Friday, June 19, 2015

Dear Old Dad

I've now had nearly a decade now of fatherless Father's Days. I am surrounded at the workplace by my father's meticulously hand printed, if often politically incorrect, sheaths of film descriptions. I scan photos of him, handsome, in natty garb. His physical and psychic resemblance to Joe Workplace is uncanny, and unsettling at times. My dad loved having parties and playing projectionist, carefully considering the crowd as he spliced films together. He did show a cartoon at the nursery school where an exploding cigar leaves Bugs Bunny sporting an Afro but generally he aimed to please. My son, social like his grandpa, likes throwing parties and painstakingly choosing appropriate music. Pops however was addicted to hard work. That is where the similarities between my father and my son diverge. The boy, I will add has indeed toiled long hours these last weeks. Although not without complaint. Some of his characteristics are inherited from his father.

While married to his second of three wives my father was forced to participate in Sierra Club activities and to camp. He hated this. I am not camper either. But even fifty years after the fact he described with detail and passion the natural beauty of his childhood home. Blackberry brambles and the ice blue water and emerald shoreline of Lake Washington. I myself reminisce about Jewish sleep away camp in the San Bernardino Mountains and the intensity with which I anticipated to my annual three week session. In hindsight, I was treated badly there, and the loyal friendships, that the other campers cultivated, eluded me. Still, inevitably I would cry when it was time to go home. Now that I spend so much time tromping around in the great out of doors I see that while I was socially isolated at camp, I took enormous pleasure, in the reprieve from the smoggy furnace that was Van Nuys, basking in the cool pine air. Dad and I eschewed anything outdoorsy that is strenuous or involves not sleeping in a bed, but we both reveled in being outside.

My kids were able to spend time with my dad and he regaled them with stories about his childhood which emphasized the physical beauty of the Seattle terrain but also his own resourcefulness and scrapiness. Once in a while and usually inspired by an abundance of food, he would allude to the poverty that his family suffered during the depression, particularly after my paternal grandfather took his own life. Except I guess for some high falutin' intellectuals, the Greatest Generation didn't have the luxury of hashing through childhood trauma and adversity as they segwayed from the Depression to the Second World War. Not that I necessarily do anything about it, I am aware of the potential that childhood miseries have to impact my adult life. There is still “baggage” but for the most part I've headed in the direction of getting over it. While I have a glimmer, I'll never get the full picture of what formed and shaped my dad. He worked tirelessly at business. Overcoming poverty was a stronger motivator than healing childhood wounds. Today, it is inconceivable that a ten year old child whose father had committed suicide would not receive any sort of psychological support.

Sometimes my kids recall to me some horrible thing I said or did that fomented a childhood trauma. I never have any memory of said infraction. I do not doubt the children's veracity but am suspicious about their sense of context. My father had no filter and in his stream of consciousness musings. He told me a long yarn about trying to shoot a "blue movie" and hiring a prostitute to pleasure herself for the camera. He said to me things like, “I should never have had children,” and “A man's wife (I forget whether he was referring to #2 or #3) should always be more important than his children.”  Perhaps there is some context that has faded from my own memory but given what I know about my dad's childhood I am aware he had no model for what a father was supposed to be or do or say. I am sure that my kids might address my own lapses some day in therapy but I like to at least think I was more scrupulous about their emotional vulnerability than either of my parents were about my own. I've been a broken record about admitting that while my parents were clueless in many respects, both had pretty miserable childhoods. Mom and Dad's labors facilitated for me a childhood, which was, while far from perfect, way more comfortable than either of them had enjoyed.

There's a big controversy now about what's called the “free range parenting” which encourages greater independence and describes pretty much how I grew up. Walking places. Using public transportation. Bike riding. Not being under intense parental scrutiny for every nanosecond of the day. An article about Millennials in the work place describes the other end of the spectrum. HR managers describe parents accompanying their kids for job interviews and actually phoning to negotiate salary. Sometimes I worry I'm a bit too hands on and straddle the line between showing the kids how to do something and the more expedient, just doing it myself.

For all of my dad's naive ineptitude, he taught me how to run a business. I believe in giving employees vacations and holidays but otherwise I pretty much do what he did. While perhaps I've helicoptered my own kids way too much I see that they've honed reasonable coping skills. I never really conveyed to either of my parents how grateful I am. My own children are gracious and express their appreciation effusively. It is bittersweet to recognize that my kids treat me way better than I ever treated either of my own parents.

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