Saturday, August 09, 2008

My Father / McCain

This is a piece I've been thinking about for a while.

My father died this past December. He was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer in November and passed away just six weeks later. He was seventy-two (would have turned seventy-three in January). There's a lot to say about this, of course. But there's one thing in particular I've been thinking about lately, and it does dovetail with this election a bit, so that's what I want to focus on now.

It's not, perhaps, what you may be first thinking: that McCain's too old. My father certainly wasn't senile and I would have trusted him with the country probably more than most political candidates. And yes, he was struck down by cancer in six short weeks but these kinds of medical "what ifs," without any hard facts, are hardly a basis for deciding for or against a candidate. No, the thing that strikes me about this is that I suddenly realize that me and my generation (that age cohort that twenty years ago was derisively dubbed Generation X) are no longer the struggling, misunderstood under culture. We're the new over culture.

Andrew Sullivan has written about this generational thing, as have others: that Obama's candidacy, and particularly the contrast with McCain, makes this an election that's really about generational change unlike any other: the first post-Boomer election. Obama is just six months older than I am. McCain is roughly the same in comparison to my father. That's a stark difference, particularly now that I think about how much my inner life has changed since my father passed away.

But while others have written about this in the abstract, the changing of a generation has become very personal for me. With my father's death, since I'm the eldest son, I've inherited essentially the family mantle: the family finances, my mother's care, the confidences of the relatives. I've even, seemingly, inherited my father's email lists; though my replies are certainly out of the lines of my father's typical retiring politics.

Each day that goes by in these recent months, I think about my father's life, the things that were important to him, and how there's no one left in our family to advocate for them: I'm now the advocate, and it's my choice. Some of his personal preferences in life he shared with me, and passed on. Others seemingly, have no legacy. And this difference is clear: there's no one left who appreciates things like Lawrence Welk,(1) frozen TV dinners, rooting religiously every Saturday for Ohio State, fishing. There's no one in my generation who'll receive a five-gun salute, an honor guard. Who'll start a state-wide chicken-soup making contest to benefit his Temple. Who actually enjoys family reunions. Who'd pack up a bowling ball and go bowling by himself. McCain might understand these things, he might appreciate them. But not me. Not Obama.

No - my war was the "culture war," not Korea. My world is, not necessarily better, but altogether much less stable and, perhaps, more culturally omnivorous than my father's. I'm into culling together my own personal spirituality, not using my ethnic religion to plan my social calendar. I like my games to be of the video kind, and often play with complete strangers. I like my art abstract, not representational, and certainly not as a symbol of ethnic pride. My home office is for extending my work hours and turning work into escape, and my work office is for the minor drudgeries of paying bills and negotiating insurance: the opposite of my father. I seek out neighborhoods that are multi-cultural, not mono-cultural. I spend as much time exercising each week as I did when I was twenty, though my overall shape seems to take after Dad anyway. We have friends over for elaborate dinner parties rather than dining out, and frozen food is what we do with left-over homemade curry. We have no set work schedule, no time we're always home by and no set weekly schedule of Wednesday night Chinese and Friday night shabbas chicken: financial necessity and de-stressing impulses are the rulers of our lives. Our hobbies all have the potential to improve our financial bottom line, or at least that's what we tell ourselves. And if I head somewhere by myself, it's to the bookstore or the movies, not the bowling alley.

I realize - shockingly - that this lifestyle isn't anymore that of a rebellious youth rejecting the stability and mono-ethnicity of my parent's culture. This lifestyle is the adult lifestyle of our country. America is a culturally omnivorous hodgepodge of personal, self-employed spirits. We are a post-ethnic non-static country, and I'm just another boring, culturally roving adult.

It's just a matter of time, then - and not much of it - before all the mono-ethnics, the "silents," the Lawrence Welk-likers, the personal bowlers, like my father, have passed on. I see this difference and it's a difference between Obama and McCain. Obama is, by his very birthright, a cultural meld, and a cultural omnivore, like me, who can't be collapsed into a single, easily-mocked pose or artifact. He doesn't need to define himself against McCain, the way a Boomer might - he doesn't even need to deal with him. He has his own world of Twitter and fist-bumps and interracial understanding that works for him just fine. This all seems to drive McCain a little nuts, as it did my father. McCain wants cultural sincerity - and a reliable old-fashioned schedule of activities - but with a knowing wink and a chuckle, the way my father did. Obama seems comfortable mastering the unmasterable, taking up culture like a useful sponge, and making himself up as he goes along. He gets a little blustery when he has to admit he wasn't able to sum up something and place it in its proper context immediately, that he was a bit too glib and should stop and take a longer look: the way I do when I think I know something about someone but I really don't. Because even though we believe ourselves the masters of complexity, sometimes our generation just needs a good hug.

And that was one thing Dad always knew about. How to give comfort. And one of the two things (along with a fondness for dogs) that Dad transfered to me from the time I was just a kid. The other: a love of all things science. That feeling of wonder at telescopes and star ships. Seeing fireworks and wanting to understand how they made different colors, or finding out just how small a particle the universe could be made out of. Dad's hey-day as a Dad, after all, was the Sixties and Seventies: we were going to the moon, we were building rocketships and cars, artificial hearts and lasers. Science was golden and Americans were the masters of it. That love of science is what makes me today so intrigued by online networks and galactic origins, embryonic stem cells and video compression. We've taken that science and force-multiplied it, given it the organic artistry of fractal math and the spiritual insight of quantum uncertainty.

What has this inheritance of the love of science to do with McCain...or Obama? I don't know. We've just had eight years of the most scientifically hostile administration we've ever had. (I suspect Bush is okay going to Mars because he expects to meet Jesus there.) And McCain's pro-drilling, anti-tire-inflation rhetoric doesn't inspire much confidence in his scientific ability. But I suspect McCain has the same reverence for old-fashioned American ingenuity as my father did; and Obama has the same love of all things nerdy as I do. Perhaps this, then, is something they have in common, and something our country might benefit from no matter which of them is in office.

And if it's McCain? Oddly, it might, in a way, be a little bit like having my father back again. Because there'll once again be someone who cares enough about integrity and our origins to make me think twice before I say something's old-fashioned, or discard some remaining prejudice I feel might be too mono-centric but might, in fact, be a virtue in disguise. And if it's Obama, well, it'll be a little bit like really being on my...on our...own, at last. We'll be taking everything we thought we knew better about the world than our parents did, taking our three-dimensional chess and our fractal math, and finally putting that to the test. We might find our fancy omni-culture to be right. Or not right. Or only partly right. But one thing for sure - we won't have to go bowling by ourselves.

Still...if my Dad were to suddenly come back today, he wouldn't have to.

(1) Sigh. Even the act of linking Lawrence Welk to Wikipedia brings a tinge of sadness. In my father's day, there'd be no need. Yes, there wouldn't be a Wikipedia to link to. But also, there'd be no concern that someone in the reading audience wouldn't know who Lawrence Welk was. This cultural obsolescence isn't limited to the Silent Generation: nine years ago in an elevator in a building in Tribeca, I commented to a young, female film production assistant that the music we were hearing in the elevator was by David Byrne of the Talking Heads. The young hipster hadn't heard of Mr. Byrne, or the Talking Heads, or even of the Rhode Island School of Design You may take this as a sign of philistinism. That PA today is probably a suburban Mom raising a five year old who not only will never hear of David Byrne, she'll never hear of Kurt Cobain or Eminem. I took it as a sign of the quickly fading relevancy of even Generation X.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A poignant commentary on our culture and our generation. Thanks, Marty...