Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fathers and sons

I don’t really know the history about how we ended up with Father’s Day. I could go to Wikipedia and cut and paste it into my post, but since I’m writing my first drafts by hand, on a legal pad, trying to minimize time wasted on the web, I don’t have this option. Furthermore, of late, I’m attempting to do as many things as possible with a pre-internet mentality.

For me, the father/son relationship has often been a tenuous one. I’ve spent portions of 47 years loving, but not liking my father, and trying to avoid duplicating his mistakes. That’s not to say that my father didn’t have positive traits that he passed on to me, because he certainly did. It’s just that my dad and I were so different.

Every father/son struggles with the generational divide. Whether it’s music, fashion, drugs, religion, or even political ideology, there are always pitfalls bound to cause friction in the father/son dynamic.

Before I became a father myself, I was clueless about understanding that dynamic. When my own son was born, I gained a new perspective. I was now standing in my father’s shoes. It wasn’t a perfect solution, and I didn’t suddenly start spending every weekend doing projects with my dad, but I now began cutting him slack for the first time.

When Mark was born, my wife and I were living in Indiana, 1,500 miles from our parents. Mary’s parents came out to visit us three times during the four years we were marooned in the middle of the county. Because of my father’s aversion to flight, my parents never made it out.

I’ve gotten better in later years, finding some common ground that I can cover with my dad. We still can’t talk about politics, religion, nationalized healthcare, guns, sustainable development and many others things. I’m learning to steer clear of these.

I don’t like to admit it, but I’m much like my dad in many ways, however. I have a short fuse. I lack patience with people who don’t see the world in the exact way that I do. I am capable of being a “bull” about getting any project done, which has allowed me to will two books to completion.

When I was younger, and my baseball career was on an arc upward, my father would squat in the backyard and stab at fastballs I flung towards him, as I worked on aspects of my delivery and mechanics. He rarely missed one of my baseball games from the age of nine, up through high school, when I was the local pitching phenom, destined for great things at the University of Maine.

Alas, shoulder woes derailed bigger and better baseball dreams for me, and my father. I still remember (and it causes me pain) coming off the mound at Deering Oaks in Portland, after a particularly awful performance the fall of my freshman year at UMO, and knowing that I didn’t want to do this anymore. I sat on the grass between games with my parents, not interested in my mother’s sandwiches, and saying that I was thinking of quitting. My often stoic father was near tears, trying to will me onward, thinking that it was just a matter of mechanics that we could once again work out in the backyard. No amount of explanation would convince him that it was part physical (my shoulder was shot), but more the lack of desire that I once had to try to throw a baseball past an opposition hitter.

From there, our relationship became fractured, as marriage and religious choices created a chasm that I no longer was willing to cross.

Indiana and fundamentalist Xianity imposed necessary distance between us. Since they wouldn’t fly, and driving didn’t occur to them, I didn’t see my father and mother for two years. We’d visit once, mid-exile, when both our parents paid for plane tickets bringing us back east for two weeks.

Back in Maine, I got another glimpse of my dad’s emotional side when we deplaned in Portland, and he saw his grandson for the first time.


Mark facilitated a thaw in our father/son détente.

It wasn’t the equivalent to a two-state solution, but at least it deescalated some of our heated rhetoric from the past. Upon returning to Indiana, I attempted to write semi-regularly to my father (and mother).

The Bible has a passage where it states that “the father’s sins are visited upon the sons.” My own parenting style incorporated elements of my father’s, with patience not always being one of my own virtues.

Spending as much time bonding with my son when he was small was something that was generationally different between my father and I. I was also six years younger as a new parent than my father was.

Just like my own dad, however, when Mark got older, I was there to play catch with him, coach Little League, drive him to hockey, and bond with him via sports, much like my own father and I did.

And like my own dad, I also set the bar quite high with expectations, and even said things that I now look back on with deep regret, for I know how it made me feel when my father was tough on me for an 0 for 4 night at the plate when I was 11, or 12. I also put unrealistic pressure on Mark to be perfect.

Mark’s own mother was more of a buffer. Unlike my own mom, who knew little about baseball and would often duplicate my father’s disappointment when I fell short of perfection in baseball (and many other things), Mary was more sanguine in her post-game assessments, providing Mark with a hedge from my dark moods.

Mark is now 25, and lives 3,000 miles away. I’m amazed that given his less than perfect father, he has become an amazing young man (after being pretty amazing during each successive stage of his development).

While we shared and continue to share a bond through sports, we also connect on a number of other levels, including books, and developing our respective writing crafts. Six weeks ago, I got to attend a major book event, the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, when I visited him in California. Our Saturday, walking amongst booths filled with small press books, and new fiction showed me that our bond is much stronger than shared baseball experiences.

This morning, I got a call from Mark at 5:30 am, west coast time. He’d been up all night working, he said. He just wanted to call to wish me “happy Father’s Day,” and we talked about sports, life, and the wine tasting Mary and I are headed to later today.

His call was all I needed to know that while I wasn’t the perfect father, I had been good enough, just like my own dad.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps in another post you can discuss why you are trying to do things with a pre-internet mentality. Sounds interesting.

Jim said...

The short(er) answer to your question about "trying to do things with a pre-internet mentality" is that my current focus is on essays. In writing these (often developed by putting pen to actual paper, instead of writing at the word processor), I'm trying to pull some of my resources from books, magazines, records, and other places other than the internet. In doing so, I'm freed from the "tyranny of the technological."

I'm currently less interested in the "cut and paste" that characterizes many of the more popular blogs.

Last night, for instance, I didn't spend any time online. I read a long essay in The New Yorker, I read about wine in the WSJ, I listened to some vinyl on the stereo, and I wrote for an hour, instead of watching an hour of TV.

Will I do this every night? Probably not, but it makes for a much more creative use of my time, at least in my experience.