Sunday, June 15, 2014

Learning From the Old Man, Still

In the United States, today is Father's Day.

My father's dead. Been dead for 14 years now. No, he died of rather ordinary causes; no conspiracy at work here, and nothing unusual or extraordinary to say about it. Foolish ways of former days caught up to him, and at last took their due. Nothing more, nothing less; it comes to all of us sooner or later, depending on how foolish we are.

Rather, I wish to use this day to reflect on what my father did--and attempted--and how it squares with what I know now. If I may yet learn from him, though so long gone, and improve upon it then that is enough. Remembering the best, and improving the rest, is how I choose to make what I can of this occasion.

My father, after a foolish youth, settled down and got involved the labor movement. He worked for the railroad, became a union man, and then joined the American Legion and got into veteran's affairs. Later he became involved in the church I grew up in, and kept it up after his stroke even though he had to let go his union and Legion activities. During this time, my father became quite an Organization Man despite his own youthful rebellion; some combination of marriage and fatherhood somehow changed him, and now I am not certain it was entirely for his benefit. He became politically active and aware; ours was a Democratic household, and I grew up hating Reagan (and, by extension, Thatcher) and all that stuff.

Now, as I also approach middle age, he wasn't entirely wrong. The core of union activity preserved the standard of living that I enjoyed in the 1980s and 1990s; as union power declined, so did our family fortunes- and my father's stroke in 1990 accelerated all of that. However, his faith in the union was misplaced; the loyalty my father showed to it was not reciprocated, mirroring what I witnessed out of the Veteran's Administration, Railroad Retirement, and other institutions that my father believed would be there for him- and for us (especially my mother) after he died. The church stepped up, but could only do so much; my mother compensated by workaholism, my sister by cutting and running, and I (though I did not realize it at the time) by withdrawl.

To this day, I see the result of all of my father's hard work and sacrifice: sweet fuck all. The future he believed in never manifested. The very people and powers he despised won, and continue to win, despite small victories and temporary setbacks. The very groups he sided with betrayed him when it counted most; they got their value from him, and now that he went from asset to liability they tossed him aside in favor of a new cog to fulfill those functions. My father never comprehended that he was fungible. My sister and I learned this the hard way, and reacted differently; she, like my mother, threw herself into some combination of work and pointless social (not-)climbing. I reacted by further withdrawl.

I see now what my father wanted with the cabin we once had. He looked forward to getting out, to relocating north out of the Cities permanently, and living there full-time (or as close as circumstances allowed); either my sister or I would get the house in the Cities, and maybe Mom & Dad would crash there during the winter or when about to go out of state by air (like some of my relatives do now). He saw that this was all a raw deal, and he figured that if he held out long enough he could withstand the bullshit and escape with enough to make the last years worthwhile.

It's telling that he wished that he was Ernest Hemingway, his favorite writer. He knew that this world was bullshit. I didn't quite get it then; I can't unsee it now, and I remain withdrawn as a consequence. While I don't follow his Hemingway fandom, I get the appeal as he likely understood it back in the 1950s or 1960s: the 1920s, even then, was romanticized as a Time of High Adventure for those who--even if born ordinary--had the will, the skill, and the luck to take advantage of it. This was the wish fulfillment, the popular fantasy, for the men of his era.

Aside: The Boomers, as a generation, got sold a load of bullshit by the Greatest Generation and their parents (the Lost Generation)- and if you think this isn't true, remember who made Raiders of the Lost Ark and when it was first released: 1981, at the time when the Boomers emerged into full maturity as a generation, lining up to start taking power a decade or so later. (i.e. when those born in the late '40s and early '50s turned 30 years of age) Their nostalgia and unironic love of that stuff is present in that franchise and Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy (yes, including the Ewoks), and that's how we who are now in our 30s and 40s had it passed down to us (and why we, in turn, look so fondly on those films; it's filtered Hero Pulp love.) We are now passing that same thing down to our successors, the Milenials and our own children, and I think it's time that we stop and take a good look at this thing we've had passed down to us from them; it may not be for our benefit, and it certainly is not our thing.

The world that my father was born into is gone. The world he came of age in is gone. The world he assumed would be here now never came to pass. Many of the things my father taught to me presumed that these things would exist, would persist, and now that they have proven to be passing things those lessons proved dysfunctional; only the most fundamental ones remain useful, and therefore valid. These are also the ones that, when I studied worlds long gone as well as worlds far away, also featured the same ideas and practices built upon them; these are also interpersonal teachings, intended for everyday man-to-man interactions that nonetheless scale up (and those who do so become the very rich and powerful folks that my father came to oppose). I need not bore you with details; Greene's 48 Laws of Power covers them, and many more that my father missed, quite well.

But the biggest lesson I learned from him, without realizing it (because he didn't either), was about value and its true application in all parts of life. My mother remained steadfastly loyal to my father because she recognized the value that he brought to their marriage, value that my mother could not get otherwise, and despite his failings he kept up that value until he literally could so do no longer; the true fissures appeared after his stroke and disabling, but they stuck together until he died- they were married for just over 30 years when he died. My father recognized value in terms of work and effort, both for his employer as well as for the other groups he got involved with, but it was only one way; he recognized the value that they gave to him, and he returned it. He never figured that these relationships ceased to exist when the value exchanged ceased to flow; I think now that this finally dawned on him when his relationship with my mother changed after his stroke.

Put simply, my father consistently underestimated his own worth--his value--and this showed up both in his past behaviors as well as his mature career and social engagements. It damaged his ability to succeed, to form associations that would actually work to his benefit, and only at the end--when he planned out a transition to a new career as a labor lobbyist--did he perceive that he held greater value than he thought he did. He passed this flawed perspective down to me, and now that I am aware of just how badly it has damaged me and impaired my efforts (including my relationships), I am at last repairing this flaw and correcting my perception of what I have to offer, what I bring to the table, and this reassessment means that I view my decision to withdraw all those years ago was both correct as well as necessary: I could not prevail in my ambitions because I did not know what value I offered to those I dealt with. However, the critical breakthrough was this: figuring out what the true value that others brought to me, and acting accordingly. Remember, a healthy relationship stems from a consistent and regular exchange--a flow--of value between all parties concerned; I found that a lot of people I encountered did not offer me value equal to what I offered, so I started cutting people out and focusing on improving myself instead.

Now? Still a long ways to go, but rather than demanding that others be shaped to conform to my requirements I find that it is both easier (belief it or not) and more effective to shape myself into the thing that attracts what I want from others instead. I have full and total control over myself; and despite the fact that I learned this lesson far, far later than the folks who do reach the heights of human achievement at the prime of their lives, knowing it and applying it now means that the back end of my life can only mean that it will be better than would otherwise be the case.

To put this in the terms I coined for this blog early on, I found the source of Empire within myself, and I am ripping it up and tearing it out to replace it with new, healthy growth that creates the true Sovereign Individual: the self-governed man, because he knows that his true value stems from within himself and not from powers and places external to him- that is how children see value. Value creates Wealth, and Wealth powers Sovereignty; Empire cannot create Value- all it does is steal, extort, destroy value created by those it afflicts. This is why Empire is a thing that must be destroyed, and with it all its worldly forms; to make Empire fall, it starts by breaking its chains on your mind and you work your way outward. This is how Empire falls.

Thanks to you, Dad. Your failures shall become my successes.

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