At least twice a week on my drive home from work, I call my dad. My commute is relatively short, but my road rage and general angst runs deep. It takes him about 10 seconds to recognize said road rage/angst in my voice, not only because I’m yelling at the assholes who consistently cut me off, but because it distracts me from our conversation. “You’re trippin’,” he laughs every time. “You need to calm down. Pull over. Get off the phone. Breathe. Then call me back.”
It’s not just when I’m in the car that he reminds me to check my emotional responses either. It happens when I’m frustrated with money, when I have shitty workouts and/or when I fight with my boyfriend. His advice is essentially the same every time: Calm down. It’s not that deep. Ease up.
I was 14 and a member of the high school varsity track team when he offered me this advice for the first time. While I participated in a host of after-school activities (art and dance chief among them), track was my salvation — a ticket out of the perpetual torment I suffered at the hands of my peers. At my inaugural meet, I stood on the clay track in my spikes, settling into the blocks and checking out my competition, most of whom were taller, thinner and more accomplished than me. Two of them were on my team; the rest were from a rival school.
I remember seeing my dad among the sparsely occupied bleachers and feeling both excited and anxious. I couldn’t let him down. He’d always prided himself on being an athlete — a king of the weight room (even now) as well as a high school track star in his own right. And so, although just 100 yards, this race was a not-so-subtle symbol of me following in his footsteps.
I was so anxious when the buzzer went off that I barely remember leaving the blocks. In fact, I didn’t look back once we started running, which is probably why I finished first. When the coach placed the cheap “golden” medal around my neck, the adrenaline (and thrill of victory) got the best of me and I began celebrating in such a way that it made my teammates uncomfortable. Shortly thereafter, my coach approached me in disgust. “You’re not the only person on the team who raced today,” she reprimanded. “Acting this excited about beating people on your own team is insensitive — you need to calm down.”
I remember wilting so quickly that I started to cry.
My dad, of course, ran down to me to give me a big hug — only to realize that I was sobbing. At that point I could see his joy turn to confusion. Through tears, I explained to him that my teammates weren’t happy with the fact that I’d won and that my coach didn’t appreciate my “sore winner” attitude. He stared at me and grew increasingly more upset. “But you did win, and I’m proud of you,” he reassured. “Are you proud of yourself? Because that’s all that matters. Never let them see you sweat, but also, stay humble. You have to take them lightly.”
The next year I tore my ACL and meniscus doing hurdles. A handful of my teammates laughed instead of helping me up because they believed I was being dramatic (as opposed to, you know, seriously hurt). I couldn’t walk properly until the end of my junior year. Nonetheless, my dad’s advice was all the same: “Don’t let them see you sweat.”
Nor has it changed since — as evidenced by my calls to him when I’m road raging, angsty, stressed about money, not pushing my body hard enough at the gym or arguing with my boyfriend (or pretty much any other time things are fucked up). Curiously, though, when I ask him about how he found such zen, he grows quiet — or what I like to call “squishy.” He’s seemingly unwilling (or unable) to articulate the adolescence challenges that inspired his life mantra (and most lasting piece of paternal advice): Calm down. It’s not that deep. Ease up. Whatever you do, don’t let them see you sweat.
As for me, trust me when I say I’m working on it — really, really, really, really fucking hard. But I’m a natural hot head who breathes fire. In this way, I’m also my father’s daughter. Because man, does he still fucking hate that high school track coach.