Wednesday, June 19, 2013

After Father's Day

My father and his father. (And sister.)

Late, but here is a Father's Day anecdote: I am tall, as is my father. It runs in the family; at six feet two inches I'm on the shorter side for the Gentrys. I'm not sure if the tallness is genetics or clean living. One would normally presume the former, but if you meet the extended Gentrys, who are the descendants of  homesteaders in Western Nebraska and are inveterate community volunteers, teetotalers, Boy Scouts, Methodists, country doctors, and so on, you get the sense that Mendel was wrong. (Which might explain why I'm so short, for a Gentry.)
But tall in the normal scheme of things, and thus the anecdote. I have no idea how old I was or what the context was, but my father and I were standing in a crowd watching something, and we were near the front. Noticing that we were blocking the view of those behind us, my dad said something to the effect of, "we're tall people, it's important for us to stand in the back so that others can see." And so we moved to the back.
That's pretty much my dad in a nutshell. 
On Father's Day, when everyone is posting pictures of themselves with their fathers, or writing heartfelt status updates about what their fathers meant to them, it seems silly to pile in with more, and in the face of #nodads it seems gauche and naive. But this Father's Day, how can I not? Because as everyone in my social media circles know, for the first father's day I am myself now officially a father in the technical sense of the word. Our son was born on June 5, and he is currently sitting next to me in his vibrating monkey chair, swaddled up for his morning nap while his mother is upstairs sleeping off a night's worth of nonstop feeding. Objectively and without exaggeration I can say that he is the cutest baby every born. Meet Wilfred:


So yes, how can I not write about fathers and their sons; it's all I think about right now. The semester and my book project seems very far away. Even the little repairs I need to do on the house we just bought, or the dinner I should cook for tonight, they seem off on the horizon. All I can do is look at Wilfred to make sure he's still breathing, and wonder why he's making that strange sound, and dear god surely it's not already time for another diaper change.
That shift in attention makes me think about something I learned from my dad, one of those important lessons that oughta be a status update or something. My father spent the first part of his career as an executive for a health care company, with the daily suit-wearing and company car kind of life you'd expect, and tremendous security. Then, when I was a teenager, he left that job for a series of more experimental pursuits—some consulting jobs, some internet ventures, and teaching classes at local colleges on an adjunct basis. It meant much less consistency, and coupled with my mom losing her job due to downsizing in the 1990s recession, it meant much less financial security.
But even as a teenager, and amplified today, I'm so proud of my father for making the choice. It's not so much the particular choice, but the act of making it. I imagine it would be so easy to do well in school, jump through all the right hoops, get a good job, and rise up the ranks, and eventually make it to the top. Certainly that's what we academics hope for, to a tee. We were all good at school, and good at impressing the right people and working hard, and we doggedly cling to our assumption that we can be happy if we just jump through the right hoops. But as plenty of smart people have pointed out, we academics too often conflate "happiness" with the simple act of having a stable middle-class job, with the correct title.
And we are just dreadful at making choices to actually be happy. We roam around the world living in horrid little places, we divorce ourselves from our loved ones on opposite coasts, we spend the the best years of our lives in abject poverty. We cultivate a snobbish mentality of personal elevation to hope against hope that there is some sort of uplifting intellectual reason for all of it. Certainly so much of this can apply to me. It's a devil's bargain, where either you spend your decades doing this for nothing, or you spend your decades doing it for that stable middle-class job. I've been on the job market since 2007 or so. I've been lucky to have had full-time work at some great institutions during this time, and even more lucky to have a partner with a real job to fill in the gaps, but the luck has never extended to having the correct job title of "tenure track." 
Maybe it will still happen, but I'm kind of over the whole thing. This spring, after the latest round of job market disappointments, we decided to just say, well, fuck it. (Sorry--another way I am like my parents is I don't swear often, but sometimes the sentiment fits.) No more living temporarily. She's got a great job, we live in a great city surrounded by family and friends. My own job is great in its way, even if it's not tenure-track. So we bought a house in our favorite neighborhood in our favorite city. Given the state of the academy, maybe I won't be able to continue in my current position forever--that's what you lose when you're off the tenure track, the security--but if that happens, I'll figure something out.
So that's why I think about my father's choice a lot, and how amazing it was. In the midst of success as defined by career progress, to actually say to yourself: maybe I should be doing something different. How often do we take control of our lives, especially by giving up control? Like my dad, I'm able to do it for a number of reasons, most importantly because I have a loving and supportive family. (The amazingness of my mom is a whole other blog post someday.)
So that's one father's day lesson that's particularly apt for me this year.I don't know what sort of big lessons Wilfred will get from me someday. My current master plan is that he should be either a poet or a painter, so I'm occasionally reading modernist poetry to him while he sleeps, and pointing out to him that our new house has an attic with good light, should he need a studio. Oh, and if his parents' genetics succeed at all, he will be a really good rower, and so he should really get on soon that so he can get into a good college. 
Actually, I'm beating around the bush. You know how we're always talking to ourselves, in our heads? Maybe carrying on a conversation, or narrating our activities, or asking ourselves questions For me, it's always felt more specifically like writing in my head. I'm always trying out particular turns of phrases, or crafting little stories to explain what I'm doing, to myself. Just a silly habit.
For the last year or so, as I've been writing away in my head, I've crafted one particular sentence that I keep refusing to ever put down on paper. Sometimes, in the midst of trying to write an email or grade a paper or carry on a conversation, it's the only sentence that comes to me, and I have to swallow it back down and remember where I am. But after Father's Day, it's too much not to write: my father is dying of cancer, which is the hardest sentence I've ever had to write.
This is no great surprise for many who know me, as my dad has been very open with his illness, and in fact has his own blog where he explores the vagaries of diagnosis and treatment. He has sarcoma, which is cancer of the soft tissue, and unfortunately is rather rather so there's not much in the way of data for crafting a prognosis. So when I write that my father is dying of cancer—there it is again—it's hard to know what that means with precision. Maybe there will be some miraculous occurrence, but more likely time is limited. The word is "terminal," I believe.
I didn't want to write that, not because writing makes it true—it's true enough without writing—but because of the novelistic clichés of it all. My son being born, my father dying, and my career at a crossroads. The irony is that I feel miraculously self-assured as a parent. I don't mean to be blasé about the upcoming challenges, but I have this strange inner sense of self-confidence that I will mostly do the right thing. And although I don't know where my professional career will go in the future, for the first time in years I'm comfortable with that not knowing. I might not have the correct job title, but there's actually nothing in my life that I would want to change right now.
Except, of course, facing the loss, some day, of the person who made these strange self-confidences possible.

Me, in 1980.

3 comments:

WritingMother said...

Phil,

Thank you for writing this. I especially identified with your hesitation to write that dreaded sentence. I couldn't say my equivalent for at least a few days after my dad. In my case, saying it both confirmed that it is true and failed to adequately convey the terribleness of its truth. I'm glad you wrote this, and I'm glad that you have the chance to reflect on what your relationship with your dad means, the linking of generations, and the truth of his lessons in your life. Thanks again.

Joe said...

Hey 2'23"
Your family is beautiful. I've been reading this book that is rather appropriate to your post (at least the career aspect) and your region. If you have a chance, get a copy and let us know what you think....
Alex Kudera, 'Fight for your Long Day'

Anonymous said...

This is so totally fucked. I came to your blog this morning because I was already annoyed yesterday by a gigantically out-of-control outpouring of thoughts on "Music and Railways" on the AMS-L, and awoke this morn to find the comments had only multiplied like effing rabbits in the night; it immediately brought to mind "True Confessions of the AMS-L", from October of 2009. Thus I came here to vent about the ridiculousness of this putatively scholarly forum to which we all, supposedly, belong in some for or fashion. Only to learn, as it happened, that you (or someone closely allied to you, anyway) had a kid this summer, and that you're facing the loss of a father, a topic on which I (and many others, of course) have too much to say. So the AMS-L doesn't seem like it's really worth getting that annoyed about anymore. But rather: congratulations on the birth of your son, and sorry to hear about your father. Also, fuck the TT. Godspeed, Phil -- --

--Emilio