AAS Sunday June 15, 2014 Even in death, some fathers hold onto their secrets


Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday June 15, 2014 Father’s Day

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, June 14, 2014

Palaima: Even in death, some fathers hold onto their secrets

By Tom Palaima

Regular Contributor

Ever since Oedipus tried to find out who his real father was and Patroclus set sail in search of information about Odysseus, the long-absent father he never knew, when we wonder why we are who we are, our thoughts turn to our parents. As Father’s Day approaches, many of us ponder the mysteries of fatherhood too late to get real answers from parents who are no longer with us.

I became my father’s second surviving son on Oct. 6, 1951, at 8:30 a.m. at Doctors Hospital in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. That was six years after my father returned from fighting alongside other soldiers in the 1st Cavalry Division in World War II and five years after my only surviving brother Michael was born.

You may wonder why I call us surviving sons. On my official birth certificate, acquired last year, appears a question: “How many OTHER children were born alive but are now dead?” The answer typed in on the form is “One.”

I found out that I had a second older brother about ten years ago. On a trip back to Cleveland, I visited, as usual, Calvary Cemetery where my beloved paternal grandparents and my uncle Joseph are buried. This time I forgot to bring their plot locations with me. The clerk in the central office retrieved information for Palaima.

I was stunned when he said, “Here are your four plots: Michael, Sophie, Joseph and Baby Boy.” My second older brother was born on October 23, 1950, eleven and a half months before I was. He lived from 5:54 to 5:59 AM. He was buried the next day in the infant section of the cemetery.

When my brother and I asked my father, then in his late 80s, about our unknown brother, he replied that between our births, our mother had had a miscarriage and then lost a child right after he was born. Their doctor, Dr. Pasquale Ferrara, ordered them not to have more children, stressing the danger pregnancy would pose to our mom.

Our dad smiled and said something like, “But you know your mother.” We could see that he knew well his wife of 57 years.

We were left to wonder how the strong-willed, beautiful, devoutly Roman Catholic, anxiety-ridden woman who was our mother and our choir-boy father found it in themselves to defy the kind of authority figure they generally obeyed without question just as recruits in basic training snap to orders from their drill sergeants. I wonder now if Baby Boy Palaima had lived, would I be here.

My father still holds onto secrets, even seven years after he died at age 90. Like many kids our age, my brother and I had a father who became an adult during the Great Depression. The son of immigrants, he had seriously thought of becoming a priest. He remembered throughout his life the feeling of being at war far away from the woman he loved. He had the same strong, silent role models most fathers after World War II had: Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Humphrey Bogart in any Bogart film. On television, Oswald “Ozzie” Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”— but is rarely asked his opinion — were their paradigms.

Our fathers worked hard at jobs we knew little about. They kept to themselves their fears, troubles, doubts and emotions, positive and negative. They rarely talked to us about their views on life, their hopes, dreams, successes and failures. They were to be seen and respected, but, within the household, heard only when their sons were trying to work around the mother who ruled the roost.

If cultural icons and prevailing social norms did a good job of implanting such behavioral notions, the religious role model for Roman Catholic fathers made sure they were ineradicably rooted. St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, never says a word in the New Testament. He is wrapped up in the same obscurity that enshrouds most of the childhood of Jesus. We can deduce that he passed his profession as carpenter on to Jesus, a son who was not his son. Joseph may have had other children by Mary or by another wife, depending on scholarly interpretation of the gospel of Matthew 13: 55-56. But that was way before birth certificates.

If your father is still with you, find time now to say to him, “Hey, Dad, how’s it going?” And then, “No, really, how are you doing?”

Palaima teaches classics and war and violence studies at the University of Texas. He may be reached at tpalaima@sbcglobal.net.

AAS May 25, 2014 Listening Improves Humanity


Palaima: Better listening improves humanity

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, May 24, 2014
Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday May 25, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

A few years ago, several veteran Austin guitar-playing musician friends — John Inmon, Derek O’Brien, Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee — took time to talk with my son about what their lives devoted to playing music were like, where their inspiration and passion for music came from, what difficulties they faced and still face.

What stays with me was how well these masters of soul-inspiring guitar sounds listened to what a 16-year-old fledgling musician had to say.

True attentive listening is a vanishing skill and underdeveloped talent. We all want to be heard. Yet it is the capacity to hear sympathetically that makes us truly human. The words we share in our native languages, the specific meanings we give words within our families and social groups, the feeling of outsiderness we have when we cannot understand what others are saying, all define who we are in our connections with or disconnections from other human beings.

Inmon posed a conundrum that applies not just to playing music, but to all other forms of human communication. He said: “When you are playing the guitar you are just sending out vibrations that travel through the air. They don’t mean anything until they reach the ears of the people who are listening. Figure out how to get what the song means to you across to your audience.”

What a wonderful concept. Applied to nonmusical communication, it asks that we do one simple thing: listen before or while we speak so that we can best express what we mean to others.

How is listening, especially John’s kind of pre-listening or imaginative listening to what others will be hearing, important? Without it, we lose contact with others and with ourselves, we become less able to help others and ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Freud Museum in Vienna and stood in front of the famous couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined and the famous chair where Freud sat, behind his patients. What he was practicing was called “the talking cure,” but it depended on patients knowing that a sympathetic, if invisible, listener was taking in what they were saying.

Psychoanalysis is now a multi-faceted science, but the art of sympathetic listening was known to Homer. Achilles, when in his deepest suffering from the public insult to his core self as a dedicated field commander, talks at length to his mother, Thetis. She listens with maternal care. Later when his closest comrade Patroclus is killed, Achilles unburdens himself to Thetis again about his sorrow and his guilt. He later speaks with Priam, king of Troy, who appeals to Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles had killed. Achilles in his anger and grief had tried to mutilate Hector’s corpse. Listening to Priam’s words, Achilles remembers his own father and becomes fully human once more.

Walt Whitman in his famous commentary on the abysmal medical care given the wounded well into our Civil War, “The Great Army of the Sick,” cites the case of J.A.H., “a young man from Plymouth Country, Massachusetts,” “prostrated by diarrhea and vomiting” and virtually catatonic because “no one spoke to him” or did so “with perfect indifference” or “heartless brutality.” Whitman “sat down by him without any fuss — talked a little — soon saw that it did him good — led him to talk a little himself.” By humanly listening, Whitman pulled J.A.H. from the brink of death from a despondency caused by nobody caring to listen.

Unfortunately, in our society the reward structures in many professions promote single-minded self-expression. A just-completed senior honors thesis at the University of Texas at Austin by Bethany Hamilton that Stephen Sonnenberg and I supervised looks at UT students who are military veterans. We need to listen to opinions like those Hamilton gathered from veterans. One was that veteran students would rather be at Austin Community College than at UT because the professors at ACC take time to listen when veteran students talk about their special needs.

This problem doesn’t apply only to veterans. UT has long had dauntingly high student to faculty ratios. And faculty members know that, except for award-winning performers in the classrooms, devoting time to research and publications is the one sure way to be among the chosen half of the faculty who now receive annual small merit raises.

The art of listening needs a public hearing, and we all need to lend our ears.

Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.