The Slow Boat to Authentic Self for a Product of the 70’s

For someone who wasn’t there, it’s hard to describe what it meant to grow up in the 1970’s.  There was definitely a feeling of being a part of an anti-establishment, anti Vietnam war era movement.  I think half the time we didn’t really know what we were against but if it felt like it was coming from the establishment, we were against it.  If Laugh-In or the Smothers Brothers made fun of it, then it must be bad.  Watergate and bringing down the Nixon machine was a huge victory for the little guy.

There was an incredibly common theme to the music of the day, which had a strong message of a younger generation taking over.  Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Allman Brothers, Aerosmith, Elton John, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Fleetwood Mac, The Bee Gees, Billy Joel, and Steely Dan were all sending strong anti-establishment messages with their lyrics and incredible song writing.  With only a few stations to listen to, these bands had the monopoly on the message and it was powerful.

The kids I knew aspired to get out of the house at 18 and be independent no matter what. The hip ‘thing to do’ after turning 18 was to get in a van, travel the country for a year or so and work odd jobs along the way.  Let’s get this independence thing started with a bang.   Very few of my peers were able to actually do this, but at the time it was talked about as a legitimate plan.

One of the worst fates it seemed, was to be stuck living at home with your parents under their oppression.  Since about age 12, I had already decided there was no way I was ever going to let that happen to me. Ever. I had resolved to grow up fast and get out. It was understood that this probably meant living poor for a time. So be it. Not a deterrent in the slightest. I’ll eat peanut butter and jelly every day if I have to.

One of my older sisters got engaged at age 16 and was on the fast track to independence. I looked up to her in this regard and while it wasn’t a competition to see who could get married the youngest, I was definitely envious of her approach to getting out of the house early with the ability to make her own decisions.

I was a somewhat rebellious teen. Not horrible, but definitely not on board with my parents’ ideals which included ( for a time ) private school, mandatory church attendance ( and I mean mandatory ), and somewhat higher expectations around behavior and appearance, some of which could be traced back to the teachings of Catholicism.

Looking back, the expectations weren’t really that high. I did okay in school, I guess.  I’m a lifetime 3.2 student at all levels.  Trying for an A was usually more effort than I was willing to put out but sometimes I’d surprise myself and go for it.

I’m actually very thankful for certain aspects of my upbringing.  For one thing, being a part of the private school culture instilled a stronger sense of conscience than I might have had.  There’s a little bit of a work ethic message that came with it that has served me well in my adult years, though I didn’t value it much at the time.

With regard to rebellion, the two biggest rules that ranked on me the most were the control over my haircut and ( a crew-cut for about the first 10 years ), and the mandatory church attendance. As a parent, I get where they were coming from now, but at the time I was livid — and both were non-negotiable.

I make it sound like my parents were demanding task-masters.  They were not.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  They actually had a strong vision of what they considered the family framework and that included a lot of fun and laughter.  Dad was a hilarious entertainer and my golfing buddy.  Mom was always there for me when I needed it most.  Once I got to know them better as an adult, I came to find out they were actually quite liberal-minded when it came to social justice issues.

Punishment was pretty rare and I can’t think of a single time I got some when I didn’t fully deserve it.  It’s just that the vision had to fit inside this particular framework and that was a challenge for me.  As it turned out, a really big challenge.

Tied in with this was the culture of the 60’s and 70’s where long hair was a big deal. And I mean BIG DEAL. Walking to school with a crew-cut immediately excluded you from any kind of cool kid group. You weren’t hip. Your parents obviously had control over you and you came from one of those ‘strict’ families. Bummer for you. Yes, bummer indeed. And you’re reminded of it every single day.

So sophomore year of high school I meet this really nice girl from more of a blue-collar family. Her dad was a mechanic. They camped a lot, liked to hunt, fish, and all of that. I genuinely liked those things too but I think in the back of my mind dating her and joining this family culture was another piece of the rebellion pie. We got along well, but at the same time it was a statement to the rest of the family that I am my own man. Back off. I’m going in this direction and it’s not what you may have had in mind for me, but too bad. And indeed there was nothing they could do about it. I liked that aspect of it. It wasn’t all about rebellion, I genuinely loved her and enjoyed being with her family.  But with the benefit of hindsight, part of it was.

We got married during Spring break of my freshman year of college.  I was 19, a student and part-time janitor. She was 18 and worked full-time to support my education. It wasn’t a snap decision.  We didn’t ‘have to’ get married. We chose to. We were a pretty unusual case, even for 1979. We had been dating for 4 years.

The early years of the marriage were a little challenging financially, but I don’t recall feeling like we didn’t have enough.  We started a family right away and moved to the Everett Washington area. I remember being pretty happy. It was an exciting time. New job at Boeing. Out on my own. Life was good.

Somewhere along the way though, I started to realize I had gone down this particular path for the wrong reasons. It was clear we were two very different people who were raised in two very different family situations. When you have kids ( we had 3 ), you automatically have something in common and often times that alone can be enough to keep a marriage together. In our case, it was — for 27 years. But about 12 years into the marriage I realized I am not being honest with myself here. I am not able to be my authentic self – and neither was she.  That’s very frustrating for both people.

What does it mean to ‘be your authentic self’?  I like the definition which states “Living a life that is in tune with who you were created to be.”  Contrast that with fictional self:  “When you live a life in which you are not faithful to your authentic self, you find yourself feeling incomplete, as if there is a hole in your soul.”

Part of this is simply feeling like you fit in.  In Oregon we have this vast culture divide between people who live East of the Cascade Mountain range, and people who live in the valley.  West of the mountains we defined by liberal politics, especially in Multnomah County.  East of the Mountains, where her family was from, it’s far more conservative.

I remember visiting family east of the mountains and struggling to fit in at times.  I’ve spent the vast majority of my career in various roles of the software industry — from Software Engineer to Manager to Software Engineer again.  By trade I can’t help but be an Irish software geek.

So try being out with the guys in Central Oregon and Bob over there is talking about how he just replaced the tranny in his truck  but it still has a little slippage.  And the compression wasn’t quite right so he had to take the head off and adjust the pistons.

What have you been up to, Bill?  “Well, I fixed a really tricky timing problem between hardware and software on a Flight Controls box between the air speed signal and the new ASIC.  And it took 3 days in the debugger to figure it out.”  [ Stares ].  “Cool.”

Top that off with the fact that as a mechanic, I am a klutz.  The stories are legendary.  I packed the wheel bearings in my truck one time and the front wheel came off going over Mt. Hood.  And I had my wife and 3 month old daughter in the truck.  No one was hurt, thankfully.  Her Dad came to the rescue and bailed us out big-time.

Another challenge for me was that as I had decided to just “be” my authentic self and let the chips fall where they may, I got more vocal about politics.  I have never, nor will I ever, understand how conservatives buy into trickle-down economic theory.  I couldn’t keep my mouth shut at the irony of voting against one’s self interests and this led to quite a bit of additional friction.  It starts off as friendly banter, but if you’re not careful ( and I was not ), it can escalate.  At the end of the day it simply exposes family differences that are nearly impossible to reconcile while keeping some semblance of your authentic self.

If there’s any fault to be assigned here, it clearly goes to me because I’m the one who changed. She stayed true to who she is. I am the one who bait and switched and I’m sure that was very hard for her. It’s my fault if fault needs to be assigned. In my defense, I was a naive teenager.

As hard as divorce is, this one has a happy ending because we both met and married a partner who is far more accepting of our authentic selves. I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband and I’m sure she feels the same way about Donna and I.

What a great thing it is, to be able to get up every morning and be your authentic self.

To be able to think out loud unfiltered and still be accepted and understood.  To be hanging with your peeps who get you.  To be able to pursue what floats your boat without fear of judgment.  To not have to feel like you’re walking on egg-shells around family.

And for every benefit I just listed for myself, the exact same thing is true for her.  It’s freedom.  It’s the difference between waking up everyday wondering why you’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole vs. being excited about what lies ahead.

Joining the dating pool in 2007, after being out of it for 30 years was an interesting experience.  I get a kick out of the profiles on match.com where people put forth the impression that they offer a thrill a minute.  We’ll be rock climbing, jet skiing, para-sailing and running marathons when we aren’t traveling to Istanbul.  I knew better than that.

My main requirement was that this time around: I get to be my authentic self.  As it turns out, on the very first date with Donna we had sort of an a-ha moment where we both declared we are not going to settle.  For me, that was #1.  Neither one of us needed to be married.  We were doing fine single, thank-you very much.  I knew this was a very good starting point.  And it was.  But that’s a blog post for another day.

Authentic Self.  Yep.  I’m in favor of being who you are and not trying to be someone you’re not.

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