Happy Fathers Day to me

The Thinker by Rodin

This year for the first time in my life there is no father to call. No father to send a card to. No father to give an unneeded tie to either. So today has become something of a bummer of a holiday for me. Yet it is a bridge we all must pass in time if we live long enough. I can’t say that I like it.

So far 2016 has been a bad year for deaths within the family. I lost my father on my birthday (February 1). I learned recently that my Uncle Lou passed away a few weeks ago. I had plenty of uncles, but Lou was the closest to being a present one in my life, even though we had to travel to see him: either Michigan where he lived with my Aunt Penny or some state park somewhere where we met with our larger families when we were growing up. Life has been especially cruel to my Aunt Penny this year. She lost two to cancer, not just her husband of fifty plus years, but also her daughter (my cousin) Beth this week. Beth was an adventurous free spirit. She had two stints in the Peace Corps and wasn’t intimidated in the least by the poverty, heat, disease and high mortality of those regions where she worked. She died after a long bout with ovarian cancer.

A fatherless Fathers Day does make me ruminate on the importance of a father in your life. As I wrote in his eulogy my father was exceptional, at least in the role of being a father. I’m quite confident he would be in the top .1% if there were a way to rank fathers. Given my cousin Beth’s adventurous nature, my Uncle Lou was probably a similarly highly ranked father. We were both blessed to have them as nurturing presences in our lives.

Mothers tend to get most of the credit in childrearing, perhaps because they tend to do most of the work. I wasn’t keeping track with a stopwatch, but I can say that I at least pulled my weight with the parenting. While challenging at times, mostly it was deeply satisfying. We had one child, our daughter Rose who I may have recently embarrassed by publishing a video of her at ten months. The research is quite clear: an engaged father can be transformative to his children, as my father certainly was with us. Moreover, a father who lavishes love and support on his daughters is especially important in their ability to make their marks on the world.

I saw this in my own family where arguably all of the women have succeeded at least as well as the men in the family. My father never treated his daughters differently and set high expectations for them. The oldest has a degree in nursing like our mother. The next oldest has a long and successful career in the space industry and a masters degree in biophysics as well. My next sister has an MBA and is a chief buyer for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The youngest has a PhD in audiology and has been teaching it professionally at many universities over her career, most recently in Florida.

Seeing positive fatherhood modeled in my own father meant it was natural for me to do the same with my own daughter. She had the bonus of more attention because she had no siblings. It’s hard for me to know the extent I influenced her, but by virtue of being her parent (and an engaged one) it was clearly a lot. As I noted a few years ago as I watched her transform into a fully functional adult, she’s a lot more like me than I thought. We get along famously and often have more to talk about than she does with her mother, perhaps because she has become political like me. And she writes her congress critter, just like me.

I never tried to overtly make her like me. Math and logic don’t interest her, and I don’t see software engineering in her future. But I do see a woman with an exceptionally agile mind. She was born into a very complicated world, a world much more complex than the one I entered. And somehow she has successfully put it altogether, with help from a lot of teachers over the year as well as a liberal arts education. My contributions in the end were not just to coach her (when she was open to being coached) but to infuse her with the notion that when she put her mind to it she could, like Superman, leap tall buildings with a single bound. A mind after all is a terrible thing to waste.

Today at age 26, she is busy defining her adult life. It looks quite a bit different than how I defined mine. But she has grabbed the reins of her life in a way that pleases her. She has all the potential in the world. I am looking forward in the years ahead to see how she realizes her potential. I recently read her self-published novel (self-published only because two sets of agents had concerns she hadn’t make her fantasy world hetero-normative enough) and was both awed and humbled by the quality of her writing.

Given our often-patriarchal reality, for women to achieve their full potential it seems to require their fathers not just to give them consent but also to mentor them on how it can be achieved. It requires fathers to suspend traditional gender roles, to be unconditionally supportive to their daughters and to fearlessly champion their potential. Or not. It’s entirely okay for any child to pick any path they want. If a father though opens a door it is so much easier for the daughter to look out the door and if they choose make that leap of faith into the unknown.

This was a gift I got from both my parents, but which I perceived that I received more strongly from my father. It was a gift I gave my daughter too. So on this first father-less Fathers Day, it’s a way for me to acknowledge my father’s gift and foresight. I also acknowledge that I played my role quite well and with much love, enthusiasm and aplomb. It makes the loss of my own father easier to bear. In many ways I have replicated his model and am passing it on to her. And doing so feels immensely satisfying.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad wherever you may be. Today especially but always you remain just next to my heart.

The Tree of Life

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been debating with an atheist friend about life after death. She would like to believe in it but simply cannot. Too much real life experience informs her otherwise. I have agreed that no one can really know for sure whether we have an afterlife but I feel that some form of our individuality does survive death. This took us to a discussion of near death experiences. I find the evidence pretty compelling given the commonality of experiences. She thinks it is more likely that this is some sort of hallucination that happens with oxygen starvation that precedes death. In short it’s unlikely that we will convince each other either way to change our minds. But it is good that we can talk about these meaty issues in a civilized way and not start throwing things at each other.

Discussions about life after death sometimes remind me of the question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. What you reply depends on the perspective you bring to it and your experiences to date. (It is accurate to say the glass is both half full and half empty, although few can embrace such duality.) Genetics may predispose us to see the world in a certain way. Both my friend and I are clearly left brain dominant so we are by nature skeptical. It is only in recent years that I have moved to tentatively embrace ideas I once considered far fetched. I suspect (but do not know for sure) that right brain dominant people tend to be more spiritual and religious and thus are more likely to believe in notions like souls and an afterlife. I don’t think any perspective is fundamentally wrong. I think that all perspectives, even the wacky ones, should be listened to with some level of respect.

I have recently found a metaphor that is right outside my window: the tree. It may be officially winter now, but there are still a few leaves clinging to the trees outside my window here in the Mid-Atlantic states. I’ve been watching them fall throughout the autumn. Every spring I watch new leaves appear as replacements. Every year the tree gets a little bigger and a little taller. The leaves are inarguably part of the tree but they are not the tree. The leaves though are vital to the growth of the tree. In fact they provide the energy the tree needs to grow.

I am wondering if my life is like a leaf on a tree. It may take eighty seasons or so before my leaf falls off but it will fall off. During these eighty or so years I too will be taking in the sunlight. I will gather energy from other things around me: people, places, books, and bicycle rides. I gather this sustenance wherever I can find it then try to radiate it on something or someone else. For eight hours a day or so I channel it back into the livelihood that let’s me survive from year to year. But I also give some of it back in other ways: to my family, friends, and coworkers and even to total strangers by posting blog entries like this one. Hopefully I project positive instead of negative energy, and as a result of my labors I do my small part to make my world a bit nicer and more livable.

It seems hard to imagine that by putting out all that positive energy that I am not nurturing and sustaining something else. Perhaps this larger “tree” that I infer is truly me and there is the physical/temporal me (the leaf) and the spiritual/immortal me too (the tree). If I have a spiritual side then perhaps during this life I am providing sustenance to my spirit. Or perhaps I am feeding a larger communal tree of some kind. Perhaps the tree I call my spiritual self is but a branch on a much larger tree. In fact the tree of life must be enormous. It has six billion or more leaves just representing human beings on this planet.

Reincarnation does not seem illogical at all to me. In fact it seems illogical not to believe in reincarnation. One way to look at nature is to note that everything dies. But another way to look at nature is to see that everything reincarnates, or at least regenerates. So the tree becomes an excellent metaphor. Every year a tree brings forth new life and growth. Each year is both the same thing it was and it is something quite different. In fact nothing alive stays the way it is. We change moment by moment. So if everything alive is constantly changing and regenerating then why should human beings be an exception? Why should I not be the phoenix rising from the ashes over and over again? I have been feeding my spiritual tree for 47 years now with new energy. I suspect I have been sentient many times and will be back again. I will not be entirely the same next time. If I come back as a human being I sure won’t look like I do now. Just as every leaf on a tree is subtly different from each other so is each human being. Yet on one level we are all the same. We all have 46 chromosomes and come with four major appendages.

The tree of mankind may be but one tree is a much larger forest. One way to look at it is that there is a tree for every species on the planet. Trees in a forest affect each other. I am a bit enamored with the feline tree, since I have a cat to which I am much attached. I think he feeds my spiritual needs and he feeds mine. It seems all these various trees interact with each other on some level.

So while I give my atheist friend wide berth for her beliefs I don’t that feel mine are wholly illogical. Actually I find hers to be more likely than the notion that we have but one chance at eternal life so we have to get this salvation thing right the first time through. My gut instinct is that there is some logic and order to our universe and it is not wholly a result of randomness. It feels right that I am just a leaf on the tree of life.

Six Figures Ain’t What It Used To Be

The Thinker by Rodin

Sometimes life’s milestones go almost unnoticed. In filling out the paperwork for my car loan this week and totaling up my income I discovered that my income alone was now just barely in the six figure range.

So why don’t I feel richer?

I always figured that if I were making this kind of money that my life would be a heap more upscale. Maybe I’d be driving a Lamborghini, but if not that at least a Lexus. Instead I have this lovely brand new but modest 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. This hardly screams midlife-crisis babe-attracting-magnet mobile.

With a six figure income isn’t it time to get a McMansion with a three car garage? We seem content with our modest three bedroom single family home. The McMansions are all over the place in my community. It would not be out of our reach for us to trade up to a grander house. But the truth is I don’t want a McMansion. My income is now in six figures but apparently my neighbors have much deeper pockets. They have the McMansion, three cars in the driveway and a wife who stays at home and drives the children to ballet classes. But not everyone can be an executive vice president. Where do these people get the money? Am I underpaid at $100K a year?

Perhaps I could buy a vacation home, weekend getaway or timeshare condominium. But I don’t want any of them. I don’t want to spend my weekends driving somewhere to have some stolen moments in the country. I don’t want the hassle of maintaining another piece of property. I can hardly keep up the one I have. And I doubt that even on six figures that I could really afford two mortgage payments.

While I no longer struggle from paycheck to paycheck I find that my experience with poverty and struggling to make ends meet for so many years still controls my behavior. I cannot be reckless with money. I largely practice pay as you go. I won’t carry a credit balance. I typically buy used cars and keep them until they are just short of falling apart. (This new car is the exception, but even so we put $10,000 down.) As for style, I have none. I have no sense of fashion. Blue jeans and T-shirts supplied by technology vendors account for much of my wardrobe. My daughter says I need a visit from the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy folks. I have no idea how to be hip. Worse, I have zero desire to be hip. I am comfortable being indistinguishable from the crowd.

Still I have noticed the income creep over the years. A family vacation in Hawaii a few years ago would have been unthinkable at one time. It probably cost us $7000. It was paid for by extra paychecks and by dipping into savings a bit. I hardly noticed the cost. Similarly this year my wife elected to get some cosmetic surgery. The operation cost us $6000 or so. We paid for it out of savings and paid ourselves back within a few months.

Such things are helped by having low housing costs. Our mortgage payments are about $1500 a month. At one time the payment seemed obscene, but now new residents have a hard time renting a decent apartment for that kind of money. We have been fortunate in the timing of our housing decisions.

I spend money in places and in quantities I didn’t before. I give a lot more money to charity not just because I can but because I want to. And I gave thousands of dollars to political candidates and political organizations in the last election. It was too bad I didn’t get a better return on those investments.

So I’m certainly not complaining. Poverty sucked. Some part of me continues to be scared that I will be impoverished again. On some level I realize this is foolish. I have 401Ks, mutual funds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity that can be tapped in emergencies. It gets easier to spend money with every large or frivolous purchase. But I still feel the need to horde my money. I pay myself first but I often wonder why. Am I afraid to live the larger life? Or am I simply comfortable living in the trappings of a modest life even though our financial reality suggests more expansive possibilities?

I don’t know. But I often feel I should be more financially savvy. Trading up to a bigger house would make a certain sense at this stage in my life. Perhaps the class of my neighbors would improve (not that I have many problems with my existing neighbors). Perhaps the Rotarians would ask me to join. Perhaps I would feel what it would be like to be “in” or at least a member of the somewhat moneyed crowd.

But overall I sense that passing this particular milestone doesn’t mean that much anymore. There are plenty of other people in my fortunate boat and we are all trading up. This means that prices are going up, which means that my income doesn’t mean as much as I think it does. I’m doing well. I consider myself fortunate. But I still can’t see coming up with $24,000 a year to send my daughter to Sidwell Friends School, something she’d like us to do. I can’t see buying her a car when she gets her license. Although we have money set aside for her education I can’t see her in a preppy private school somewhere when a public university will do just as well. All these things still feel beyond our financial reach, or at least don’t seem prudent.

Perhaps I’ll do it if I ever reach the $200,000 milestone.