My beloved father, Alexander Phillips, would have been 84 today, the day of the March equinox.
On September 17, 2011, his life was tragically truncated. Here is the brief and poorly prepared obituary composed by one of those with him at his passing ((accompanied by my dad’s uncomplimentary passport photo — of all the many photos that could have been included of this incredibly handsome man; and though his passport is still ‘missing’).
I wasn’t informed of my father’s passing in anything resembling a timely manner (and never directly by those with him at his passing, who were ‘taking care’ of him and ‘cleaning’ — and removing nearly all his belongings). One of those with my dad at the time of his death had recently pleaded guilty to committing organized fraud and had been sentenced to felony probation (my father, by paying partial restitution to this person’s victims, kept this person from serving a prison sentence). This person had shape-shifting, nauseating and sickening ‘rationales,’ for why I was not informed of my dearest dad’s death or made to know that his condition putatively was worsening in the preceding days.
My father had his shortcomings, to be sure, as do we all, but he had many virtues, and just one of them was that he never wanted to be a burden on anyone, and hence never wanted any of his nearest and dearest to have to take care of him in his old age; so he prepared painstakingly to be financially secure enough so that he could live independently, with in-home care, come what may. But he hid his assets all too well, alas, and it came back to bite him, and all of us unable to come to the succor of this dear man, in the end.
My dad, one person who spoke at his funeral claimed, was the the most tightfisted person imaginable — but this person knew better than anyone that this wasn’t by any stretch wholly true, conveniently omitting that there was an exception to my father’s thrifty ways. A huge exception.
What this person failed to share, yet knew all too well, was that when it came to those he loved most, my dad would rescue them again and again — and all he asked in return was that you genuinely turn yourself and your life around. My dad rescued this person one final time shortly before his death, and it has led to a tragedy that continues to unfold.
My father had told me a while before he died that his health had been severely impacted by the fraudulent acts and antics of one of those with him when he died. The pain and suffering was etched on my father’s face, and that is saying something, since he normally kept his emotions so close to the vest. But this hurt went too deep.
What pained my dad the most, this most typically tightlipped of people confided to me, was the complete lack of contrition on the part of this person, though my father had extricated this person from one jam after another over the years, to the tune of an extraordinary sum of money.
And yet, once again, my big-hearted dad decided to rescue this person (even being cajoled into using CD’s he’d purchased for me and for my oldest daughter), only for this person to renege on his promise to repay him, as he had reneged on all else, shameless and (in this person’s mind) blameless (for such people, there is no traditional right or wrong — right is what one gets away with, and wrong is what happens when such a person gets caught, and has to regroup and re-plot, to reduce the odds that ‘wrong’ will happen again; and indeed, they convince themselves they are entitled to most anything and everything, no matter how ill-gotten).
My dad recounted to me further that rather than show any remorse, this person reacted with such sudden and explosive anger, when my father lectured this person to quit looking for shortcuts and get-rich-quick schemes, that my father picked up his phone and threatened to call the police, he was so scared and unnerved. If only he had….
In the end, many of those closest to my father believe that his innocence and trust was betrayed and conned unspeakably.
One cringes at the thought that many people, with no conscience of any kind, whose only goal is self-aggrandizement and personal gain by any means possible, walk freely on this planet, in places low and high, in some cases getting away with the most heinous of acts.
But it is also heartbreaking that one can start out one’s adult life with so much promise, as did this person, and continue on a promising trajectory for a goodly amount of time, and then decide to use setbacks as an excuse to ‘break bad’ and begin taking one illegal shortcut after another. Perhaps Trump’s ilk would find great common ground, and would want to compare notes with such a person, but most of us with a moral compass of any salt would just shake our heads in sadness and embarrassment and disgust.
Life goes on, and any sense of self-pity I might be tempted to feel (no one of course likes being hoodwinked out of their financial inheritance by such deplorable people) is tempered by the certain knowledge that there are so very many others whose crosses to bear are far far greater than mine.
Most of all, I cherish my family more than ever, and I treasure the priceless and lasting gifts and legacy passed on to me by my father — and I continue to meet with more timeless forms of success (believe it or not, this person even once tried to scam me financially and my kindred spirits with our Socrates Cafe labor of love, but thankfully I caught on in the nick of time).
Given my own life aims, I can hardly imagine, try as I might, what it’s like to dedicate one’s life to cheating, lying and conning, much less to always concocting a fallback scheme — to spending one’s months and years obsessing over and plotting schemes to defraud others, and even gaining genuine pleasure from betraying those who loved you the most and rescued you repeatedly out of that love. I can hardly imagine existing in such a void, with such inner hollowness, year in and year out.
How does one have good and decent parents and yet emerge in one’s latter years with no semblance of conscience? It happens, more often than most of us would care to think, and it is not parents’ fault, much as they might take a hard look in the mirror and feel remorse that someone in their brood might make a conscious decision to devote oneself to extraordinary wrongdoing, and always plot a ‘failsafe’ escape so that no matter how often they plunder and con and even sometimes get caught, they will always figure out a new scheme to come out on top, by their twisted view of what this amounts to.
A lot of ugly things have continued to transpire in the time proceeding my dad’s death. But beautiful things have come out of this, too. We had another child, Cybele (after Ceci first suffered a miscarriage). This doe-eyed, joy-filled creature has filled out our family with so much love. She and her older sister adore each other, even when having spats. They are inseparable companions. God how I love her, and oh how my dad would have been smitten with her.
Nietzsche said something to the effect that if something doesn’t kill you it can make you stronger, and that you should show those who have willfully done you harm and even evil to show how they’ve done you some good. And so it is in my case that I try to apply such timeless tenets, more determined and spirited than ever, and so I continue to meet with successes and accomplishments of a different stripe that I know my father would feel great pride about.
One of them is that I wrote a new book, The Philosophy of Childing, its birthing in considerable part born out of having a close and tragic encounter with someone with whom I had once been close but who came, alas, to reveal and unmask the tendencies of someone with no authentic human decency of any kind.
I wondered, as I began the journey to write Childing, how it is that some, raised with all the advantages, make a willful decision to accomplish nothing worthy on their own, but only to use and exploit others; and I wondered how they can have such a charming exterior and such a rotten core. I put it in part this way in the introduction to my book:
In the acclaimed journals of author Anaïs Nin (1903–1977), which she began writing at age eleven, she observes that “some people remind me of sharp dazzling diamonds. Valuable but lifeless and loveless. Others, of the simplest field flowers, with hearts full of dew and with all the tints of celestial beauty reflected in their modest petals.” She makes clear her preference for the latter, who have “a warmth and softness” that is lacking in those with “mere brilliancy and coldness” and who are both the willful parents and originators of a host of ills. By all outward appearances, they may have grown up and out in brilliant fashion, but as we know, appearances are deceiving.
How can we child one another so that we are not crushed into diamonds, but able to flourish? As I set off in search of promising answers, I do so as a husband and a father of a young family who hopes to build on his modest efforts to help make this uncertain world a bit more livable and lovable, so that those “with hearts full of dew and with all the tints of celestial beauty reflected in their modest petals” can shine.
And so I explored widely and deeply, across the disciplines and cultures and eons, in my book what we might do to make sure that more and more of those entering the world can blossom from a healthy core.
As a parent, that certainly is a great focus of mine when it comes to my own bundles of joy, now ages 3 and 10. I want to do all I can to make sure they are safe, secure, reasonably well-adjusted, that they are able to discover and develop their gifts and passions; that they grow from a healthy core; that their inborn empathy and curiosity and creativity and passion is cultivated and nurtured, so they can blossom at every age and stage. This also is my goal with and my fond hope for all the many thousands of children and youth with whom I inquire the world over, and from whom I learn so much.
Meanwhile, I wish my dear and incredibly accomplished late father a happy 84th birthday. From him, I inherited priceless gifts — of dogged perseverance, of always moving forward, with passion and vision, discipline and commitment. And never ever making excuses when things don’t go my way, and turning setbacks into successes by my own diligence and drive. These are just a few of the many invaluable gifts my dad left me.
I’ll share with you a bit about what I wrote about my dad in the Philosophy of Childing:
When my father Alexander Phillips retired in 1990 at age seventy, this most emotionally even-keeled of people experienced a depression. At first, all was well. He got to experience a first childhood, since he’d missed out on the one of his early years.
When my father was seven, his own father, at age fifty-seven, dropped dead right in front of him of a heart attack. In a sense, my father’s childhood was over. He took on several jobs to help provide for his mother, brother, and sister. It was arranged with his teachers that he cram a full day’s worth of work into half a day. While there was next to no idle time for play and exploration, he did teach himself to play piano by ear, and brought in a decent amount of money to his mother by playing at local gathering spots.
My father excelled in whatever he took on; he had a single-minded discipline, drive and determination that thankfully rubbed off on me. After a stint in the army, he went on to become a designer of aircraft carriers and then an electrical engineer. He later earned a business degree, becoming the first person at the university to earn his diploma by taking all of his classes in the night school program. Long after I went to bed, he was still studying at the dining room table, his books covering almost the entire surface.
After retiring, my father finally had a stab at childhood. He read piles of books, did crossword puzzles, took long walks on the beach, danced the night away. But he missed his work terribly, as he told me often. Idle time made little sense to him unless it was bounded by a job.
He picked himself up by getting back to work; he became a consultant, lending his forty years’ worth of know-how in naval ship-building to firms doing business with the United States’ Department of the Navy, where he had made his career, rising to the highest civilian post.
In his spare time—which he enjoyed once again, now that he had structure—he took up playing the piano again, and became a regular in early a.m. hours at the local Wendy’s, where seniors gathered each morning to engage in spirited inquiries on political and philosophical matters.
When I visited, I was invited to moderate the fray. It was a marvel to watch his nimble mind in action as he put his views through the Socratic wringer, all the while parrying and pondering those of others. He would have made Cicero and Plato proud.
As much as he told me how proud he was of the legacy I’m leaving, I was prouder of my dad’s own legacy of achievement, of surmounting difficult odds to leave a positive mark on the world. And I was grateful for the gift he and my mother had given me — an ideal childhood, and youth, that made it possible for me to imagine and carve out a kind of creative adulthood that they could not dream of.
My father asked me to promise him that I’d go to Greece in his stead and hold lots of dialogues there. He knew that if I went, he would in a sense be going along for the ride—not just in spirit, but because he’s such a part of me in every way.
I honestly don’t know if my father is resting in peace, and I still worry and wonder with great sadness what his final days on the Earth must have been like (especially when I think of what others close to him told me they fear happened), and wish so much I’d been with him to defend him at his feeblest and most vulnerable from any who would prey on him. But I pray he is indeed at peace.
I also feel great sadness and loss over the relatively decent individual one of those who was with my dad at his passing once was, and it is admixed with considerable pity and also with love, clear-eyed as I might be that the decent person I once knew and now miss is gone forever and beyond reach. This person and I haven’t been in direct touch since my father’s funeral, where I barely recognized this person.
This person got what this person wanted, and by this person’s conception, this person ‘won;’ and this person will never grasp that this person lost so very much more than was gained, and that the ‘winnings’ were those of someone who has lost all that really matters and counts in this life. Alas, the obsessively mindless pursuit of money as an end in itself ultimately can corrupt and corrode a soul who once knew a bit about loving and giving but who made the personal decision to abandon any ethic of decency and honor.
When it comes to my mind unbidden that those with my father in the end never so much as bothered to clean the sheets on my father’s bed on which he had soiled himself just before his life came to an end — so intent and singleminded were they on removing (they called it “cleaning up”) nearly all my father’s belongings of any worth — sleep is not an option.
I feel certain, though, that my Dad died knowing this — that I for one, his youngest son, will to his dying day strive to live a life that is invaluable in a redemptive way — one of dignity and virtue, of accomplishment born of social conscience and autonomy and that Greek concept of arete (a kind of all-around excellence in which duty to self and to others are entwined). My aim in my mortal moment is to make him (and my mom) proud, so he can rest assured that I for one learned the most genuinely lasting lessons from him and that our family name(s) and even genealogy will consider my works and deeds a source of lasting pride, hopefully to at least the degree that others have brought it lasting disgrace.
And I do hope and pray that this allows my dear dear Dad to rest in peace, no matter what happened at his home (which should have always been his castle but some fear turned into a prison in which he was entrapped) in his last days and moments, as he so richly and eternally deserves.