Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Things I've Learned from My Father

My father is turning 75 June 30th.

He was born in Fort Worth in 1930 at the dawn (or more appropriately, into the darkness) of the depression and to parents who weren't quite sure what to do with him. An only child, he was isolated growing up. He was very bright, though, and so he became scholastic and ambitious and always seemed to belong to other times and another cultural milieu than his own - either to an age of greater statesmen, perhaps even to an ancient, formal and rather austere patrician class or to a post Willie Lohman, post corporate ladder world of irascible pundits or philosopher kings. He was valedictorian of his high school class and attended Rice, the University of Texas and Harvard.

Some of his wistful comments or bitter jokes showed me, as I was growing up, that he would have loved to rule the world but for the people in it. And as with so many, those dreams of glory died hard, painfully hard decade after decade. In his sulking and in his fiery frustration, his feelings of authoritative superiority lashed out at those much closer to him. Far from the world at large, as it turned out, removed as if a poet or the philosophical (and closeted) emperor, it was a corrosive and overwhelming challenge to keep his career and his family together. In the 50s and 60s, he bought into the American dream and, by the 70s, along with Nixon, paid a much higher price than he thought anything could cost.

My father has never really been a typical American in any conventional sense, much less a typical Texan. He has, in an anguish he may not have known I've seen but of which I've been well aware, long wrestled to reconcile his own intellectual prowess - even genius, yes, that shadowy, sometimes narrow, usually too particular, always akilter level of smartness - with the rocky back roads of how life is, how people are, how philosophically uncontrollable and irreconcilable the world is.

It's difficult to bring the lessons of so much that has come before (an encyclopedic grasp of scientific uknowledge and world history) into the maelstrom of the current times and the only life one's got.

My father is, in many ways, too smart for his own good. And that means that his certainty and desire to control more than he ever will can easily backfire. There are so many downs for the ups, and he has not found peace in that, though he has, in his later years, softened with the wisdom of resignation.

A few of the things that follow are things I learned from my dad, sometimes as a truism he spoke, sometimes in spite of his actions or what he said. A few, in quotations, are his versions of quotations he sometimes repeated. Most of these things are things I inferred from my dad, learned more from how he behaved than from the more virtuous veneer of his wishful Walter Mitty side, his falsely gregarious self.

He might say my view of him is far too dark, but this is not a bad view because it is honest, and it has profound themes that are valuable, no matter how painful. We must come to terms with our own brands of realism, and this is only part of his and mine.

For better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, here are some of the attributes and allegations of my father's brilliant and battered legacy....

~~ There is always a better way to do everything.

~~ And most people don't do it.

~~ Or even come close.

~~ There is genuine evil in the world.

~~ And too much disappointment and anguish too close to home to admit openly.

~~ "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

~~ Travel the backroads whenever you can.

~~ Museums are good for you, as are cultural sites and mountains.

~~ The world is large, complicated and interconnected.

~~ Shop carefully. Research. Compare. Get quality things on sale.

~~ Have heroes who were political uniters (Lincoln, FDR, Churchill) or curmudgeonly cranks (Twain, Mencken, Andy Rooney).

~~ Measure a half dozen times. Cut once or however many times it takes.

~~ It's ok to be a grown man with a Curious George set up in whimsical poses.

~~ It's ok to be a grown man who mimics silly accents and makes whimsical asides.

~~ Having a good stereo and your own room in which to listen and read in peace can be essential to one's solace and contentment.

~~ Being really hard on yourself can make you really hard on others, and vice versa.

~~ Question authority (unless it's your father).

~~ Greed ("the profit motive") runs the world.

~~ "Wealth is the surest human motivator."

~~ Be much more tolerant of people at the bottom than you are of those at the top.

~~ Be near the top, or suffer.

~~ Higher education is never high enough.

~~ Often, it's not what you know but who you know and how you treat people that matter most.

~~ If you miss out on the action (or a higher calling) it will always haunt you.

~~ If you miss out on the money (or the marriage) it will always haunt your parents.

~~ Swallowing pain can make you implode.

~~ Acting on pain can make you explode.

~~ Humor is the elixir of the gods, from Fractured Fairy Tales to Faulty Towers.

~~ Classical music, classic movies and musicals really do matter.

~~ Wars are the historical events that matter most to the course of human events.

~~ Empires and their dictators are the cultural phenomena that matter most, whether Roman or British, rising in America or China.

~~ Scientific and technological progress are the intellectual phenomena that matter most.

~~ Thinking and action, not faith or hope, are most essential to making progress.

~~ Even if God exists and is good, religion has caused more harm than good.

~~ Most common denominators are pretty darned low.

~~ It's about the money.

~~ "Those who cannot remember [and learn from] the past are condemned to repeat it."

~~ Careful study, dedicated reading and rational thought are the best tools we have to forge ahead.

~~ For all other tools, buy Craftsman.

And oh yes, when I turned 23, he bought me a red car and taught me how to drive a stick. And way back when I was six, he bought me an even more wonderful, life changing red thing - and taught me how to ride a bicycle.


At 6/16/2005 7:44 PM, Anonymous Suze said...

good one Larz. Wonder how many of that genertion ended up disillusioned by the sales pitch of the post-war modern era? The family role models glowing from the new TV set- yet somehow in real life Lassie didn't always save little Timmy, and Father didn't always know best. Unrealistic expectations that couldn't always be met.

At 6/17/2005 6:47 AM, Anonymous rq said...

This is my favorite post of all the ones you have done. Bittersweet and loving. Keep up the good work.

At 6/20/2005 7:58 AM, Anonymous Howling Wolf said...

Larenzo, This is a good column. I think I might get along with your dad and he might get along with me too. I agree with a lot of his quotes.


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