Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Dusting Off the Archives: An Old Email

[ed. note: an email written to an early mentor after bumping into him on the street after a twenty-year hiatus; only a few details have been obscured...]


This story could have any number of beginnings, so I will choose one if not at random at least nearly arbitrarily.

My father still breathes, or at least his body does. The man that inhabited that body left long ago--evaporated, dried up, disintegrated. The years of untended mini-strokes ate up his brain.

I was staying [up North], just out of the military. For some [ex-patriated] limbo evading various US agencies and memories), my father had reappeared in a flophouse [a couple of hours away]. (Later, as an interesting intellectual aside, it turnedout that the owner of the flophouse was the mother of one of my early loves, a girl who had, ironically, also joined the military.)

I visited my father at his job, a security guard at a discount sporting goods store. I asked him if he was hungry; he said that he would go on break in a few minutes. We went outside for a bite and a smoke (no, I do not smoke, but the army had taught me to share). After a few minutes of small talk he asked, "[Hieronymus]? Is that you?" I asked if he was in the habit of taking lunch with strangers. He replied that he took life as it came.

My father joined me and some compatriots in our "house of men" in DC; a waystation for exiting soldiers on their way to the next phase of their lives (one joined the ministry; one became a tool-and-die salesman; one is an anti-establishmentt real-estate mogul; I am what I am). From there, he accompanied me to graduate school. During the fall of my second year, I returned from class one day to find him strewn across the floor. I picked him up, put him in my car, and took him to the hospital. He had suffered a major stroke.

He recovered, sort of, and eventually went to live with my sister and her family in Florida. They have built him his own apartment. I have visited, but as I mentioned, he is not there. Interestingly, even in his dimished state he is likely smarter than most Americans; indeed, he devours garbage bags of paperback novels and is up on current events. But the deeper man (the man that my sisters did not really know) has long since departed. The destructive, petty shell left over is...something else.

I work to take the good parts of my upbringing--and there are at least a few--and incorporate them into my own life. This is made difficult when one holds one's that family in current contempt. This section could go on for pages, but let us simply say that I and my family do not see eye to eye. I am a home-birthing, private-schooling, social-climbing, educational-elitist, Republican-leaning, progressive wacko (or something like that) in their eyes, or so it seems. On the plus side, my children are charming and curious.

I have noted several ironies over the years. At the height of the dot-com boom I was given a "free" PC (with advertising installed). Of course, I already had four or five computers at the time. The real beneficiaries of such a computer would have been the underclass; of course, they didn't have the money to buy the products advertised, advertising that made the computer "free." The company folded.

Similarly, it is known to me that if my children suffered from, say, obesity, that I would move the family to a work farm in Montana and go vegetarian--or equivalent. Ironically, the priorities that make that draconian potential possible likely precludes childhood obesity in my family. This type of irony abounds.

I met my wife when I was 16. The story is long and convoluted, but there are very few other women--perhaps zero--with whom I would be happy. This is quite comforting.

This message has quickly degenerated into unassimilated bits; allow me to start over.

For your amusement, and for background, I have attached my chronological resume. It is up to date, because I am trying to figure out where to go next. I have left [my previous firm]. My severance should last a little longer, probably not long enough, though. People talk a lot about passion; I am still trying to find my professional passion. This is made difficult, of course, by the more immediate need to pay the mortgage and various tuitions.

My time in the military was deeply satisfying. I came to understand a number of things that I had been missing. As time passes, I find that many concrete concepts simply no longer translate (e.g., duty, loyalty, honor), and thus I become reticent, and yearn for that knowledge once more. Army life is not the life for a family man, though.

So, to my questions: what is the source of Life satisfaction (a question first posed by a deeply wise--and highly decorated--Top Sergeant)? Does one really need, e.g., Zen or the absence of pride or "a life lived for others" for happiness? What makes you happy?

On a more practical note: what general aspects of your family life caused yours to (apparently) 'succeed' (however one defines that) when so many others fail?

Where is America headed? (I thought I would throw in an easy one.)

If this missive sounds morbid, it should not. Even in the midst of deep professional questioning, I am struck by the extraordinary luck and love that surrounds and sustains me. My wife, my children, my relationships with them and with some friends, the opportunities afforded and open to me--I am aware of just how fortunate I am, and I am grateful.

I meant to write you a letter, handwritten things are such a lost art. But writing--hand-writing--causes cramps and self-consciousness. Indeed, were I to receive a hand-written letter, I would not know where to store it... (of course, one loses important emails all the time). For how long is something important?

Many bitter stories are in my hands; many happy ones as well. I do not know why it was important to stop by your house (my signing up for the race was not random--not much is truly random), but I am open once again to serendipity.

I am nearing 40 This fact fascinates me. I thought I would be an adult by now. My parents were adults (although my mother now seems more a teenager in so many ways). My father could do so many things that I cannot, and the things that I can do that he could not--outside of create a functional family--seem somewhat trivial. Many things remain a mystery to me, and as I approach 40, I wonder when the veils will lift, and who will help lift them. A 40 year old does not attract as many mentors as does, say, a 20 year old. Potential is less interesting when much of it has gone unused. If one could kill Fear (or, as I have put it, if I could once again walk without Fear)...

Well, it was good to see you. I am glad that you are still with your wife, still in your house. Glad to see and hear that your children are doing good things. I was interested to hear and read of your conservation work. I would be interested to hear your own plans for the future, or any reflections you care to share with regard to young families or life transitions or goals.

Best regards,

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