By J. D. Casnig
Outcasts come in two forms: the made and the self-made. Whether forced into isolation or there by choice, inevitably one's escape becomes inescapable, as sanctuary slowly becomes prison. Is redemption possible for the self-made outcast? Only the nerd-child may tell...
One never really outgrows being a
nerd. I know. I didn't.
Just as great pressures and
temperatures may form a diamond, the formation of a nerd may occur when
metaphorically similar forces cause an outcast to emerge from fourth-generation
polyester hand-me-downs. A nerd's pants are held to a higher standard - higher
than the ankles, higher than the bellybutton.
Actually, my hair is generally sticking around, but is slowly pairing off and departing like awkward couples at a teen party. Just don't stick around too long, lest one find themselves associated with one of the straggling nerd-hairs.
In the school playground, the nerd-child hangs out with the
girls. Not because he relates to females better than males. Nor because he is
effeminate. The nerd-child hangs out with the girls for protection. Though this
plan would often backfire...
Bullies target the nerd-child, as nerds are easy prey. Who's
bigger than who is not a measure of physical size, but of sociopsychological
size. Though neither has grown to full normal size in this way, the bully is
victor by virtue of their familiarity with the spotlight. The cowering, the
cringing, the humiliation - these are the bully's crippling blows.
My bullies worked on a tight schedule, and punched in nearly
I really wasn't good enough at skipping ropes to fit in with
the girls. Not like some guys... So I chose to be one of that crowd-cowed
nerd-herd, who clung to the lengthy perimeter of the school property during
recess, like inmates doing caged laps of the prison yard. This was even less a
pastoral stroll on rainy days; but soakers were less enduring than humiliation
Boredom was a bully too. Pestering me with better thoughts,
it was difficult to focus on things I'd learned and relearned many times over. They
advanced me. Then did it again. Not a good solution. Coal for a nerd-child's
Eventually, I took to skipping school. This would be much later, when I'd realized that my family had virtually dismembered and I was on my own little sinking island. There is no greater isolation than being on an island, save being at sea. And nonchalance is a fool's proxy: abandoning the self to protect the self makes for an empty fortress.
My father, who had no relation to Ward Cleaver, Steven
Keaton or Heathcliff
Huxtable, was not usually a paternal conversationalist. His words were rare -
typically grumbling; and tête-à-têtes were unheard of. He was the crusty,
weatherworn sea captain of the family, who had seen the ugly world and came back
the warming breeze of love appeared, he would quickly pull anchor and sail away
again on a sea of crosswords and Perry Rhodan books; never looking back, nor
leaving a map. Fortified, and in the isolated unrealness of his island,
he was safely distant - untouchable. That is, until one day, when the
winds he'd counted on for escape withered away and left him stranded: the love
of his wife and sons had apparently abandoned ship.
was fate's fine weave that had us meeting; each at our own crossroads.
Reflection had been slowly killing me with its long, icy knives of rejection:
though my father had chosen isolation, I was forced there by a
dysfunctional home, and an even more dysfunctional society. Either way, our fate
was the same lonely introspect - and desire to escape it.
morning, as the aroma of coffee and bacon seeped through a thick smog of Black
Cat cigarettes, I would rise and prepare for the scholastic tedium that could
transform the toughest meat into wilting vegetable. We had great teachers at
QECVI mind you; but school to the young, active mind can be nothing more than a
cage of slate and paper. What I needed to know would not be found in the
classroom, but in our kitchen on my father's island, or on my own, in solitude.
I listened. He knew; I learned. He vented; I chilled.
that haunted my father's creaking spirit came to life, while on that other plane
pencils were secretly doodling in notebooks and near-empty hallways echoed with
hard-soled footsteps. I learned that my father was only a man - and a
self-made lonely man at that. I know now that if not for the impact of
those revelations, I may have never managed to escape my island.
although he was often near tears as he spoke of the rough seas of his past, I
could not console him. Nor would he allow me to relate to him. I'd learned that
one's soul could be visible while remaining completely unsusceptible.
To be open for inspection is not necessarily to be open to change. I'd arrived
on his island; but I'd planted no seeds.
even the sourest of soils will at least grow weeds; and the value of plant over
weed the penultimate semantic folly. Such weeds grown between parent and child
are the basis of what is now termed "quality time" or
"bonding". And at that time, for me, they were medicinal weeds.
weed sprouted from the unfinished crossword puzzles he'd leave about. Silently I
approached them, and vicariously, him. To amend something he had done may
seem a puny milestone, but to this unwanted son, it was entering a new frontier
of maturing: to dare venture into no-sons-land. To secretly add to the
puzzle that single missing letter was to surreptitiously build a bridge as part
of a father-son team worlds apart.
He never vocally acknowledged my additions, but he did begin to leave these puzzles at increasingly conspicuous angles, as if to be shared with an invisible partner. At the time, it was the closest I could ever get to him.
second weed took time and trust to properly grow. My father had a strong taste
for abstract humor that clearly carried to his sons. It was this very abstract
ground that he felt safe in sharing - perhaps the dissociation assuring a safe sweet-and-sour
distance. Though not exactly brimming with Oprah-esque sentimentality, this weed
would one day stand tallest when it was necessary to explain my tardiness to
"John was late today because someone was standing on the cord for the alarm clock."
Sadly, whatever medicinal value these weeds had was no match for lymphoma, and a tug-of-war between my father's island and the great hereafter had begun. Mortality, whether feared as grim spectre or welcomed as release, can change one's tune pretty quickly. My father's slow waltz with redemption had gone rock 'n roll. We talked nearly every day.
soil became rich, and the patch of weeds turned into lush garden. Over the years
that followed, he would come to speak of his feelings far more often, sounding
emotions from every note on an undiscovered scale. He would allow me to give his
bed-broken back a rubdown, defying wanton homophobia, and allowing caring touch
between himself and a son. He began to call me, inviting me to his
island - to our garden.
falling as gently as a leaf from a tree, on October 26th, 1991. We spread his
ashes on the lush shores of Belle Island, as I sang Empty Garden by Elton
John. I still miss him.
John D. Casnig
Happy Father's Day, Dad.
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