Sunday, June 19, 2011

- A Father's Day Message

My paternal grandfather was a physically imposing guy whose personality was even more imposing. You know those old west movies where the sheriff has the bad guy locked up in the jail, and they’re waiting for the judge to arrive the next morning for the trial? Meanwhile the crowd is in the saloon drinking and complaining about the delay, until one guy stands up on the table and yells “we don’t need no stinking judge – I got a rope right here!” The crowd cheers and they all go out to face down the sheriff, guns in hand.

The guy on the table with the rope in his hand would have been my grandfather. He might not have had a lot of sense, but he had tons of courage, and he knew how to lead men. Often, he led them to their own embarrassment or shame, or worse. But they would continue to follow him all the same. He was an 'Alpha' male. He was a man who knew how to persuade, even if ‘persuasion’ was really a euphemism for a good beating. He was a man who bore only the thinnest veneer of civilization over a character more suited to the harsh wilderness.

He had a lot of kids, and my father was in the middle of the pack. Dealing with my father or any of his siblings is like trying to cope with the Palestinians. It’s constant verbal warfare, all the time, right or wrong, serious or silly, on ever single conceivable issue ever known to human kind. There is nothing ‘reasonable’ about him, or them. It’s all a battle for dominance. Two hours at a family reunion of mine will explain fully what I mean when I say that I was raised by wolves. I’m only partly kidding.

There is no topic too small for my dad to explain to you how your opinion proves your idiocy. He is happy to berate physicists on how their understanding of the standard model is wrong. He’ll argue math with mathematicians, history with historians, and Chinese poetry with Chinese poets, even thought he doesn’t speak Chinese. Every single discussion to him is considered full out, take no prisoners combat. And as far as he’s concerned, getting the other guy to leave the field of battle, even if it’s only out of frustration or good manners, is regarded as evidence of him having been right in the first place. It’s trial by combat taken into a verbal form that’s just barely suitable to polite western society.

So these are my people; this is what I came from. The best analogy for it is to think of my upbringing as like having taken place in a war zone. I was built to survive in a setting where every playground is a mine field, every toy is a hand grenade, and no one makes it to adulthood without serious scars; emotional or otherwise. After a while you start to look for the hidden knife in every offered handshake. And when you finally figure out how to survive in a setting like that, you don’t even notice that you’ve become as much a part of the problem as the generations before you.

Coming from that, I’ve often found it tough to turn my reactions down to an appropriate level. Both my friends and enemies often find me too abrasive or confrontational or arrogant in my opinions, and it’s obviously true. I try not to be as hard on my wife and child as my father was with his, and I hope I succeed. But the truth is, I never really know. For me, fatherhood is a guessing game where all I have is a long list of things I shouldn’t do.

My dad wanted desperately to be a good father. I don’t honestly know if he thinks he succeeded or not. I think it’s fair to say that both the reviews, and any measurable results, are both quite mixed. It could very well be that we all try the best we can, and that means that in the end we all have to face down at least a little regret over what we failed to do, or what we did and now wish we hadn’t. Life doesn’t give you any do-overs.

Parenthood is at least as important to me as it was to my father; probably more so. And by the time my daughter reaches adulthood I hope I’ve given her all the tools she needs to find happiness. I hope she knows who she is, is comfortable with both her strengths and weaknesses, and that she values the people that care about her the most. So far I think it’s working out. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have moment by moment anxiety over it.

Thinking about fatherhood reminds me of that story of the man who knew what a terrible sinner he was. And the fact that he knew it was actually what made him virtuous. The people who do real harm in the world are always those who are certain that they’re right. Evil men aren’t burdened by conscience – it’s why they can manage such evil. But the humble man who constantly agonizes over the harm he may be doing others, is far less likely to cause any.

I’m hoping that fatherhood is like that too. I’m hoping that worry and a conscience are enough to keep me on the right path. But when it comes right down to it, I’m a man in the darkness, with no trail to follow and no guide to tell me the way. So I’ll make my best guesses fret over changes, and hope for the best. Which I suppose in the end, is pretty much what everyone else does too.

Happy Father's day guys. I hope this is easier for you, than it has been so far for me.

1 comment:

James Bond said...

Happy Father's Day to you too. My daughters are 20 and 22 and this spring had all their teenage troubles all at once.

Looking back I am not sure there is anything I could have done to prevent this, but taking a gentler tone, giving them more hugs, etc. might have helped them feel more secure. But as they say: Life is lived forwards and understood backwards.

PS What do you think of this?