My father came to visit me last week.
I’ve always admired my father. He is what we in this corner of the blogosphere would call a natural alpha*, although significantly, I didn’t really appreciate this fact until I was well into adulthood. But I did know that he succeeded wildly at a high-risk profession and as an entrepreneur (and at everything he tried, in fact, except, unfortunately, investing). I knew that he owned fine houses and expensive foreign cars. And I knew that he was in charge.
In short, he was everything I expected to be when I grew up.
What I didn’t know was how different we were.
I began succeeding at school much earlier than my father had, as well I should have: my father climbed up from working-class mill family origins, whereas I always enjoyed high parental expectations. I excelled at academic subjects of which he had no understanding; ergo, I was smarter. By high school I could run farther and faster than he could, and by college I could swim faster too; ergo, I was more physically attractive. It was simple math.
But although my father is only slightly taller than I am, he is much larger. Imagine, for a moment, Don Draper and Pete Campbell standing next to each other. I’m Pete Campbell. A taller, more athletic Pete Campbell perhaps, but still: Pete Campbell. It took me until quite recently to understand how that might matter.
Looking back on it, there were plenty of signs. Inside my father’s stories of his youthful hijinks was the message that he had a gang of friends that did stuff together. Inside his stories of high-stakes gambling at pool and cards on the rough side of town was the message that he faced dangerous situations with confidence. Inside his stories of conflict at work was the message that he was the master of his situation. His was the life of someone who expected to succeed. It was not the life of someone who’s daily objective was to get through the day without getting beat on, or made an object of ridicule.
Much of this began to sink in around the time I got married. My father got married at age 25 to a woman not yet 20. I loved my mother, but growing up it never occurred to me to compare her to anybody else. I knew she was pretty, but I never stopped to think about what that meant. Looking back on it, I guess I would say that I unconsciously saw her as the baseline of attractiveness. I wasn’t, at that point, sure if women were worth the aggravation of being married to one, but I assumed that if I ever did get married that it would be to a woman who resembled my mother in certain salient respects.
It wasn’t until I was engaged myself that this was brought home to me. I remember attending a party with mother and watching her across the back lawn of the house when it struck me that my mother wasn’t merely pretty. She was, in fact, strikingly beautiful in an uncommon way. She does not – or pretends to not – see herself in this light, so I had few cues that this was the case. She does see herself as disciplined about diet and exercise, perhaps, but even here she fails to appreciate how, in practice, this physicality is not often willed into being among women.
And I realized then that my own success with women would never equal my father’s; despite having four extra years to work with, I was marrying a woman 15 months older than I was. Don’t misunderstand me: I did not want to marry my mother. Nor even did I want to marry someone like my mother. Mrs. Φ excels in the domestic arts in a way that my mother, an accomplished musician, never bothered, and she has proved her loyalty through circumstances with which I would definitely not test my mother. But I could nonetheless grasp the difference between the position my mother occupied in the status hierarchy – her SMV, as it were – and the position that my bride-to-be occupied, and what this said about my father’s position relative to my own.
I’m not sure my father has reconciled himself to the fact that his son is, from his perspective, an underachiever. He doesn’t know that my own adventure as the pointy-haired boss could be charitably characterized as mediocre. He’s figured out that I’m not especially upwardly mobile with my lifelong employer, and that my houses don’t seem to be getting any bigger, but he doesn’t grasp that being a Company Man is about the extent of my realistic ambition. He’s proud of the fact that I’ve worked my way to near completion on a PhD, but it’s also clear from his comments that he thinks, why hasn’t this kid struck out on his own? Thought like a man who expects to succeed, rather than someone who tries to get through the day without getting beat on, or made an object of ridicule.
* Parenthetically, I should clarify here that my father has never indicated he is much motivated by sex. On the contrary, his stories show him to be very much a straight arrow in this respect, straighter than me even, though he is not especially religious. (This trait I inherited from my mother.)