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Let Your Freak Flag Fly: A Eulogy for my Father

Jean TetenMy father, Jean Teten, passed away Monday, December 9, at age 90. He was far ahead of his time, and simultaneously out of time. 

Dad was born in Paris in 1929. His father told him, “If you learn a trade with your hands, you can work anywhere in the world. If you get a degree, you can only work in one country.”  So Dad left school at 16 to apprentice in a handbag factory. He lived through the Holocaust in Paris, which killed approximately 25% of French Jews. He served in the French army, and then moved to the US at age 25. He eventually met my mother Carol Teten, who grew up in the very different world of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  They settled in Marin County, California, where I grew up. My parents were married for 52 years. 

Dad started in the haute couture business, selling to Paco Rabanne, Christian La Croix, Yves St. Laurent, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler.  He left haute couture because he didn’t like changing designs every 3 months; his high quality leather goods lasted longer than the fashion seasons. Because he lived through wartime rationing, the built-in obsolescence of fast fashion offended him. So he pivoted Jean Teten Creations to focus on import/export of exotic and beautiful papers, plastics, and leathers, which he modified with various proprietary processes. His customers included Cirque de Soleil, Walt Disney World, the Rolling Stones, Siegfried and Roy, and the Grateful Dead. You can see his materials in Back to the Future and in the Riddler costume for Batman Forever

In hindsight, my father had a very consistent approach to life.  We are trying to pass on 8 core ideas from him to our own children: 

1. Let your freak flag fly. As an immigrant, an artist, a minority, and an entrepreneur, Dad was very comfortable doing things his own way. I didn’t appreciate it at all at the time, but Dad was very progressive by modern standards. He shared household management tasks with Mom far more than normal for his era. We didn’t have a TV until our parents gave up to our entreaties and got a small black & white TV, around age 10. Dad was not a traditionally religious person, but that said, when he talked about God, he always referred to “Her” and how “She” helps. He was also almost always deferential to Mom, something I try to  emulate with my wife. (At least that’s what I think; ask my wife to double check). 

Dad was always an avid recycler, thinking how he can re-use everything and ideally make it into art. My family were diligent composters, so much so that our garden grew steadily in height from all the accreted compost.  Eventually the whole garden was waist-level.

My children know that I am passionate about the importance of rigorously exposing kids to foreign languages. I am particularly passionate because my father didn’t speak French with me; I had to learn entirely from school. This was an exception to my father’s comfort with being unique. I think this was a reflection of growing up during the Holocaust; he wanted to carve out a new and separate life in America, distinct from the anti-Semitism and war he grew up with. That said, he enjoyed wearing his beret, even though it marked him as very French.

In our partisan era, a lot of people think that if they’re in the [blue] or [red] tribe, they have to think a certain way.  I have a newfound appreciation for people who are willing to question the assumptions around them.

2. #Givefirst. When my sister Ruth Knapp helped in Dad’s workshop rolling out materials for his customers, she noticed that he would always give customers a little extra material, to make sure the customers were satisfied. She is now an artist in Safed, Israel.

When I was in high school, I had some challenges with certain other kids. My father wanted to help, but also wanted to do so in a way that was maximally impactful. So he bought a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, and he asked one of my teachers to give it to me anonymously. He deliberately obfuscated his involvement, because I think he didn’t want to seem too interfering. I’m sure my kids would like it if I learned that lesson. 

In his later years, when Dad visited for a weekend, he would always bring something. Often food: dates, apples and bananas. He also brought rainbow rings and rainbow bracelets, which he made himself out of specialty fabric. And of course, we have a lifetime supply of keycases and coin purses. Even this past weekend, he made a mouse out of a napkin and did one of his favorite tricks of making it move on his arm as if it were alive. Whenever something was broken in our house, he was eager to help fix it.

3. Play. When Dad and his 11-year old friends saw the Nazis marching down the street in 1940, they threw firecrackers at their feet and then ran away. The soldiers could not break step because that was embarrassing. (To my own children: this is very dangerous; please don’t try this at home. )

During the War, while my father’s father and older brother were in the countryside hiding from the Nazis, he and his mother were in Paris hiding in their apartment. Walking outside with the mandatory yellow star was dangerous; he had to cover the yellow star with school books when he walked to school. His older brother continued his education via correspondence courses for 5 years.

One night, the Nazis rounded up most of his friends from school and took them away. He only survived that roundup because his landlady lied, and said that there were no Jews living in his building. The only safe recreational option left was to study and play cards with his mother. Once the war ended, he disliked playing card games. Dad placed little value on passive entertainment; he preferred to work and create. 

That said, Dad was still a playful person. We have many photos of him dressing up, e.g., at Purim parties. Dad even foreshadowed modern Instant Messaging. As a child in Paris, from his apartment window he could see some of his buddies’ windows. He would send messages to them by writing a note, crumpling it into a little ball, and slingshotting it.

4. Live actively. Standing desks have become very popular in the past decade, but my Dad set up his entire operation with standing tables. Neither he nor his employees had a single traditional chair. He also took advantage of our years of compost to convert our garden into a standing garden, at waist level. We could walk through the pathways in the garden, and lean over to pluck fresh tomatoes.

We have a photo of Jean in his 20’s doing a backwards bridge while horsing around with his friends, and another of him in his 60s picking himself up between 2 subway poles so he is “standing” in the air. I remember vividly, 6 months ago playing soccer in our playroom: we would roll a big exercise ball back and forth between Dad and me and my youngest son, age 4. We were so glad that our son could play ball with someone 86 years older. 

Jean foreshadowed the modern self-quantification movement by always counting the steps he took when he walked up stairs. We also never had sugar in the house, reflecting the modern anti-sugar movement

When our kids ask us for things that we know are not in their long-term interest, like more time on the phone or more sugar, we take strength from my parents’ comfort in thinking different. I didn’t realize as a child how difficult it is for adults, just like kids, to resist peer pressure to be putatively ‘normal’.

5. If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own. It is no surprise that we remember my father for his creativity. He made the table decorations for our wedding out of his materials. When he played Magna-Tiles with our son, Dad made beautiful castles. Literally in his penultimate day, he was making notes for new creations he wanted to build. He always slept with a notepad next to him, so that he could write down new ideas if he woke up in the middle of the night. He was like a journalist taking notes on the world, except journalists write about the past; Dad wrote about the future he wanted to create.

6. Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff. My sister Ruth says that Dad taught her an inner calm. He liked to listen to classical music, which probably helped. Even this last weekend, the doctors were very surprised that he wasn’t complaining about pain, despite a broken femur and a number of other issues.

This week, Jews traditionally read the Bible portion “Vayishlach”. The section contains a very noticeable contrast between Esau and Jacob. Jacob offers Esau a large tribute gift. In discussing his wealth, Esau says, “I have plenty.” “ יֶשׁ-לִי רָב”  In response, Jacob says: “I have it all”, “ יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל””

Jacob and Esau are both wealthy people. But Esau is bragging about how big a stash he has, while Jacob says, I have all that I need. 

Dad was squarely in Jacob’s camp. Despite being a materials artist, he was emphatically not a materialistic person. He didn’t spend money on unnecessary possessions, but on taking care of the family and charity. Once, for my mother’s birthday, he sent her a donation for her historical dance company … via the US Mail.

Between 2004 and 2008, my parents sold the house I grew up in and almost everything in it, and traveled the world across 20 countries for 4 years.  They were literally homeless senior citizens. Most of their friends said something along the lines of, “I’d love to do that, but how could you leave your friends and get rid of all your stuff?”  My parents just let it go.

When we were in high school, we had a large fire in the kitchen, and my father happened to be home. We returned home from school to find Dad smiling, lifting up his hands in bandages, and saying in his French accent, “We had a fire today.” He told us that when he watched the metal and plastic in the kitchen bubbling and all the other shape transformations going on due to the fire, he was very inspired for new ideas in his work. This is one of the reasons my sister in particular is so consistent at dealing positively with seemingly difficult events.

7. Stay curious. My father was always interested in learning new things. He spoke near-native English, despite coming to the US at age 25. He had a lifelong habit of collecting the translations of “cockadoodledoo” and certain other key phrases in different languages. When he visited my Russian mother-in-law’s apartment, he asked many questions about her photos, books, and so on.

At age 88, my father put on tefillin, traditional phylacteries, for the first time in his life. This might be in the Guiness Book for one of the oldest Bar Mitzvot.

8. Watch what I do, not what I say. Dad would regularly raise a toast to my mother, his wife of 52 years: “To my first wife, wherever she is.” He said he used that same toast even before he met my mom.  He did not talk about feelings too much, but through his actions, one could see how much love and patience he had for all of us. I asked him once why he answered the phone “Allô!”, even though he had minimal French accent normally. He said, “because Mom thinks it is cute.”

When I was little, I asked my father why birds could fly, and I couldn’t.  Dad said, “because they have wings.” So I asked for wings. He made me two small oval wings out of cardboard, with little straps.  I went running down the street (under his supervision), flapping my wings, trying to fly. I’m still trying.

Almost everything I am today I owe to my mother and father. We buried him in a traditional ceremony. We love you, Dad. Thank you for making my wings.

To view Jean’s Holocaust testimony video (Interview Code 41929) online as part of the USC Shoah Foundation, click here

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