Tuesday, May 20, 2008
We Bastard Offspring

The last week has involved an unusual amount of drinking with friends. Margaritas, mostly, and helpfully not on my dime (though I'll return the favor at some point; I'm no drink mooch.) I've got a few friends here who are finally showing me some of the many amusements and hang-out spots Portland has to offer, and it's about damn time, too.

Anyway, we talk a lot. About books and bands, about what we do when we're not at Fnorders, about graduate programs and culinary school and theater productions and who's gotten knocked up this month. (One thing I have to gently criticize Portland for is its relentless fecundity -- at least 30% of the population seems to be either gravid or actively lactating at any given moment. I mean it, enough with the damn babies already.) You walk into a place like, say, a corporate chain bookstore, and all you see are a bunch of semi-hipsters pretending to like you; but the reality is so much more interesting. There's hardly a person there who doesn't have big plans -- writers, actors, musicians, entrepreneurs, cooks, designers. And no, not all of them will fulfill their ambitions, but there are few genuine slackers on the staff. Most are just weathering a few harsh years between destinations.

Anyway, over the course of several tequila-laced conversations, we arrived at one striking conclusion: the generations that came after the Boomers were hit with an absolute epidemic of failed fathers. Of the fifteen or so people I've spoken to, not a single one had a good relationship with their father. I define "good" as being essentially engaged, not overly frought with tension, with some reasonably regular, positive contact. By which I mean, I'm not talking about "my dad is the greatest guy I've ever known" kind of good, but simply current, familiar, and non-hostile. We're not setting the bar terribly high here.

But even so, I can find very few in my general age range who aren't completely estranged from their dads for one reason or another. Mostly the dads are simply absent -- abandonment was by far the most common theme. A few had more severe problems in their families, and in a couple of cases it was the kids who had terminated the relationship. But the typical story was, "dad split when I was a kid/young teenager, and since then he's more interested in his new family/himself/booze/money/Thai ladyboys than me. So we don't really talk anymore." Then they break down into tears moaning, "daddy, why didn't you love me?" (They don't really, but that's the standard joke. Black humor is the other constant theme running through this conversation, and I'm inclined to think that there's a direct connection.)

Over and over again I've heard this. We hear a lot about how black men need to take fatherhood seriously and be better dads to their kids, but now I'm wishing someone had done a PSA to tell all our white, middle-class dads the same basic truth. Because apparently this problem isn't confined to the black inner city -- it's epidemic on all levels of society. It's just that nobody noticed when it happened to the white kids, because their dads weren't in prison -- they were just fucking other women in other cities and forgetting our birthdays.

Anyway, it's hard to tell what effect this has had on any of us, or on our generation(s) in general. The people I've been talking to are smart, educated, well-mannered young adults with pretty good prospects in spite of the shit economy they're inheriting. And while naturally such relations have a tendency to be strained at times, most of them characterize their relationships with their mothers to be good and generally close, which probably helped a lot. But I'm a little bit scared to see what happens when the first generation suffering from widespread daddy issues takes up the reigns of power (which may be happening in just a few more months now.)

One thing I've noticed in the last year: I'm much, much less angry at my own father than I once was. I wouldn't call it "forgiveness," exactly -- it's more like I simply can't be bothered to be pissed off anymore. A year and a half or so ago, I got an opportunity, sort of, to re-establish contact, and I ultimately chose not to do so, because it seemed to me that there couldn't really be any useful outcome for me in it. But I think that in finally being given a choice in the matter, in finally getting to make the decision for myself about whether or not I wanted to know him (which he had always made alone for all practical purposes simply through his absence), a lot of the resentment I'd held for so long was defused. I still think the whole situation sucks -- my dad fucked up in profound ways -- but it doesn't really matter anymore.

And maybe there are worse things than being part of a generation that will forever be trying to prove their essential worth to somebody who's not around to be proud of them. It seems to inspire a lot of us to care more about each other, to create substitute families out of our friends, and to acknowledge the importance of human connectedness. Maybe there's no real difference between emotional scars and tribal marks.

PS: Oh, apparently some politician came to Portland last weekend and a bunch of people showed up to see him or something. I don't know, I had to fucking work that afternoon.

PPS: Also, it seems aforementioned politician has neatly won our state primary. So did the gay guy named after beer, who is probably the most apropos mayor in the country now. Still waiting to find out what happens with the wee pirate (though to be honest, his opponent is totally acceptable too, so no big deal either way.)

Update: Lil' Cap'n Hook lost. But it's cool, the other guy is awesome, too. Back in Memphis, he'd have been a liberal's political wet dream.
7:50 PM ::
Amy :: permalink
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