Unusual Life Lessons From an Unusual Father

My parents liked to think of our family as "bent," more "Fractured Fairy Tales" than Disney. We couldn't bear to do things the way normal people -- or at least people who seemed normal -- did.

To celebrate Father's Day in that spirit, I offer nine -- never 10 -- unusual life lessons I learned from my unusual dad.

1. Baseball trumps sex. Dad never talked to me about sex. Not one word. Once he took me to a birds and bees thing at my elementary school. On the way home, we talked about how much pain our hero Mickey Mantle felt every time he took a swing or flagged down a fly ball.

2. When in pain, pun. In his late 80s, Dad suffered a heart attack and required surgery. As he was being wheeled in for X-rays, he winked at me and said, "Aorta be in pictures."

3. Stay clear of thy neighbor. Dad loved his small circle of friends and had no desire to acquire more. He certainly didn't want friends who lived close enough to drop by unannounced. He often enlisted my mom as his first line of defense: When our back-door neighbor came by with her young daughter in tow and asked Mom if the daughter could watch Dad write a song, Mom said, "He writes his songs on the john."

4. Never argue with morons. Say some fathead asks you to name a song you've written and you mention "Ebb Tide." When he tells you that he happens to know who wrote "Ebb Tide" and that it isn't you, walk away. When a well-meaning fellow insists, despite your protests, that you wrote "Autumn Leaves," let it go.

5. Hate the Beatles, love the Beatles. Dad hated rock 'n' roll -- and the Beatles in particular -- because it was noisy and because when artists recorded their own material it threatened his livelihood. He'd rail, "It's not music; they should call it something else." But all that changed when he heard "Yesterday." He even came to love some of the harder stuff, as long as Paul was singing. Still, some bitterness lingered. No one knew that better than his longtime friend the great record man Jerry Wexler. When Jerry (a charter member of the "bent" brigade) called me shortly after Dad died, his first words were, "Carl never forgave me for rock 'n' roll."

6. The title is half the battle. Dad thought he was a pretty good songwriter but not a great one. He was, however, quite proud of the song titles he'd scribble on napkins, receipts, maps and menus. Many were complete sentences: "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)," "It's All In The Game," "Answer Me, My Love." My personal faves, with a nod to Dad's frequent collaborator Bill Hilliard, are "I Left The One I Love On One Of The Thousand Islands (But Unfortunately I Can't Remember Which One)" and "Our Horses Are Falling In Love." I doubt Dad intended this, but I find that when something feels awful -- or just off -- giving the feeling a name is helpful.

7. There is no God, so thank God for golf. The golf course was Dad's office and spiritual retreat. He played 18 holes nearly every day, relishing the combination of Zen calm and rigorous technique. When I was little, a guy we met in a deli asked me what my father did for a living. I said, "He plays golf." "What about the winter?" the guy asked. I said, "He bowls."

8. Make your father proud. I'm told that during Christmas season when I was three or four, we stopped at a display of Jesus. I looked up to Dad and said, "His father must be very proud."

9. Gin trumps heroics. Dad loved his gin. The card game, not the drink. Even late in life, Sgt. Sigman took special pride in telling us about his win-loss record over his 82nd Airborne Division comrades during the Second World War. And he wasn't shy about telling us that Gen. Matthew Ridgway honored him for writing the 82nd's theme song, which remains the outfit's signature song to this day. He never mentioned that he was awarded a Bronze Star. I found that medal a year or so after he died while sifting through a crate of old sheet music.