Like many lads and lass’s, I have a complicated relationship with my father. On the one hand, I am the only of his three sons who communicates with him regularly, or even semi-regularly. On the other there are almost total chasms in our communications, by generation, political affiliation, religion, and just about everything else.
My parents split up a few years ago, so in a lot of ways I am the lone connective tissue to the family that my dad has. I have made references in past blogs about why I don’t think either of my brothers have a legitimate gripe — or a direct reason for not speaking — with him. I think it’s a silly move on their part not to keep an open line for the man, and I quietly empathize with my dad’s point of view.
Basically, it’s all backwards: growing up, I was typically the one (of three sons) in conflict with my dad. Sometimes we would argue and I wouldn’t speak to him for a few days. Once when I was 16, I told him he could go fuck himself. While we shared common interests — like baseball, or basketball, or TV shows — it wasn’t uncommon for the two of us to be at odds.
In retrospect these seemingly manufactured conflicts were not my finest moments, but they do go a decent length in explaining just how little discipline I was confronted with as a kid. I felt like I could get away with anything, and convinced myself I was always in the right — an admittedly poor combination for a teenager that never took a proper ass-whooping when it could have accomplished some good.
Despite these disagreements we had, my dad and I usually just treated it like guy shit. It usually didn’t take long for the two of us to get over whatever wedge was between us. He knew from the time I was a kid that I was headstrong and cocksure. And due to how passive he was, it only reinforced the general feeling that I wasn’t in need of paternal direction.
Still, by the time he and my mom split up it was me who made the effort to visit him, and email him, and occasionally talk on the phone with him. Even in spite of our differences, and in spite of the fact that I strongly encouraged my mom to leave him when she initially approached me with the idea, I felt sorry for the guy. I knew he would be alone if it wasn’t for me.
Naïvely I envisioned nothing but positives when my parents divorced. I thought it would allow both of them the freedom not to be burdened by the other, and that, as individuals, we would all be able to forge new relationships with each other. I turned out to be dead wrong, even to the point where now I’m not sure if anyone has been better off since the transaction.
* * * * *
My dad is not a proactive person. When our cliché conservative white nuclear family was intact, my mom did the overwhelming majority of the duties. She physically paid the bills, cooked the meals, cleaned the house, got on the phone to set up whatever appointments the kids were due for, drove everyone to school. . . She was a go-getter who got things done. When I think of what my dad did, it was, like, picking my younger brother and I up from school. I know I’m selling the guy short, but that’s all I remember.
He obviously has a different story, and explanation, for all of this. I honestly believe he views himself as the victim in all of this — why my mom divorced him, why two of his three kids don’t talk to him — because he’s never (to me, at least) taken responsibility for what he did wrong, or even considered aloud what could have led my mom to making such a drastic life decision.
In fact one might get the impression, from listening to him as I have listened to him, that my dad ultimately sees himself as under-appreciated. While I could posit that he simply lacks the self-awareness, it feels in this instant like something beyond that. It feels like he’s just living on a different planet than the rest of us.
I’m straightforwardly vague about “what my dad did” to cause my mom to do what she did, but only because it’s nothing noteworthy. It’s a boring explanation. He didn’t have any affairs; he didn’t have a gambling problem; he didn’t drink or do drugs; he wasn’t abusive.
Rather than something major, it was more a long string of consistent behavior. He wasn’t much of partner. There was nothing close to an even share of the responsibilities between my parents. My dad didn’t have much of a relationship to speak of with any of his kids, and it was always us who had to make the effort to talk to him.
My dad blames a lot of his sins on working nights. It’s the one thing he consistently arrives back to, his very own trump card of sorts, when explaining “why things were the way they were.” I don’t think that’s a good enough answer, since it wasn’t like he was denied a weekend from his employer. When he did have the chance to speak with us, it seemed to only involve sports, or movies, or television shows, or music. Safe topics. I can count on less than a hand how many times my dad asked me how school was going, or what I was interested in, or what my hopes and dreams were. That’s just not the kind of guy he was.
He comes from a different time, and I try to be sensitive to that. He’s of an era — born in 1945 — where dads weren’t exactly known for having close interpersonal relationships with their kids. Again, in my dad’s head he probably believes he was that guy for his boys; in reality it only seems that way, to him, because of how distanced and dysfunctional he was with his own dad.
There was a time when my family was strong, where love actually burned within the walls of our home. I know this for my mom has mentioned it sparingly over the last handful of years, usually as a reference point to compare how disjointed the household was in the present. Unfortunately, this love eventually burned out almost two decades ago. My older brother and I were (roughly) 12 and 10, respectively, which means my little brother was about 4. Anyway, this was the last stage that my mom would consider herself “happy,” or whatever word you want to use for that, where my dad was involved in the family and assumed more of the daily workload.
It’s strange to think about now, as a 27 year-old, that my mom had been so unhappy for the duration of my middle school and high school years. It’s even stranger that I was so clueless to this fact, and didn’t possess the awareness to realize she was a real person, too. My dad spent many years just holding on, not knowing how my mom felt, until the point when she — through many nights of serious deliberation — finally pulled the trigger.
It does sort of make sense though, why my dad took such a backseat in the day-to-day affairs of me and my two brothers. When we were children, there were fewer consequences. We were innocent, and we (mostly) did what we were told. As my older brother and I grew up we got more complicated as individuals; we started feeling certain ways about certain subjects, and became certain people. The impressions our dad may have made on us as kids didn’t seem as relevant at age-16 or 18 or 25. We had real life happening, and he wasn’t there to go through it with us.
So, as he worked nights (as he would lament), we gradually gravitated towards our mom, who never took any days off. She didn’t know as much about sports, or music, or movies, or television shows, but she sure as hell knew what grades we were getting in school. She knew what time we had an appointment at the DMV, or dentist, or to get our senior pictures taken. She knew, because she was there.
My dad watched from the sidelines, but he never had much skin in the game. While I do possess an unremitting soft spot for the working class hero, who tied his shoelaces and took his lunch to work everyday, every week, of the first 25 years of my life, I can’t convincingly mount a defense for my dad’s passivity. I still accept him, and love him regardless of anything I have written or will write in this article, because while everyone else in my immediate family wonders how he could be so blind to his errors, and so oblivious to the contempt, I feel I have a decent — albeit simple-minded — grasp on him:
He isn’t capable of being anything other than what he already is.
* * * * *
I think a lot of kids need guidance, and strong parenting. But I was not one of those kids.
From when I was 9 years old I knew exactly what I wanted to be in life: the head basketball coach at Duke University. This is true. So it makes sense that I went to college to be a writer and ended up (at present, that is) as a dice dealer in the desert.
Point being, I shot for the stars. I didn’t need a strong father or mother at home to tell me I needed to get good grades; I already knew that. I liked going to school, because school was the one (and only) way I had to get where I wanted to be. I knew I needed to be one of the best to get into Duke, the dream school I ultimately didn’t even apply to. But I’ve said it fifty times before, and I’ll probably say it fifty times more: I would have never made it into Virginia Tech if I didn’t spend my childhood fixated on going to Duke.
This bit doesn’t mean much towards the bigger story about my dad. I’m just saying I was typically self-driven, that his input (probably) wouldn’t have meant a lot to me even if he had taken on a larger role in my life. Would I have appreciated it? Probably. But I won’t waste my time missing what wasn’t there in the first place.
Instead, I must unequivocally look at the glass as half-full. I have to believe that my dad’s relative absence from my upbringing made me better off. It forced me to figure out on my own whether or not I should be God-fearing, or whether or not I should keep up the family tradition of being Republican because that is who we are, or how to deal with girl problems, or learning about saving and investing money, or learning how to drive a stick-shift, or… I could go on and on. You get the point.
I don’t doubt that my dad loves all of us. I know he loves me, and I know he loves my two brothers. I know he still loves my mom. What everyone has a problem with is the way he decided to show it. Well before I understood what it really meant, a wise one told me that actions speak louder than words — a generalization that will always be true. My dad’s words make it appear like he is misunderstood. His actions over the years and decades, or inactions, I suppose, betrayed these words.
I will continue to apologize for a roughly quarter of how my dad was, or is, but we have to keep account of what actually happened. And once we do that, it’s obvious that there is no misunderstanding.
* * * * *
I am stuck in an intra-family juggling act. I believe without a doubt that my dad was in the wrong insofar as he and my mom’s marriage was concerned, yet I’m struck with pangs of guilt when I think about him by himself. I am close to my older brother, and agree on most of the important things with my younger brother, yet it seems almost cowardly — and I can’t reconcile — how aggressively they avoid talking to our dad. My mom is the crown jewel of the family, yet she seems utterly incapable of realizing her own value and taking the necessary next step of her life, which is to start focusing on herself for a change. And me, I’m just the guy who pays attention.
It’s not a secret that I gave the most problems to my parents, and own the worst track record among my brothers as far as making choices have been concerned. As such, there is no need for me to come on here and pretend like my positions are mounted from any sort of moral high ground; it’s merely my assessment of what happened, and what is currently happening. With all that being said, I think for the fact that I’ve experienced more shit than both of my brothers, and have gone through more shit than both of my brothers, I am able to be more tolerant and accepting of our dad.
That isn’t to say I give my dad infinite mulligans just to placate his ego, because I wouldn’t be doing right by him to validate all the things he already believes. My role in his life, whether he likes it or not, is to continue challenging him. He’s been retired for the last two years, and I know he spends a lot of his days — when he isn’t watching the Yankees, or some random DVD, or whatever — sitting in his recliner with Fox News on. It’s corny that I care, that I have to be that person to inform him on what’s really going on in the streets and the workplace. But, again, if not me then who? Everyone else in his ecosystem gets their news from the same place, so any political dialogues he has are really just mutual validation parties.
Occasionally when I write about politics I mention a particular type of Republican that cannot be reached. My dad is one of these people. In our more boring visits we might talk exclusively about entertainment, like sports, but more recently it’s been common for the two of us the get in the weeds about the Trump Era for about half the time I’m there.
The last morning I saw him, about 10 days ago, we ended our powwow on sour terms. He tried to tell me about a video he saw that showed nurses harvesting organs out of aborted babies at Planned Parenthood, to which I replied that no reputable source has ever confirmed that particular conspiracy theory, and in fact two anti-abortion activists went to jail for accusations levied against the women’s health organization. This was from 2015. It has long been debunked.
Yet, my dad kept on about it. I told him I would believe him if he showed me the video (which he claims to have seen), but he responded by saying a liberal judge made the Internet take it down. When I told him that, surely, somewhere, someone on the Internet would have made a copy of the video, and that if the claim was true it would be the biggest story in the country, he told me that I didn’t have an open mind because I was biased in favor of Planned Parenthood.
Anyway, I said “until you show me the video I’m just going to assume you are lying,” and soon after we said our goodbyes and I went on my way. I remember driving home, knowing that I was absolutely in the right, feeling the nasty guilt of having called my own dad a liar. I mean, how do you think that makes a man feel? Secondly, I was kind of bummed that this was the type of shit our hangouts had turned into. It was one of the occasional chances we got to see each other, and we spent such a stupid block of the time arguing about a video that doesn’t even exist. That’s pretty fucking retarded.
So I sent him an email (it’s his preferred means of talking), kind of apologizing and kind of letting him know where I stand on things that actually matter — like his healthcare, and his Social Security — and he wrote me back. Below is what his email said (though I have lightly edited the structure since it was sent as one bulk paragraph):
I am appreciative that you felt compelled to write me about our last visit. I hope I can convey my thoughts to you in a coherent way. I have core beliefs and I have my own opinions on other matters.
At my core are my belief in God, Country, family, and knowing right from wrong. I am pretty sure I did a piss pore job on the first two as I don’t think any of you boys believe in God and none of you show any patriotism toward America. Bit [sic] the other two get passable grades. [My emphasis.]
Being a Liberal or Conservative did not always have the connotation it does now. In general a Liberal politician was one in favor of bigger government, which means higher taxes to pay for it. Conservatives believed in smaller government and more Statewide governing. The fringe people on both ends of this spectrum are fanatics. You are correct that both Democrats and Republicans are pretty much the same. Most important thing is getting reelected and taking as much money from the lobbyists as possible. They go with public opinion and the latest polls, straws in the wind. Case in point, Obama was totally against gay marriage early in his first term, but by his second term he came out for it as public opinion had changed. There are only a handful of politicians that are trustworthy.
I detest many of Trump’s ways and his certainly deserves a lot of the vitriol he gets. But he has tried to bring back many American values I strongly believe have been under siege the last several years. I truly do not mind having all the differences of opinion with you, I only hope you can have an open mind on things and always strive to learn all you can on these things.
I realize it must be unthinkable to you that I could be against free healthcare given my situation. My main problem that I agonize about is not being able to give you cogent reasons on subjects. Perhaps we can both learn from our debates. What fun would life be if we all agreed on everything? I am not going to reread this before sending it, as it comes from the heart at the moment……………………….I love you……………..Dad.
Notice how reasonable my dad seems in calling out Obama’s flip-flip when it became politically convenient for him, but he believes — without a sense of irony — that Trump is standing up for values that have “been under siege,” the latter of which is a direct talking point from Fox News. Also notice how he doesn’t mind having differences of opinion, but that I’m the one guilty of not keeping to an open mind. It’s as if there is no such thing as truth, and it’s my responsibility to sacrifice the middle ground with crackpots who keep moving the goalpost.
Him and I can agree: it would be no fun “if we all agreed on everything.” Where we differ is the means by which we filter information. Until about three years ago I was ignorant to most things political. I learned independently, away from the corporate media, how the government operates — how big money influences just about everything — and then I went ahead and started watching CNN and Fox and MSNBC so I knew what people would think and say. So if they brought up a Fox News talking point, or a Russia conspiracy from CNN or MSNBC, I would be prepared on how to call bullshit.
My dad does not possess this filter. His filter is Fox News, so what they say he follows. What they believe, he believes. We can’t have a discussion about the media without him telling me Fox News is the only organization that is “fair and balanced,” which has always been hilarious but especially so in the era of Donald Trump.
I responded to my dad with yet another email. It went like this:
You mentioned that your core beliefs are “God, country, family, and knowing right from wrong,” but that you “did a piss poor job on the first two as [you] don’t think any of [us] boys believe in God and none of [us] show any patriotism toward America.” I can see why you would think that, but I don’t think it was a failure, or even a mistake, on your part.
For one, our family was never very religious. You didn’t force us to go to church on Sunday (thank god!), even though I voluntarily did off and on through middle school. How we felt about church or religion was never discussed around our home, not between you and your boys and not amongst ourselves. It just so happened that the three of us arrived at the same conclusion on our own terms. Mom still laments occasionally that we would have been better off being more involved in the church, or at least going semi-regularly. [My older brother] and I agree that the way it ultimately worked out — where you and mom didn’t push church on us, and allowed us to think for ourselves — was the best of all outcomes.
As for patriotism, I think you and I simply have a different definition of what it means to be “patriotic”. I presume, for someone from your generation, being patriotic means you support you country no matter what. So if America chooses to bomb an undeserving country, killing innocent civilians as part of the collateral damage, as one extreme example, we are supposed to fall in line and pretend like that’s okay. This is patriotism in its classic form; it’s more of a You Are Either With Us Or Against Us worldview.
Well, I am with you. And I always will take it as a slight if somebody tells me I am not patriotic. No political party, or individual, has a monopoly on Patriotism. Because while your form is how people generally view it — where it’s all about who’s got the most flags waving at their party’s convention, or chants “U.S.A!” the loudest in a crowded auditorium — my form of patriotism is what I think it was intended to be before wars and guns and pickup trucks and country music perverted the idea. The American Revolution was a protest against the English monarchy; the Founders wanted something better. Their idea of “something better” was the separation of church and state, and the Constitution is still the most beautiful and important document in the history of civilized society.
That’s all [my older brother] and I argue with how we view patriotism (and American politics in general). We believe in making things better, just as every generation before us has tried to do (and in many ways succeeded).
There used to be a real distinction between the major political parties, back when the Democrats had labor on their side. But this is no longer the case. Over the last 30 years, basically since Ronald Regan cut the corporate tax rate from 70% to 50%, there has been a massive redistribution of wealth from the middle class and working class to the top 1%. Even with a supermajority in the House, and a majority in the Senate, neither of the last two Democratic presidents — Bill Clinton (1992-2000) or Barack Obama (2008-2016) — did anything to curtail this unfair, and corrupt, practice. In fact, Clinton and Obama made the rich even richer, outsourcing American jobs (through NAFTA and the TPP) so the top 1% could pay workers pennies on the dollar that they would have to spend on American labor.
I could talk until I am blue in the fact about just how right-wing Clinton and Obama’s policies were, but you would still call them liberal for some reason. Hell, some people on Fox News still call Obama a Socialist from time to time, which would be hilarious if it wasn’t so flat-out baseless. No one can even pretend to make that argument, because everything his did was to favor the bankers, and Big Pharma, and oil companies. I don’t care about what crazy churches he attended, or some of the lies he told that sounded good on the campaign trail. Those things might make him sound like a liberal, but they don’t make him one. All I care about are his policies. The things he actually did. And judging through that lens, Obama — he who bailed out Wall Street, took us from two wars to seven wars, crippled unions and deported more immigrants than all other administrations combined — has to be described for what he is: a Republican.
If you believe these are the ramblings of a madman, or some sort of radical or fanatic, you would be incorrect. The things I believe didn’t come from a “liberal education system,” or CNN or MSNBC or Fox News. I went to church, and I tried to believe in god until I was 18, and I did pretty well in school. I have experience to draw from; it isn’t like I completely shut out religion. If school taught me anything, it was to think for myself. And in applying the scientific method to everyday life — where you test theories and use actual evidence to support your claims, less they be untrue or unprovable — I found no use for gods or superstitions. There is a filter ideas have to go through, and if they are unsupported or untrue, then they don’t make it through that filter. So all I really ask for is the evidence, and if you can’t deliver it then I am going to have to assume it’s not a fact. I can’t accept news, or religion, purely on faith.
This was a really long email, but if you made it this far then I respect that. Just like I appreciate knowing when you stand on things, the things that really matter, I want you to know where I am coming from. I’ve known you for a long time — almost 28 years — but in some ways you don’t know enough about me. Just as, in some ways, I don’t know enough about you. I’m aware some of these issues are uncomfortable to you, and that you would prefer to talk about lighter subjects with less interpersonal impact. Me? I just want to know who you are. And maybe in telling you who I am, you will understand what makes me the way that I am.
I can’t control what anyone else does. There is no magic wand I can wave to get my mom out of her funk. I’ve already exhausted enough energy recruiting my brothers to go see my dad. And for my dad, it’s probably a hopeless battle to ever get him to understand the reasons my mom left him. It sometimes seems as though he thinks they are trivial, or that my mom is just going through a phase. If we can’t talk earnestly about our family’s truth, and reality, then I don’t know why I would ever honestly assume I could get him to understand that the politics of the Left Proper benefit his life.
I do, however, remain optimistic that something I say will eventually penetrate in his mind. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in his heart of hearts, he knows he is supporting the wrong side in this. My dad must know that the GOP is trying to make life harder on him by privatizing health care and Social Security, the two things he lives off of.
But he doesn’t seem to mind, at least not in front of me. It would require an unimaginable level of humility for him to admit the team he has supported for the last 40 years is screwing him, and that the Bernie Sanders movement has his best interests in mind. I think my dad would rather go down with the ship than ever admit to himself such a truth.
Even knowing this is a losing struggle, I find it a healthy exercise. There is always time for lighter topics, where our opinions are subjective and don’t occupy any serious space. It’s to both of our benefits when we get to the straight dope, the stuff that truly affects our lives. We had 25 years not to be particularly close. I don’t want to spend the next 25 on some bullshit that we can’t take with us.
I love the man, and I want what’s best for him. Whether or not he ever finds that for himself is unlikely, but I’ll be damned if I don’t at least try to push him in the right direction.