The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Father like me?

Rory said something to me last night that no one else has ever said. It was to the effect that I’ve spent a gigantic amount of my energy wondering what my life would have been like had I had a father like me.

It had a ring of truth in it: I’d refine it to “if I had a father like the kind of man I strive to be.” That gap has certainly loomed large in my life, just like the gap between what my childhood was and what I suspect it would have been had I had the same cultural context as my White or Asian friends.

I remember years ago, I was involved with a woman who made a gigantic mistake. She was in trouble, no doubt about it, but was not honest enough to admit it. Sanity, and the majority of my friends, thought I should drop her. I couldn’t. Just couldn’t. I’m almst constitutionally incapable of walking away from a friend in trouble, even if it’s the smart thing to do. I couldn’t walk away, and she wouldn’t let me help her, and she couldn’t get out of it. What a horrific mess. I was utterly torn emotionally, and over the months that this drama played out, it actually tore a hole in my psyche. When I meditated, it was as if I was looking at a basement built over a sewage tank: no matter how much work I did, more crap seeped in. Gushed in. Over weeks, the seepage slowed. And then, one day…

The basement remained “clean” for a day or so at a time. And then a week. And then…the sewage was gone. Although it threatened to continue without end, in reality it was finite. The value conflict within me was resolved on some deep level beyond my consciousness. Notice a similar situation with my ex-friend who abused the young girl? I posted about it, talked about it, and got over it. Cycled through it much much faster.

I believe that what I’m doing is the blogging equivalent of Spiritual Autolysis, working through the is-is not of my existence in public. Forces me to put into words the stuff rolling around in my “basement.” And a big chunk of that has to do with father stuff.

I remember when my mom first dated after sh and my Dad broke up. I was maybe seven years old, and this nice guy is sitting on the couch, and I’m curled up behind him on a chair like a little kitten, trying to look as cute as possible. Hoping that he’d want to be my Daddy. Hoping someone would. Wondering what was wrong with me that no one did. Was I so ugly? So bad? Such a weakling? That shit went deeper than any conscious stuff I can reach, and has taken decades to even begin healing. I have no memory of eve playing catch with my dad, or an uncle, or anything. No brothers or cousins to step into the breech. This is one of the reasons I am so committed to my family—I know what it cost me to have this piece missing.
Recently, I had the chance to train with my first real karate instructor, Steve Muhammad (Sanders). He is now 68 years old, and moves perfectly. He was attending another instructor’s workshop, and I asked if I could partner with him, and he enthusiastically agreed. It was wonderful, exchanging techniques with this great man, and great martial artist, one of the three men most responsible for who I am as a human being.

I was so nervous afterward: I wanted to know what he thought of my development as a martial artist. When he was quite complementary, it felt like your Dad saying “you done good, kid.” It was like a door opening in my mind and heart. This was just about five weeks ago, and I’m still sorting through the debris of the emotional architecture his words knocked down.

There are three major aspects of my life that I can have conscious influence over: my career, my relationships, and my physical skills. And I enter 2008 freer in each than I have ever been in my life. I’m so swamped with work that I haven’t been able to really consider the implications of what has happened over the last 13 months. But the time is coming when my slate will clear, and then my conscious mind will engage. And I’ll see what my unconscious has been up to.

Who would I have been had I had a father like me? Don’t know. Who am I now? Don’t know. But I can’t wait to meet him.
So, here's a question for you: who would you be, if you'd had a mother or father like you? How is that different from who you are today?


Mike R said...

I wouldn't be me.

Oh, even if I'd have the same genetics, and whatever parts of my personality are genetically determined would still be there, a vast amount of me that is "nuture"-dependent would be completly different. So I wouldn't be the same person who is typing these words right now.

And you know, that person has problems and flaws, but he still really enjoys existing so he's glad that everything happened how it did.

If he had the option of using some machine to delete or rewrite his memories, he wouldn't delete or change a damn thing. He'll do his best to make sure that he grows, that his future memories are the best they can be, and that he gives his all to raising any kids he may have in the future and will try to take all the good his father gave him and try to improve on it too, but his past is what allowed him to exist so unless he starts to wish that he didn't exist, he won't wish he could change the past.

Anonymous said...

My mother has always lacked self-confidence; she's shy, timid, afraid to try new things and not ambitious at all and I think she passed some of that on to me. I used to have all these dreams about what I wanted to do with my life but didn't know what it would take to make those dreams come true. I sort of felt like things just happen to people. Making things happen was something I never learned. If I had had a mother who was more like me? That's hard to say because I don't know how much of what I am is because of my mother and how much is just the way I was born.

Anonymous said...

Certainly having a pair of loving parents as I had is a big advantage over your situation Steve, but I'm not sure how much the particular parents I had affected who I became. I loved my parents, but most of my life I have striven be the opposite of them in most ways. I don't know whether this means they had a great deal of influence on me because I was unhappy with how they raised me and I reacted to this or if I was unhappy because I was born with a different nature from them would have been the same person I am even if my parents had a different outlook on life than they did.

Unknown said...

Hello Steve,.

I'm a Portuguese journalist and have been looking for a way to contact you, but without success.

Can you provide me with an email to contact you?

you can reach me at goncalobrito at gmail dot com

thnx :)

Steve Perry said...

If you like who you are, you have to honor how you got there. All the good, the bad, an the ugly.

If you don't like who you are, you can try to change that, and you can maybe point at places there the ugly got overwhelming.

We all have old tapes and they are hard to erase. But you can learn to live with them.

"If only," or "What if?" are great ways to write science fiction. They are terrible ways to look back at your childhood. Whatever happened, moving on past it is the way to go. Living well -- being well -- is the best revenge.

Steven Barnes said...

Great answers, folks.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I am very much like my father who raised me primarily through my childhood until he passed away just before I graduated from high school.

Like him, I do my best to be kind to others and help out when I can.

Like him, I'm pretty good as assessing situatons to predict how they will develop.

And he always told me to go for my dreams while understanding fully what such efforts will entail. Which is what I am doing with my life these days, although I could do it better and occasionally hear my father's voice telling me to do it better.

Not bad overall though.

What I find myself doing now, though, is trying to correct the bad habits I also acquired from my father. Like not exercising, watching what I eat, and very bad procrastination.

Even with the bad things I've modeled from my father, I wouldn't trade the years I did spend with him for all the wealth in the world. I enjoy all the ways that I am like him.

My father was my first hero.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question-- my mother had practical competence and a sense of duty that I don't have have much of, but lacked an ability at emotional connection that I've at least made some progress on. I think my ideal parent isn't exactly like either of us.

What are the odds that you would have had a father much like yourself? Does that matter, or would any pretty good father have done the job?

Mark Jones said...

If I'd had a parent like me? I suspect I wouldn't be in as good a place as I am now. I don't have--and never have had--the patience to raise a small child. Fortunately for me and for any potential child I might have had, I had the self-awareness to know that. I never wanted children and have never had any, except my wife's children, who were 8 and 12 when we got married; and she did an excellent job of raising them despite my well-intentioned but unhelpful help.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I've got the experience of raising sons, and the experience of being one -- and it beats the hell out of me. My father was such a larger than life figure -- told me once he'd slept with a thousand women, and I believe it. Told me he'd never lost one of his dozens of fights, and I believe it. Late in life he still had women lining up looking for his attention; when he was 70 two muggers tried to rob him, and he beat the pair of them half to death. The only person whose presence I've ever been in who had more personal magnetism was Sean Connery.

I'm raising three sons. They're all very different. My 12 year old wants to be a games designer; my nine year old wants to be a race car driver or NBA player or the world's deadliest man; and my six year old is sweet and very creative and reminds me of me more than the other two do. (My nine year old, Richard, is a fighter and reminds me of my father Richard -- when Richard was four he was at the playground with his older brother, and two big boys, both bigger than my then seven year old, were hassling Richard's older brother. I got up to go handle it -- and my four year old came streaking out of nowhere screaming, "You want a piece of me?" That's wiring, and I still don't know where he got that phrase from...)

I'm so thoroughly not my father, and so thoroughly my father's son, that it's really hard for me to imagine who I'd be, raised by myself. I have three boys, and I see pieces of myself in all of them -- who would those boys be, if raised by my father? Well, they'd all be more like me -- and I'm glad they are who they are. I guess that's progress. My father was a shoeshine boy in New York City at the age of 6 in the midst of the Great Depression. I was homeless at 16. By contrast all my children are in good schools and doing well in them, and the idea they will finish four years of college and might go to graduate school, or become doctors or race car drivers or NBA stars, is something given, as part of the story of the lives they expect to have.

I'm a success, and I have my father to thank for that in some measure. But teaching my children how to replicate that success ... this is what successful families do, as opposed to successful individuals. You've all known the successful parents who couldn't pass on the skills and habits that made them a success to their children -- at least so far, my wife and I seem to be navigating that pass. And my children will start out further along the road than I did, at the same ages. They might not be published writers at 18, which I was; but they'll be in college at 20, instead of working two jobs in fast food restaurants to surive, which is what I was doing at that age.

And fuck art -- that's a good trade.

Unknown said...

Actually, I'd say I do have a mother like me, and a lot of what I am now I owe to her. I think I'm similar in temperament to her, similar in aptitudes, and have many similar values (though some different ones). But there are some parts of me that come more from Dad.

tcastleb said...

I'm an SF/F writer in San Diego and have been lurking on your blog for a while; found it after I read Great Sky Woman and Iron Shadows and the Dar Kush books, and absolutely loved them all.

But this post rather hit home today. I have a therapist and am trying to work some similar stuff out. The most recent conclusion is that I don't fit in my family, which both hurts and is a bit of freedom at the same time. I'm an only child, but even in my extended family, no one is artistic, no one has a very worldly view (i.e. my parents will only live in middle-class white suburbia; I love working at my multi-cultural hotel because of the diversity). I grew into the direct opposite of my parents because I couldn't stand the thought of being like them. My mother has no empathy, I have too much. Neither of them can really connect with people on an emotional level (well, that's hard for me too, but at least I'm aware of it and trying to fix it.) Yet it's a good thing I'm different too, because I'm not stuck in my own oblivious rut like they are.

Both my parents had rough childhoods, and as a result they live in their own little narcissistic bubbles so they never really deal with their own hurt. They play at parenting, but they don't get it. My mother often has the mentality of a child, and doesn't have a job. I always felt like I had to take care of her, especially when I was in high school and she was majorly depressed, and my dad was getting his MBA, so we only saw him at dinner, which made me the target for my mother's illness.

And you must know how themes keep recurring in writing; mine, I have good healers and evil healers, telepaths, so people can just be understood without having to explain things, and people that get rescued without knowing they need rescued, the same way I always longed for a knight in shining armor to come save me, and it never happened. (which, of course, makes for a weak protagonist, and it took a few good mentors to get that through my head . . .)

It still hurts to see a couple of my good friends with healthy, successful families, when they're actually conscientious of what their kids want and need. I didn't have that, and while a couple teachers were surrogates for a while, it couldn't last. And now I'm scared to have kids because I don't want to mess them up. I don't have a significant relationship, either. I just got my MA in writing and didn't invite my parents to graduation. It mattered more to have my mentors and friends there that understood the effort it took, and who were genuinely proud of me.

So if I would have had a parent like me . . . I keep thinking I'd be more successful, have a better job (maybe even be the musician I wanted to be in college,) because someone would have believed in and encouraged me, and listened and understood. Now I have all these neuroses to fix all by myself, which is hard. So, eventually, I might grow into the person I might/should have been had I had a parent like me, but it's going to take work to get there.

Anyway. Thanks for writing your blog; I always look forward to it because you have so many insightful things to say.

Anonymous said...

The question of how I would be with a father like me is the one I try to stay present to when raising my three boys. I can see parts of me in each of them, and it’s very natural to want to give them all the pieces of the puzzle that I wish I had at younger ages. That’s healthy, for the most part. The trap here is that I have to give my boys the best I can, and then let them make what they will of it, not what I wish I would have.

It’s easy to indulge in the fantasy of what I would be like if I knew then what I know now: rich, famous, beautiful, strong, healthy, clear-headed, kind, self-possessed, and a tremendous contribution to society. I’d be a cross between Richard Dawkins, Steve Martin, and Douglas Adams. (Actually I’ve had this fantasy, but it usually revolves around buying Microsoft cheap and getting laid in high school – which is not a goal I have for my boys. I know that starting that activity later is much healthier, but if I had me for a father, I would have not spent adolescence being scared of girls! Ha!)

--Robin Burchett

Anonymous said...

if I'd had a mother like me
I supoose I'd have ended up
like some combo
of my two sons
who express many of the same characteristics
but O so differently
from each other

I have an hypothesis
that children either turn out
like their parents
or like their grandparents
since children seem to either
(healthy or not)
or go for the opposite

I'm basically
real happy
with who and how I am
was the odd duck
of my nuclear family
my mother was
extremely intelligent
could do just about anything she set her mind
and hands to
but lacking emotionally
my father
the gardener
the fiction reader
was the emotional support
in my life
a distinction I didn't realize
until some years after
I'd left home

Steve Perry has the right of it
if you like and are happy
with who you are
you have to be happy with
what shaped you
parents experiences


AlanL said...

"I was maybe seven years old, and this nice guy is sitting on the couch, and I’m curled up behind him on a chair like a little kitten, trying to look as cute as possible. Hoping that he’d want to be my Daddy. Hoping someone would. Wondering what was wrong with me that no one did."
Jesus Steve. I guess it's the mark of a good writer to be able to write a couple of little sentences that make somebody choke up every time no matter how many times he reads them

Still, as Steve Perry pointed out, the result of the process seems to have somehow turned out ok. As I used to have to tell myself - changing anything significant in your past would make you not who you are now. If you like who you are now, then there's no sense in wishing that person had never been.

I grew up with a dad who was physically present but emotionally absent. (Which maybe had something to do with the fact that he lost *his* dad at an early age). Did whatever it took to get him to show signs of approval/attention - and spent years in my adult life looking for people who might be my dad and approve of me. Took me a long time and the help of a good therapist to figure out that I might be better off cutting out the middleman and just approving of myself instead.

Anonymous said...

I think suzanne has it right about about some children following their grandparents and some their parents. I idolized my grandfather and rather than simply being opposite of my parents I think to a large extent I am my grandfather. I see a lot of my parents in my children that simply is not me or my wife.

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

I found this post rather appropriate for me at this time. I lost my dad 40 years ago last week and they did a tribute to him on TSN (Canads's version of ESPN). Thought some of you might be interested in seeing the video. Here's the link:


Steve Perry said...

A lot of who you turn out to be comes from having something to push against -- people you don't want to be, things you don't want to do.

Last person on Earth I wanted to be was my father -- he was there, but not engaged, and when he got riled, which was often, he used his hands -- on me, my siblings, and my mother.

Better not to have a father in the house than one who beats your mother. Trust me on this.

I was terrified of the water as a child -- my father showed us the strokes, then tossed us into the deep end. (This is why I set out to became an expert swimmer eventually, to over come my fear. Lifeguard, water safety instructor, at eighteen, able to hold my breath for four minutes in the pool. I taught myself to love the water.)

I got into martial arts because, even though I didn't get into that many fights as a boy and when I did, usually gave as good as I got, I was afraid of the bullies. Fear is the mind-killer.

This is not the path I wanted for my children, and I did everything I could to give them an easier route, a home where they knew they were loved regardless. They turned out to be pretty good people, but they still have their own issues -- you can't shelter them from the world and its problems forever.

What was it Satchel Paige is reputed to have said? Don't look back -- there might be something there, and it might be gaining on you.

On my bookcase, I have taped a cartoon: Non-Sequitur, by Wiley. Shows a woman lying on a shrink's couch, a bearded psychiatrist sitting in a chair. There's one of those deli-counter number counters on the wall behind them. Panel is slugged "Instant Analysis." Shrink is saying: "Stop whining about the past and move on with your life! NEXT!"

Yeah, it's flip, but it makes the point. You can't change your past. You might not be able to change how you feel about it, or how it affects your mood. You can change how you deal with it, and what you do from here on.

Sometimes, that's the best you'll be able to manage.

Brian Dunbar said...

who would you be, if you'd had a mother or father like you? How is that different from who you are today?


I wouldn't be me. My parents were there - and are still married - but physical affection was nil.

I've made a conscious effort to demonstrate that I love my kids. I say it, I hug, there are good night stories most nights - and my oldest son (he's 13) listens to them along with his younger brother.

I'd have more self-confidence. I would not have married the my first wife, I hope I would have been a better Marine than I was.

Hell, I might not have joined the Marines at all. Would I have even picked up SciFi as a reading habit in the first place?

I would not be here, doing what I do, married to whom I am with kids that I love.

Which is a pretty scary thought.

You see a movie where the hero uses a time machine to change things around and you just know he's going to make a huge mess of it? That's the feeling I have now.

It could be better, but it could be worse. I sure wouldn't change who I am, given what I have. It could always be worse.