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Reflections on Father’s Day, 2015

It’s been five Father’s days, since I could call my father, and different aspects of remembrance guide my thoughts during each recurrence. Today, I am remembering life-long learning, and how he kept up until the end, when he could not remember anything.

Books, everywhere, were a key aspect of any house he lived in. There were built-in bookshelves in the living room, built-in bookshelves in all the hallways, built-in bookshelves in his office, and a high pile of books coming in, near his bed.

I was his ninth child, and so I did not get him full bore. A founder of the Society of Industrial Engineers, he spent the war improving production lines for liberty ships, and for mustangs, and for some things he still would not describe, at the end. He always feigned ignorance of computers, but his stories included things I later recognized as Whirlwind.

After 11 kids, some in college, some in boarding school, some. Like me in grammar school, he worked on his PhD in Mathematics. This was at one of the Pomona colleges, which turned the journey home into an Odyssey two nights a week. He would pick us up from the school playground at 5:15, and drive north from San Diego. We would stop at some take-out restaurant, notably a sandwich shop renowned for its “Torpedo Sandwiches”, and eat in the car. And then we would stay in the car. My older brothers would work on homework, my younger brother and I would squabble until we fell asleep, and after class broke up at 9:30, we would drive the hour home to the ranch outside of Escondido.

Years later, the Italian-Armenian sub-shop behind Ionics in Watertown, one of my first consulting customers, always tasted just right. I didn’t recognize until later that their aged sausages, sharp provolone, and tough bread reminded me of the Torpedo shop somewhere south of Pomona.

That was a small bit of his commitment to learning. Through most of us, he would order every book on the syllabus of each of his kids in college, if he had not read it already, and read it at the beginning of the semester. The quizzes at the table at Thanksgiving were likely to be more penetrating, and detailed, than any exams in the class.

I remember one semester of Russian History in which the reading list included two literary collections, one of Turgenev, and one of Pushkin. I bemoaned having to read a small short story from each. I was little prepared to discuss all the works, in detail. I did not make that mistake again, and took to reading the entire book.

When he retired, he resolved to read any book that was referenced in any of the founding works of Catholicism and the Enlightenment. No author, no matter how obscure, whether mentioned in the writings of Irenaeus or of John Chrysostom, or later in the works of Thomas Aquinas or Hugo Grotius escaped his list. One of the pleasures of his last visit, before he stopped travelling, was introducing him to an old bookstore in Durham, with an endless attic, in which he found a dozen books he had sought in Oxford and Cambridge (England and Massachusetts) and London and San Francisco, to no avail.

So this Father’s day, I am thinking of life-long learning. I am reflecting what a sterile self-indulgent introspection, of reading only like-minded like-experienced post-Marcusian scholars, that passes for scholarship in the college-town I work in today.

When I reflect on my father, and his appetite for everything humanity had written for all time, I then look at that the tiny slice of humanity that today arrogates to itself as bespeaking diversity, and, well words escape me.

This Father’s day, I have been thinking about life-long learning, and if I measure up. I have tried to catch up recently. This year I am re-reading all of Livvy, not just the highlights, and enjoying the first century historical perspective on the previous 500 years.

For light reading, I am jumping through the History of the British Navy that my son gave me for my birthday. For heavy reading I am wandering dispatch by dispatch through the Life of Marlborough. For the human touch, I am laughing my way through the oh-so-human Diaries of Samuel Pepys, as he started his career that ended as secretary of the Navy and then secretary of the Admiralty. These perspectives and time-lines bounce off each other in ways that keep me pondering how the modern world was built.

Yet I knew he would have read the same and more, and in less time.

Life-long learning is a habit of mind, and a gift from my Father, one that gives long after he is gone. I hope I gave some of it to my kids. Habits of thought, and habits of knowledge is the only thing that we really give our kids—and we all turn too much of it over to third parties, to professionals, who too often toss away our patrimony. It is the gift from my father that gives me most pleasure today. I hope I was able to give it to my own children.

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July 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Considine

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