I’d just apologized for something. Again. I have a bad habit of using the word “sorry” when what I really mean to say is, “I let you down” or “that wasn’t my best” or “give me another shot. I can do it better.”
As Kiser’s pointing this out, I’m thinking about this guy, this man, this friend of mine, with a life, with passions similar to my own. We both enjoy elements of the game of baseball. We are both incredibly well-versed in our opinions of good design. Within each of us lives a poet and orator, begging to be let out every once in a while. And we are both students of history.
Then, I recall some off-handed remark he made about his mom, and another tale he once told me of his father, and I’m piecing it together. This is a guy who’s heard the words “I’m sorry” a time or two in his life. In his history there’s gotta be a well-worn path around those words. I wish I could snatch them back and hold them. But there they are. And he knows what I mean, probably better than I know what I mean.
If you’ve ever spoken with him, you know Michael Kiser is brilliant. He offers perspective on a myriad of subjects, and when he does, it feels polished, spot on, even factual. Where I’m uncouth, he’s Mr. Smooth. There’s that orator for you. An idea man if ever there was one, with his blog Good Beer Hunting and moreover with the design and innovation work he’s done for companies that make everything from beer to cell phones, Michael Kiser is unmatched in this world.
Imagine that. Now, imagine this. As friend, and as what I know him to be as a husband, he is even better.
My father taught me about profound absence, mostly. And that has made all the difference.
He was in the Air Force, stationed in Las Vegas. He met my mother when he was about twenty, and I was born shortly thereafter in a small Airstream trailer on the north side of Warren, Pennsylvania near the Allegheny National Forest. He was an alcoholic. My mother was a waitress. They split, and she moved back home to the east side of the state where she continued working as a waitress. For years, all I had was this photo of him in full uniform. I’m not sure my mother even saw him in full dress.
He returned home after an honorable discharge. He got drunk at a picnic in the desert and fell off a cliff. A metal plate was put in his head and pins in his knees. The first time he picked me up, sitting on my grandmother’s couch, I’m told I swung a baby rattle at his forehead and nearly killed him. He’s worked mostly odd jobs since then.
About the time I turned six, I would spend a couple weeks each summer at my grandmother’s house so that I could see my aunts, uncles, and cousins on my father’s side. It was a beautiful old house at the top of the hill in town. When it rains and it’s especially muggy, I can still smell this house. My grandfather was there, alive and well, but he was either sleeping on the couch with the TV blaring, or he was at the hardware store he owned at the bottom of the hill. For all intents and purposes, this was my grandmother’s house.
One of these summers, she sat across from me at the breakfast table smoking a Virginia Slim and told me “your dad’s coming by to see you today.” I had no concept of what this could mean. It would be the first time I’d see him in the flesh since I was an infant. I knew he existed as an idea. But that was the first time he existed as a person with an impending arrival. A cloud of smoke hung around us both, and I didn’t respond.
He came in the front door, backlit by the summer sun and entered the living room where I sat watching cartoons with Spanky, my grandmother’s beagle. I don’t remember looking him in the eye, not even once. A couple of ruffles to my hair, maybe a question about how my mother was doing, there wasn’t much to it. It went on like this each year after that. He’d visit me once or twice while at grandma’s, ask me about my mom, and then I’d go on playing with toys, watching TV, or playing with the dog out back.
But when I turned fifteen, an age of consent for children of divorce, he posed a serious question.
“Do you want to come live with me?” He pitched me on freedom, an entirely refurbished and furnished attic all to myself, a TV and video games, some lawns I could mow to make some “walking around money.”
“And I’ll teach you to drive,” he said. He almost got me with the driving.
It’s a strange thing to grow up without a father. Two weeks out of the year, a man tried to convince me otherwise. But for the rest of my life, I found no reflection of myself in the world. My mother gave me everything she could muster as a single parent. More than most can. But when a young man starts to look at his own hands and question his origins — when he looks in the mirror and wonders “Why is this the way I am?” — an incredible feeling of being alone in the world sets in. You don’t belong to anyone. No one is responsible for you. In the end, I walked away from freedom and prizes and stayed with my mother.
But genetics ignore domestic situations.
I was a pitcher in Little League. I was a monstrous pitcher in Little League. I once struck out 18 batters in a single six-inning game, and I don’t care how proud that sounds. But despite my dominance, teams would pick on me, taunting me with the chant of “Smiley Kiser.” See, every time I’d reach back and grip a fastball, my entire face would form into a grimace that looks as menacing as it did cartoonish. It was uncontrollable. It was a tic. But it was so much more than a tic. During one of my summers, spending time with my dad at his own home for the first time (a block away from my grandmother’s), we were crushing pop cans for recycling. He was a part-time janitor that summer, and he’d take bag after bag and trade them in for the cost of scrap metal by the pound. But first, he’d crush them. “Here’s how you do it,” he said, and he loaded the lever with an empty can of Orange Crush. As his hand gripped the lever and he prepared to crush the can, his face transformed into what had previously only been a fiction in my mind. He was Smiley Kiser. He was the original Smiley Kiser. A strange feeling of unending camaraderie came over me in that moment, and it lasted throughout the afternoon. I crushed four bags of cans and I can still smell the aluminum and syrupy sugar coating my hands.
From that moment on, I had no problem looking my father in the eye. Though increasingly he had trouble looking into mine. I was a teenager now, a good foot taller than him, and I had spent most of my life trying to understand my place in the world. Not my purpose like most everyone does, but my actual, and first place. I had learned that genetics are a powerful force in the world. But that they are also only that, a force. Where one directs what he is given will determine the man. And despite piecing together a thousand tiny composites of my friends’ fathers, my uncles, my teachers and my coaches, in the end, I belonged to no one, and no one belonged to me. Father or not, every man eventually learns that his life is up to him. I just had to learn it earlier than most.