Sunday, February 26, 2012

Thoughts on fathers

Hugh Dale in High School

As I often do, I posted a quote from Jack Kerouac this morning on Twitter. It was, "The most beautiful idea on the face of the earth is the idea the child has that his father knows everything...." It's an undated entry from his "Forest of Arden" journal.* My Tweet received this reply: "That's pretty rich from Kerouac considering how he treated his daughter."

I am not about to defend Jack where his daughter is concerned. Nor am I going to defend hypocrisy in general, despite the annoying little fact that we are all guilty of it.

I will, however, say a couple of words about the matter.

First, I find it interesting that I happened to post that particular quote. I'm right in the middle of learning about Jan Kerouac, reading Gerald Nicosia's book Jan Kerouac: A Life in Memory, and yet I didn't consciously pick that quote. It was just the next quote I happened upon as I paged through Windblown World looking for passages I had previously underlined or new ones that struck my fancy.

Tangential side note: My new Kerouac friend, John J Dorfner, author of Kerouac: Visions of Lowell and Kerouac: Visions of Rocky Mount, responded to my post with a picture of his father, and I responded in kind. Please follow me on Twitter if you want to see that interchange (@thebeathandbook).

But back to the direct topic.

Second, I'm not so sure I'd say Kerouac "treated" Jan any particular way. He disavowed her for a time, and then ignored her (except to pay child support). They only met twice. According to what I've read so far, Jan rarely if ever spoke ill of Jack, understanding that he belonged to the world and that his particular contribution to the world didn't include the role of "father."

Would I trade Jack's work for his having been a good father to Jan? Now that is a question for the ages, one which I wish I hadn't just asked and one which is going to haunt me for some time.

Because, and I hope I've lived this statement, being a parent is a sacred duty. An impossible, sacred duty. Jack ignored that duty, for any number of reasons, and yet he wrote that passage. Hypocrite? You bet. Complex human being with foibles and good intentions and all the rest of it? Absolutely.

Plus, I presented that passage out of context. Here's more:

God as the Should-Be        (THE HUGE GUILT) 
The most beautiful idea on the face of the earth is the idea that the child has that his father knows everything, knows what should be done at all times and how one should live always.
     This is the idea men have of God. 
But when the child grows up and learns that his father knows very little more than the child himself, when the child seeks advice and meets with fumbling earnest human words, when the child seeks a way and finds that his father's way is not enough; when the child is left cold with the realization that no one knows what to do -- no one knows how to live, behave, judge, how to think, see, understand, no one knows, yet everyone tries fumblingly -- then the child is in danger of growing cynical about the entire matter, or despairing, or mad. 
But that children and fathers should have a notion in their souls that there must be a way, an authority, a great knowledge, a vision, a view of life, a proper manner, a 'seemliness' in all the disorder and sorrow of the world -- that is God in men. That there should be something to turn to for advice is God - God is the 'should-be' in our souls. No matter if actually there is nothing that should be done, no matter if science shows us that we are natural animals and would do better living without 'unnatural qualms,' without inner stress, without scruples or morals or vague trepidations, living like the animals we are, without guilt or horror -- that we believe that there should be something, that we are guilty thereby, is God.

With context provided, it is clear that Jack was discussing God and employing the oft-used "father metaphor" to do so. I don't think he was opining about proper father-son or father-daughter relationships per se, although I certainly understand why someone would bring up his relationship with Jan after reading my short Twitter passage (or even this longer one).

Which brings me to fatherhood in general. My father was a good man by all accounts, and he never mistreated me. He was quite engaged with his work - managing a large hotel where we lived - and so he was often busy with that. But I remember that he always stopped whatever he was doing at my bedtime and came up and said good night. He would rub my back and talk to me in his soothing voice. Of course, that stopped when I hit adolescence - mostly because of my discomfort I'm sure - and his attentions turned to playing catch with me or taking me skiing or fishing. He always made time for summer vacation at Keuka Lake, where I remember him driving the ski boat and barbecuing every night. I remember that during one of those vacations I saw him drunk for the only time in my life. I remember asking mom why he was leaning up against the tree in front of our cottage right after our across-the-lake neighbors dropped us off from a party at their house. I think mom said he didn't feel well, and I didn't make the connection to drinking. Years later I learned that those particular neighbors were real drink pushers and they facilitated dad getting wasted..

My dad was involved in my life in a number of ways, which is more than I can say for some fathers, and particularly those of that era. Indeed, my father was 51 when I was born, already older than Jack Kerouac ever lived to be.

I looked up to my father, and I'm glad he wasn't AWOL when I was growing up. I tell my students (future teachers) all the time that the best mindset to start with when working with parents is to take the position that all parents love their children and are doing the best that they can. Whether that's true or not doesn't matter because as teachers we work with the students that parents send us, and that means working with the parents that students have, whether we love their child-rearing behaviors or not. Parents play critical roles in their children's success in school, and if we start from a negative mindset, we may not make efforts to engage them.

I'll extend that same courtesy to Jack as a father. It's too to easy to sit in judgment about others, and that energy might be better spent keeping my own house in order. Speaking of which, it's Sunday. That means I'll likely to get to talk to my son, who lives 3,000 miles away.

It takes effort to stay connected with loved ones. Given a choice between staying connected and becoming a famous author, I'll take connection. But that's just me.

*Jack Kerouac: Windblown World by Douglas Brinkley, p. 143.

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