Tag Archives: Father’s Day

Thinking of the Senior

There are many things in the news and in my personal intellectual explorations to be written about this week, but I have to set those aside for the moment to acknowledge today as Father’s Day in the United States and a few other countries. (Finland has its Father’s Day in November for some reason, but that’s beside the point; part of me is still very much American.) In fact with all the fuss here over Midsummer I would have forgotten this holiday entirely were it not for some touching posts by some of my Facebook friends.

I’ll leave aside the question of how being a father changed my own life and how it continues to be central to who I am, even though at this point my own sons are very much on their own and rarely in touch more than once or twice a month these days. I fully accept that, because at their ages I was even less in touch with my own father. What I want to say is something about how my relationship with my own father has laid the groundwork for who I have become, and the sort of credit and blame he deserves in that regard. I’m pretty much at peace with who I am, so I happen to think of it primarily as giving him the credit he deserves, but those who have a more critical perspective regarding me as a person might want to blame try to him for part of what I like about myself.

20150621_193037I write this sitting in the little camper trailer that I have as a working residence on the “job site” of the country place I bought this winter, with money from a small stock portfolio that my father transferred into my name sometime a while ago; I’m not exactly sure when. There were times when my sons were much younger when I really would have liked to start this sort of project, but for lack of money I was unable to, but such is life. The uniqueness of this current opportunity would have been lost had I been able to follow in my father’s footsteps too closely in that regard. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

I am in fact the last of my siblings to start reenacting one aspect of our unusual childhood that we all found particularly valuable: “The Farm”. The original farm, as far as we were concerned, was a place on the Massachusetts/Vermont border that Dad bought back when he was living and working as a business consultant in New York City –– back when he was in his early thirties and none of us kids had hit puberty yet. It was a small former dairy farm in a town called Heath, with a fair amount of open field space, a line of old apple trees across its wind-swept gentle ridge line out back, a classic New England stone fence along the north side of the property, a forested patch with lots of sugar maples running along its western border; and a house, a barn and a few odd out-buildings, each with their own serious structural challenges. We worked together, with a few odd hired helpers and experts, to repair and rebuild this place into an environment that we each in our own way found to be therapeutic.

The letting go of this place was a sort of emotionally complex experience for each of us, and we each in our own way tried to hold onto part of it, while at the same time “being honest with ourselves” about the whole matter: what we were each able to take away from the place emotionally, what aspects of the experience we could hope to recreate and build on later, and what limitations there were to the experience for each of us to try to overcome in our respective re-creations thereof. So here’s my current retrospective on that formative experience meant in my own life.

The word “heath”, for which the town was named, is not all that actively used in everyday speech anymore, but it basically refers to an area where the soil is poorer than that of the surrounding territory and where farming becomes a lot more difficult. Though strictly speaking not much of the town was composed of heathland in the strictest sense, the name was still appropriate. It was not a particularly highly prized area: no major national parks or tourist attractions close by to speak of; just relaxed farmlands where white people had got rid of the native Mohawk tribes centuries ago, and where they had been trying to eke out a modest living for themselves from the stony soil ever since. It was as generic as rural New England gets. Yet for our purposes that was perfect. It was a place to practice skills of simple self-sufficiency, to get nostalgic for simpler ways of life, and to have the space to find a sense of peace with oneself.

The Heath farm had its own collection of “interesting” neighbors. There was the family in the next house to the north who would very much have been “hillbillies” had they lived in the southern half of the Appalachian chain rather than its northern end. They lived a rather poor, simple life, killing whatever non-domesticated animals happened to wander through their fields for food, regardless of whether those creatures were “in season” or not. My brother brought his pet rabbit over to their house to get together with their rabbits for breeding purposes (successfully), and we got a second rabbit in exchange for the service, but that was about the extent of our interaction with them.

Across the street from them lived the manager of the Montgomery Ward’s catalog shop in the closest proper shopping district (thirty-some kilometers away). That fellow and his wife seemed to have a sort of dream of living simply but stylishly off the land, in harmony with nature, but in all sorts of little details it never seemed to work for them, particularly when it came to their animals. They had a set of very expensive bird hunting dogs that never really learned to hunt, in spite of their spending more on a state-of-the-art training collar than I’ve ever spent on a car in the years since. They also had a cow that they never really learned to milk. In fact the milking process turned into such a brutal daily a contest of wills between man and cow, driving the latter to panic and the former to frustrated hysterics, that they had to virtually give the beast away for the safety of all concerned. It was quite the show while it lasted though. This couple also happened to provide the strongest basic supply of neighborhood gossip for anyone who was interested in such. Even so, they were probably the neighbors on that road that Dad built the strongest friendship with.

Then sort of across the street from our place, a bit to the south, was this academic researcher of some sort, who I never actually got to talk to other than seeing him drive doing various errands with his old red tractor, yelling, “Hello neighbor!” to everyone whose path he crossed. He had a reputation for trying to borrow things a bit too freely, for taking other little liberties on other people’s property and for generally not fitting in with the local community. More than anything else, Dad seemed to be concerned about not being too closely compared with him.

The next piece of property south of there, on both sides of the road, belonged to the last working dairy farm in the area. Dad always appreciated this particular farmer’s work ethic, and they both clearly enjoyed chatting together about all things practical and agriculture-related. But on some level there were differences between their perspectives that mutual respect wasn’t going to cover. The farmer was part of one of the “original” families in the town, who all kept a certain emotional distance from the various “newcomers”, and beyond that he had his own private stresses in life. He had a batch of kids, none of whom were all that interested in following in his footsteps. Meanwhile no one ever seemed to see his wife, until one day the news came out that she had died, from liver failure as rumor had it. It wasn’t too long after that, when the last of his kids were ready to leave the nest, that the farmer sold off everything, pulled up stakes and left town, not looking back. But by that time we too were starting to emotionally let go of our connection with the area.

Looking back at that time it’s easy to conclude that the Heath farm was part of a particular era in Dad’s life that had was quite thoroughly over by the time he sold the place. Dad went through a string of marriages, each lasting pretty close to seven years, each involving its own challenges and “growth experiences” for him. The farm was pretty strongly tied to his second marriage, and by the time his third marriage came along for many reasons it was no longer a viable option to hang onto the place. We all sort of recognized and accepted that, but as I said, somewhere in our hearts we never let go of those experiences.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, it was through the career and investment decisions that Dad made during the course of his third marriage that he was able to give each of his children enough of an investment portfolio so that I have now been able to use part of that money to finance this sort of modest rural escape dream of my own. Thus in virtually every way this cottage project brings aspects of my relationship with my father to mind for me. It has almost all of the aspects that made the Heath farm so special for me at least –– things that I strongly speculate were important all to my siblings as well: simplicity for its own sake, understated natural beauty surrounding the place, interactions with neighbors with lots of “character”, and working to turn an essentially unwanted property into something beautiful and desirable. The only major aspect of the original model that is missing for me is being able to share it with my own children. But that has to do mostly with timing issues, for which I don’t really blame anyone, least of all my father.

The comparison and cause-and-effect relationship between my own experience of divorced-fatherhood and my father’s is a more complicated question. What I can say for sure is that he and I both made significant mistakes in our marital decisions, both in terms of who each of us married, when and why; and how each of us failed in our attempts to build and maintain those relationships thereafter. (My father’s current marriage appears to be going strong for him, hopefully on course to see him through the rest of his life now, so perhaps he’s learned more from his mistakes than I’ve learned from mine, but that is sort of beside the point here.) I can further state that my mistakes in these areas have been entirely different sorts than his mistakes, and I don’t see my mistakes as evidence that he screwed up in terms of being a bad role model for me. There are still many things about some of his mistakes that I do not understand, mostly because they have to do with things that were not talked about in front of children when I was a child, and which were not really any of my business anymore once I became an adult; but I don’t believe that such an understanding would have prevented me from making my own mistakes in marriage in particular.

The relevant issue is that the relative roles men and women in society and in marriage are still changing. Women have (largely justifiably) demanded greater respect for their contributions and capabilities, and that has effectively destroyed the traditional status quo of what men and women have felt culturally entitled to demand of each other. There are many cultures which are still resisting such changes, but such resistance seems largely doomed to failure. As much as they might try to deny it, the most culturally conservative branches of Christianity, medieval Islamic traditions, African tribal traditions, Chinese Confucian traditions and other such systems which seek to keep women “in their proper place” are continuously having to make new compromises as women’s rights become more widely recognized and accepted. Nor can we take any of their fights against such compromises to be “a bold moral stand” of any sort. Thus we are in a position where we still don’t know what new cultural norms will arise for regulating romantic relationships and marital mutual responsibility. So there is really no mystery to the matter of marriages continually breaking up more as traditional gender roles get shuffled around.

My father had his own reasons, which I only partially understand to this day, for choosing to set aside “traditional marital responsibility,” before that was particularly popular or respectable thing to do. I, on the other hand, tried to find personal security through dogmatic belief in traditional gender roles and moral codes, only to find that I could not depend on such standards to safeguard my future happiness or domestic tranquility. My father didn’t provide a “positive role model” in that regard, but I can’t imagine that it really would have mattered for me if he had; things had changed too much. Beyond that the hypotheticals run way too deep for me to even begin to sort them out.

What my father did offer to me was a role model of how to remain dignified and keep a sense of personal honor even when things don’t work the way you want them to, and even when your honor comes under the bitterest attacks. The farm in Heath was part of that. It was an exercise in looking for sustainable values in an ever changing world. That isn’t to say that Dad found them there, but he made my siblings and I part of his process of looking for them, in such a way that each of us in turn has continued looking for such values in ways we each started to develop for ourselves at the farm.

Part of that for me has been seeking out a balance between religious and non-religious aspects of my life; or perhaps I should say, a balance between trying to spiritually connect with other people and trying to spiritually connect with simple, less societally oriented aspects of the world around me. It’s sort of an Ecclesiastes 7 thing (particularly relating to verses 15-18), which could be taken as both an earlier and more profound variation on Aristotle’s idea of the “Golden Mean”.

And that in turn is a big part of what I am doing here at my little place in the Finnish countryside. That is also why I cannot help but think of my father extensively every time I come here. That is what makes it particularly appropriate for me to be spending America’s Father’s Day here on my own.

I’m not sure how far others can relate to what I’m saying here. I’m even less sure about how many might agree with my socio-ethical perspectives on these matters. These are just my own rambling thoughts about what my father –– the man I am named after –– means to me on this holiday. So here’s wishing you, David Robert Huisjen, Senior, the finest of days celebrating your paternal status; and here’s wishing fathers everywhere the sort of deep satisfaction that should go with knowing your importance in your children’s lives.

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A quick shout of Respect

I’ll be posting another “proper” entry later this weekend, on a subject having nothing to do with it being Father’s Day in the US, but before that I wanted to take a moment to state my respect for my father here. I don’t think I’ve actually done that on this blog platform.

For those here who don’t know it, my father and I have had a rather close long distance relationship since I was about 10 years old. Given the geographical distance and physical difference between he and I, many consider it to be remarkable how alike we are in many respects.

Some semi-coincidental similarities: Each of us straight out of high school was seriously planning on becoming a Protestant clergyman — in rather different churches and for rather different reasons — but God saved both of us from all that. Dad went on to do his bachelor’s with a major in sociology; I went on to teach sociology. We began debating religious philosophy with each other when I was about 12 years old, and we each have a reputation for being particularly tenacious debaters of such matters. Both of us have been seriously “challenged” in our efforts at domestic life, and attacks on how we’ve each faced our responsibilities as divorced fathers have cut both of us deeply; yet caring for our children and working for peace have been central goals in both of our lives. The other similarities between us I am rather too close to see, but I’m always proud to have such things noticed by those with an outside perspective on the matter.

So as he is celebrated for his 50th Father’s Day this year, I hope you will join me in raising a glass for — and/or saying a prayer for — the old fellow I was named after: David Robert Huisjen, Senior.

I love you, Dad, and I don’t want you to ever doubt it or forget it.

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Previous Week’s Post

former symbols of manhood

This was originally published elsewhere on November 15th.

The Death of Cheerios and the Search for the New Manhood

The first car that I remember my family having was a beige Ford Falcon. Older relatives talk about a VW Beetle my parents would have had right after they got married, but that one is entirely missing from my conscious memory. In any case, as pressures towards respectability and our size family grew, a still larger car than the Falcon was soon in order. One of my stronger early childhood memories then is of the day when the dark blue-green ’65 Oldsmobile Jetstar 88 pulled into our driveway. That became the real car of my childhood. Through my parents’ divorce, three changes of address, countless beach trips, all of my pitiful Little League career, some wild family camping adventures and the rest of my pre-teen life, that was our family car. It was one of those living rooms on wheels, with a simple AM radio, bench seats front and back, a big V-8 engine, automatic transmission, power steering and no frills beyond that. Even after its U-joints started to fail and it sat in the gravel lot behind our apartment building for over a year, that chunk of Detroit heavy metal remained in my mind the model of what a “normal car” should be like: substantial, powerful, roomy and protective.

My own first car turned out to be a ’69 Ford Galaxy 500, which I never particularly loved, and which has actually caused me to avoid that brand ever since. Objectively speaking it wasn’t the manufacturers fault, but the engine, transmission, body and suspension system on that beast proved to be pretty much equally unreliable. I did have a beautiful girlfriend for most of the year I had it, and thanks to its tank-like bulk I did live through the time I fell asleep driving it, but that’s about all the positive things I can think of to say for that old beater. It was dubbed “Battlescar Galactica,” and by the time I junked it there was no love lost.

The next car I got was a ’70 Pontiac Lemans. That was a much sweeter machine. My father actually picked it out for me, bought from a retiree in his neighborhood in Connecticut. The gear ratios were a bit high for country roads, and the two-door body was a bit awkward to get groups of friends in and out of, but it was fast, stable, reliable and sporty. It was the closest I ever had to a true muscle car. I had one minor wipe-out with it in a snowstorm, but other than that I never had any significant mishaps with it. My sister got her driver’s license in that car, and along the way there were more interesting adventures with it than I have time to write about this weekend. I wish I could have afforded to keep it for longer. For all I know the lady I sold it to could still be driving it.

Over the years that followed I also owned a full sized Buick and a full sized Chevrolet. Those were less successful discount purchases, but they were better for me than the Ford at least. So it was with some nostalgic melancholy that I listened to the radio news last week that GM was retiring its “Mr. Goodwrench” service division. Their Pontiac division also bit the dust this fall. Oldsmobile was already long gone. Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac remain, but the GMs that left the most positive early impressions on me have now gone the way of the dinosaurs whose decayed bodies provided their fuel.

Some industry pundits have said that a big part of GM’s mistake was to keep four different brands of cars which were virtually indistinguishable from each other. To provide respectable competition for the Mopars and Mercs on the NASCAR circuit, the Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldses started popping in Chevy motors. A Chevy-Olds became known as a “Cheerio” and the same label got tacked onto its Buick and Pontiac sisters. Meanwhile, out on the street, the Camaro, the Corvette, the Firebird and the Goat maintained a certain credibility among those addicted to the sound and feeling of a four-barrel kicking in, but that dwindling group was becoming less and less capable of supporting a full sized market. So GM tried unsuccessfully to morph these makes into things things that middle-aged baby boomers could justify buying on practical grounds. The result was the equivalent of seeing the girl you had the hots for in your sophomore year turn into a saggy, baggy divorced leftover. The magic was gone. By the time these brands were discontinued it was hardly a surprise to anyone.

Not that these beasts ever really made much sense. The best that could be said of them is that they gave men a certain sense of power: production cars that embodied the hot rod spirit in grand scale–tons of steel roaring forward at speeds never before available to the common man, and with a sense of even greater possibilities. Many allowed themselves to start believing the  “American Graffiti” style myth that this mechanical power would also make a man influential and sexy. For a lot of guys that just rang true, all evidence to the contrary. This sort of masculine success didn’t depend on social politics or conforming to anyone else’s standards. The rumble of that fine tuned V-8 made you a man’s man. You perfected this symbol of your power within the sacred chamber of your own garage or workshop, and then you could take it out and gain respect for this symbolic masculine power, confronting any fools who might dare to challenge you man to man, machine to machine. It was almost like being a knight errant, only not so bloody.

According to the myth these contests were capable of charming women, but in the end that was hardly the point. It was ultimately a matter of proving your manhood to other men. If women didn’t get it, well… the standards of whatever planet they came from didn’t necessarily apply. In some respects this was the masculine equivalent of what the fashion industry is for women: such things are supposed to help them impress men, but ultimately that’s not really the point; the main thing is to prove that one is as powerfully feminine as the next girl. If men don’t get it, or if they fail to be impressed, that’s their problem.

In some regards then the loss of the Pontiac brand for men who have used it to bolster their manhood is the rough equivalent of what it would be like for “Sex in the City” fans if stiletto heels were no longer to be produced. In terms of practical utility and enabling someone to be a better partner or spouse, they are worse than useless; but in terms of giving the person a sense of confidence in being able to stand out as a woman’s woman or a man’s man, and attract those of the opposite sex on the basis of that sort of feeling of confidence and power… its easy to see how some might become emotionally dependent on such things.

Of course every generation has had its own abstract symbols of power and success for each gender. Some day stilettos and muscle cars will entirely go the way of whale bone corsets and powdered wigs, to be replaced by only God knows what. Whether the opposite sex will find these new power symbols attractive or not remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we have those of both genders who are not out to win over those of the opposite sex so much through a display of power as by a display of submissive appeasement. For women this can be the soft-spoken, contented little home-maker image; all the things true feminists have tried so hard to stomp out. For men, on the other hand, this can be the role of the undemanding and supportive “bread winner”, or that of the general household assistant. This too can be something that others of the same gender might look down on as beneath the dignity of someone with self-respect. So both men and women are forced to think about who they really want to seek approval from: those of their own sex or those of the opposite sex? And what are they willing to sacrifice to gain this approval?

One thing that can both provide personal satisfaction in terms of reinforcing a solid, self-respecting gender identity, and at the same cement an attraction to the opposite sex, however, is active parenthood. This too can be a battlefield, but it shouldn’t have to be. When women have the opportunity and feel empowered enough to live on their own terms as mothers, there is nothing more reaffirming for their femininity… or so I’ve been told. And when we men are able to build relationships with their own children on their own terms, or even within moderate matriarchal restrictions, there is nothing more reaffirming of our masculinity, says the voice of deeply felt experience.

It is now the wee hours of the morning following the day designated on the Finnish calendar as Father’s Day. I’m running considerably behind schedule with many things, not only this blog. When I wake up in the morning I’ll have to hit the ground running to catch up on many matters of boring and existentially meaningless routine responsibility, which are byproducts of my semi-chosen profession and lifestyle. With any luck at all my car will get me to all the places I have to go, but it won’t prove anything to anyone about what an important man I am. But regardless of all that, today my adult sons made a point of spending a bit of quality time with their crazy old dad, and for now that gives me as much personal reinforcement as I can ask for. In this respect at least I really am valued for who I am as a man. Of course I still keep hoping for more, but for now I’ll content myself with having that much.

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