Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Third World Green Daddy 32: Becoming my father

I suppose that as they grow older, and especially when they have children, all men probably feel that they are becoming more like their fathers. I certainly do, and it is not a cause for consternation or disillusionment, but rather one of pride and joy. I don't know how this would play out if my father were still alive. Would I be adopting his habits and thoughts in the same way as I am now? Would I notice it as much? Would I be pissed off, acutely aware of acquiring the flaws of the underappreciated living and not the noble traits of the tearily-remembered dead? I can't answer any of these counterfactuals.

At any rate, this evening as I brushed my teeth I became motivated to set down some things that have been floating around in my head these days. I am at the end of a tube of toothpaste, so I've cut it with a scissors in order to better squeeze out the last remnants of creamfrom the flat part, and then scoop out the remainder left in the rounded end of the tube. In this way I can get about a week's worth of extra brushes from a tube most people would have thrown away. In fact, this is how I get almost all my toothpaste, as my five to seven member family in Bogota goes through toothpaste so fast that I usually pick up the soon-to-be-discarded tubes on my weekend visits, and spend the next week picking at their carcasses.

This practice makes me think of my dad. He didn't do this exact thing with toothpaste, but he had lots of little frugal habits. My mother does as well, but she is universally, coherently frugal. My father, on the other hand, might save a few dollars and a few grams of CO2 emissions by something like wringing out the last bits of toothpaste, then drive around Chicago and buy a new electric circle saw because he'd left his existing saw in Wisconsin. I guess his behavior was more motivated by the binge-and-purge habits acquired in a youth of chaotic poverty than by a purely rational urge to consistently conserve resources.

In the past eight months (wow, that's embarrassingly long) that I've been living at my in-laws' place in our original hometown, I've acquired a quasi-bachelor lifestyle that exhibits many of the traits I saw in my dad. I conserve things like toothpaste and bus money, a few thousand pesos here or there, then I blow that on eating out, since things aren't set up very well for me to cook here. And I'm eating a lot more meat and processed foods than I usually do. Normally my dinners consist in saltines spread with a can of fancy tuna, for instance tuna with mushrooms or tuna with Mexican grains. This reminds me of my father when he'd have a night on his own if my mother were traveling or something. His go-to bachelor dish was pork and beans and weenies. A can of pork and beans heated in a saucepan, with hot dogs heated in another pan. He really looked forward to this spartan meal. I imagine it harked back to his single days. I can relate to the nostalgia of eating a food that provides memories of the melancholy comfort of solitude and scarcity.

In the past week though, I've been sampling our town's fast food offerings. Yesterday I dined on Colombian-style hot dog with candied pineapple, lots of cheese, raw onions, and potato chips, all heaped together and then microwaved. I'd never deigned to eat this typical dish--indeed, I really never eat hot dogs that aren't typical Chicago style, as typified by Byron's Hot Dogs in my old neighborhood. But it was pretty damn good. Tonight's dinner was a special local burger with fried egg and diced chicken on top, served on arepas instead of buns. Both meals with pop, which I hardly ever drink. Dad wasn't a big foodie, but he would have liked this food. It seems that copious amounts of processed meat with lots of oil were a hard-wired desire in his post-Dust Bowl mental circuitry.

Part of why I've been eating out lately is that I've been putting in long hours at the house I'm rehabbing. This is another project my father would have loved. Endless, complicated rehab work, lots of dust and details and mulling things over while smoking cigarettes (I don't smoke, but the main contractor on the job smokes for two). This weekend Sam and Caro were in town, helping with the house. Sam loves running around and playing with things he shouldn't and spilling paint thinner and mimicking his father with the paintbrush. Sometimes he's between amazed and scared to see me perched high up in the rafters or operating a new machine.

This led me to another reflection about my father. This weekend I was hanging out of a high window, chipping paint from the wooden window frame, when I realized that Sam was watching me. I don't want him to learn dangerous habits, and this got me thinking about self-preservation and taking risks. I often engage in risky behavior out of necessity, mainly on the house rehab site but also sometimes when I have to work in a somewhat dangerous zone or something. I don't think much about it, in part because I have a sort of Zen-like serenity about my self-preservation. Of course I don't want to die, but I can't worry about dying all the time either.

Anyway, having a child forces me to think beyond myself, or really to think about myself to begin with where before I did certain things unthinkingly. I value Sam's self-preservation above all else, and would never want him to take undue risks or suffer the consequences of those risks. And it's here that I think about my father. I think he was even less concerned about his physical well-being than I am. Not out of neglect or self-loathing, but simply because he regarded himself as part of a much bigger universe that didn't center around his existing or not existing. By the time I was born, he'd spent years as a free-spirited lone wolf. My parents met each other late in life, and they maintained certain single-person habits throughout their long and loving marriage. So I can imagine that, faced with a new little person for whom he was totally responsible, my father must have gone through a lot of changes and become more cautious with himself, as is happening to me now.

I often helped my father to fix things, and he'd remark to me that something was a bad idea or not the right way of doing things, just before he did it that way. Using a screwdriver as a prybar, working with live wires, applying paint remover with no mask, things like that. I feel like the lesson he was trying to teach me was that it's not always possible to do things the perfect way, to totally avoid risk. But it is important to be aware when you're taking a risk, and control the situation to the best of your abilities. This is relevant not just in household repair, but in life in general, and I feel it's a lesson I've learned well. Especially in light of my wife's and my marveling at people young and old who have no idea of the large risks they're taking, or conversely in light of my noticing how paralyzing an inflated perception of risk has been for so many people in the US, I am more and more aware of how valuable it is to be able to accurately assess the risks in your everyday life.

This is not to say that my father, and now I, are without our portion of irrational fears. My dad was pretty laid-back about most things, especially in terms of health and well-being. He rightly felt that most problems correct themselves, and that it's no use worrying too much about colds, or social slights, or things like that. But from time to time he'd get really worried about some health or safety issue relating to me. Once he thought I had Lyme disease, and we spent all day rushing from clinic to clinic to run tests on my blood. I assume that his behavior, as mine now, was based on a rather detailed knowledge of certain scientific phenomena. Most things were not worth fretting about, but when he saw a few signs to indicate that there could be a serious problem, he went crazy. I am like this as well--my supposedly rational scientific knowledge probably leads me to exaggerate certain risks to Sam, even as I downplay other things. For instance, when Sam has a cold or even a fever I don't worry very much. I figure it's normal, and his body will work it out. But this week Caro tells me his eyes are weepy again and he's not eating too well, after we'd successfully treated him with antibiotics a few weeks ago for the same problem. So now I'm preoccupied about bacterial infections, and antibiotic resistance, and any number of other things that probably have little basis in what he's really going through.

Today after a long day at the house rehab, I took a moment to feel satisfied and accomplished. We now have a whole section of the house liveable, and Caro and I will move in this week. All of our stuff that we'd moved out of our apartment in August, and that had suffered countless cycles of getting covered in dust and then half-heartedly cleaned, is now definitively dusted and in a provisional order. Our prized books, many of which have spent months buried in boxes with cloths and teddy bears and CDs, are now proudly displayed on their shelves. I basked in the sense of comfort and security given me by having a complete, ordered library. Our functioning woodstove, which we used this weekend to prepare meals and sterilize Sam's bottles, gives me the same sensation. This also comes from my father. He oscillated between an enjoyment of a rootless, sparse existence (recaptured in his married years through occasional road trips to the deep Midwest to visit family, or to see historical sights, or to go camping) and a warm, comforting home. I am this way too, and after months with a barren room as my only stable living arrangement, it is delightful to feel once again that I belong to a place and it belongs to me.

On the same note, I very much look forward to setting up a stereo system in our new house. This is more an inherited trait from my uncle Bill than my father (though Dad loved good music too). My uncle Bill always had state-of-the-art stereo equipment, with high-tech speakers that looked like taut paint canvases, and whenever we visited him he'd be listening to late-Romantic music like Tristan und Isolde or Peer Gynt. It's been years since I've been able to listen to music in any format other than shitty MP3s on my shitty built-in laptop speakers. I long to recreate my uncle's study with its fine music and unhurried intellectual air. When I've done that in our living room, it will be another piece of feeling settled, at home.

I will close with what started me thinking about my similarities with my father. A few years ago after he died, I had to organize all his books and papers. Among other things I found a book called Echoes of the Ancient Skies by EC Krupp. It deals with archeoastronomy from different civilizations around the world. There are Chinese gnomons, Egyptian myths, Inca city alignments, Hopi sun observations, and many other fascinating discussions of how the ancients interacted with the heavens, and what the celestial order continues to mean for us. I assume my father read this book during his astronomy kick around the time of Halley's comet. If so, he'd be reading it as a 38-year-old with a 3-year-old son, while I am a 30-year-old with a 1-year-old son. I'm at a similar moment in my life as Dad was in his, and I imagine that he, like I, was thinking more about nature, life, death, the universe, thanks to the mystery and magic of fatherhood.

In between two pages of the book, right where I found it, is an office memo with a number to call, and my dad's hand-written note describing a given day during our vacation to Disney World when I was five.

1 comment:

  1. What a fine tribute to Dad--not just the words but those wonderful quirks you inherited from him. Do you recall that he bought large packages of raisins and then stuffed them into recycled little raisin boxes for your traveling convenience? BK