Monday, February 6, 2012

D&D and My Father

I thought the cathedral might get a few more comments, but I suppose it is what it is, and there's very little to say about it.  Myself, I continue to be astounded by just how large it is, in relation to a human being.  I'd love to have an all out free-for-all battle take place there, with hundreds of persons fighting simultanously in a dozen rooms ... but that's just me.

I found myself thinking about how such things can easily be seen as 'wasting my time.'  I remember my father, just about the time I graduated High School, having with me that talk fathers have about their sons going to university, and particularly mentioning how I would come to see, "As you get older" in his words, that D&D was a useless waste of time ... and that naturally I would learn to focus my attention on important things.  It's a little bit funny.  I am right now just about the age my father was when he gave me that chat - so I can fairly argue that I have all the benefits of his perspective when he denounced D&D as time-wasting.  I have to say, my father was somewhat deluded.

Now, this isn't just a thrown out phrase about not liking my father.  I mean exactly that word: deluded.  There have been a couple of times that I've mentioned my father on this blog - I don't see much mention of fathers or mothers around the community, so that's rare.  Just now I'm feeling a bit nostalgic, so if the gentle reader has the time, let me tell you a bit about him (and some of this might repeat stuff from elsewhere).

He grew up among farmers and he was descended from farmers, but he was not one.  His divorced mother, who died when I was 12, was a one-room schoolhouse teacher who moved about from small town to small town in the 1930's and 40's.  Some of these 'small towns' had less than 100 people in those days, places like Barrhead and Dixon and Markerville, for anyone who might happen to know mid-country Alberta.  His mother was a no-nonsense, sharp-nosed woman, as they used to say, who was both intolerant of ignorance and extremely bright.  I got to know her in my teens from the notes she wrote copiously in the textbooks that were bequeathed to my father, which sat upon shelves unread except by yours truly.  Funny how you can get to know people after they're dead.

She drove my father with a stick towards an education, and it worked.  He eventually left Alberta for the United States, being unable to get a 'worthwhile' Engineering degree here in the 1950s, and attended the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.  For those of you who may not know, this was and is a prestigious school in the field of Engineering.  My father experienced all the classic parts of pre-hippie university life - fraternities, pranks, girls, ballrooms, boarding houses and ultimately finding and meeting my mother ... but that's another story.

My father graduated with honors from the School of Mines, and thereupon was set upon the path of "important things."  But let me back up a bit.

In the meantime, and between time, of going to university, my father worked a variety of occupations that helped set his mind in the path of responsibility.  Two occupations in particular - the first was that of a roughneck, meaning that he built and took part in running oil derricks during his summers in Alberta.  This is back when derricks were still made of wood, and were insanely dangerous places, much more so than now.  The other job my father took, one particular summer, was fighting forest fires in the Rocky Mountain country.

So you see, my father was no pansy.

When he stepped out of university, he was offered a job with the Gulf Oil Company, which used to be a big, big player.  It's long gone now.  My father worked for Gulf for 42 years, right up to his retirement.  He was offered management positions, but he turned them all down.  The only thing he ever wanted to be was an engineer ... and that's what he was, and is ... though now the only engineering he does is a pet project he works on to keep his mind active.  He's shown it to me, explained it all in detail (the technical stuff way over my head, naturally) ... and it has no real application.  His words, not mine.

Now all this ought to sound quite impressive.  My father has a wall full of plaques and awards and notations and so on, all testament to the achievements he's managed throughout a lifetime.  Probably his biggest contribution to the oil industry was a little project that was dropped on his desk in 1974 ... a little thing called "enhanced recovery."  This was an idea some geniuses thought of, suggesting you could pump water or gas or even oil into a field where the pressure had dropped off, and make that field productive again.  You see, as you pump from an oil field, you rely on the pressure of the earth on that field to push the liquid up the pipe ... steadily, that pressure drops off, and you wind up with a lot of unrecoverable oil beneath the ground that can't be obtained.  However, by pumping gas into the field, that pressure climbs, the oil resumes flowing out and you increase the field's production by some percentage points.  Believe me, worldwide, a few percentage points is a LOT of oil.

No one believed in this in the 1970's, and the other engineers in my father's department called it "enchanted recovery."  Back then, he and one other fellow consisted of the entire research team on the idea.

Now, of course, the idea has since revolutionized the industry.

But I will tell you something:  I very much doubt my father had anything to do with that.  Not because he didn't make his small contribution, but because I understand how business works now.  These things carry the stamp of inevitability.  There were probably hundreds of people working on it in 1975, and probably thousands by 1977.  And as that number increases, the contribution by any one person means less and less - particularly when you consider that if my father hadn't made whatever contribution he made, someone would have made it.

That sounds harsh, I know.  Its a fact of business and even science that we rarely want to accept as reality.  We all want to believe that we're important.  Otherwise, we are just wasting our time.  But of course, my father wasn't wasting his time.  He was paid well for the time he spent.

What's funny about this whole game of "important things" and "time wasting" is where my father is now.  He's turning 76 in about a month, and he really is in a strange place, for him.  See, he has a massive amount of intellect, and absolutely nowhere to spend it.  He works on this project of his, but he does it in a state of such isolation that its impossible to see it as anything different than just "wasting his time."

Oh, now, don't jump on me.  It's his time to waste, and he's entitled to that.  I'd be the first person to argue it.  I'd like to see my father put his work on the internet, and write a blog about it, but he won't do that because, well, he won't.  If you have a father past 70, you know how that is.  I only question the whole "important things" argument he made himself 29 years ago, to me.  You see, time is tricky.  The whole world simply moved on and right over my father's so-called "life of importance," the same way it is moving over my life and your life.  In our 40s we make our lives out to be so DAMNED important ... but in reality we're all just sitting at our jobs and making the wheels turn in order for the pay we get.  The same way anyone else who happened to have our job would do.  Do you remember my father's wall of accolades?  It sounds very impressive, but I've been in other engineers' studies in other engineers' homes - and guess what.  If you keep at any job you're going to accumulate those same plaques and statues.  And when you are 76, you can do your best to look at them proudly ... but to do that you'll have to forget that the people who gave those to you are gone from the "important" world themselves, and no one remembers anything about anything you ever did.  The works you wrote and the time you spent, that all just goes away.  This is true even if you're Shakespeare, and you were alive four centuries ago.  Steadily, patiently, less and less people remember who you were, until no one does.

What amuses me about all of this is how my father believed when he was 47 that there was only one path, one accepted route to "important things" ... when in fact, nothing is really important when you gain any perspective on it.  Or, at least, no single individual is.  People talk about what a horror it would have been had there never been a Shakespeare, and I only think that if that were true, we'd all be getting together this evening to see a good Ben Johnson play, or maybe Christopher Marlowe.  Or perhaps some fellow named Karl Schwartz would have astounded the world in the 1630s by putting together an incredible collection of really brilliant works.  They might even have been better - who can say?

But of course that's nothing compared to the tens of thousands of would-be Schwartzes who actually produced crap beyond anyone's capacity to remember ... and no one wants to be forgotten like Karl Schwartz was forgotten.  We all want to feel "important."  And when we see our children marching down a disastrous road, obsessing over something we don't understand (as my father with his background couldn't possibly), and which we are CERTAIN is a phenomenal waste of time, we sit our children down and explain to them that they need to get their head out of this wasting of their time and into something that we do understand.  We do this with only the best of intentions.

But you see, my father was deluded.  He was brainwashed by the schoolmarm and the university and the frathouse and the oil company into thinking that "important" meant making contributing to a particular industry and making money at it ... but he wasn't prepared for the world he lives in now.  He doesn't really understand what's going on, or why the younger people around him are behaving as they are behaving.  This isn't unusual, of course, for someone his age ... but it always seems strange to me.  Someone as smart as he is ought to be able to figure this out - but his life never gave him the tools.

Such as understanding why I might not "grow out of" D&D.  Turns out, for me, D&D was not as unimportant as it was to him.  Yes, it will never make money for me the way engineering made money for him ... but I think that what I've lacked in money I've made up for in companionship, and fun, and comprehension about the world.  I am nothing like my father.  I don't expect to be 76 and uncomprehending.  So far, I haven't really had a lot of surprises about what it would be like to be 47.  I honestly didn't think I'd live this long, and that's probably the strangest thing.  But I think I can, with an open mind, get a good grasp on 76 before I get there.

We'll see, of course.


Butch said...

We may have had the same father. When I was about 12 years old, I got a pad of graph paper -- how I treasured that pad! -- and painstakingly created one of those epic megadungeon maps that you love so much.

I was so proud I showed it to my father and started explaining what the various symbols meant -- this one's a one-way door, this is a staircase trap, over here's a secret door -- and his response was simply, "when are you going to stop fooling around with this stuff?"

Not yet, Dad.

Alexis said...

My long lost brother!

Johnny said...

Thank you Alexis, my brother. My father is a 77 year old civil engineer, loved by his community. I'll never make the money he made or know what he knows or reach "that" bar. He and my mother like to use the words "stupid games" when I am embracing my first love. I haven't made my stand with them yet, but the time is coming. It is strange that I have difficulty understanding his life and what was important to him. Why do I find his choices to be so distasteful? Well, I could probably write my own blog on that. I love the man but we are very different.

Nine-toes said...

My dad was (and I suppose still is) a fiction writer (paid the bills as a professor of journalism, now retired), and looked at D&D as a storytelling medium. That's not to say he wholeheartedly approved, but he didn't think it was valueless, either.

My Dad's office is filled with DC superhero figurines, Laurel and Hardy posters, and a six foot tall cardboard mock-up of Hopalong Cassidy. If he's won any awards, they are not on display in his house. I remember once he won a contest by making a shot from half court (nothing but net). I thought he could do anything when I was little, never mind that I watched him play in pick up games where he was never the star player. He might still have the prize-winning basketball somewhere in the basement, next to my first bicycle.

Such are the trappings of having an English Major for a dad.

Alexis said...

This would be how my daughter views me.

The RPG Guy said...

Funny thing is my Dad had a similar talk to me when I was a kid.

However, the best way to show love for someone is to simply let them be who they want to be. Thankfully my Dad let me do just that.

My Dad decides to play golf. I hate the game.

I play role playing games.

It's all relative and based on your own perspective/ story and both sides have some truth to them.