Father, I believe you are a force of good. I brag about you to my friends, oh, for you are the son of an upholsterer who became a vice president, for you are the man who is making a community art center happen, for you are the force behind the enormously successful fund-raising of the college, for you are a force of good. You have preserved wetlands and saved a town from postindustrial depression, you have prevented the gentrification, you have supported a most effective homeless shelter (a model for all others in the state), and you have been inexhaustible in all your efforts. You have made the city grow in the best ways; you have devoted yourself even as it grinds you down. A hotel, a movie theater, an art's center, an artist's co-op, a community garden, a mural, a prevented development, a spurred redevelopment - I let you take credit for all of it, for you are a force of good. You have helped students to find what they love, you have helped them find what they care about, and deeply. I love this about you most of all. I love the way you love your students.
Oh, but father, you made the mistake of marrying a crazy woman. Many people have done this before, and many will afterwards. That family has been the ruin of everyone who has come in contact with them, and I am sometimes sorry you met. They are all crazy. They are out of their minds. They used to be brilliantly creative - scientists and artists - but I suspect there has been some inbreeding, or something, because none of them have been so great since. Instead, they make mistakes and refuse to forgive each other. They live their mediocre lives, pretending that they are creatures of aristocracy, of high birth and breeding, which is all very silly to start with, and all the more silly since none of them are so great anymore.
Someone else died in your place in the Vietnam war, hateful thing, yet it should have been you all the same. You did not dodge so illegally, but you played your cards carefully, you bluffed a little and eked your way out, but that doesn't change the fact that someone else died because of you. I used to be proud of this, in my way, but I am not now. And yet, I am a little selfish on this respect. I am glad you married a crazy woman, even if you are drinking yourself to an early death, because it resulted in me, after all. I am glad someone else died rather than you, because it resulted in me.
Oh, my father, you have to know that you are the reason I argue breathlessly and fervently when I am walking by myself. I admire you, I sit around counting the ways you have made your world better, but you don't know me. You are the reason I am frustrated, because I love you, and you don't know me. I could forgive this, because it's a lot to ask of anyone, but you don't even listen to me. You don't know that I am bright and cheerful as the mornings, harsh and cruel as the night, hasty and senseless as a rip tide, still and languorous as a tide pool, dangerous and violent and passionate and beautiful and crazy, oh how I am out of my head. All you seem to know of me are the numbers I share with you (I share them with no one else), the little marks on transcripts, the kind words of my professors. See? I am articulate! I am well educated!
We can't talk about history anymore, you know. I inevitably start talking about sex, and you get uncomfortable. But that isn't all of it. You lose yourself in amateur histories of generals and battles and wars (A preoccupation with your own father), and I lose myself in the lives and psychologies and ideas of ordinary people. I know more than you even in terms of the places and times you have read most of all, and it shakes you. Once you told me that you realized, with a start, that you were a more intelligent man than President Clinton. And now I tell you that my understanding of history is more subtle and careful than yours. (I suppose it goes without saying that both of these statements are subject to debate.) But it is during these conversations that I realize you are not as thorough a thinker I thought you were, and you are not as well versed as I think you ought to be. This is an arrogant judgment, to be sure, but it only hurts because I want you to be as smart as I always thought you were.
I am as crazy as my mother and as solid as my father, but the mother wins out, doesn't she? She won out over you - she has made you a sad, broken man. And you are, I can tell. You are very broken, probably beyond repair. Your eyes half closed, your speech slurred, exhausted and tired from a life that should not be so tiring. How much greater you could have been! How much stronger and less exhausted would you be if you hadn't married a crazy woman?
Let us mourn your life, together. Let us mourn the solid, poor, untainted past you try to call back, with John Wayne movies and hikes along the shore. Let us share binoculars and look at the loon (None of your students love it as much as I do) and try to keep from crying. Let me dance on your toes again (I remember these things fondly, when the rest of my childhood is remembered as mildly unpleasant sensations, and vaguely gray) - I am only a dancer when I am with you, at weddings, in the living room, as my mother watches uncomfortably. Let us cry, unhappily, while you tell me again about the poverty with which you grew up. Let us mourn the fact that you can't know me, and that it is slowly becoming an impossibility.
2002-11-01, Father song
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