Poetry

January 16th, 2013

My father died in 2001, shortly after 9/11. He died of pneumonia, but that was really just the malady that finally proved too much for him. As a child, he’d suffered both typhus (yellow fever) and polio – diseases that often killed children of his era. I believe the lung damage from polio is what led to oxygen deprivation (he had only one working lung), dementia and, ultimately, pneumonia. Beyond the physical, my father suffered an abusive father, poverty and the Spanish Civil War. As aspiring art student while in his teens (he was a good illustrator and sculptor), he had to give up these dreams when drafted into the Cuban army. By the time he arrived in New York in 1949, all he lived for was to earn enough money to escape the problems of his childhood. He worked in steel mills then in construction. When he and my mother moved to Florida, he did some real estate development. When they moved out to Washington, he was smart enough to invest a few dollars in the company I was working for at the time (Microsoft, in the early 90s). By living an extremely frugal life and investing wisely, he essentially became a blue-collar millionaire, if only briefly.

As a teenager and early adult, I lamented how my father had been transformed from art student to workaholic. I distinctly remember him admiring a wooden box that a friend had crafted for me then asking “does he make money selling these?”  He’d lost the notion that someone could build something driven only by the mere love of creation.

So I was astounded when, rummaging through my father’s papers after his death, I found two poems that he’d written. I made copies of them and sent them to my sister and family then, sadly, lost them after a hard disk crash. Fortunately, my sister kept paper copies. I have transcribed and translated, as best I can, the first poem below and leave the second for a future post. Both are in Spanish and untitled.

Original:

En el camino apuro mis pasos
Con el alma erguida hasta la frente
Pensando en ver en su rostro una sonrisa
Y al no verla presiento que se ha ido para siempre

Miro al cielo, en circulos, de miedo
Ausente de alguien que me ayude
Me siento solitario y olvidado
Come ciervo perdido en el desierto

Me siento inconforme con la vida
Como si estuviera atravesando una cañada
De tierra humeda y helada
Que se agarra a mi como tumba de la nada

Pase mi vida al lado de los mios
Con un pensamiento de ser eterno
Cuidador de mi raza y mi familia
Para hallarme solo en el vacio

Translation:

 On the path, I hurry my steps
My soul bursting from my senses
Imagining a smile on her face
And upon not finding her, I know that she’s gone forever

Scared, I look to the sky, in circles
With no one to help me
I feel lost and forgotten
Like a deer in the desert

I feel uncomfortable with living
As if I am crossing a valley
Of earth, humid and cold,
That pulls me like the tomb of nothingness

I spent my life beside my own
With thoughts of living forever
Defender of my people and my family
Only to find myself alone in the emptiness

I am not sure whether the first paragraph refers to an actual “her” or is simply a metaphor for lost opportunities. The second and third speak to his loneliness. While my father was an extrovert and had many acquaintances he also had few close friends. Having rarely received any affection from his own parents, he was not one to openly express his feelings or his personal thoughts. Having been a sergeant in the army, he was a tough guy who could admit no weakness.

The last paragraph, I read as one of disappointment. He spent his life exclaiming the greatness of the Spanish people (he grew up in Galicia). He devoted himself to assuring that his family would not suffer the poverty of his youth. And yet, having realized his mortality, he notes that neither country nor family can keep him from the emptiness.

I sometimes note that men don’t truly feel like adults until their fathers die. I loved my father and always sought to make him proud of me, but also had my list of grievances. When he died, I was happy that my mother would live her final years with tranquility. Years later, though, I still miss my father and occasionally dream of him. Being a lucid dreamer, I always take the opportunity to hug him; something that I wished I’d done more often while he was still alive.

On Politics

October 8th, 2012

I don’t often talk about politics, but when I do, here’s what I usually say. My apologies to those close friends who’ve heard this spiel before.

I believe in existence of multiple systems of truth. By this, I mean that I believe that each person creates a framework of beliefs that forms the basis for their behavior. No two frameworks are alike and some are radically different from others. It is impossible to convince someone of anything if your basic tenets are too different. Each of you will look at a “fact” and interpret it differently. This applies even to matters of science. It is why the scientific community relies on peer-review and emergent consensus as the mechanism for deciding what’s “generally recognized as true” (mind you, not True, just “recognized as true.”)  There may be scientists that argue that climate change is a hoax, but they are arguing against the consensus view. The consensus may occasionally be wrong, but I’d never bet too heavily against it.  Alas, politics is not science and has no mechanism for consensus.

I believe that both the liberals and conservatives in America are still suffering from the mindset of their Puritan ancestry. Rather than spiritual self-flagellation, however, these modern day Puritan descendants seek their personal punishment elsewhere. Liberals hate wealth; Conservatives hate sex. When I see Liberals spouting off about “corporate greed”, or the evils of globalization or why we must all move into small houses and start riding bicycles to work, I see the same pathology as that suffered by Conservatives who rally against sex education, abortion rights and gay marriage. Liberals like the idea of global warming because it means that we will all have to be poor. The guys who end up working as social workers after getting their PhDs in English will feel better about themselves if their MBA-earning friends have to sell their BMWs and buy Priuses. Conservatives have sex, of course, but with the lights off and they’re still embarassed about it. They don’t want sex education or birth control because they think their daughters will immediately go out and start having indiscrimate sex.  They don’t like welfare, because they know that all those poor people are having indiscriminate sex and getting abortions all the time.   Liberals and conservatives in the US are still suffering from the religious silliness of their ancestors.  They need counseling. All of them.

I believe that anyone who wants to gain elected office should, by decree, be considered ineligible for the job due to evident personality disorder. Rather than electing officials, they should be chosen randomly, like jurors. One day, you might get a postcard informing you that you have to be a Senator for the next six years.  Of course, you won’t want to do it, you’ll try to weasel out of it, but the second time you get the card, you’ll be forced to take the job (for $18/day). Seriously, I can’t see how this system would be any worse than what we have now.

In spite of my cynicism, I still vote. I generally vote Democrat although, once, I did vote for a Republican city council member.

I vote Democrat in spite of being relatively wealthy and not likely to buy a Prius any time soon. I vote Democrat because I like sex more than I hate wealth. I’ve met many wealthy people who are good folk, doing good things and often voting Democrat, too. On the other hand, I’ve never met a Celibate with whom I could enjoy a beer.

I vote Democrat because conservatives are too often driven by fear. Fear of the government, fear of immigrants, fear of Muslims, and, of course, fear of daughters having too much sex. There’s a very thin line between fear and hate.

Democrats, perhaps, may have too much faith in government, be too willing to open our borders and be too tolerant of burqas. Perhaps their daughters are guilty of wantonness. If I have to chose between naive optimism and excessive fear, however, I will always choose the former.

A Father’s Day Homage to My Children

June 17th, 2012

I love getting the presents. I love the corny cards chosen by my wife and only briefly customized by my children. It’s nice to not have to wash dishes after dinner. I love being a father on Father’s Day.  More importantly, though, I love being a father.

With a kid in Princeton and another in Stanford, it’s likely that I’ve done something right. My wife surely had more to do with it than me, but I can easily boast that, as dad’s go, I probably didn’t suck. I would imagine that my children would probably say that I gave them an appreciation for humor and laughter or that I taught them to love science.

When compared on the cosmic/karmic balance sheet, however, I readily admit to being a debtor; I have taken much more than I have given. What meager things I have given my children pale in value when compared to what I have received.

Their first gift to me, back before they were even born, was to cure me of self-indulgence. Sally and I had been married for 8 years when we realized that taking one more trip or buying one more toy was not going to make us any happier. We realized that the world was not just about bringing pleasure to ourselves. We decided to grow our family and our daughter was born a year later.

In the delivery room, I received two gifts. Not just a beautiful, healthy, girl, but something else, too; I learned to accept, tolerate, and even enjoy the messiness of life. For nine months, I’d been worried about dealing with the birth process. I hadn’t enjoyed the films and had always felt panicky when visiting hospitals.  Yet, there I was, in a room filled with bloody towels. I’d just cut my baby’s umbilical cord and was (at the OB’s suggestion) poking at the afterbirth to “note the incipient calcification” of which we’d been concerned. I was was thrilled to tears. Never again have I been bothered by bodily fluids. Pee, poop, vomit – no problem. Decomposing rat in the crawl space – er, okay, maybe not my favorite, but I can deal with it.

Kids are messy. Life is messy. Sometimes a mess involve fluids, other times it involves unpleasant arguments or difficult decisions. No matter, I can deal – my kids taught me how.

As my kids grew into toddler-hood they taught me patience. Teething, tantrums, and toilet incidents do not yield to reason, yelling or tears. You survive these only by learning to outlast them. The phrase, “it is what it is” finally makes sense. Years later, when I get stuck in long lines or have a flight cancelled or find myself talking to “Doug” in customer service, I can enter a Zen-state where nothing bothers me. So be it. This, too, will pass.

When I left Microsoft in 1998, my children were 5 and 7 years old – a wonderful age (no diapers!). I spent the next 6 years co-mothering my kids. I did a little work here and there but, mostly, Sally and I made lunches, drove the kids to school, drove back to school to bring forgotten items, picked them up, took them to soccer/piano/Gymboree, made dinner, read stories and put them to bed. On weekends, I taught them to ride bikes or drove them to the kids’ museum or science center.

I talk to a lot of parents who fret about the advantages and disadvantages of having a stay-at-home parent (usually, around here, a stay-at-home Mom). I reply that I’m all for it, but I think both parents should stay home. I loved the time that I got to spend with my kids.

Those years taught me how little everything else matters – I gained perspective. I track global, national and local politics. I give to charity and participate in a non-profit. I not only recycle, I compost, too. Frankly, however, none of that stuff matters in comparison to my family life. I would readily elect a Republican, steal from the poor and kill the whales if that’s what I had to do to protect my family. I participate in world events as a hobby. Being a good father and husband, however, is my duty.

My kids’ teenage years were easy. To friends, I explained my parenting philosophy regarding dealing with perils of the age. I would set unreasonably high standards so as to give the kids lofty goals (e.g. “don’t drink alcohol”). They would fail to meet these standards (as one would expect). I would then not overreact since this is what I anticipated anyway. To my kids, I asked that they use good judgement. Don’t do bad things but, if you do them, please love me enough and be smart enough that I don’t learn about them. It worked with me and my parents, could they please do the same?

We had no DUI’s, drug problems or surprise pregnancies. Both kids survived the hell of puberty/middle school and were well-grounded upon reaching high school.

The high-school years taught me grace and how to deal with pride. I remember my own father bragging incessantly about his children and vowed not to be such a blow-hard. It was difficult. We had friends whose kids were a constant source of headaches. No pregnancies, but plenty of drugs and academic issues. We had none of these problems; I was worried more that my kids were too cautious and not getting into enough trouble (although, I thought, maybe they just love me enough to not let me find out!). My kids got into great schools; it was hard to not brag. It is easy to bask in our children’s’ limelight. If they’re good, we must be good, too, no?

I remembered my own father and learned to be quiet and humble (most importantly, quiet.) Nothing ruins the buzz of Schadenfreude  like someone who’s not miserable.

Selflessness, resilience, patience, perspective and humility – these are but the major lessons. Every year of being a father has taught me something new. I am much better a person for having become one. So, on my 22nd Father’s Day, let me be the one that does the thanking: Danielle, Steven – I love you dearly. Now, please, is it so hard to call once a week?