I Sound Like My Dad

Every Thanksgiving, we watch Christmas Vacation starring Chevy Chase. And every Thanksgiving, I laugh at the same line that no one else thinks is funny.

Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is trying to hook up the Christmas lights without success, and his wife Ellen Griswold (Beverly D'Angelo) asks Clark about the extension cords. Clark says, "Maybe the kids have been fooling around with it. I'll check the back."

I always laugh at this line, although no one else seems to appreciate it. It was the same thing my dad accused me of whenever I borrowed any of his tools.

"Don't play with my tools," he would tell me, and I always wondered what he thought I was doing. I mean, I was always trying to do serious work, even if I wasn't very good at it.

Whenever he said it, I had visions of me playing baseball with his tools. Not throwing a drill or using the hammer as a bat, but literally playing baseball with the tools. Or juggling them while I rode a unicycle and a calliope played circus music in the background. Or playing chess against a crescent wrench.

I realized I was turning into my dad when my oldest daughter and I were looking for a Phillips head screwdriver and I couldn't find the one I wanted.

"Maybe Ben was playing with it," I said absently. Then I realized what I said and hung my head in shame.

My son is 15 years old, owns three electric guitars and constantly tinkers with them and his guitar pedals. He is clearly not playing with anything.

Even when he was three, his play was work-related. He had a Thomas the Tank Engine bed, and he would climb on it with a little plastic crescent wrench and announce he was "fixing Thomas."

Also, I just checked his room, and he has his own set of screwdrivers. Three sets, in fact. That's more than I have.

So if anyone is playing with tools, it's still me. Like when I pull the blade out of the tape measure and let it go so it snaps back and spins on the workbench.

Another thing that I do like my dad is to tell the same kinds of jokes, like: "A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says 'Hey, buddy, why the long face?'"

See? That's a classic! It's my most favorite joke in the whole world, which means my kids hate it.

I've also become more concerned about leaving lights on in the house. Not that I actually pay our electric bill or know how much electricity actually costs us; my wife takes care of that. But I always make sure the kids turn the lights off in their room.

Because, when I was 12, my dad would stand by my bedroom at one end of the house, and then call to me in the family room at the other end of the house.

"Erik, come turn off your light in your bedroom," he would shout.

"Where are you?" I would shout back.

"Next to your room," he'd say.

"Then why can't you do it?"

"Because I want you to learn to do it."

"I already know how."

It would go on like this until he'd stomp toward my end of the house, at which time I knew I was in big trouble if I didn't move that second.

I always thought it was a stupid request. If he wanted my light off, why didn't he just turn it off himself? I was going to be back there in three or four hours anyway, so what's the big deal?

I was a fast learner though. It only took me three or four years to learn to turn off my lights when I left my room so I didn't have to go through this stupid exercise of dragging myself 30 feet every time.

But my childhood annoyance turned into an adult learning tool when I did it to my own kids. Whenever they left their bedroom light on, I would make them come back and turn them off, even though I was standing right next to the room. What made it worse for them — and therefore more fun for me — was that their rooms were upstairs and they were downstairs when I did it.

"It's a family tradition," I would say. "My dad did it to me, and one day, you'll do it to your own kids. Besides, it's the only way you'll learn."

It was disappointing though, because it only took one or two reminders to make the lesson stick. And now they go around turning off all the unused lights in the house, including my office when I just step away to make some coffee or take a nap or run some errands. And now they've even begun nagging me about leaving lights on and lecturing me about wasting electricity.

Which shows how little they know: I'm not wasting the electricity, I'm playing with it.

The 3rd edition of Branding Yourself is now available on Amazon.com and in your local Barnes & Noble bookstore.