“If the garage door handle is in a horizontal position, the door is locked.”

My father’s full-page instructions on how to operate the garage door are a model of clarity and linear thinking.

There is an introduction that establishes the baseline: a horizontal handle is locked and a vertical position is unlocked. He explains both manual and electrical operations.

In manual mode, you “raise or lower the door by hand.”

The electrical mode, being more complicated, requires more attention.

He details where the remote control is kept and what to do if it fails i.e. move closer or replace the batteries.

He notes the keypad is illuminated, but “difficult to see in daylight.”

If the keypad fails, there is an option to switch to manual.

Dad created the instructions as part of a manual for visitors who stayed in the house. It’s written in pencil on a piece of white paper. He used a three-hole punch to keep it in a binder.

You could argue that visitors would neither expect, nor require instructions to operate the garage door and you would be correct.

But my father has a methodical approach to the world and a natural sense of empathy about what other people might not understand.

It’s a mindset that’s hard to master. It’s so tempting to go fast, multitask and, in general, seek to accomplish the necessary as quickly as possible.

My father used to help me with math homework. The garage door instructions provide a sense of that process. Dad insisted I write out each problem and then “show my work” with each step. 

I found it excruciating. I tried to skip ahead and do calculations in my head. I’d make mistakes and have to return to the beginning. I was the hare; he was the tortoise.

The manual was written for the third electric garage door we owned. Dad bought his first from Sears, Roebuck in the 1970s. We were early adopters; pioneers on the block.

Dad’s instructions are as interesting for what they don’t include, as what they do. He doesn’t, for example, say “close the door at night” or “make sure the lights are off.”

He seems to assume you will do the right thing as long as you know how to do it.

I often preface stories about my father by saying “he’s an engineer.” I find that helps explain the methodical approach and attention to detail.

There is another side to the garage door instructions, however. And I mean that literally. It’s written on a piece of paper that has something printed on the back.

Dad used to bring home reams of scrap paper from the local power utility where he worked. At that time, they would print out diagrams of substations and the electrical grid on one side of each page.

It’s been three decades since he retired, but he’s still using that paper.

My favorite line in the instructions comes at the end. It is both unnecessary and beautiful in its finality and optimistic tone.

“If everything is ok, the door will operate.”

(Part of a series of life lessons based on conversations with my parents.)