Sunday, June 18, 2017

Happy Father's Day

(And yes, I am going to call my own father after church).

I never fully understood my dad's job when I was a kid - oh, I understood what teaching college classes was like, and I saw a little bit of the research he did (for one thing: he had a light table at home and did some of his mapwork on it - that was sort of a proto-version of GIS, I now realize: you get several different maps at the same scale and layer them together and look for what you need, like the overlap of certain soil associations and the locations of wells where you want to collect water). But I didn't fully understand what working with grad students was like, or the administrative stuff my dad did - for a number of years when I was young he was Coordinator of Research at his university.

As an adult, I realize what kind of people-wrangling some of that stuff required. Being coordinator of research means working with people disappointed they didn't get a grant, or who kept sloppy records and had cost over-runs, or pushing people to wind up projects because the granting agency requires a report soon.

And grad students - I have worked with a few, including two "unsuccessful" ones (one never wrote up her research, despite my "reminders" and timed out of the program; the other had lots of ideas but couldn't quite build the foundation under them, and also had life-circumstances (a high-risk pregnancy means you don't collect soil samples from a Superfund site) that prevented her from going ahead). And sometimes you have to ride people to get them to work. (My advisor had to poke me a few times to get me to write or rewrite, and I think I was more diligent than many).

I remember once my dad talking about a grad student who had shown promise, but sort-of-abruptly became "flakey" about coming in to lab or working. "I wonder what her name is," my dad speculated, assuming (perhaps correctly) that this fellow had a new girlfriend. And yeah. You don't just wind up working with students: you wind up sometimes working with students' families, significant others, friends. (Sometimes that's good: some of my students have brought in their tween/teen children to "show them how research works" and it's been positive, but in other cases, it's been a case of family-drama-leading-to-extensions-and-complications)

I wonder how my dad felt about all the people-wrangling. I know I hate it and consider it the most taxing part of my job.

In fact, I don't really KNOW that much about how my dad felt about his work: he and my mom, true to their "Silent Generation" designation, tend to be fairly stoic about such things. It was only a couple of years ago that I learned that maybe my mom was slightly unpopular in school (because her family had less money) and faced some of the same unpleasantnesses I did (Oh, we had more money than her family had, but we were also living in a wealthier milieu, so I was still "poor" in the eyes of the girls with multiple pairs of designer jeans and add-a-bead necklaces)

Anyway. I can assume my dad liked his work OK because he took early retirement from one position (in Ohio) and then applied for other positions (one quirk of the system when he was in it: he could not be employed in another Ohio state position, either teaching or agency. So they wound up moving). He was then hired for another position, they moved, and he worked for close to 20 more years there, retiring a second time in his 70s. He was brought in, on that position, to be a department chair (many departments - mine does this - try to promote-from-within, on the grounds that in a harmonious department, someone who's worked there will better know the department and its needs, but sometimes when there are factions, you have to bring in an outsider.) And there were factions in his new department he had to try to reconcile. (Again, I heard a little complaining about behaviors/attitudes of some colleagues, but never any sort of "Ugh, my job is awful" like I might say)

I suppose he figured the good parts outweighed the bad, as I feel on good days. (I vacillate on retirement plans. On good days I think "I can't imagine not going to work every morning and I'd miss the students, so if my health holds up I might keep doing this until 72 or so" but on bad days - or on days when it looks like our funding's going to be cut again - or on those "robots are gonna take our jerbs" days - I say to myself, "60 and out"  - I can retire with full benefits at 60, because of age+years of experience = 90. We are under the "rule of 90," or at least we were when I came in.)

I don't know. Maybe there was a seismic shift in attitudes between his generation and mine - it does seem Silent Generation folks were more prone to just stay closed-mouths about work - that what mattered was family and maybe what you did on your time off, and if work wasn't great, well, work was what adults DID, and it didn't matter as much if you were happy or not, as long as you were useful and were supporting your family.

He did do things on his time off. He didn't golf, like some dads. Or sail, like one of my uncles did for a while. He built stuff - in the house in Ohio we had lots of big shelves in the basement, half to hold rarely-used kitchen appliances and spare canned goods, the other half to hold my mom's fabric collection. And there were big shelves in the garage to hold car stuff and also general "junk" - especially after he and his brothers had to break up their parents' household. He and some friends built an excellent "fort" (with a sandbox on the ground floor, and two other "floors," both of which were open to the sky). For a while, he did most of the minor car repairs and changed the oil. (He put a manual choke in a balky van he used for fieldwork)

He DID work a lot - brought grading home, or worked on research, all of that. In fact, I think I inherited some of that. I know one rare complaint my mom made was that she thought he worked too much and too hard. And I see that in myself: I see my work-life (and also, I guess, the stuff I do at church) as "What matters" and everything I WANT to do as "it doesn't matter so you only get to do it when you have time" and that's probably not good for me. (And also perhaps is why I "can't imagine a time when I DON'T go to work")

He also has a temper, which I inherited, but I've managed to put a chokehold on that and mostly control it. I do sigh a lot and rub the bridge of my nose when someone is being particularly difficult.

And sometimes, I hear his voice - not so much timbre and tone, but the way of saying something - coming out of my mouth. (One of his grad students - a woman with kids coming back to finish a degree, and whose family wound up becoming family friends - used to chide him about using his "professor voice" on people, and I hear myself doing that sometimes)

A couple of other things about him I seem to have inherited:

1. A tendency to do messy jobs in inappropriate clothing - my mom used to get after him for doing fix-it jobs while still in a dress shirt and tie after teaching. (She says "His dad used to change the oil in his car while wearing a white dress shirt, so...."). I find myself sometimes doing gardening in my work clothes, and I have to remind myself to change clothes before doing heavy cleaning.

2. Frugality in some things. He always gave fairly nice gifts but then wore the same shoes until they were falling apart. I am like that in some ways. (And again, it was said of my grandfather: "Cy will wear the same old beat-up winter coat, and spend all his money on books"). Also a certain degree of paralysis before "big" purchases, because of the imagined need to get the best value-for-money and trying to figure out which brand will be most reliable. (He has has a subscription to "Consumers Reports" for as long as I can remember - so, at least 40 years)

3. A certain degree of stubbornness. Though I don't think that's all bad. It keeps you going even when things are difficult.

And, one thing I did - I got my dad hooked on "The Simpsons," especially the earlier seasons (which I find funnier and often more heartfelt). And here's a Homer Simpson image that I think shows one of the (rare?) good-dad sides of Homer, where he took Mr. Burns' mocking "Don't forget: you're here forever" sign and turned it into something else:

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