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February 03, 2008

Between thought and expression lies a lifetime

My dad died five years ago, just after Christmas of 2002. The best piece of advice anyone gave me was this: You never stop mourning a parent. And it's okay.

That has certainly turned out to be true. A couple of years ago I went with Francis to an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History called Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest. After looking at the first few displays, I thought to myself, "Oh wow, I have to get the catalog to send to Daddy." Francis noticed me missing and came back to find me sitting on a bench, crying. For a moment I'd forgotten my father was dead, and then suddenly the knowledge of his death came rushing over me there in the museum. I know he'd have loved the exhibit; it was beautiful, and so well-curated, and about parts of the Southwest that he'd loved and known well.

He's been on my mind a lot lately, too. The anniversary of his death came while I was in Berlin, at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress. I spoke twice at the congress, once on geek culture and once on the history of guerrilla knitting (though I wish I'd called the talk "the guerrilla history of knitting" or "the history of (guerrilla) knitting" -- it's especially postmodern if there are parentheses in the title of your talk, right?). I had a wonderful time, and the talks were well-received, especially the second one, but one thing was extremely dissatisfying for me: I couldn't manage to explain to my mom what I was doing in Germany in a way that made any sense to her. She understood that I was giving talks, and she told me she was proud of me, and of course she is proud of me -- I don't mean to discount that. I think maybe she thinks I was teaching knitting; it's hard to say. When I was talking to her, though, I kept thinking to myself, Daddy would get it. He'd love this. It's just his sort of thing.

And then a couple of weeks later I found myself standing in a Radio Shack, looking at a rack of soldering irons, and a blur of memories came to me, of being a little girl tagging along after my daddy, fooling with packets with indecipherable labels while he bought whatever he needed for The Machine. Of course I was with him, because I was always with him. Any time he said he was going out to run an errand I begged to go along "for a ride in the car". When I was little he talked to me all the time, about the machine he was building, about what I'd read in his newspaper, about what I had done in school.

When I was six or seven years old he tried to convince me that I wanted a remote-controlled car from Radio Shack. He told me over and over how cool it was, and all the things it could do, and showed it to me when we were in the store. I eventually told him that I didn't want one, but maybe he should get one for himself. He laughed and laughed and told my mother what I'd said when we got home. I understood that I'd said something incredibly funny, but I didn't really get the joke.

I never really understood the machine, either, although Daddy had given me Isaac Asimov's introductory books on physics and electricity to read. I knew it was an engine, and that it ran on magnets, and that it took a little bit of electricity to start it but that then it would run forever. I understood enough of what I'd read in the Asimov books to ask my father about the 2nd law of thermodynamics but I didn't understand his explanation about why the machine wasn't breaking it. At the time I assumed that I just wasn't bright enough to understand, and that when I got older and learned more it would make sense.

The real mistrust between us didn't come until later, though, and it was my fault.

Daddy was always fixing things, all sorts of things. It wasn't really until after I left home that I thought back and realized that he was often selling the things he fixed for extra money, or else fixing things we owned that were broken instead of buying something new. He fixed refrigerators and Volkswagens and television sets and just about anything with an electrical cord. I loved watching him fix things, and I couldn't wait until I would be old enough to really help. But somehow I went from being too little to too big, and there was never any in between. In fact, it happened in my sleep: the month before I turned eleven, I woke up bleeding in my bed, and nothing after that was the same. My father was away on a two-week gig, working on an off-shore oil rig. When he got back, my mom told him that I was "a woman" now, and he started skittishly avoiding me. He started leaving me home when he went out, and he stopped letting me watch when he worked.

One day I forced the situation, hanging around asking questions when I knew he didn't really want me there. I was a sensitive kid, overly sensitive as only the child of a crazy mother can be sensitive, and I knew I wasn't wanted. But I wanted him to say so. I asked if he'd teach me how to change the oil in the car. I started talking too fast and explaining that it would be really good for me to know, because I'd be driving really soon now, and it would save money, and I could practice, and.... And he told me No. He told me my bosom would get in the way. He told me to go see if my mother needed any help cooking dinner. I think I was twelve.

I never learned to change the oil in a car. I did eventually learn more about physics and electricity, and I'm pretty sure his "engine" was a perpetual motion machine, even though he had a very convoluted explanation for why he wasn't quite claiming that it was. We grew apart, slowly at first and then dramatically; when I moved in with a boyfriend in college he didn't speak to me for nine months.

Last month I stood in the Radio Shack, thinking about assembling my own electronics-hacking kit, and I wondered if it would have made a difference if I'd let my father buy me the remote-controlled car. If I'd tried harder to like all the things he liked, instead of only almost all the things he liked. I read his newspaper and his Mother Earth News and his Popular Science and all the books he gave me. I watched football and basketball with him. When I was five I told him I wanted to work in the oil refinery with him; when I was ten I told him I wanted to be a journalist like he'd been when he was young. When I was fifteen I told him I wanted to learn to fly a plane like he had in the navy. He was never very happy about any of those declarations. But what if I'd tried harder? What would have happened? What if we'd had projects we were really working on together, would that have made a difference? I wept as I walked to the Q train to meet my friend for my first electronics lesson.

There was once a time when I thought I'd stopped wanting to please my father, but understand now that I never have. He's my interlocutor from the grave. It's nice now, though. When I imagine telling him what I'm doing now, he's always pleased. We don't talk about the parts he wouldn't like, my love affairs and hippie friends and activism. I imagine telling him about thousands of people hacking at the congress and all the wonderful things they were doing; and telling him that I know people who write for Popular Science; and I imagine giving him MAKE and thinking up some project we could work on together, showing up in his workshop with my own soldering iron, an LSU basketball game playing on the radio in the background.

Posted by Rose at February 3, 2008 12:30 AM



Posted by: danny at February 3, 2008 06:28 AM

I know that I don't have the same relationship to my father that you do to yours, but this really resonated with me. The reasons are obvious, I suppose. I'm really glad you wrote this. Well, not glad - I'm a bit teary-eyed. I guess what I'm glad for is that you're my friend.

Posted by: Jon at February 4, 2008 02:00 AM

Excellent. You didn't get the whole story about the sextant. My father just died, and the one instruction he gave me before he lost his mind was that I was to take the sextant and give it a good home. Since I'm somewhat in awe of the device, it wasn't hard to decide to actually learn to use the thing, even though I have a perfectly good GPS receiver.

You're completely right about the gender thing. He tried to be a father, of course. I sucked at baseball but being a geek I was good at radio, so that's what we did together. Had I been female there wouldn't even have been that.

Posted by: Gamma Infinity at February 5, 2008 01:28 PM

"when I moved in with a boyfriend in college he didn't speak to me for nine months."

One of the most vivid memories I have of our time together was the sit down we had with your parents when you broke the news we were getting an apartment. Your dad was (rightly) angry that his young (under age?) daughter was moving in with someone four or five years older. One line of dialog -- you telling him "it isn't like I'm a virgin" -- still gives me the willies. I pride myself on not shouting out "It wasn't me!" at the time. But yikes.

That's the most uncomfortable meeting I've ever had.

Now that I'm all old and grey-haired I can think of dozens of ways we could have done that better... and have second thoughts about whether we should have done it at all.

Since both of your parents loathed me I didn't get to know them very well, but they both clearly loved you very much and gave you everything they could, emotionally and financially.

Posted by: Matt at February 6, 2008 08:03 PM

@Matt -- Yes, we could certainly have done that better. It's mostly my fault; I feel in retrospect I could have predicted exactly how badly that was going to go (and I shouldn't have provoked him when he was already so angry). As for the second thoughts, well. Of course. One does tend to have second thoughts. Not much to do about it over 18 years later, though.

My parents both did love me very much, and did give me everything they could. I'm glad that was obvious to you. I don't know how obvious it was to me at the time, but I've gotten older.

Posted by: Rose at February 6, 2008 09:15 PM

"Not much to do about it over 18 years later, though."

I HAVE been doing something about it for the last 18 years: not dating! And nothing bad has happened to me since!

Posted by: Matt at February 6, 2008 10:58 PM

i'm so sorry. i had a similar experience. the only boy in our family is severely mentally retarded. i was the "boy," only i could never measure up.


Posted by: mollyrabbit at March 29, 2008 07:53 PM

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