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Entering No-Son's-Land

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.

In a poor home, the nerd-child knows that a bowl is  not  for  eating,  but for grooming. Our silhouette has the classic rooster crop emerging from an inverted salad bowl. I once complained of having had this rooster, until I met a man who had no hair - in the mirror, that is!

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 every day.

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 or bruises.

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 hell.

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 bitter.

Whenever 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.

His face soon became a wrinkled old sea map, leading from youth to regret over troubled waters. Now trapped on his island with his pen and paper pals, he began to reflect rather than retaliate. For the first time in my life, my father was reconsidering his.

Perhaps it 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.

Each 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.

He talked; I listened. He knew; I learned. He vented; I chilled. 

The ghosts 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.

You see, 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.


However, 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.

The first 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.

The 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 higher powers.

"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.


The 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.

He died, 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.


We only held hands twice in our lives, once for a gag photo, and once as he lay dying.       

                                                     John D. Casnig

Happy Father's Day, Dad.

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