My dad thinks he only taught me one thing growing up. Every chance he got he would remind us, “Kids, never fight a monkey.” I’m not sure what internet video or TV special he saw about fighting monkeys that prompted him to make this his motto, but it is something I’ll always remember. Once, our home teacher shared with us a moment he had when he reminded his daughter of one of those oft repeated Mormon adages. Something like “The spirit goes to bed at 10:00,” or “Modest is Hottest.” His daughter had heeded his sage advice and, of course, avoided something major, like an explosion at a nearby gas station or a freak tornado. After that story my dad said, “I wish I had taught my children something worthwhile like that.” My brother and I piped in, “Dad! You did teach us something important! Remember? ‘Never fight a monkey!’” My dad looked a little embarrassed at our praise.
After that home teaching appointment I spent a while trying to extract meaning from my father’s words of wisdom. I wanted him to feel better about this lasting memory he had created for his children. Maybe the monkey was a metaphor for temptation. If you avoid temptation at all costs you don’t have to worry about it. But if you go to the zoo and watch temptation, even behind reinforced steel bars, it will throw feces at you. Worse yet, if you try to take a picture with temptation, it can reach through the bars and bite your hand off. Or maybe the monkey was a symbol of the spirit. You keep the spirit with you, and if you always listen to him and heed his warnings, you won’t have any problems. On the other hand, if you try to fight the spirit you will lose, and probably end up missing several fingers and at least one ear. In this metaphor the spirit has razor sharp teeth and can heft 600 pounds above his head without breaking a sweat.
Over the years my dad tried to instill in me several other morsels of wisdom. When confronting me about my contraband boyfriend in sixth grade, he reminded me, “If you resist the temptation now it won’t be so hard later.” When confronting me about my contraband boyfriend in ninth grade, he said, “Boys only want one thing.” When confronting me about my contraband boyfriend in eleventh grade, he sighed. “I wish you would learn from the things your mom and I have been trying to tell you.” (In hindsight, I can see why he thought I wasn’t taking any of his advice to heart.)
Of course, there were other situations in which my father used these dad-isms. One I distinctly remember was after a long battle over my math homework. My dad had insisted that we go over each and every answer together, ensuring that I completely understood the principles of algebra that I was supposed to be learning. All I wanted was to be excused from the table so I could call my boyfriend… I mean… read a book… to some orphans. My dad got so excited about the math that I was learning, that he took the opportunity to explain to me why I was learning how to use sine, cosine, and tangent (or SIN, COS, and TAN, as I liked to call them). He drew a long curve that was supposed to be a small part of a circle and started a ten-minute lecture about measuring the length of a curve. After my exaggerated sighs became louder than his speaking voice and I was slouched so far down in my chair that my head was the only part of my body touching the backrest, the lecture came to a close. My dad looked at me seriously and said, “You know, you’ll only get out of it what you put into it.” I stopped moaning, sat up in my chair, and looked at my dad. Then I rolled my eyes at him. Yes, I decisively joined the club of eye-rollers—presided over jointly by Laman and Leumel. (Alma the Younger had a good run as treasurer before he absconded.)
In all those angst-filled years that my father spent trying to teach me, the only maxim that I truly took to heart without question or attitude was “never fight a monkey.” And after that home teacher’s visit my father believed that his righteous desire to impart wisdom to his oldest child was hinged on that one phrase.
Last month I heard about a guy who had raised a chimp to maturity. It was his pet and companion, like a huge terrier with opposable thumbs and the ability to snap your neck, given the right mood. One day this guy was playfully rough-housing with his pet chimp and the game turned ugly. The chimp went from Koko to King Kong in an instant. It was as if he suddenly remembered that he was a proud and dignified wild animal and he refused to be contained by leashes or diapers any longer. He wanted to be free—in a place where he could fling his feces whenever he so pleased. The chimp bit off the man’s fingers then, in true law-of-the-jungle fashion, went for straight for the groin. I’m willing to bet that, at that point in his life, that man wished that he had a father who had cared enough to remind him, “Never fight a monkey.” Or maybe he did, and he just rolled his eyes as his father tried his best to convince his son that he knew what he was talking about.