6.17.2012

About The Man Who Gave Me (A) Life

My column on CNN GeekOut this past week was about my dad. My editor Ann wanted a geeky angle on Father's Day, and definitely didn't want to get all cliche with "hey, it's Father's Day, I write a column on a geek-targeted section of CNN, I'll do a gift guide!"

Let me tell you, there are no shortages of those out there. Thank God for the proliferation of the internet in today's day and age. The democratization of content has allowed anyone and everyone with an interest in writing to use free tools to broadcast their thoughts and feelings about any topic they want, which allows hundreds of thousands of bloggers with no imagination whatsoever to mix "Father's Day" with "geek" only to advise you that the perfect gift for that "geek" dad is Dr. Who Season Six on Blu-Ray. Because Geeks who are Dads ONLY LIKE DR. WHO AND NOTHING ELSE. Who cares if he already has it (and if he's any kind of geek, trust me -- he does)? Who cares if he's never seen any other seasons? The gift guides certainly don't. Buy it for him. Force him to watch it. Buy him three copies so he can keep one in the packaging and hang the third from his rear view mirror in his new Jeep with a custom license plate that reads "BADWULF" because he couldn't get to the DMV in time for the proper spelling.  He's a Geek who is a dad. The only gift for him this Father's Day is fucking Dr. Who Season Six on Blu-ray. He'll love it.

Anyway, I didn't want to do that shit, so I wrote about how my dad fostered an environment for me that allowed me to be a huge, huge geek. Now, you couldn't possibly know how huge a statement that is because, well, you're not me. In 2012, geekdom is a much more accepted thing than it was when I was growing up (and trust me, I'm VERY aware that it was easier when I was a teenager in the 90's than it was before that -- the ways have been paved by every generation previous).

To give some perspective, it wasn't cool at all to like comic books, comic book related movies and television shows, cartoons and animation, anything at all related to computers or even video games. You got teased if people found out you liked guiding plumbers around a mushroom kingdom, saving princesses from castles (well, really saving toadstools who gave you round after round of disappointing news).

But there was way, way more going on with me than just kids at school calling me geek and nerd as insults. I was a fairly damaged kid. My dad married my mom when I was 10 years old. He adopted my sister and I. He basically volunteered to pick up the pieces of our lives at that point and make something out of them. And those pieces... They were pretty jagged.

My birth father was a horribly abusive alcoholic. My mother left him twice -- once when I was three, and again when I was seven (after being convinced that he'd cleaned up and deserved another chance).  The second and final time she left, all of my toys and belongings had been left in Taccoa, GA in the middle of the night. We ran to escape my birth father during what can only be described as a drunken rampage that, even though I'm in a particularly open mood and sharing things I've never written about before, I still can't bring myself to describe.

We lived in my grandfather's garage with no heat and no air conditioning for about two years. The winters were raw and the summers were unbearable. Then, my dad came into the picture and attempted to give us some semblance of a normal life. He married my mother and overnight, I was living in middle class suburbia. I had toys. I had cable television. I didn't have to worry about a drunk madman beating anyone up in the middle of the night.

And really, when you do the comparisons, that would have been enough to celebrate. But my dad didn't just go "here, life's normal, you're welcome." That was just resetting the needle to zero. He worked his ass off to straighten me up, which all by itself was a full time job. I was a mess, to say the least. He disciplined me in ways that drove points home, and never once did he raise a hand to me. His business started declining when I was 13, and the short glimpse into upper middle class life I had faded -- but his resolve didn't. He did everything he possibly could to give my sister and I a normal life.

I remember once going shopping for school clothes and trying on shoes in Marshall's. He sat down in one of the shoe-trying chairs and took a moment to rest, and when he crossed his leg over his knee, I saw that he had holes in the bottom of his shoes. When I asked if he was getting new shoes too, he said "Naw, sport, they don't have my size here. I'll get them next time."

We spent most of my high school life being what you could easily call poor -- and yet there was always food on the table and the lights stayed on. We didn't have cable TV anymore, but it didn't matter since I spent most of my days on restriction for getting in trouble somehow -- but the one thing he never took away from me was my art supplies (and he was the only person in my life who didn't find ways in varying shades of bluntness to remind me that drawing and art was for "fags").

In very real terms, he saved my life. And I love him for it.

It's been very hard to write this. There are lines that I told myself when I started writing that I would never cross. Talking about my rotten childhood and my birth father were two of them. But I really feel the need to celebrate my father and all that he's done for me, especially lately. It's been becoming clearer and clearer that I get to be the world-travelling Art of Akira Exhibit guy and the web consultant guy and the writer guy and everything else I am -- both "geeky" and in general -- because of my dad.

It's interesting; when you tell stories about your fucked up childhood to your wife and your close friends, and they say "Jesus, that is fucked up" and you suddenly realize... You know, it really was. When you're a kid, that's just life. You have no perspective. Your day to day experience is spent dealing with whatever's coming that day. You haven't the ability to look outward and survey the landscape of what life is supposed to be and say "I'm not getting what I deserve." You just take what you can get.

And then someone shows up and takes you by the scruff of your neck out of a pit and says "you're safe." And you can't appreciate that until much later, because when you're born into a life where good days include not getting beat up by the man who conceived you or running in fear from him or any day where it was less than 90 degrees and warmer than 50 so you could actually sit in your own bedroom... You don't really understand that that's not how it's supposed to be.

And that's what my dad gave to me. He didn't give me life, but he gave me A life. He gave me normalcy, and then he gave me permission to be myself (even if no one else did at the time). He gave me an actual Dad. So I wanted to pay him tribute in the column and share with the world what I see as being a model father. I wanted to share a geeky perspective of fathers that I feel is important and worth sharing. And today, I wanted to explain why being able to write that article means so damn much to me. I am the man I am today because of my dad.

Happy Father's Day.