Fathers and Sons

245Father, sometimes you and I
are like a three-legged horse
who can’t get across the finish line
no matter how hard he tries and tries and tries

– Jim Boyd

I am my father, and my father was me.

A little over two years ago, I sat down with my parents in the living room of their Lacy Lakeview rental house, and told them about my journey away from the Christian faith so dear to them. Former Southern Baptist missionaries to Argentina, their first response, understandably, was self-recrimination: where did we go wrong? Why was I abandoning a worldview to which they had dedicated so much of their own lives, and which they had tried so hard to instill in mine?

Was this their doing?

Well, in a way, yes–but not in the way they feared. Theirs was no failure, at least not as I see it; theirs was a resounding success.

The photo above was taken in 1989. My dad and I had just finished climbing Cerro Uritorco, Córdoba Province, for the first time. It was my birthday; I was 12 years old. My dad was the same age then that I am now. This was a big moment for us, the start of an annual tradition: every year, on or around my birthday, we would climb that mountain together.

As with all fathers and sons, my relationship with my father has had its ups and downs. We have been climbing mountains, of one sort or another, my whole life. Both of us possess a quick and violent temper, and as a teenager I learned to push his buttons, and he mine. Both of us are by nature stubborn, and fairly convinced of the superiority of our own processes, which have rarely ever been the same, which fact also caused a decent amount of conflict back in the day. And then there’s the old “man-child” dilemma: in his eyes (and to a certain extent, in my own), I will forever be the young’un, in need of guidance and correction, with ideas in formation but not yet fully formed. This makes adult communication difficult. We have bridged this divide a bit in the last few years, but I suspect it is one that is never quite overcome between fathers and their sons.

I inherited many negative characteristics from my father. We all do. In the past I have, to my discredit, tended to focus on those. Ironically, it wasn’t until I turned from his dearly held beliefs that I truly began to appreciate the gifts this Christian man had given me. This is, by the way, why I take so personally the generalizing negative comments about Christian folk when I come across them on the blogs: I no longer embrace my father’s worldview, but this does not blind me to the fact that he is a good man, not in spite of his faith but because of it. And, although I no longer share that faith, I am who I am in large measure because of it, as well.

Whatever love I have for my fellow human beings, I have because my parents taught me that the needs and pain of others are always more important than my own. They lived that out, giving up their own plans to go to a foreign place and work for others. I may not agree with how they did it, but I have to honor why they did it.

My father gave me my sense of humor, and that sense of humor has gotten me through any number of tough situations. He taught me that no monster can kill you when you can tickle its belly and make it laugh.

My love of reading comes from him. He gave me Dickens, and Twain, and Dumas: I loved them well before the age when high school students learn to hate them. And with a love of reading comes a love of words, and of ideas. My father taught me the importance of using words correctly and well, and of respecting the ideas of others without letting them get in the way of forming my own.

As a child, he took me out of my comfort zone and, by doing so, literally gave me the world. If my perspective is broad, it is because of the places he took me, and if I have been many places, it is because he encouraged me to go.

Above all else, like ol’ Polonius, he taught me to be true to myself, and he taught me to love truth. And here I am. I may not have chosen his truth, but I would not have arrived (and be arriving) at my own truth if not for his. If not for the Christian man who taught me to stand for what I believe, whatever that may be. Without him, the Toad would never have been born. If I am a good man, it is because it takes one to make one.

One might argue that, in all this, I went out the back door to get to the front yard. This is most definitely not what either one of us expected when we stood together on that mountaintop 26 years ago. We could see a long way from up there, but we couldn’t see forever. But this is what counts: no matter how many mountains I summit in my life, no matter how many different paths I take, I’ll never be alone. We’ll be standing there, together, and I’ll be the stronger for it.

So, yes, Dad. You did this. And for that I am eternally grateful.

Who Am I?

Dude! I’ve got plans up in this joint!

(I say this on the off-chance anyone’s taken the time to ask themselves: “I wonder what his plans are?” I’m sure there are quite a few of you who have been on pins and needles, anxiously gripping the edges of your seats, fretting away the sleepless nights about it.)

Anywho…

It occurs to me that most of what I’ve written, while it may address obliquely the question of who I am, never really gets to the heart of the matter. You see, to me, identity is less about the grand “WHAT I BELIEVE” (add impressive echo here) than it is about the little things, the experiences I’ve had that have brought me to whatever place I am now. Because, quite frankly, the “WHAT I BELIEVE” is largely dependent on those experiences. They are the reason why I believe what I believe.

This whole blogging thing doesn’t really do much for me unless I can really share with others the person that I am, without code names, without censorship, without obfuscation (which is, by the way, one of my favorite words to say). I take the time to write because, as I was reminded recently by a friend’s post, I crave connection: I want to know people. This is, incidentally, why I suck at networking–my interest in others lies in discovering who they are, not in discovering what they can do for me. I find that often the people who could do the most for me, be it professionally or personally, turn out to be the least interesting people to know. And vice-versa. It’s also why people who are good networkers want nothing to do with me: I seriously doubt that I will ever be in a position to do anything for anyone, either professionally or personally, but I like to think I’m a pretty fun guy to hang out with. (Of course, that may just be a latent narcissistic streak of which I am blissfully unaware…)

What’s more (and this is intended as a commentary on no one but myself), I’ve learned the hard way that if I have something to say that I’m not willing to own, I’m probably not ready to say it yet. Nor is it generally really worth saying. I try to live life according to the following philosophy, couched in Shakespearian parlance: “‘Tis better to hold up thine head and be cudgelled in thy face, than to remain unbruised through keeping it hid.” In other words, as Martin Luther would have put it, sin boldly; if you are to stick your foot in your mouth, do it with pride. Leave a Sam-shaped hole in the wall, for cryin’ out loud!

All this to say, I want you to know me: not just what I think or feel, but where all that thinky-feely stuff comes from. I want to give you a face to go with all the cockamamie ideas. (Feel free to use it as a dart-board; at least this way you’ll get some sporting fun out of the experience!)

So, first things first: Lo! here I am:

148499_10100741148544263_1419274769_nThat’s “Jack Kerouac” me, to the left there. Generally, I find myself somewhat un-photogenic, but then, generally, that’s probably mainly my fault. Because I’m also an irredeemable goofball. If you really want to know ME, you need to see this (below):

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Or this…

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Or perhaps even this…

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If you’re sufficiently scared, we’ll move on…

You see, I’m not afraid to look like an idiot. I’ve spent far too much of my life standing on ceremony, minding that “image” thing everyone keeps talking about. I’m not afraid to admit that, as standards of beauty go, I’m no Mona Lisa. But then, if you stop to think about it, by our standards of beauty, the Mona Lisa is no Mona Lisa, either. Which is, really, what makes the Mona Lisa beautiful in the first place, isn’t it…?

I’ve got flaws and blemishes coming out my ears (in some cases, literally). But in those flaws and blemishes, I am ME, the individual no one else can be. Which brings me to the most important fact anyone can ever learn about me: I AM A TOAD! And I’m damn proud of it.

My goal in life is to fit no one’s bill but my own. I was born to break the mold (as were we all), and I am bound and determined to live that way, too. I want to be nobody else but who I am, because who I am is like nobody else.

(And here’s a secret: I only buy all that stuff I just said about individuality most of the time. The rest of the time, I’m one more insecure face in a giant, frightened crowd. Which is to say, I may talk a big line, but when you come down to it, I keep my head down as much as anyone else. But don’t tell–it’s a secret…)

Which brings me back from my constant urge to digress to the reason I started writing this post in the first place: Who I am. I am a scared, lonely, overgrown little boy who for a few minutes each day (if I’m lucky) manages to break free from the anchor-weight of living long enough to glimpse the breadth and depth of life. I am a boat tossed on a sea of uncertainty, hopeful of someday reaching the shore. I am a mystery shrouded in a riddle wrapped in an enigma coated in cliché. I am, in short, one of you. And you are more of me. And as such, I want to touch and be touched; I want to know and be known; I want to love and be loved. Don’t we all?

But I have to do this as myself. I cannot do it as Everyman, because I am not every man. To quote one of my favorite Sting songs, “the mask I wear is one.” I am, at the end of the day, the only person I can be, which is myself. And this mystifies me, too. As much as I want to understand and know others, I want to understand and know myself even more, and after nearly 36 years of trying, I’m convinced that our selves are the hardest people to fathom that any of us will ever meet. So, back to my plans: I want to share me with you in order to decipher my self. Where I came from, those moments in life that define us in silence, without us even being aware that they’ve passed: all those events, encounters, characters that have cast shadows across my path and brought me to the place I am today.

Because the greatest, most important truth of all is this: I am one, but I am many. I am the sum not just of my parts, but of everyone else’s as well. In order, then, to truly undertand myself, I have to understand you. And him. And her. And them. In the end, “me” and “we” are mutually inexclusive. We are all pieces of a whole. without any of which pieces the whole cannot be…well…whole. Nosce te ipsum? First nosce illos ipsi.

So, listen, O bloggers, and you shall hear of all the little things that brought me here. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we will effect a parting of the waters and a meeting of the minds…