he plays along with the kids singing Christmas carols kills me, and I can only imagine how much it affects him.  In the last couple years, he’s made progress in his recovery, but there’s still a ways to go.  My mom has been a huge part of his recovery, both cajoling him to put in the work to re-learn the things the stroke took away and in helping him find other activities to put his energy in.

On the other hand, I wonder what I’m taking for granted.  I recognize that I have been incredibly lucky in my life, and particularly in my career, to the point where I’m a little reluctant to think about it.  Am I taking any of my abilities for granted?  Am I taking for granted the fantastic places I’ve been able to work?  Am I taking the people who I work with for granted, people who have given so much, so freely?  What are the skills that have made me successful?  Am I neglecting them?  What about my beautiful, incredible family?  My wife?  Am I so comfortable with any of those things that I’ve forgotten to put in the effort needed to maintain them?

What about you?  Are you paying attention to the foundation?  Are you forgetting to pay attention to the things you are so good at, and the people you are so close to, that have served you so well, that have gotten you so far?  I bet you are.  I know I am.

3 DooleysIn the end, I think about my dad.  I think about his gift.  It’s hard for me to imagine being as good at anything as he was/is at music, and I have no way to relate to losing even a part of something like that.  It terrifies me.  It makes me unspeakably angry.  It makes me sad.  It makes me want to look around, take stock, reprioritize.  It makes me want to work harder, be more, do more.  It makes me want to pick up a guitar, something I’ve been too intimidated to even try for most of my life; I mean really, how do I follow in those footsteps?  It makes me want to try, and in the end, isn’t that inspiration something all dad’s are supposed to do give their sons?