80 feels fairly significant. It’s a privilege to reach 80, whether randomly arrived at, or correlated to growing up in abundance.
The construct of “father’ is so complex. Sometimes fathers cause your existence. Sometimes they raise you and provide for you and educate you and fight with you and despair of you. Meanwhile, you grow up.
It turns out, so do they.
My father was raised in enormous privilege. Born in the last generation where white men of heritage garnered straightforward acceptances to the great universities of America, he left Harvard in 1960, Ph.D. in hand, and came West. The American economy was in one of its great groundswells, driven in Northern California by the semiconductor, binary instruction set, and data network. Stanford was hiring.
I joked with Dad once that he should have titled his autobiography, “The Last White Man.” He demurred. He’s a Democrat too, by the way.
What I now understand is that my father came to California as much for the promise of freedom from High WASP culture as for any traditional concept of opportunity. Imagine a tall, thin, handsome young man, gifted with intelligence and a capacity for language. Also anxiety. Above average verbal skills and anxiety often go hand in hand. I don’t know why. But I digress. I have understood only recently that my father felt rather like an alien amongst many of his more bluff kin on the East Coast.
Like most big leaps in life, the move to California must have felt both terrifying and necessary. One of those moments when worry takes second place to relief.
However, moving put him, and his children, forever, into a straddle. Not in the way of the financial markets that made his family’s fortune, not that kind of straddle, if I can play with language myself for a minute. I mean the sort of feet on either side of a canyon straddle one sees in cartoon figures chased further than they intended. Requiring and allowing the roadrunner to belong to both sides of his chasm.
I suggest that privilege gives us just that, the chance to go West. And having gone, to keep our referent origin in mind. The privilege of becoming two kinds of person at once. The freedom to float above oneself and take a larger view, understanding that everyone is an outsider in one way or another. An “‘And’ Model of Identity,” as my brilliant sister puts it.
Of course, one could suggest that the larger view is also an obligation. Clearly the first requirement of privilege is generosity. Dad’s done his share of charitable giving. But I also think that when you wind up with more than your fair share of anything, you owe perspective. You owe generosity of identity, if that makes sense. You owe humility.
All of this is by way of a thank you to my father. But, you know, I had to lead into it with some intellectual discourse. One must sneak up on High WASPs if one is going to get emotional. And one must use the term “one,” a lot. Thank you, Dad. Thank you for taking that leap. Thank you for spelling bees at the table. Thank you for your laugh. Thank you for my kids’ college education.
Thank you for finally telling me, the other day, that you were anxious in early days. For saying the words out loud. I know it wasn’t easy to say words about feelings, but California can do that to a guy.
Happy Birthday. See you tonight.
Image: my father and his dog, via my stepmother