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You Should Always Listen to Your Father

(Disclaimer:  This post is not meant to cover fathers who did not earn your trust and respect.)

In my version of family lore, my father told us kids before we decided to go off to college that there were two ways to approach college.  One option was to study something you enjoyed.  The other was to study something that would lead to a job.  I have always wondered why we can’t be lucky enough to find something that covers both categories.  Sadly, for many of us it just doesn’t seem to work out that way, so in his odd way, my father offered true words of wisdom.  Sage advice.  A decision that drew in stark relief something that was impending – adulthood and choices that could have a huge impact on your life – decisions, none of which lead to perfection.

I followed his advice.  Both pieces of it.  My undergraduate degree was in Government (also known as Political Science in most universities) because I enjoyed the subject.  It did not, however, lead to a post-degree job.  I ended up getting a job as a word processor, receptionist, man of all office trades at a local law school because my only marketable skill seemed to be that I could type really fast.  After a year, I enrolled in a Masters in International Relations program and continued working.  Why that subject?  Because I enjoyed it.  I quit after about a month because I realized that it would have simply been impossible to work full-time while meeting the program requirements – I mean, seriously, papers and presentations due at all too frequent intervals, hundreds of pages of reading each week, and all sorts of other things.  It was unworkable.

But, I didn’t want to be a secretary the rest of my life.  By that time I had promoted to an Executive Assistant position, working for one of the school’s deans.  It wasn’t bad, but I was pretty sure I was meant for something more than that (not that there’s anything wrong with being an executive assistant or secretary).  I just didn’t want to spend my life filing.  Seriously.  I’m a stack person, not a file person.

I looked around and saw all of these other fools who were making it in law school, so I decided, if they could do it so could I.  I enrolled in law school, got my degree, passed the bar, and got a job as an attorney.  Not because it was a subject I enjoyed and wanted to study, but because it was a path to a job that was hopefully better and had more upward mobility than the one I had.

I can’t say it was the worst decision I’ve ever made.  The truth, however, is that I have spent most of my 20+ years as an attorney wishing I had picked something else.  Social work, elementary school teacher, financial advisor, chef, and most recently and for a longer duration than any of those other options, writer.  Actually, what I’ve really wanted all along was to be retired, but for some reason that’s frowned on in our society.  At least until you’ve slaved away for a few decades.

Which leads to the second pearl of wisdom my father gave me.  After I finished writing One Night in Bridgeport, I started working on something else and then wanted to change gears and work on something else, and then I had this “great” idea for a short story.  Suddenly, there were all these ideas ping-ponging around in my head and I couldn’t stay focused very long on any one.  I talked to my dad about it and he told me that I should finish a story that I had started before I moved on to something else, otherwise I would never finish it.

Turns out he was right about that too.  I have too many half completed works in progress that I can’t figure out how to get back into.  The Irrepairable Past is the one that breaks my heart.  I had something beautiful going with that thing and after taking a break because it was getting too hard and because I wanted to write Deviation and then Northville, I can’t figure out how to get back into it.  I’ve re-read it over the past couple of weeks and absolutely love what I’ve done with it, but I can’t get my head back into the story.  It’s not there.

I posted a few days ago about an omen that suggested I needed to return to Sullivan Bay.  The problem is that I think I have lost the directions.  And I think I know one of the reasons why.  It has to do with why I write the way I write.

When I read a book and I’m done with it, the story for the most part disappears from my mind.  When I watch a movie, same thing.  When my kids were younger, I coached one of their baseball teams with two guys who could sit there and spout lines, and entire chunks of dialogue, from movies as though they had roles in them.  I could never match them because I simply don’t retain those kinds of memories of what I see on the screen.  It’s there while I watch and then gone when the story is over.  For the most part anyway.  There are some exceptions to this.

The same is true when I read.  My kids used to ask me questions about books we all have read.  Like “Hey dad, do you remember when Harry was doing X in the third book and Y happened?”

“Umm.  No.”

“You don’t?”

“No.  I don’t.  I never remember those kinds of details . . .”

“Oh yeah.  Never mind.”

They’ve stopped asking me questions like that, because it is a simple fact for me.  Nine and a half times out of ten, once I’m done reading a story, I’m done with it and I lose a whole lot of memory of the thing in the transition to the next story I’m going to read.

I think this applies to my writing.  It explains why I write the way I do and why it is so important for me to finish something once I’ve started.  For the most part, there’s no going back for me.  Let me use Northville as an example.  I’ve spent months working on it.  I edit and re-write as I write.  Typically, when I sit down to work on something, I’ll go back a few pages, maybe more and read through what I have already written.  I do it to re-familiarize myself with the terrain.  I also edit as I do so, cleaning things up, tweaking this, fixing that.  Sometimes, I go back further.  By the time I’ve finished writing a story like Northville, I’ve probably read the entire 30,000 word piece, in bits and pieces, at least ten times.  The reality is that every time I write on a work in progress, it’s about taking a couple of steps backwards before I can go forward again.  As a result, when I type the final word, I view the piece as pretty damn close to final.  And I’m done with the story.  It’s gone.  Time for the next one.

Which makes the next few weeks for me extremely difficult.  I’ve asked some people to read Northville.  They’re coming back with edits, comments, suggestions.  Things for me to consider.  Good feedback.  Really good.  I knew that this would happen.  Hell, I knew I needed to do some things to the story even without their input.  It was, even with my involved writing process, not as final as my final drafts usually are.  This story represented something I knew would need additional work after I typed that last word.  And I dread going back into it and tweaking it and fixing it and doing all of those things that will make it a better story.  I’m done with it.  It’s gone.

I have to, however, do what needs to be done with Northville.  I want this story to be better than anything I’ve written.  I’ll be pulling out a lot of hair in the weeks ahead as a result.  Forcing myself to sit down with Northville and considering the comments of the readers.  And finishing a story after it has left my head.

There’s another problem with all of this.  It goes back to The Irrepairable Past.  I put it to the side almost a year ago and, as I said, I don’t know how to get back into it.  I’d like to think I’m not done with the story.  In fact, I know I’m not.  I’m just flummoxed by how to continue.  To do so will basically mean a re-introduction, a re-consideration, a re-telling of the story from the beginning.  Even if I don’t actually re-write a word of it.  And after so much time away from it, it just feels too much like what I try to avoid.  I don’t know how I’m going to do it.  On some level, although not complete, the story has left me.

Maybe my father was right.  It’s important to finish what you start when you write.  Otherwise you may never finish it.  The Irrepairable Past seems to be a perfect example at the moment.  I started it.  Then I stopped before it was done.  I got sidetracked and now don’t know how to get back on track.

Which leads me to this.  I wish my sons would learn this lesson.  Always listen to your father.

We are currently dealing with my oldest son’s desire to life with his girlfriend.  At a time when he is only now completing his first year of college.  At a time when they have no real savings and no real earning potential, they want to live together.  I’ve told him it’s not time.  That they’re not ready.  That the only way it could possibly work is if one of them were to quit college and go to work full-time and that simply should not be in the equation for either of them at this point in their lives.  They should be focused on their education, committed to the idea of getting their degrees, and then starting a life together.  There is so much more that is wrapped up in this, but I’m not going to blare it to the world.  I only wish he listens to me.  Sometimes a father actually knows what he’s talking about.  And usually, it seems, we only realize that after it’s too late.

A Peek Inside

I have a trick knee.  Bet you didn’t know that.  Yep.  Once or twice a year, it does this marvelous thing.  It stiffens up and I can barely walk.  I could tell it was coming on Friday night.  It left sleep a difficult thing Friday night.  Saturday was absolutely miserable.  Today it’s not much better.  There goes my Father’s Day bike ride.

The weird thing about this is … well, there are three weird things.  First, there is nothing I can point to that I did Friday to cause the stiffness.  Just as there never is when it happens.  Second, there is no swelling.  And third, what hurts the most is the back of my knee, not my actual knee.  Although after walking on it for a day and a half, the limp creates pains in other areas, including my knee.

Anybody else experience something like this?  My doctor would just say, well you tweaked it somehow.  Ice and Motrin and blah, blah, blah, blah.

******

To my fellow bloggers — those of you who follow me and who I have followed as well — it’s been one of those weeks.  Too much turmoil in my kingdom.  A little this and a little that and I just haven’t been here.  While I check in on my Reader every day, once or twice, I’ve failed to keep up with you.  It’s one of those weeks where I’m just not that interested.  And, it has nothing to do with you.  It’s me.  So, there you have it.  Let’s see what next week has in store.

******

It’s Father’s Day.  One of those days where we’re all supposed to write some deep and profound words about fatherhood.  Our fathers.  Our kids.  Fathers and sons and daughters.  Sons and daughters and fathers.  About the beauty and wonder of it all.  I don’t have it in me today, though.  It’s part of the turmoil.  A few weeks ago, I shared my favorite poem.  Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.  It’s a stunningly powerful collection of words.  A couple of days ago, Dadicus Grinch posted the poem and wrote much more than I had about the connection between the poem and his own life.

Unlike Dadicus, I never felt anger in my childhood home.  Unlike my childhood home, however, I feel like my home now is filled with anger and it’s almost entirely my own.  And I wonder if that is what I will leave my kids with.  Memories of me.  In a shell.  Withdrawn.  Fueled by anger and frustration.  Instead of love and compassion.

Here’s one of the reasons I’m so flummoxed by this entire topic.  Father’s Day.  One day a year.  Add it to my birthday and Hanukah/Christmas.  And the wedding anniversary.  What’s that add up to — four days a year.  What about the other 361?  Why don’t those matter?  Why celebrate those days with people who ignore you the rest of the year, or worse, treat you with disrespect and disdain.

As Dadicus writes:

I am trying so hard to be present in his life, to show him my unconditional love.

This was me for years.  I was a father and husband 365 days a year.  Trying as hard as I could to be there for my boys.  Same thing for my wife.  What’s the point of having kids or a marriage if they (or it) are only something you celebrate a few days a year?  I thought it all was worth a daily effort.  I was in my kids’ lives every single day.  Maybe it was too much.  Maybe I was overbearing.  Maybe my desire to teach them life lessons overwhelmed their need to just have fun.

My oldest and I are permanently angry at each other now.  I’ve tried in various ways to reach back to him, but it seems nothing works any more.  He is his own person, which is as it should be.  I just never thought our relationship would deteriorate this badly.  I never thought I would dislike my own son as much as I do now or that he would dislike me in the same way.

People who have gone through the parenting of teenagers tell me it will improve.  Once he leaves home, he’ll realize that maybe I was right.  Once he leaves home, maybe he’ll finally mature and take real responsibility instead of the immature pretend responsibility he takes now and thinks is real.  Once he leaves home, “he’ll come back, you’ll see.”

It’s hard to see that happening.  In this moment, it’s hard to see why I would want it to happen.  Here we are.  Barely talking.  Barely being present in each other’s life.  And I’m supposed to want to spend Father’s Day with him?  Why?

 

 

My “Midlife Crisis”

I like to think that I’ve lived a life of responsibility.  Even dating back to the rebellious teen years, I was a responsible kid.  I followed my parents rules because compliance seemed the better approach compared to the strife that occurred for the rulebreakers.  Yes, there were a few exceptions along the way.  The great and massive collapse of obedience that led to me getting kicked out of the parental home when I was 22.  And another thing here and there.

But if any word describes my behavior over the thirty year course of my life as an adult, I think it’s responsible.  Always moving forward, thinking about what’s to come.  Trying to plan and take care of things that need to get done.  I take pride in the fact that once I moved out I never had to ask my parents for help.  Real help any way.  There have been some moments where I thought I might need it, but I found alternatives and I’ve been on my own, responsible for me and able to fulfill that responsibility for a long time.

That responsibility though isn’t the problem.  It’s all of the others that have piled on.  The responsibility of family and children, of owning a home, of work, of planning and preparing for others.  It feels endless and relentless these days and has for a long time.

This week will mark the 8th anniversary of my current position at work.  I’m the General Counsel for an elected official who oversees a state agency with over 300 employees.  I’ll spare the details, but because of my position, there isn’t a matter that I’m not involved in.  Every division, every component of the agency’s operations comes through my office at some point.  It’s a job I thought I might aspire to at some point in my life, but it fell into my lap one day when my boss, the prior General Counsel, told me she was quitting, that she had recommended me to be her replacement, and that I better take the job should it be offered to me.

That first day I felt like a kid wearing his dad’s suit.  I still feel like that frequently, alarmed that people seek out my opinion and involvement in critical matters.  (“Wait, don’t you realize?  I’m no better than you.  No smarter than you.  Why would you ask me?”)  But, it’s endless at times.  There are days where the cycle of responsibility just seems so … endless and relentless.  What do you think about this?  How should we do that?  What does this law mean?  Couldn’t it be read this way instead of that?  Hey, we have a problem with this employee?  Write this piece of legislation?  Sit in on this meeting.  Do this.  Do that.  Constant, never-ending responsibility.  (By the way, people at work who read this – don’t worry, I’m still here to help.  It’s actually the odd paradox about this.  I enjoy helping people and I get to do that frequently in my job.  So, keep stopping by.)

And, then, I go home.  I’m responsible for 90% of the income for my family.  I have done everything I can think of to raise my two boys responsibly and well.  It doesn’t seem to be working out so well at the moment.  I’ll spare you the details.  But I have felt for years, in the confines of my family relationship that there are things I have taken responsibility for, or things the responsibility for which has been forced upon me, an overwhelming sense that I have had to be the responsible one.  Solely responsible for so many things that are supposed to be team efforts

The point of this post is to talk about responsibility and my 30-year dance with it.  And to say enough.  I don’t want to wear my dad’s suit anymore.  I want to spend my day in t-shirts and shorts.  I no longer want to be responsible for the well-being and happiness of others.  I want to be happy myself.  I no longer want the drain and strain of all of this.  I simply want to be.

In various forums, it has been suggested that I like to argue.  I’m sure that my kids think I like to yell, since I’m so good at it.  I’m willing to bet that people I work with believe I enjoy confrontation, that I thrive on conflict and “winning.”  All of them would be wrong.   The reasons I have to argue and yell, and face down confrontation and conflict is BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE AREN’T TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEMSELVES.  What I prefer is a world in which people act and think responsibly.  That people work towards solutions rather than pointing at somebody else to solve the puzzle.  What I prefer is a world where communication is the key.

Back in 2012, Barack Obama was featured in a magazine profile.  During the course of the piece, he talks about the relentlessness of having to make decisions.  That, as President, he has to make so many decisions.  That no matter how big or small, the need to make decisions is draining all on its own.  As a consequence, to make sure he had the energy for the big decisions, he had done everything he could to eliminate the small decisions.  He eliminated all suits from his closet except for black and dark blue.  He had the same meal for breakfast and followed the same routine every morning.

Now, I realize I’m not anything close to the President and that the decisions I have to make don’t come close to those he makes, but that little discussion about the energy-sucking effect of decisions struck a chord with me.  It relates to the relentless nature of responsibility.  And I want less of it.  Actually, I want none of it.  That’s the battle I’m facing these days.

One might argue it’s nothing more than a midlife crisis for me.  One of those things we all go through at some point.  When the perceived dissatisfaction with the now is replaced by the mythical dream of what could be.  I don’t think it is though.  I’m worn out.  I’m tired.  There are battles I’ve been fighting for years I no longer want to fight.  They aren’t battles I chose.  They are battles forced upon me.  Yes, I didn’t have to have kids.  I chose to have them.  Yes, I didn’t need to accept the position I have now.  I chose to do so.  But, the battles I’m talking about aren’t inherent in those choices.  They are the battles that need to be fought because other people aren’t taking responsibility.  Other people are looking elsewhere for somebody, anybody to take care of things so they don’t have to.

I have this dream.  In six years, I will be 55.  My youngest son will be 22 and hopefully done with his undergraduate program.  My responsibility to and for my kids will be at an end.  I will be able to retire and spend the rest of my life living the life I want to live.  One where the only thing I’m responsible for is myself.  Where the only choices I will need to make each day are whether to sit on the beach in the morning or afternoon.  Whether to write or read.  Whether I should make French bread or pita.  My home will be something as small, as minimal, as possible.  I won’t need to be responsible for mowing a lawn, or repairing a garage door.  Yes, there will still be things that will need fixing, things I will be responsible for.  But, responsibility will no longer be what fills my days, weeks, and months.  Freedom will.

Day #13: A Father’s Lament

Reese 18

The best day of my life

Followed by years of strife

For you, I battled and raged

Likely leaving you feeling caged

My desire for you to live your dreams

Drowned out by your petulant screams

I only wanted what I believed was the best

To help you reach and top the crest

No longer your hero

My opinion worth less than zero

It’s the way it’s supposed to be

You spread your wings to be free

Hardest thing though to be in the middle

Still trying to solve the age old riddle

How does a father raise a son

When he wants to be offf on his own, on the run

IMG_1837

Yesterday, when I was on my bike ride and working on yesterday’s poem, I also started thinking of today’s.  Lots of activities planned and I wasn’t sure if I would squeeze it in.  Plus, in my mind, today’s effort was going to relate to yesterday’s.  The end of the poem would end with a warning, a request, a hope, a wish that my son and I would realize before it was too late that there was still plenty of Life left and we should seize it before the twin track raced out from under Life’s shadow.  So, I didn’t quite go there.  This morning, I read this.  And I worried.  Have I said things to my oldest that could leave him feeling that hurt?  Have I tried to hard?  Have I shared too much of my feelings with him?  When I’m angry, have I said too much?  When I’ve been proud, have I said too little?

That’s the scary thing about this thing called parenting.  About being a father.  It’s impossible to know.  On the eve of the 1995 Super Bowl, my  first son was born.  Because it was a caesarean birth, I got to hold him first and be with him while they cleaned him up and wrapped him in his first burrito blanket.  Because it was a caesarean birth, I took on a lot of responsibilities those first few days.  And nights.  A couple of nights after we got home, he was inconsolable.  He would not go to sleep.  I walked him around.  I lay with him on my chest.  I fed him.  I sang to him.  I did everything I possibly could.  Then I stuck my pinkie in his mouth.  He stopped crying and went to sleep.  First thing in the morning, I went out and purchased pacifiers.

I remember when he was four arguing with him about something and stepping back, amazed that I was arguing with a four-year-old.  I think that could describe a lot of what has followed.  It has never been about life-altering things.  He has, more or less, stayed on the path of being a good kid.  But, in my efforts to father him, maybe I’ve done too much of this and not enough of that.  I do know this, what I have wanted for him is to live up to his dreams and ideas for himself.  I have never pushed him to be me or to accomplish the things I wanted but never did.  In many respects, if I push my kids in any direction, in a lot of ways, it is to be the opposite of me.  I wish they could take on my best qualities and then do with them more than I was ever able to do.

But, it goes back to dreams.  And effort.  He wanted to pitch and catch, but never wanted to practice.  He wanted to play goalie for his high school team, but was late to practice and a bit of a lollygagger.  He wanted to go to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo or UC Santa Cruz, but stood by nonchalantly as his grades went from 4.0 his freshman year to … well, far below that, his junior year.  At many steps of the way, if I told him he should run, he would walk.  If I told him he should walk, he would run.  The high school years, from the summer before his freshman year, has been about opposition and a search independence.  Assumed maturity wrapped around juvenile behavior.  It’s been a rough, rough, rough time for me and for the relationship we have with each other.

A couple of weeks ago, I went with him to Long Beach to visit one of the top two universities he was accepted to.  We spent a couple of days there.  He seemed to warm to it and also to the idea of going away to college.  Which is an odd thing since it’s what he has always wanted to do.  Me?  I don’t even care if he goes to college.  If he had a Plan B, or C, that would provide him with an opportunity for happiness, that’s all I would want for him.  But, on his own, college has been his destination and preferably somewhere else.  After our visit to Long Beach he seemed to cross off Sac State, the local college that also accepted him.

Today, we made the one other out-of-town visit.  San Francisco State University.  We didn’t stay long.  It just didn’t feel right for him.  Too compact, too stacked on top of each other.  Long Beach is much more spread out.  It helps too that Long Beach will be about $3,000-4,000 cheaper per year.  It helps too that Long Beach has a better Engineering Department.  You want to talk about being the anti-me.  Engineering?  Are you kidding me?

So, he’s 99% sure he’s headed to Long Beach State.  I don’t know what the final shove will be for him to let them know he’s coming.

I do know this.  I never wanted to be his hero.  I only wanted to guide him and teach him and show him what his life could look like.  The reality is … he’s my hero.  He has accomplished more in this first 18 years than I even considered in that time.

I hope for two things.  First, that he keeps moving forward and finds his path to happiness.  Second, and selfishly, that somewhere on that path, he finds a place for me to be able to witness his journey.  It’s all I’ve ever really wanted from my son.

 

I’d Really Like to Know When It Ends

I have two of these creatures living in my house.  My dad calls them puberts.  Most of us know of them as teenagers, those charming human beings who lose all ability to think rationally, to consider consequences, and act in any way other than selfishly.  At the exact time we begin to give them more responsibility and expect them to start making smart decisions.  I mean, really, come on, we hand the keys to the car to sixteen year olds who can’t demonstrate the most basic concepts of common sense.  And expect good things to come of this.

For far too long the result has been this.

frustrated parent

Yeah, he’s got more hair up top and less out front, but I think you get the point.

I’m at my wit’s end.  I’ve been at my wit’s end for far too long now.  I knew the teen years would be difficult, but I never thought it would be this bad.  And I don’t know if I’m going to survive it.  Or, well, there is an alternative.

teenager ashes

That might lead to unfortunate outcomes, however.

man_in_prison

In other words, my only choice is to soldier on.  People who have been through this say that it will end.  That the little monsters occupying our teenagers’ bodies eventually vacate the premises and our teenagers return to the human race once again.  When you’re in the middle of it, though, it’s hard to see that outcome.  When you are confronted with the immaturity, irrationality, and irresponsibility … and MASSIVE SELFISHNESS of the teenage race over and over and over again on virtually a daily basis, it’s virtually impossible to imagine a way out.

My oldest son has afforded me the opportunity to receive a proverbial F%$#$ You from him on a regular basis.  No, he never says the words.  His actions though are much louder than any words could be.  It’s really hard to care at some point in the relentless war that rages.  And once you lose the ability to care, is it possible to get it back?  Even if it’s your son.

I only hope all of those who have come before me are right and we end up here.

path-to-beach

Instead of here.

road block

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