Closing time–or close enough. Quiet. Like it is deserted. A stark contrast to the bustle and sound of a million conversations just an hour before. The clink of Mah Jongg tiles, gone. The loud and rambunctious creative writing club packed up and promised to meet in a week.
I always feel awkward about this time. How long can I stay? I think the quiet is a cue for me to put my books and pens away, too. It’s strange how we respond to such things. The urge to leave grows. Are the employees looking at me?
Or is it me imagining it to give me further cause to uproot myself and move on? I’m not really ready to go. I’d like to see how long I can push it before the cashier throws me nasty looks. But I see another person engrossed in a book check their phone for the time and begin to stir. I finish off my cold Earl Grey and move to put some of my mess away. Pack my book in my Star Trek messenger bag. My journal.
How is it that there’s a pressure for me to act without any positive force for me to undertake the action? It makes me wonder how much of our behavior is based off of these kinds of implanted and often subconscious cues. Humans like to think that they have free will–but is it really “free?” What do we even mean by free?
I’ve always thought that there was no escaping the cause-and-effect nature of the universe, even in our own actions. It’s hard to pinpoint how, though. I know it’s easy to give inanimate objects agency, and I know how tempting substance dualism is. Then I notice a change in the music played overhead and it seems louder and more energetic than it has been.
Or maybe I’m only perceiving that.
Either way, I think closing time is approaching and I see fewer people than when I wrote the first sentence. I feel compelled to leave even though I do not need to.
Cause and effect, I suppose.
Anger seethes at the bottom of all of the emotions whipping around my mind whenever I conjure a thought of my father. Barry Derke, erstwhile volunteer firefighter, tow truck driver, and county jail inmate. Current struggling alcoholic. I’ve wasted many–too many–hours swallowing the bitter bile of hatred that rises from the sad parade of bad memories I have of him. And that hatred shames me, deeply. What makes a man worthy of hate?
Was it the physical abuse when I was a child? The times I had to drag him out of a local bar? The many times he let me down by failing in his role as a father? The loss of the house? The money he took from me? Maybe it was all of that, but none of that. When I think about all of that–all of those bad memories–they make me angry, sure. They make me reduce a man to merely the sum of all of his bad decisions. But they don’t make me hate.
It’s the absence. The deep sense of loss. The feeling that something important was taken from me, though I’m not quite sure what that something is. The fact is that I remember having a father, and I remember what it was like to have that kind of guide and role model in my life. He taught me how to read when I was very young, and because of that I had always been ahead of the curve in reading and writing. Every single test put me in the 99th percentile. Barry is probably, more than anyone, responsible for who I am today.
He taught me how to take things apart and put them back together. He coached my basketball team in elementary school, and one year he was my baseball coach. The story of my father is one of contradiction and contrast. He is, under the alcoholism and the problems that stem from that, a good man. Or, at least, I see him as an inherently good man. But that nature was twisted into something that I grew to hate and despise.
I have tried several times to separate him from me–to push him out of my life so that I might have peace. But I’ve learned that underlying all of that anger is a layer of emotion even deeper, and it swallows up everything else. It’s fear, and it is potent. I have written previously that I am an atheist. I don’t believe that there is an afterlife. I believe that this is all we have and all we experience. As such, the only experiences I will ever have will be in the 72 or so years that I’ll inhabit this planet.
So I fear the day that my father dies and all I have to remember him is the hatred and anger.
Sometimes when I sleep I dream of the time he does and the images haunt me. Things left unsettled. Emotions raw and exposed, never healed, and never able to heal. If we are the sum of our decisions and our actions, Barry is a hard problem to solve. And what am I if I don’t even make an attempt? What does the sum of my decisions and actions equal?
Bitterness? Regret? Both of them are ever present in my mind, but I’d like to think that, over the years, they have lost power. And there are so many variables to track. I learned of an older half sister that doesn’t want anything to do with me after earnest attempts to reach out. How am I supposed to factor that disappointment in? Does Barry bear the blame for the intense sense of rejection I felt when it became apparent I had no place in my sister’s life?
Despite all of that, I strive to give him the benefit of the doubt. I try so very dearly to keep the hope alive that he will change. That maybe he can put the bottle down and never pick it back up. Foolish. There’s always some trigger. There’s always an empty bottle with dregs dripping slowly onto the carpet, an indelible stain on my efforts to bridge the divide.
When I ran for State Representative in 2014 he was arrested for a DUI and evading arrest by leading police on a chase. He was in jail for almost a whole year.
And yet, even after all of that I did my best to forgive him and reestablish a relationship with him. Even after all of the indignities of my youth I still saw enough good in him to make the attempt. The feelings are still so fucking raw from all of the failures, and as time goes on they only compound. Every year, after one of our setbacks, I toy with the idea of cutting him out of my life and moving on. Soon the anger starts to subside and I slowly let him creep back in.
I do not, at this point, believe that he can change. I do not believe that, after all he’s been through, he really wants to change in a substantive way. So where do I go from here?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. Part of me wants to just accept the most cynical of my instincts and just take it for what it is, and that’s the part that’s winning my inner struggle. We had made plans for my birthday last year, which happened to have fallen on Thanksgiving. My fiancee and I were to go to his place and enjoy some wine and dessert, but his partner texted me that very day to tell me that he had hurt his back, took a pain pill, and went to sleep.
It was only later that I learned, from my mother, that he was drunk. And this is the pattern that’s so familiar to me, and what makes my cynical nature win out. My father is defined by two things in my mind: his drunkenness and his absence, and he lived up to both.
I ask myself when did the positives become outnumbered by the negatives of Barry? Or, rather, when did the weight of the negatives overcome the weight of the positives? Like so many of my questions surrounding the man, this one is unanswered and I doubt it ever will be. I know I put my finger on the scale to try to balance out the negatives, and I struggle even now with how far I’m willing to press down on the scale.
And I’m putting less and less force into it. I skipped the Derke Family Christmas to avoid him, a move I already regret. It didn’t help that he and I wound up in the same room that night, anyway, and it was extremely awkward. I remove some more of the force I apply to the scale and I’m close to being able to let the gravity of his life win out over my own and separate myself from him.
But then I get a text a week after the new year: “U get ur card?”
To which I replied, an hour later, “Not yet.”
I got the kitschy card a few days later. It was cheap, and it was obviously reused; another name in another place on the card was kind of a dead giveaway. All it said was “Merry Christmas, Love Dad and Brenda.” A $50 gift card to a local gas station slipped out of the card and onto the floor.
I sat on the card for a few more days, turmoil playing out in my mind. Do I respond? Do I let him know I actually got the card? How much do I say before he thinks he can come back in? I do not know and it’s tearing me up inside.
I’m planning to move to Philadelphia sometime around June. This is not to run away from Barry or any of my struggles here–or so I want to believe–but to run to my future with my fiancee. The time for reconciliation with my father feels to be slipping away. As I’m going through the things I want to take with me, or leave behind, I come across an old photo of my father holding me as an infant.
I stare silently at the glossy slip of memory for ages. At one point I feel tears welling in my eyes.
I put my finger back on the scale and text back: “I got your card. Thank you.”
I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.
The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we
destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.
First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.
I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.
Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.
An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.
I never really appreciated how sitting in a cafe can be conducive to the creative process before now. Before I saw them as loud, distracting things to avoid. But as I sit here, sipping Earl Grey and writing a book review, it strikes me how human it is. It seems to me that creative endeavors are human endeavors, and human endeavors are typically loud and annoying.
You could drown it all out by putting on headphones, but you miss isolated threads of conversation: “I was thinking…” and “That’s not how you…” What are they talking about, I wonder? The jazz music in the speakers overhead, the atonal beeps of the cash register, the whir of the cappuccino machine–the environment sings with activity, and the melody is alive and pulsing.
People talking, reading, studying–all with their own stories. So just look up and take it in from time to time.
I remember when I first got the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD and I watched the second part, I remember thinking that they represented the future in the movie as if they hired a bunch of futurists and then decided to make what they came up with as absurd as possible. There was over the top holographic movie technology, crazy flying cars, thingies that walked dogs (I’m guessing some sort of hovering robot), and people wore two ties for some crazy reason.
And I remember loving the hell out of that.
Nevertheless, here we are in 2015. We don’t have hover cars. We kinda sorta have something that’s close to what you might recognize as a hover board with either a lot of optimism or a few shots of bourbon. We don’t have those fantastic hydrator thingies, we don’t have dust-repellant paper, and we don’t have cafes that are dedicated to our nation’s rampant 80’s nostalgia.
Nobody really misses Reagan (and most younguns ask “Reagan who?”) and Pepsi is still an
inferior product. They did get the Soviet flag craze right, though!
We do have what we’ve always had: our optimism and willing to dream big. Our drive to understand who we are and our place in the universe. We move forward, through time if not in other ways, because that is our existence. We struggle through our mistakes, and we come together to mourn our losses. We stand athwart those who would seek to divide us, and we honor the fallen with simple phrases that speak volumes. And that’s not so bad.
2014 was a busy year for me, and my posting dropped off almost completely after April. There are a lot of things that I want to catch up on, including writing about my run for State Representative and a few other things. Plus, I’ve got some interesting things to say about John Scalzi’s new novel Lock In, and I really want to get started on some projects I said I would do years ago (I’ve been busy, okay!).
Plus, I’m planning to serialize a novel that I’ve written to my fiction blog, Fictional Heuristics.
I look forward to this new year, and obviously I plan on getting a lot of mileage on Back to the Future references. So, to everyone who reads this (and to all of those poor souls who don’t–you know who you are, all 7,400,000,000 of you) I wish a brilliant and amazing 2015.
Let’s make it worth remembering.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a mad scientist. I wanted the whole works: the lab, the lab coat, the vaguely fake-sounding German name (Von Derkenstein), the beakers of colored water with dry ice, and the lab assistant who serves as the audience to applaud my brilliance. The life of a mad scientist was alluring, mixing crazy Tesla contraptions with a 1950s art deco architecture to create, well, a geek’s heaven.
I think that, looking back on it, this was an extension of my natural scientific curiosity. Children like to explore and categorize the world in which they live, and this is a natural part of their development. It has been said before, but it bears repeating: we are each of us scientists in our own way. We interact with the world, and we learn how to live in it through experimentation and observation. I specifically have a memory of being a kid and doing experiments on the types of mud that made the best sculptures. A few years ago, my cousin Jordyn wanted to get some rain coats, go outside, and do “the mud project” and do science, probably for the same reasons I did when I was a kid.
So science and ordered explorations of our world are very important to us from an early age. And throughout life we rely on knowledge we gain from these personal explorations, and the products of more rigorous scientific study, such as modern medicine, electricity, and computers. We live in a civilization built on science and we can’t do much at all to escape the implications of that.
Sometimes we don’t look to science to give us answers to questions our philosophies ask. Perhaps this is because science isn’t able to answer the question (what is the meaning of life?) or maybe science has answered and offered an answer one might feel is objectionable (evolutionary biology). For my money, science is the best way to get the most reliable answers to the questions we ask that can be answered.
So what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? Well, I don’t know. But more than that, I don’t know that these are the right questions to ask. Why does life have to have a meaning? Why can’t life just be something to be lived? We have a scientific answer about what life is and what kinds of things qualify as alive, and how they reproduce and adapt. I think that, perhaps, seeking some kind of transcendental meaning to existence might be misplaced energy when we can find personal and communal meanings for existence.
Think about the things that you live for. Is it love? I would really hope that love, empathy, and compassion are qualities which define your life. What about money? It’s useful, but is it something really to live for? I don’t think so.
And I think this is what makes me remember wanting to be a mad scientist. I didn’t really want to channel any of that energy toward destructive ends, but ultimately toward creative ends. A mad scientist is often portrayed as some madman bent on world destruction of capitulation, sort of the end of a quest for power. But why can’t a mad scientist be a force for good? Eccentric, maybe a bit crazy, but ultimately exploring the natural world for the betterment of humanity?
And I think that’s my meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Making things a little less terrible for people and learning as much as possible about the universe. I’m not technically a scientist (I don’t have a degree in science and I don’t work in a lab), but I like to think of myself as one. Maybe I’ve romanticized it a little, but I think we all do that to some extent or another.
So am I bothered by any lingering questions, like why are we here? Well, a little. Wouldn’t you be bothered if you couldn’t answer a question like that? I don’t let it get to me, though, and I think that there are vastly more interesting questions to try to answer, like what in the cheese is dark matter?
No, seriously. What is it?
Man, the letter J. It’s English’s newest kid on the block and is the fourth-least-used letter. But it’s also the first letter of my name, the first letter in an order of religious sci-fi monks with super-human powers, and the first letter of the name of the captain of the Enterprise. The real difficulty with this letter was choosing what to write about from such a large constellation of topics.
So I chose to do a bit of a potpourri of different things that might fit under a word with a “J” in it. I’ve been on a bit of a slightly narcissistic streak with these posts lately and I don’t think that will be stopping tonight.
A few years ago, back when I still had the time, I liked to go to the Motor City Comic Con. It was always a good time, and there were always great geeky things to do and see. For instance, one year, when I was dressed as a bargain-bin Jedi Knight (I had to make the costume out of a tan dress shirt, tan dockers, a towel folded in a very clever way, and borrow a dark green cloak from a friend–it was serviceable) I had a run-in with Darth Vader and the 501st Legion. I think perhaps my favorite memory was meeting Max Brooks of World War Z fame and getting him to sign my book.
I bought my friend, Ben, a new copy of The Zombie Survival Guide because I had previously borrowed, and slightly destroyed, his copy. Ben got “Ben-Josh is a good friend” for his signature. I think I came out on top of that little exchange.
(As an aside, I’m really looking forward to this year’s comic con because other famous J-names will be there, including John Barrowman, Jason Momoa, William Shatner (he played Jim Kirk!), and Karl Urban (John Kennex, duh!), so that’s something to look forward to!)
Speaking of Ben, he was always my muse when we were in high school. He and I came up with some really hilarious ideas, none of which I’m willing to share right now because he never answers his phone and I can’t get him on the line to okay it.
Ben and I–we were jokers and jesters. I even wrote a poem about him once in which I compared him to the Jabberwock from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky. For our senior prom, Ben and I dressed up a bit strange just because we could.
And, you know, I wrote an essay once in which I argued for the space program. In the conclusion, I referenced Captain James t. Kirk and how much Star Trek has influenced our culture. And really, that’s something that we need to think about with the shuttering of a lot of our space program today.
I think that two of humanity’s best assets is our curiosity and our desire to understand the universe in which we reside. Sure, it might be expensive and it might not give us an immediate return on our investment, but we have a space station!
A BLOODY SPACE STATION! How amazing is that?
You’re part of a species who build a station in space for scientific study and exploration. If that doesn’t make you proud to be a human being, I don’t know what will. And I feel like we need another James T. Kirk and another Starship Enterprise. We need something to inspire our youth to look at the sky with wonder and longing. There’s so much out there–so much to be explored.
We can’t sit on our tiny little planet forever, in this tiny little corner of space. As amazing as Earth is, and it is amazing, humanity thrives when it’s exploring new frontiers and pushing our limits. In Star Trek, a lot of what happened was breaking free of different kinds of cages: cultural, personal, and physical. Perhaps real life won’t be so idyllic, but we can’t let that hold us back.
NASA certainly made many mistakes, but I don’t think we can rely on private enterprise to pick up all the slack. I mean, do you think Richard Branson would really have the chops to send the Curiosity Rover to Mars? Nah, I don’t think so, either.