My father was an artist at heart. Born in China, the harsh times of the Cultural Revolution marred his adolescence. With little to do, no school to attend, and no money to earn, he chose to draw. Simple strokes developed into sketches. Years passed and he began to practice masterful oil-on-canvas paintings that depicted the collegiate Chinese settings of his youth.
My father's explorations in the arts made my grandfather happy, yet troubled. My father wanted to become an architect, a job that did not pay well at the time and was not considered a good choice. My grandfather was a physics professor — a good job, he figured, for his son as well.
The problem with arts and design, my grandfather explained to my father one day, is that you cannot always be right. In physics, there is one solution to every problem — the trajectory of an object as it flies through the air is exact and the answer is either right or wrong. The same does not hold true for art. Art can be enjoyed or unappreciated, loved or ignored. It is never perfect, always disputed. The choice between physics and arts was certain to my grandfather. And so it was.
My father studied physics in college graduating at the top of his class. He became a teaching professor at a university only a few miles away from my grandfather’s home. In the years he had spent studying, however, the country's intellectuals had shifted away from physics and were now researching other fields. Who cared about the position of a flying ball when there were more important advancements to be made? He arrived in the United States many years later as a student, transferring to the computer science department. Dropping physics completely, he studied eight more years before settling as a programmer.
“I’m right,” he tells me. “I still am. I made the correct — and logical — decision at each moment. And here I am.” He’ll go on to stress the importance of making logical decisions — of scrutiny and breakdown, of understanding the importance of supporting a wife, children, parents and family.
A few of my father’s paintings hang in the halls of our home, lush oil pieces framed with simple wood. In these works, flowers blossom into the distance and tranquil lilacs dot the scenery — the scenes from his youth are no more. Sometimes I see him stop in the hallways to examine the paintings. He will cock his head at a small mistake in the corner, an imperfect color choice perhaps, but then he will turn away and continue about his day.
The easel sits in the back of the closet, years untouched.
I was nine when I met Adam. He was in his early thirties, blending in with others on the mountain behind his mirrored ski goggles. Other than a bright orange jacket identifying him as a junior ski instructor, he was nondescript, wearing all black. With a hop from the ski lift, he led the way for his ragtag army of young snowboarders.
When we gathered for lunch in the warm summit lodge, Adam told us stories. He was formerly a Fortune 500 executive. With a light chuckle, he told us that managing thousands of people was easier than instructing us. Five years ago, Adam had quit his job. He now lived month-to-month working as a ranger at national parks in the summer and as a ski instructor in the winter. He told us how he relished the rush of snow, savoring every “cubicle-free” moment.
I remember my chest tightening as he spoke. Adam was reckless and inconsiderate — his choices threatened his sustenance, placing his livelihood in danger. One dry snow season could put him out of a job and back into his parents' garage. How could a man put himself in such the danger? I would never do what he did, I thought. Yet somewhere deep inside of me, I knew that he had dared to follow his passion. With years of careful planning already under my belt, I wanted to cut him off, pursing my lips, and explain how my family had planned our vacation longer than he had planned his life. But I couldn't.
Risk analysis is a lofty term. One rainy Saturday afternoon, I remember my father sitting me down at the dinner table. He gazed over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses as he explained to me the concept of quantitative risk analysis. His pen scribbled over the paper as he spoke, a mannerism of my father that I treasure dearly. A circle soon morphed into a cloud and the lines near the bottom of the page curved into a grassy field. In the distance, buildings sprouted up — the distinct fencing of a schoolyard thousands of miles away in China. He had inadvertently drawn the school-grounds of his childhood, the very scenes he had traced decades ago.
In the final portions of his spiel on risk analysis, my father mentioned the importance of relying on personal judgment. “Mathematical models aren't perfect,” he said. “It might be perhaps that a factor not considered has affected the result. It could be fate.” A light chuckle. “Who knows?”
He stood up, indicating the end of the lesson. Peeking at his drawing, a faint smile crossed my father’s face. He crumpled up the drawing and threw it in the trash. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said.
Several years later, I found myself in California as a summer intern at a small technology company. After work one evening, the young and rowdy of the interns prepared to go to a party an hour away by train. I was unsure, but it was minutes before the last train left and hours before the next one. I wasn't sure how I would get back home either. At the station, I watched the train pull up and the doors as they hissed open. A bustle of commuters boarded the train, the platform becoming crowded as people spilled out. There wasn't any time to deliberate. I jumped aboard the train as the door closed.
As we grabbed our snowboards and headed out onto the slopes once more after lunch, Adam winked at me, catching me by surprise. As he ratcheted his shoes into his board, he turned. “How much control do we really have anyway?” he asked. “I managed hundreds of assembly lines and had to predict production amounts years in advance. I had a team of doctorates under me trying to figure it out. They never got it right once.”
“We’re just leaves in a hurricane, are we not? What does a leaf have to grab onto besides itself?” Adam asked aloud. “Better we go with the flow and find that the wind has taken us somewhere beautiful.” He gestured at the expansive view that had opened up before us, pine trees standing proud below a sky so blue, mountain peaks of white snow rising above it all.
A different style of writing from my usual, if you will. You can read about risk analysis on Wikipedia. My father has vowed to pick up painting once more after he retires. I wish him luck.