This I Believe

Steven - Goleta, California
Entered on November 9, 2006

Dear Dad,


Josette shouted it from her car seat in the back of our van. A split second later, the light turned green and we were moving again.

“Wow, you’re magic,” I told her over my shoulder. But I was only stating the obvious. As I looked at her, I saw the delight in her eyes and the big smile. She’s a clever two-year-old. She knew it was a game, but she also believed. Dad was full of jokes and tricks and stories, she knew that. But she had said Grandpa’s magic word, and the light had turned green. That was magic.

Josette is at the wonderful age where she wants to suspend disbelief and does so as easily as she smiles or runs or changes her dress-up clothes. Anything is possible. So enjoyment is never beyond her — even when she’d just had an inoculation and she was feeling tired and impatient to get home, as was the case today.

Of course, you, Dad, taught me “Za-boo-la-roo” decades ago as we waited at lights in Santa Barbara.

I still hold the word dear. It turns tedious waiting into a game. It transforms a mundane intersection into a stage for conjuring. It bends the preordained to our will. It creates a tall tale and then makes it real.

Say it with high seriousness – but don’t forget the twinkle in the eye. The four-syllable incantation – Za-bu-la-roo!

(I can see you doing your magic hand motion at the lights as you sit at the wheel of the recently repainted beige1967 Impala. What a car that was.)

Za-boo-la-roo also has the very useful quality of not having its magic diminished by repetition. How many times did I try to master the trick of the timing as a child, and how many times did I end up saying the magic word a dozen or more times before “making” the lights change?

It was in the 1960s that you played the game with me. It was 2005, today in fact, that I played the game with Josette. The result was the same: fun for father and child, joie de vivre at the traffic lights.

Now that is magic.

As we rode back today, Kathleen at the wheel, I smiled at my wife and she smiled conspiratorially back at me. Then I couldn’t help but steal another glance back at Josette in her car seat. The grin was still stretched across her face, the magic word still playing on her lips.

I thought how I plagiarize all those things I love about your parenting, and how it is not just the genes that are passed down, but the method of living.

On this your 82nd birthday, I want to thank you for teaching me such a useful and powerful word. I spend a fair amount of time trying to appreciate the moments that inject joy into existence – I even like to create a few. You taught me that waiting for a red light to turn to green could be fun, could be funny, could be a memory to hold on to all my life. You taught me that enjoyment isn’t something that always comes to you, it is something that can be created.

Critics say stories are told in details. So, too, are lives acted out. And when, on occasion, those details take on meaning, the ephemeral becomes something lasting, something worth remembering. Like when you’re with your dad at the stoplight, saying “Za-boo-la-roo.” Or when your daughter uses the magic word for the very first time.

Za-boo-la-roo. This I believe.

I love you, Dad.