By Ben |

Both my parents turn 80 this year. Dad's birthday is first. Here are some of the life lessons I've learned from him specifically, that I wouldn't have got from just any father.

The road less traveled is there to be explored.

Dad has always made it his business to know where every road or path goes and what one can find there. He rarely takes the same route twice in a row. Often a routine trip home from church in Tulsa or visiting his parents in OKC would turn into an adventure in the countryside, as he would spot a road he didn't recognize and turn off to explore it.

I really learned to appreciate this when I was on my year-long bike trip around the country. I had detailed maps with me, but sometimes I asked locals for directions to avoid traffic, construction, etc. Most people were at a loss to provide directions appropriate to a bicyclist because they'd never been off the main road. But when I called and asked my dad how to ride into my hometown of Bartlesville, Oklahoma from southeast Kansas while staying off the highways, he was able to give me turn-by-turn directions off the top of his head, and they were accurate.

Kids appreciate being treated like they can understand stuff.

When Dad is excited about something he's been working on or learning, he loves to explain it to someone, usually while drawing a diagram. For those of us in the family living with him every day, this could get a little tiresome. But for friends who were visiting, it was a thrill. They were used to adults and older kids brushing them off and telling them they couldn't understand adult things. If they told my Dad they didn't understand what he'd said, whether it was about electronics or programming or high voltage or relativity, he would just back up and try again from a different angle until they did understand. It made them feel respected and grown-up.

And because Dad usually had a few projects going on at a time, one demonstration could lead to another until I sometimes wondered if my friends were there to play with me or with him! There were definitely a few times that I invited a friend over only to be asked, "will your dad be there?" and "yes" was the right answer.

As an adult, I get along well with other people's teenagers, but kids are kind of a mystery to me. They like me fine, but I don't know what to do with them, so I have to appreciate Dad's knack with kids.

You can do it yourself.

Like most people who buy a house, my parents wanted to change some things. Since we moved in just before I was born, most of these renovations and upgrades didn't happen until I was old enough to remember.

While I was still just a few years old, Dad would invite 'Becca and me to go the length of the attic with him while he took insulation out of the attic fan in the spring or put it in in the fall, and we would clamber over the rafters in the (still poorly insulated) attic. Since headlamp technology was lacking back then, he brought a corded droplight with him, and this was so inconvenient that he decided to install permanent lighting down the full length of the attic. I remember keeping him company (or maybe he was watching me?) as he installed about a dozen electrical boxes and wired them all up to a switch at the top of the attic stairs. The floored part of the attic above the garage became a favorite place for 'Becca and me to play, but more importantly, I gained the confidence to rewire the attics of both homes I've owned.

Other things Dad did himself that our friends' parents didn't included changing the oil on the cars, repairing bicycles, and programming computers.

There's nothing like having the right tool for a job.

This is a remark Dad made many times while I was growing up. I'd be "helping" him with a project, and he'd need some specialized tool, and he'd either find it in the garage or go buy it rather than try to do the job with the wrong tool. A few memorable times, he even built a tool himself rather than do without it.

In college, I started volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, where over the course of a few years I learned to do nearly every step of building a house. The Habitat affiliates I was working with made it their business to have the proper tools to do the work right. When Jessie and I bought our first house, we didn't always have the right tools on hand, and I got by without them as best I could, but when I gave up and bought the right tools, the satisfaction was palpable.

In particular, there was a time I needed to frame a (non-load-bearing) wall from 2x4s, and all we had were random nails and some little tack hammers. I thought back to my Habitat days and went and got a box of framing nails and a proper framing hammer. It felt so good in my hand and made such quick work of the job that I called Dad and told him about it. He has never liked working with wood and nails, but he understood the satisfaction.

Doing the right thing should feel good.

This may be a stretch as a heading, but let me give you some examples. Dad got me hooked on going on long bike rides while I was in middle school. I enjoyed it, and I got lots of exercise — for my legs. When puberty hit, my leg muscles bulked up while my upper body remained scrawny! He could have advised me to lift weights or taken me to the gym or enrolled me in sports; lots of guys' dads did. But instead he hung a rope swing in the back yard and positioned a platform I could swing off of. I spent hours a day swinging on that rope and built a strong upper body while having fun.

He taught us to drink lots of water before and after going out in the heat, and instead of harping on its importance for health or the dire consequences of dehydration, he emphasized how good it feels to drink water when you're thirsty, and how much better the heat feels when you've had enough water.

When there was a problem to solve, he would sit down to work on it like we were doing a puzzle together, and when it was solved, he talked about how satisfying it felt to have solved it. The lesson I took from it was that work isn't necessary "fun" as Mary Poppins claims, but it is rewarding, and if you can appreciate the reward, then it doesn't feel like a burden.

You don't have to understand someone to be compassionate toward them.

I can think of a number of times when Dad has confided to me that he doesn't understand why someone has made the life choices that they have made, but nevertheless he has helped them to follow through and meet their goals. The case that particularly stands out was when he drove a fellow member of their church to Texas for gender confirmation surgery, a trip requiring multiple days of driving 5+ hours. She is a very talkative person, so she must have given Dad an earful all the way there and back, but afterward he told me he still didn't understand why someone would have that surgery.

In my own life, I can see examples of the same behavior. When you help someone, you help the person they are, not the person you imagine you would be.

I'm sure there are more lessons I'll think of later, but for now, these need to be shared!