Fatherhood Series Essay: Nature and Character
My Father Versus Me
*This piece is part of a series by a group of men writing on Substack, which now includes Michael Mohr, , , , and . In this first series we’re sharing pieces on the topic of fatherhood—something that all men can relate to, whether they are fathers of their own children or not. We’ll release one piece each day over the course of this coming week. All of the pieces in the series will be linked from this introduction to the series:
My father—who died on June 2nd—was a consummate man of character. Born in 1945 in New Jersey but raised exclusively along the Southern California coast, he had nearly-transparent blue eyes, was 6’1, 180 pounds, broad-shouldered, and went bald in his early thirties. (As I did, too.)
We were always polar opposites, even physically: He was tall and lean; I was short and thick. He had blue eyes; I had brown. He was a very conventional man, laconic to the core, kind, thoughtful and affable. I have always been largely unconventional, talkative to a fault, not the most kind or thoughtful (though sometimes, yes) and not the most affable (ibid). My father was always intensely practical, worrying about finances like a woman veering into panic about laugh lines in her thirties.
Dad was also always prepared: In 2021, when I was caring for him during his cancer, I took his 2018 all-electric Nissan Leaf; in the back of the Leaf he had everything you could possibly imagine you might need were you to get stuck in the middle of say the Mojave Desert in the middle of the night. A survival paradise. Me? I never cared about that stuff. In my twenties I lived by the mantra “Live Fast Die Young.” In my thirties I matured, but, even now, at 40, I haven’t moved as far away from that mode of thinking as I probably should have.
Dad chose marriage because of love, yes, but only partially, I think. It was also conventional safety and security which sharing a life with someone brought. Marriage—until recently—was always something I avoided. Dad loved sports and the stock exchange and collecting rare coins and owning dogs and his job as a computer engineer; none of that stuff ever made sense to me, with the late exception over the past couple of years of dogs. I learned I have a deep love for dogs. Who knew.
And yet my father and I are not as different as I once thought. The truth is: We share a lot. DNA, first off. Genes. We both first off have a deep and abiding love of nature. Backpacking—which my father started doing with me as young as nine or ten, in the early 1990s—was one of the biggest and most enduring gifts my father ever gave me. It’s something I still very much do now. I took Britney a month ago on her first trip. She loved it.
My father’s intelligence, arrogance, pretensions, love for political analysis and debate are also shared by myself. Arguing with Dad about “capitalism” in my immature, clunky, naïve twenties (he was for, I “against”), and about the polarized nastiness of both fringe sides in my late thirties, as a more formed mature man, was one of the engines that drove the mysterious car that was my relationship with my dad.
I often thought my father was weak, emotionally, because he was always so nonconfrontational (especially with my mother) and because he was essentially unable to “go deep” with me or, as far as I know, my mother or anyone else. (Though I cannot say that for certain.) Dad often mystified me: He was a profoundly unemotional, stoic man.
Yet I remember watching some movie—I can’t recall which—sometime in 2021 or 2022, when he was sick but still physically able to move around, in the living room, with my mother and me, and looking over at my dad in the semi-darkness and seeing him silently crying at some scene in the film. That made me realize, just like some character in a Flaubert novel, perhaps Frederic in Sentimental Education, that my father probably had, like more or less everybody, an inner essence, an inner world, an inner life that was possibly as real, vibrant, colorful and true as my own…only he did not or could not express it openly as I did.
That notion exploded something inside of me, something I’d felt certain about for a very long time, a dumb, childish assumption I’d basically unconsciously made: That my father was as blank and disconnected on the inside as he presented himself on the outside. Clearly, that was not true.