My reporting class inspired me to dig up these words of wisdom from my dad today on his actual birthday.
About six or seven weeks ago, we discussed open records and launched our “Fun with FOIA” assignment, which was relatively simple:
- Come up with a story that is predicated on public records of any kind
- Create and file an open-records request with the agency responsible for those records
- Write a two-page, double-spaced story that incorporates the info you got back and at least two human sources who can discuss the topic in a meaningful way.
This isn’t rocket science and I wasn’t looking for a Watergate story. Find the budget of the student government, figure out what they spend money on and ask the leaders some questions. Pull the contracts used to hire speakers for campus events and see who got paid what and if anything was hinky. Get the total number of parking tickets given on campus, see where the most/least tickets were given and talk to parking services folks about it.
That said, I told them about 832 times that the only truly problematic thing would be if they waited too long to file their open-records request. That would limit the time people on the other end would have to look at your stuff, find the records and get back to you. “Yeah… Yeah… We know…” was the general attitude as they left class that day.
Today, drafts are due and I’m getting emails that start like this:
So, this is honestly my own fault, but I submitted my open records request to the University Police on Monday and for some odd reason I thought they could get to me by Thursday, but they just got back to me today saying they’re so busy with open record requests, so he won’t have done for another 10 days.
And thus came forth advice my father constantly gave me that I then shared with them: “Dammit, you should have done it right away…”
Dad believed in the idea that if we got stuff done when it came up, we wouldn’t end up forgetting about it or getting painted into a corner by circumstance. It’s why we always pack the car for card shows the night before, print off an itinerary for a trip immediately (even if the trip is six months away) and make damned sure to file our taxes right away.
It’s why when I get asked to judge a contest, I try my best to nail it down as soon as I get the assignments. It’s why I respond to emails right after I open them. It’s also why nothing irritates me more than if something slips past me and then I’m behind on it.
Today’s throwback post brings back Dad’s maxims I put together on his birthday a few years back. These still fit perfectly in everything I teach. I also wanted to add these two items that I find myself coming back to every, single day as a journalist and a professor:
Learn to haggle: If there is one life skill students desperately need, it’s to understand how to appropriately value things and negotiate. I learned this when I was about 7 years old at a baseball card show.
I wanted a 1973 Roberto Clemente card, and one dealer had a whole bunch of them for sale. When Dad asked the guy how much one would cost, the dealer pulled out a price guide, and said they were $25 each.
“I’ll give you $10 for one,” Dad replied.
“Look at the book,” the guy said, pushing the guide toward Dad. “They’re booking at $25.”
“Well, I’ll give you $10 for whichever one you want to sell,” Dad replied.
The guy sighed, and said, “Pick whichever one you want. It’s a deal.”
I still couldn’t understand how that all worked, but I waited until we got in the car to ask Dad about it. I mean, the BOOK SAID the card was worth $25. That’s got to be how much you pay, right? It was at that point, Dad said something that sticks with me until this day:
“Something isn’t worth what somebody says it is. It’s worth what someone’s willing to give you for it.”
Not only was that good advice when it came to garage sales, flea markets, baseball cards and auto purchases, it was phenomenal advice when it came to negotiating debts, getting info from sources and prying documents loose from wary record keepers.
Even more, it’s the skill I teach students the most when they get job offers: Here’s how you ask for a better salary, better hours, specific computer systems, more vacation, extra 401K matches and more. Haggling can feel awkward until you get used to it, which is why it’s important to understand how to do it well and to get plenty of practice at it with small stuff.
Like baseball cards.
Live up to your word: The best and worst moments of my life came from this maxim, in that Dad did what he said.
When I was 8, I asked to go to a Milwaukee Brewers game. Dad agreed to take me on the day I had asked, not quite realizing that it was Free Bat Day, and that the team was in the middle of a pennant race. The place would be packed, the traffic would be awful and who knows if they had enough bats to satisfy every kid.
Still, Dad said yes, so we went. It was a heck of a game and I still have that bat somewhere.
Conversely, when I turned 16 and got my driver’s license, Dad told me, “If you get a speeding ticket, you’re done. I don’t want any (bovine excrement). You get a ticket and you give me your keys.”
About a year later, I was flying down a stretch of road notorious for speed traps when I got clocked at 17 over. No warning and no mercy from the officer. I got the ticket.
Dad was making dinner and he asked, “Where the hell were you?” I didn’t say a word. I just put the ticket on the kitchen table, dropped the keys on top of it and that was that for a while. (Eventually, I got my driving privileges back but 32 years later, I’m still smarting from that to the point Amy accuses me of being an elderly woman behind the wheel.)
Dad always said, “If I said yes, it was yes. If I said no, it’s no. A ‘maybe’ means ‘maybe.'”
I try to live by that with my own kid and with my career as well. If I commit to something, whether it’s as pathologically stupid as writing three books at the same time or as easy as keeping my door open during office hours, I do it.
As my reporting class learned this morning when they asked, “Can’t we move the deadline for the FOIA story?”
Nope. It is what it is.
So, on Dad’s birthday, here’s a look back at his previous words of wisdom and what I hope students can learn from them.
As my daughter was going stir-crazy the other day, whining loudly about missing her friends, her extracurricular activities and even in-school classes, I told her the one truism I hoped would keep her sane:
“You can’t focus on the things you can’t do because of social distancing. You have to focus on the things you DO get to do. Otherwise, you’ll go batty.”
For me, an introvert with a long-standing aversion to social situations, this has been an easy adage to espouse and obey.
Until today. Today is my dad’s birthday.
Like everyone else in this country, Dad is stuck at home with limited contact to the outside world, for fear of contracting a virus that is decimating people at an incredible rate. While this “wait this out at home” rule is rough on a lot of people, it has to be killing my dad, who earned the family nickname of “No-Line Frank” for his disdain of waiting in line for anything. (It probably isn’t any great shakes for my mom, either, as she’s isolated in the house with him like this for at least another month.)
I wish with all my heart I could jet down I-41 and give him a big hug (and a nice bottle of Drambuie) today. The fact I can’t saddens me to the point of distraction. That said, he would be the first one to tell me it’s fine, not to worry and that I should get back to work.
My parents were and still are instrumental in who I am and what I do in life. In honor of dad’s 76th birthday, here are four “Filak-isms” he taught me that helped make me who I am and likely will help me make it through this pandemic unscathed:
HUSTLE WHILE YOU WAIT: I can’t remember when he first said it to me, but I rely on it almost daily: “The best things in life come to he who hustles while he waits.”
Although Dad later told me he heard this in a Credit Union seminar or something, I still attribute it to him because he not only said it, but he lives it. I often joke that I’m a “human twitch” when it comes to keeping busy, constantly writing books, teaching classes, refinishing furniture and doing almost anything else anybody asks of me.
Compared to my dad, I’m a piker.
I can’t remember the last time I saw him watch a whole ballgame or TV show without getting up and looking for something to do. He might be cleaning out the junk drawer in the dining room or sorting some baseball cards or looking for something in the basement, but he’s constantly on the move. Seeing this always inspired me to find more stuff to do and to keep looking for new opportunities to make the most of my time.
If you’re always hustling, the good things will come your way.
DON’T BRING SHAME ON THE FAMILY: I know I’ve explained this before, but it bears repeating. Dad told me this when I went off to college and decades later, it still rings true. “When you go out there, have fun,” he said. ” But, don’t bring shame on the family. It’s my name, too.”
The sheer tonnage of stupid things I avoided doing in college, simply based on that bit of advice, could stop a speeding locomotive from moving another inch forward. Even now, when I considered doing something, I would imagine the headline “UWO Professor Arrested for (Fill in whatever stupid thing I thought about doing)” and immediately decided against doing that stupid thing.
Whether it was being a success or just avoiding failure, the goal was pretty simple: When Dad saw someone he knew at the grocery store, it would be great if the person didn’t start the conversation with, “Hey, yeah… Heard about your son… Geez… That’s not good…”
YOU ARE NOT AVERAGE: In fifth grade, I came home with five C’s on my report card, much to the dismay of my parents. Dad was less than pleased that I wasn’t living up to my potential, whatever that was, and he pretty much knew full well that I fell short because I wasn’t giving a crap.
We were in the middle of a “silent supper,” thanks to my transgressions, when I finally broke the silence with what I thought would be a pretty good argument for my folks to not be so upset: “I read the report card, and it says that a C is average, so-”
Dad cut me off in a firm tone, “You are NOT average.”
I got the point. I could do better. And I knew it.
From that moment, I didn’t get another C on a report card until I hit my freshman year of college. In that case, it was more of a scheduling mistake than a lack of effort, because I took an introductory zoology course that served as the “weed-out” class for the veterinary medicine program at the U.
It’s always easy to take it easy, but that’s not the right way to do things. I was lucky enough to get a set of tools and the ability to use them in a way that matters. I was also lucky as hell to have parents who wouldn’t let me slide because I was good enough to get by or because other people’s kids were doing something worse.
Once that got stuck in my head, I realized that it’s important to always push beyond average whenever possible.
FINISH THE WORK FIRST, DRINK BEER LATER: Dad always believed in the separation of work and relaxation. He once told me about my grandfather and how he liked to do part of a job and then relax a bit and then go back and do more of it. Dad fell into the mode that my great-grandfather espoused: Finish the work first, drink the beer later.
What I learned from this was not only the importance of a strong work ethic but also the idea that I could find joy in completion of work. Seeing things get checked off a list or looking at a well-done job brought me happiness that could far exceed the joy of a brief respite and the knowledge that I had to do more work.
Even more, the beer always tasted better when I knew I was done for the day.
Thanks for everything, Pop. I love you.