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.
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?
Yeah, I know how to count. I just wanted to make a bad joke in the title because, really, that’s a part of who I am. Jocose, yes, but serious about the things that are important. I’ve been told by a person I greatly admire and respect that I can sometimes cover my true feelings on a topic with my goofy sense of humor because I might take it too seriously and have visceral emotional reactions.
It’s perhaps because I seem to empathize with people very easily, so when I see some kind of injustice it really impacts me. I want to work to right it, and perhaps raise awareness of the issues. But sometimes I feel so tiny in the face of the world that I grow despondent, and I wonder what kinds of changes I can make.
I’ve done some work on campaigns, like Barack Obama for President in 2008 and in 2012 (registering voters, talking to people, organizing, etc.) and I found that very fulfilling because I got to meet people and learn from their perspectives, and have my own views challenged. I have a bit of a reputation for being kind of hot-headed, but I think that’s somewhat unfair. I really enjoy reasonable debates and discussions and coming away with the ability to change my mind on a topic; though, to be sure, I do defend my positions if I feel strongly about them.
I was recently given the opportunity to run for as the Democratic Party Candidate as a State Representative for the 93rd Congressional District in the State of Michigan, and I took it. I have no illusions about my chances; it’s a conservative district with an accomplished incumbent so I have an uphill battle. But I feel that I could do a lot of good advocating for the people in this district.
So that’s one very big way I can make a difference. Even if I don’t win I can connect with people, learn from them, and get more involved on the local and state-wide issues that affect the people around me.
Even so, that’s not the whole picture of who I am. I once wrote a Creative Nonfiction piece entitled Toward a Definition of Self in which I tried to come to an idea of who I am. Later I came up with a more complex version involving necessary and sufficient conditions, and I realized something: who I am, or my perception of self, always changes.
And I think that’s kind of scary in some respects. I’d like to think that I know me–that I am in touch with who I am and who I have been, but as time goes on I have different ideas, opinions, and perspectives. Gaining information and experience tends to change a person, and not always in predictable ways.
When I was younger I saw my father almost lose his leg in an accident involving a chainsaw. It was fairly traumatic, and I remember fainting on the spot when I saw what had happened. I would later learn that I was somewhat hemophobic and I couldn’t handle the sight of blood or gore, even in movies. Now, however, I am certified to work as a nurse aide and am looking to get a Master of Science degree in Physician Assistant Studies. In a couple of years I was able to work past those issues and now they no longer bother me.
Just a few years ago I would have called someone crazy for saying that I’d be in the medical field, and actually enjoy it. And, really, that’s part of the reason I’m really interesting in it. Aside from my geeky obsession with science and learning, I really enjoy helping people. My times working with the elderly have been extremely rewarding, and I’ve learned a good deal from them.
So I think in the end, what really defines me is the desire to learn and to better myself. Though my opinions and beliefs and perspectives might change and evolve around my desire to learn, that desire will always be there. I want to be the best human being I can be. So I’ll make mistakes, I’ll go where my heart takes me, and I’ll learn from all of that.
Today I was accepted at Washtenaw Community College. Sure, this may not seem like a big deal, what with my Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Michigan, but it is an important step for my future plans. This is a very exciting time, and in some respects I can’t believe it’s actually going to happen. I’m completely dedicated to this, and these small steps feel like small victories. I’m very hopeful for the future.