Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Centenary of My Father

Four days ago my father, Robert Schaub, would have been 100—if he hadn't died in 1989.

Marking this milestone, it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on the influence he had on me. It turns out that it was quite a bit.

I was 40 when my father died and our time together on this earth divides fairly sharply into two periods.

I. The Early Years
This covers my birth through high school graduation, essentially my first 18 years. 

I was my father's first child, and his only biological son. He clearly loved me, and had aspirations of my taking over the engineering business that his father (Fred Schaub) had started in the Depression. It took me a while to figure out that he was giving me love and attention that he was not giving with the same exuberance to my siblings. I was his favorite; the one he wanted to grow up like him. In my early years I accepted this without reflection; just as privileged people everywhere tend to be oblivious to their advantages.

We grew up in a middle class neighborhood and I never knew serious privation. We were not rich, yet we never lacked for basics. 

The two most important educational experiences of my early years were: 
a) I spent many summers (from ages 8-16) at Camp Easton for Boys in Ely MN, where I learned campcraft and a love for wilderness canoeing. Time spent in the pristine lakes and rivers of the Precambrian Shield became precious to me as opportunities for spiritual cleansing and renewal. It is a part of the world that is blessedly unspoiled by humans, where life reduces to elementals: wind, sun, water, rock, trees, and fire.

b) My junior and senior years in high school I worked on the school newspaper, The Lion, under the guidance of faculty adviser Kay Keefe. I learned journalism and the art of writing clean prose—something that has paid dividends ever since. It was also my seminal experience with leading a team. I was the editor my senior year and practically lived in the newspaper office. There were 20 other seniors on staff as well as 40 juniors (who were being groomed to run the paper the following year). I loved the camaraderie of working together toward a common goal.

I did well academically and was able to get into a prestigious school: Carleton College in Northfield MN.

II. That Adult Years
This covers my college years through Thanksgiving weekend of 1989, when my father went to bed not feeling well and was dead in the morning of a heart attack.

My time in college (1967-71) coincided with the height of the Vietnam War, and I, along with many of my peers, underwent a political radicalization. While my father continued to hold conservative Republican views, I veered sharply to the left and we never reconciled the rift. I became aware of the perniciousness of institutional racism, that Christians did not necessarily have God's approbation for all that they did, and that sexual orientation did not necessarily mean straight. These were protean times and I couldn't get enough of it.

My father, on the other hand, did not enjoy what I was becoming. He had scrimped and saved to make college a possibility for me, and I had betrayed that investment by using the opportunity to challenge almost everything he believed in. I returned home as a viper in the nest. We became two males whose ships passed each other in the turbulence of the '70 and '80s, rarely recognizing that the other's charted course had any validity as guidance for the uncertain future.

Even as I was exhilarated by all the fresh ideas and and lifestyles that I was exposed to, I was aware that there was a widening gulf between my father and me, and it left me in anguish. It got so bad that we couldn't be in the same house for 48 hours without squabbling, exchanging sniping remarks.

While I didn't expect him to agree with me, I wanted to be accepted as someone who could think differently. But I never got that. My father felt I was squandering my college education; that I couldn't stand the competition of the real world and had retreated to the obscure triviality of a farm in northeast Missouri. He was bitterly disappointed in me. 

He was a sensitive man who didn't know what to do with his feelings. There were precious few role models for emotionally aware men in those days, and my father gradually became an alcoholic as he struggled to cope. He died a fairly lonely man.

III. Being My Father's Son
Though I fought with my father for almost all of our last 20 years together, and spent untold hours trying to disavow his influence, the truth is that I am very much my father's son. While it took me most of my adult life to get there, I am now at peace with that. Let me count the ways…

•  Stable Home
I enjoyed a childhood where I was loved and secure. Think about how huge that is; how much that should be every child's birthright. Well, I had it, and I tried as hard as I knew to provide the same thing for my two children, albeit in different ways than my father provided for me.

•  Intellectual Development
Dad expected me to use my brain and I did. To be sure, I have employed it differently than he intended, but he resented that he did not have choices when he was done with school (shortly after high school he went to work for his father) and vowed to give his children something he didn't have. I benefited from that freedom and chose something radically different—something my father never imagined I might choose: to start an intentional community and become an expert in cooperative culture.

•  Insight into Relationships
Though I was pretty invested in the idea that my father was obtuse (how else explain his bulldogged adherence to what I considered antediluvian political views in the face of changing times) he really wasn't. As I think back to memories of my childhood, there are many examples of my father's insight.

Once, we were walking into a department store, looking to buy a pair of socks. My father looked ahead to the man at the information kiosk, who was absorbed in checking an article of clothing. Dad leaned over and told me, "Watch this. I'm going to go up to that man and ask a clear question. His response will be, 'What?' "

Up until then I had never heard my father predict what another person would say and I thought it fairly brazen of him to hazard a guess. In any event, we proceeded to walk up to the counter. My father patiently waited until the man looked up, at which point he spoke slowly and clearly, "Excuse me, can you tell me where where we can find men's socks?" To which the man replied, "What?"

I was pretty impressed.

•  Love of Words
My father had a passion for the English language, and he passed that along to me. Though it was just an oral tradition for him, I regularly endeavor to dust off underused denizens of the dictionary when speaking and writing. (If not I, then who?)

•  Insistence on Quality
At my father's engineering company they made high quality liquid level controllers. He insisted on it. Today, I'm a stickler for quality as well. It doesn't matter if I'm concocting tomatillo salsa, window reveals, or a magazine article; I always give it my best shot.

•  Entrepreneurial Energy
While I purposefully eschewed materialism as an adult (an in-your-face rejection of my father's lifestyle), it turns out that I'm risk tolerant and good at making money—just like my dad. It took me a number of years to work through my issues with money, but I finally came to peace with it, so long as the money has been earned in activities that are congruent with my values, and that people are not denied access to my services because of low income. Today I like making money.

IV. The End Game
I made an effort to reconcile with my father a couple years before he died. I wrote him a letter in which I owned my contributions to our broken relationship, asking if he was willing to meet me in this effort. While he thanked me for my offer he declined to own his part and we were not able to reassert the loving feelings that had been ascendant during my childhood. 

But it was important that I made the attempt. I was able to turn the corner on my anger, transmuting it into sadness. After 17 years of bickering I finally began the unilateral work of rehabilitating the memory of my father into that of the man who loved me and was doing the best that he could.

Sadly, he did not live long enough to see me blossom in my chosen fields: as FIC administrator; as creator of a self-insurance program for income-sharing communities; and as a cooperative process consultant. He did not live long enough to see that I was using my community in northeast Missouri as a base of operations; not as a place to hide.

While there is no knowing whether he would have allowed himself to enjoy any vicarious satisfaction from my ultimate successes, it gives me solace to think that he might. After all, a great deal of that success was built on the foundations he laid. 

Thanks, Dad.