Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bye dad

The way my dad used to tell the story was he was being interviewed for the job to design the Cornell Campus Book Store and the interviewer asked, "How do you plan to make the architecture of this building fit in with the architecture of the various different styles of the buildings around it?"

The answer which he had not thought of until that moment was
"Put it underground"

He says the answer got him the job, the building is underground and as the picture above shows, it almost vanishes.

But my dad was not an impulsive guy, generally. His dad (the dean of Cornell's college of Agriculture) died when my dad was a young adolescent and this made his life very difficult. And so my father was extremely risk averse. Interestingly, the security and stability that this created in his family life generated two highly risk seeking sons. My brother the rock star and myself.

And i oversimplify, for were he completely risk averse, he would have never started his own company.

i learned a lot of things from my father. Somethings, like my relationship to risk or my views on polyamory or anarchism came from opposing what he believed. We had our disagreements, but he was graceful and for the most part accepting of our differences. This is an area where i am still trying to learn from his model.

He was a highly principled man. He was offered a bribe by a contractor that would have been nearly impossible to trace at a time when he and his company really needed the money. Here he never hesitated. He showed the guy the door and never worked with him again.

He would not go out to lunch with his secretary alone. "Not because anything might happen." he explained to me, "but because someone might think something was happening." This type of caution and concern for the opinions of others, did not turn out to be genetically transmittable.

He did teach me to be good to my word, to look for elegant solutions and to identify myself with my work.

And in this last thing we lost each other a bit, work as identity. We were not especially close and i did some things i regret in years past which increased our distance.

In the mid 80s, at the height of my personal radicalization, the market for schools (which is what his firm was famous for) collapsed. Under his guidance his office started seeking other kinds of design work. My dad took pride in showing me around his office and point out all the different project they were involved in.

We made it to one set of drawings and i read the client name "Electronic Warfare Incorporated". When i asked him about it, he said they were in a competition to design their headquarters building.

I said " you should not do this job. These people are simulating the end of the world. And through their work we are in greater risk of it coming to pass."

My father was surprised by my comment and replied "if we don't do this work, someone else will."

"If they asked you to build concentration camps, would you do it because someone else would if you did not?" i challenged. My father was deeply offended and our relationship frayed.

A dozen years later, after i had moved back from eastern Europe and started living on the commune, i went to work with my father for a summer in his offices in Boston, with the hope of bridge building to him. We commuted to work together every day and we chatted and i tried several times to get inside the man who was responsible for my birth. But i failed, not completely, but mostly. He was not emotionally accessible to me, perhaps i had burned the bridges, or perhaps he did not really know how to meet me in this place.

He did love what he did and if awards and public praise are any measure, he had a gift for it. He, unlike me, was modest. He was a good liberal and supported fairness in the system. And he believed in the system.

When i bough Howard Zinn's A Peoples History of the United States, from a book store in Harvard Square, near his old offices he asked me what it was. "It is a radical history book", i replied. And he took offense. "There is no radical history, there is just history." We disagreed and one of the most difficult lessons he taught me, was that for radicals it is exactly people like my parents who we need to get our messages to. And i was exactly the wrong person to try to get this message to him.

I was supposed to be something different than i became. My class background, my education was supposed to take me other places. My grandmother thought i would be a good governor, most of my college friends thought i would end up a lawyer, for a while it looked like i might be a software engineer. But despite the peculiar career path i embraced, i always felt supported and loved by both of my parents, even if they wished i would just grow up and be the CEO of something.

There was a nice moment we shared long after my father was forced to stop working because of the Parkinson's, which took his life last night. A speaking engagement on nukes was organized for me in my folks house and a bunch of neighbors came, one of whom was a Noble prize winner in chemstry. At the end of the talk he went to my father and said "I did not really expect to learn anything and i did not expect to be engaged and i was wrong on both counts." My father beamed with pride.

"I know i am a good architect" he told me in a rare immodest moment "it is someone else's job to decide if i am a great architect." i dont know enuf about architecture to make that call. But i do know this, your were a great dad.


Angie said...

i know all too well the bitter-sweet times shared with fading fathers. we are deeply impacted by our parents because of, and in spite of, their best efforts. and though your relationship with you dad was imperfect, i can think of no better reward for a parent than to see his child grow up to become a confident, strong, smart, loving man who is passionate about his work and his beliefs.

Wam Kat said...

Dear Pax,

After reading this, knowing you, I only can say that I am happy for you that you bridged in the last years the gap which had grown between you two in the years before, somehow...

Anonymous said...

close your eyes, imagine me kissing you on the face. thanks for sharing this, i'm sad to know your dad passed. i'll be thinking of you. also, what angie said.

Unknown said...

I remember loving that building as a kid. Something about the adventure of having a beautiful view with the earth growing above you was absolutely mind bending to a child. I appreciate your father for creating that exciting building and for creating you - as you continue to bend my mind in unimaginable ways.

jaz said...

can i just say how glad i am that you never learned that lesson about never taking the secretary to lunch alone? ;-)

i am honored that i got to be even a minute part of his vision.