Now that I'm in my 70s, I look back at the world of my childhood, with its shared phone lines, ice boxes, radio soap operas, and no television, and it seems like an ancient, lost civilization. And yet the ideas and values I learned as a child seem every bit as important for today's youth, for whom rappers, billionaires, and movie stars are role models.
When I was a boy, my father was a bigger-than-life figure, a wonderful storyteller who enchanted people with his outgoing personality. He was my hero. He took me camping and fishing and instilled in me a love of nature and the outdoors. When he came home from work, he always asked me what I had learned in school, and as I recounted my lessons, he seemed genuinely interested, often amplifying my information or correcting me. I loved those sessions, and I now realize that he was reinforcing my education by making me recount what I had learned.
Dad was my biggest booster, but he was also my harshest critic. When I began in television, he followed everything I did. More than once when he couldn't follow my narrative, he would call and bawl me out: "If I can't understand what you are saying, how do you expect someone who doesn't know you at all to follow your ideas?" To this day, I think of my father as my audience whenever I prepare a script or write a book.
My mother was the rock-solid foundation of the family. She was the first up in the morning and the last to bed at night, but unlike Dad, she did it quietly. I only understood how important she was as she developed Alzheimer's disease and I watched Dad struggle to fill her shoes. I begged him to allow me to hire help for him, but he declined. "She gave her all for me," he said, "and it's my turn to pay her back."
Both of my parents are now dead, and in my own dotage, I think about the important lessons I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren — and I realize they are the same lessons I got from Dad. I can't help thinking they are not quaint ideas from the past but very modern ones that we need desperately today.
"Respect your elders," he told me.
"But Dad," I protested, "Mr. Saita is a fool."
"David," Dad remonstrated, "he has lived a long life and has had experiences and thought about a lot of things you haven't. I know he seems opinionated and stupid, but if you listen, even he can teach you something."
"To do well in Canada as a Japanese-Canadian," he said, "you have to work 10 times harder, you must be able to get up and speak extemporaneously, and you must be able to dance."
Fortunately, hard work was never an obstacle for me and I entered oratorical contests for which Dad drilled me in the art of public speaking. I never understood the dancing part and was not successful in that area.
"Whatever you do, do it with gusto. Don't do it in a sloppy, half-hearted way but enthusiastically, whether it's scrubbing the floors, picking cherries, or playing basketball. That's how you get the most out of life."
"We all need money for the necessities in life, but you don't run after it as if money makes you a bigger or better man. If someone flashes his fancy new clothes or big car, pity him, because he has gone down the wrong road."
"Live within your means." This important lesson is embodied in the familiar expression "Save some for a rainy day."
"You must stand up for what you believe in, but be prepared for people to be angry and to disagree. If you want to be liked by everyone, then you will stand for nothing."
"You are what you do, not what you say." Kids have a different way of saying this in their taunt, "All talk and no action."
My mother also taught me useful homilies like "Always clean up your own mess," "Be kind to animals," and "Share; don't be greedy."
Today's youth are bombarded with news about the antics of Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, and Jay-Z, and look to them for inspiration, but that's all the more reason to listen to the words of our elders.