Episode 7 -Some Thoughts on Father's Day From Someone Who No Longer Has a Dad
So this episode is going to be a bit… Uncomfortable? Different? Okay I say that every episode. What I mean is that I think I’ve had some sort of momentum tonal-wise or direction to this podcast. And now we’re going to do a hard left turn.
(Music starts and gradually fades out)
Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 7.
I’m not quite sure how else to start this besides with a quick nod to the calendar. Because if I’m right, and MM Studios is able to keep their production schedule (fingers crossed), this episode is going to come out on Father’s Day, and I’m not sure how I should handle it. After all, I didn’t make a special mother’s day episode. But these two days are very distinct in my mind.
Mother’s Day is a day for my mom, obviously. The rest of the world can go f— itself. If we’re in the same city, I even ignore the industry surrounding that day’s commercialization and don’t even bother to buy her a card. Sure, I’ll get her a gift, but because she’s a very practical person, it usually ends up being groceries, including a few weeks of nonperishables, or some other household odds and ends. It’s only when I’m in a different city that I buy her a card as a small way of bridging the geographical gap between the two of us. But even then, I still call her. We still interact, and I spend most of the day doing that.
But Father’s Day is different. Father’s day is not a day to connect with the titular parent simply because, he’s not here to connect with.
I don’t know what I’m dancing around. I’ve said before on this podcast that he was dead, and after grieving for 12 years, I’ve earned the right to be as deadpan about it as I want about it. Assuming that is something that can be or has to be earned, which I personally don’t think is case, but whatever.
My dad’s dead. Has been since the mid-2000s. And even though I didn’t think it was possible at the time, life went on. And that meant dealing with the occasional Father’s Day as well as a variety of other dad-centric events or moments.
Is this a touchy subject for me? Well, it’s a flurry of emotions that shake me to my very core, and said core is sensitive and doesn’t react well to being touched. And so everyone around me who knows this does their best to avoid the issue or any issue even vaguely related to fathers. If they don’t have the best relationship with their dad, they may genuinely need to vent, which they don’t think they can do around me because, you know, I don’t have mine and all that jazz. Automatic one-ups-man-ship. Don’t even have to try. And I wouldn’t. They know that. So this is a choice they made, not something I asked them to do or something I compelled them to do .
And there are people who trend towards the other side of the paternal relationship spectrum who think that the best course of action—or to compensate for the fact that they have nothing to hide—is trying to silence me. They think the best thing they can do to protect my delicate nature is to keep me from talking about him, cutting me off when a thing reminds me of something he and I used to do together or something funny he said or a little quirk he had or anything like that. They don’t want me to talk about him. Because talking about him is remembering my sadness. It’s a belief they practice more diligently than some people practice their religion. Once again, not my choice but theirs.
In both cases, because it’s well intentioned, I feel compelled to go along with it. Like, intention and effect being two different things I can understand that you mean to do the best you can for my emotional wellbeing despite the effect it has on me, but when I tell you that this is not helping, please listen. It can be hard to understand, I know, but sometimes I need to jump into the fire.
Oh hey, look at that, forced segue into the piece of media, we will be looking at today. Wooow.
(Music starts up again and gradually fades out)
Sweetness and Lightning is an ongoing slice of life manga series written and illustrated by Gido Amagakure, but I have not had the pleasure of reading the manga as of writing this review. I ordered physical copies of ever installment that I could, the delivery then was stolen out of the communal mailroom, and my building management was unsurprisingly unsympathetic. Round 2 is not going to make it in time for this review to go live.
However, I have seen the anime. Actually, it was the anime adaptation that started all of this. The series was first aired in the summer of 2016, but it would take me a full year to find it. I was binge-watching the catalog of videos of an ani-tuber or anime-focused Youtuber that I had recently discovered, and his passing comments about Sweetness and Lightning made me inclined to check it out. Namely, he had said that this show was sweat enough to not give you diabetes but cut straight to the diabetic coma. And yeah, that phrase gets tossed around from time to time. I also throw this phrase around from time to time. But still, that phrase and the premise of the series caught my attention. I put it on my watch-list and actually got around to it on a day when I had nothing to do but a desire for the emotional roller coaster that can only come from a good story.
Spoiler alert: that did not go quite according to plan. Like, at all.
Sweetness and Lightning is the story of nearly single father Kōhei as he tries to learn how to cook, thinking that doing so will better the life of his young daughter Tsumugi. Which will work because the poor child hasn’t had a decent meal since her mother died six months prior to the start of the story but still fantasizes about it constantly. She still is consistently fed, mind you, but it’s microwaveable meals and take out exclusively. Kōhei is well aware that this is subpar food if for no other reason than that it leaves her emotionally unsatisfied. But up until that point, he’d never had much time to put into this endeavor what with work and other family obligations. He’s a high school teacher trying to raise a small child. Not easy. Now, though it’s different. He sees how much this means to his daughter, so he’s going to do it. He’s going to learn how to cook and solve this problem. Sure, it won’t fix everything, but it will be a decent start. Easier said than done.
One of his students, Kotori enters the picture. She’s the daughter of a restaurant owner who happens to be a single mom. Like, her mom is rocking her life, but all of that leaves Kotori on her own most of the time. But she doesn’t think it’s all that bad. As long as she has good food, which her mom always leaves her. How convenient considering Kotori is afraid of cooking, or the knives typically involved in cooking. But otherwise she has all the tools to cook and a mother willing to write out easy to follow recipes. Those are things that Kōhei and Tsumugi don’t have. But Kōhei can work a knife and Tsumugi can do magical dances that will keep the food from clumping up.
And yeah, that’s about it. There’s a bit more going on, but the slice of life genre tends towards celebrating the beauty in the simple and every day, so it’s a little basic. Hence the name: slice of life. And even the show’s subplots focus around the same central narrative, the one that carries the main story. Namely, the culinary arts can be used as a stepping stone to genuine human connections, especially for the father-daughter pair.
Cue the kick in the teeth or the figurative kick in the teeth. Considering this is a cooking show, is that technically a pun? Whatever. The point being—and this is something that not too many people know—my dad and I used to cook together. While he didn’t teach me too many recipes beyond the few famous familial ones, he taught me the skill set I currently utilize. He taught me all the tricks that amaze and sometimes horrify the people I cook with. Namely, to not use hard, set measurements and instead go by how something looks or tastes. That has terrified a couple people, including someone I was interested in dating. That matter got settled pretty quick.
Cooking was something he and I could do together. In fact, it was one of the few things we could do together, especially in the end. After his health took a turn. It was all we had for a while.
(Music starts and gradually fades out)
Tsumugi isn’t a great help in the kitchen by any means. I mean, she’s like five. Her magic dances are both cute and the absolute limits of her ability. Basically, she’s more of a liability than anything else. But so was I. Back then. Long ago. Gosh, it feels like a lifetime ago in a poetic and literal sense. I mean, it was almost two decades ago. I was barely older than Tsumugi when my lessons started. I wish I remembered them better. I probably got into many potentially dangerous situations and made more than a few giant messes. I mean, I was a kid. I don’t know what anyone was expecting.
Dad was patient, though. He was also stern, though. I needed to be on the trajectory to be a good and proper human being, even if I was a child right then and there.
Kōhei is a lot like him when it comes to his own daughter.
All of this made it somewhat hard to watch the show. It was just such a clear reminder of all the things I had lost and could never have again. It reminded me of how good my life was before and how much fun I had with my father. It reminded me of the man he was and of all his best traits. But most of all, it reminded me of how much I missed him.
And yeah, I cried. I cried during this very innocent and innocuous slice of life anime adaptation. Not the most logically sound moment, I guess. Actually, I know.
There is one thing I am guessing about. Because I never asked anyone in my life about it or even mentioned the show to them. I’m guessing everyone would tell me to stop watching the show. To disengage with the show that was inciting such an intense emotional response and find a different one to watch. And hey, it wasn’t like my watch-list wasn’t already hundreds of shows long.
But forget about all these reasons why I should. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to stop watching.
Look, I understand that there’s something in human nature that compels us to retreat from the painful or the uncomfortable as a means of survival. It’s innate. It’s the wisest thing to do. But it wasn’t going to help me. Not right then. And not in the way I needed to be helped.
Neglecting the subject doesn’t negate the feelings building in the soul. It didn’t change the fact that I still carried a great deal of sadness and had a valid reason to be sad. Perhaps more so in recent years. Because you don’t just grieve a person when they die but when you notice that they are absent at very important events like graduations and moving into first apartments. You know, he would have been the person I called when building management met my mailroom complaints with a shrug. He could have told me what to do or he would have jumped onto a plane to come handle it himself. I’m not sure anymore. I don’t know what his reactions would be to anything anymore. That’s another thing to grieve.
I kept watching the show and letting it bring me to tears not because I enjoyed the feeling of being sad or miserable. That’s not something to celebrate in and of itself. It was just a means to an end. It was a way to cut through what I was already carrying and release some of the pressure building up inside of me.
It’s a mirror of how I feel about Father’s Day, short of the hundreds of promotional emails I’m getting about the holiday. Having to frequently clean out my numerous inboxes is just annoying or emotionally taxing in the worst way. I mean commercialism is never great but especially not when you’re already upset.
(Pause) I’m nervous about what I’m about to say, not going to try and hide that fact at all. In part, I’m nervous because of the human tendency to not properly articulate their own argument or receive other peoples’. Which is the result, in my opinion, of the tendency to be very presumptuous and unwavering in how we each understand the world to work. We don’t often realize that so much what we take for objective fact is learned. And this isn’t being a conspiracy theorist here. (sigh) Look, I grew up in Arizona, right? I still don’t understand winter. That doesn’t seem like a natural season to me in the same way the phrase “it’s a dry heat” may not make sense to you or may not seem possible. Now take this type of nuance to other circumstances. These subtle differences in our premises or our semantics can make talking to each other surprisingly difficult. And in general, I hate bulldozing over the opinions or beliefs of other people, but this is a particularly touchy subject. I certainly can’t tell you what anyone should be feeling or how you should work through those feelings. I just don’t have the answers. I just know that if your actions can steer you through the storm safely and without harm to anything or anyone especially yourself, you’re doing great. Also seeing a professional is never a bad idea. Look, nobody gets through life unscathed. Mental tune ups are just part of being human.
For me, I sometimes just need to express that sadness and doing so openly is a form of validation. Not being challenge and experiencing that sadness is an assurance that it’s okay to be sad. Because I’m going to be sad regardless of whether or not it is okay to be sad. And it’s nice to know that this is okay. And there’s several reasons why I’m inclined to doubt that my reaction is appropriate. One, he died a long time ago. Two, a lot of adults have lost a parent or both parents and seem completely fine with it. And three, he’d almost died when I was an infant, so—and several people have said this to me—I need to focus on being grateful for the time we did get together.
Sweetness and Lightning gave me a flashback to the various things I missed about him, things that I should have had more of but that didn’t work out. It allowed me a chance to articulate this loss and to cry over something that might not have been the exact thing I was upset about I was too insecure to cry about the actual thing. That was enough for me.
Especially right then. I was having a somewhat difficult time, having just started at the job I talked about in my Within the Wires review, a job that wasn’t going to go anywhere but no one could see that. The strain on my emotional wellbeing set in fairly quickly. The thing that took time was my conscious awareness of it. And maybe had my dad still been around, he would have seen the writing on the walls and helped me through it. Or I think. I really don’t know.
So, today’s Father’s Day, if you’re listening to this the day it gets uploaded. Or on a future Father’s Day. That works too. In the twelve years since he’s died, it’s almost become a yearly emotional tune up but not a very thorough one. Because of the nature of certain problems to compound. After all, it’s a day to exalt paternal figures as a good resource, as people to be adored, and as people to be cherished. Good ones, anyway. We’re supposed to avoid talking about the bad ones, I think. But this leads to a certain question: what happens when you had one but now don’t because of an injustice of human biology or a collection of bad choices?
Well, then you have something to be sad about, right? And no one can take that away. Because the only way to do so is to either change reality or their own beliefs.
Recognizing my grief, paying attention to my sadness, is the best lifeline anyone can throw me. Like I’ve said before, ignoring pain doesn’t negate pain, so I’m not sure when that became the default cultural practice or why. If you’ve never experienced grief or aren’t as intimately acquainted with it, I’m sure that can be hard to understand. Maybe the only pain you’ve experienced is physical, which is a type of pain in which disengagement is possible and the ideal strategy. With emotions, it’s a little but more complex because you’re feelings are so intertwined with your consciousness and the reality around you that escaping it is impossible. Impossible because you can’t change the facts of your existence be they in your soul or around you. Instead, what you need to do or what you technically are doing even if you aren’t aware of it is renegotiating your relationship with certain aspects of your life, trying to adapt these relationships around this new gaping hole. More literally, it’s an adaptation to a new normal. Habits need to be relearned, others outright forgotten, and more still completely devised from scratch.
It’s a process that takes time. And it’s hard to do. Also, it’s hard to watch a loved one have to do this, partially because it’s hard to embrace how powerless humanity truly is or how powerless an individual truly is. I get it. And I understand it’s hard to hear. But it needs to be pointed out. It can’t go without saying because the consequences of this failure strike people when they are vulnerable: when they are disoriented and trying to find their way through this new world, exposed as they go through the intimate process of losing a loved one.
There’s a book called, It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay by Meghan Devine that goes into it far better than I ever could. But even if this episode isn’t the best explanation or exploration of that idea, that’s fine because there’s just one thing I want to say.
If you need to hear this, it’s okay to be a little sad on Father’s Day. Or angry or whatever mixed cocktail of emotions the bartender that is life is serving you. I think it does a disservice to the idea of what good fatherhood is or can be to treat this day as something that has to be strictly positive or happy, to say that anything that isn’t happy, warm, and loving needs to be locked away. Sure, a good father is an objective good, but occasionally recognizing the alternative can serve as a pretty good reminder of this.
If fathers are great then those of us who don’t have dads through death, distance, or bad behavior can feel whatever we are inclined to feel about it. If there is something to lose, we have lost it. And that’s the explanation for the panging in our souls.
We know it’s real. So don’t try to convince us otherwise. That way, we won’t feel so alone.
(Music starts again and gradually fades out)
On that note, I want to tell you a story about my father. Not just as a way of stretching this review to the promised thirty minutes but because I went back and forth between covering Sweetness and Lightning and this other topic. So why not both, right? Particularly if it plays into my previous point of giving voice to the things we grieve over and recognizing the unfortunate aspects of the reality that we live in, even if those aspects are things that cannot be changed.
So, today, I also want to talk about the Stravaganza series by Mary Hoffman, specifically the first three books. It’s okay if you’ve never heard of them. Most people haven’t. At least, in the US. I think they are more popular in England, but I’m not sure.
The premise of the series is that an alchemy experiment in 16th century England went wrong and now two parallel dimensions have been connected, loosely. But because this accidental connection isn’t stable, 21st century England is now connected to 16th century Talia, that reality’s version of Italy. People can cross through this connection in a very specific way. When an object from one world, called a talisman, enters the other world, its keeper from this other world can use it to jump across the barrier at night by falling asleep clutching the object. The protagonists of these books discover this accidentally. Each is in an emotionally trying time in their lives and in a fitful state, clutch a newly found trinket for dear life while drifting off to sleep. With that their adventure begins.
I found the first book in the library of my middle school one day. Its cover featured a large, sparkly silver mask above a depiction of Venice. It was an interesting cover, and I’d read anything that was interesting.
Reading was my escape. I think I’ve mentioned that before, but I’ll go into a little more detail right now. At that point in my life, Dad’s illness was pretty obvious but still something my parents wouldn’t talk to me about. Their parental strategy was pretending nothing was wrong, thinking that a child wouldn’t notice. I mean, for me to notice that would mean looking up from my book, which I wasn’t inclined to do, so fair enough.
And I think these circumstances are why I loved that book so much, why I devoured it in a single night, and why I read it and reread it whenever I could.
I didn’t want to escape my life. Not permanently, anyway. I just needed a break from it. I needed to think about something other than my dad’s visibly failing health and my fear that one day I was going to come home from school to find him gone—in one way or another. Stravaganza is technically a children’s series. I think it would be young adult had it come out a few years later. The term is still new, so it doesn’t have a set definition yet. It’s still more of a “looks like a duck and quacks like a duck” mindset. That’s changing, but much like the book series, this episode is going to predate that complete shift by a short amount of time. The point I’m trying to make is that most children’s literature treats this idea like it needs to be a full escape and there is no alternative. Or a perceived full escape. The kids always come home in the end, but when they leave, it’s not clear that this is going to be the case. They escape into a different set of problems, but they can anticipate staying gone from their real ones. Think Chronicles of Narnia, specifically The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy are escaping World War II England, its bombings, and their forced relocation by entering into the wardrobe. No thought is given to the idea of them returning to a perceived end of the world. They’ve got their own trials in Narnia to deal with.
In Stravaganza, this is not the case. The kids leave at night to this different world, but they come back each morning. That was far more appealing. Like I said, I didn’t want to leave my family, but I needed a break. I found a sympathetic view point in that book. In City of Masks, the first installment of the series, Lucien is undergoing chemotherapy with the support of his family and friends whom he all loves dearly. Cancer sucks. Not debatable. Chemotherapy doesn’t completely suck because it combats cancer, but the experience of going through chemotherapy sucks. All the same, Lucien doesn’t want to leave his life behind because of these people whom he loves so much, and I didn’t want to leave my dad.
That alone was enough for me to latch onto the book. I just couldn’t say it aloud. And there was going to be no converting people to the Stravaganza fandom. At the time, Harry Potter was all the rage. And while I still loved that series, Harry leaves the Durnsleys somewhat permanently. Sure, the Durnsleys aren’t the focus of the story or the central conflict, but I’m trying to say that this didn’t play into my needs the same way Stravaganza did. I loved Harry Potter, but I needed Stravaganza.
(Music starts again and gradually fades out)
The school library only had the first book. I didn’t think to ask them about stocking the other two. No one told me that that was something librarians love doing. So I was left with just the first installment. I kept it. I clutched it. I renewed it several times, must to the chagrin of my friends, who just didn’t get it, I guess. In their defense, I didn’t explain it to them. I wasn’t capable of assembling the words because it meant acknowledging my dad’s failing health. I’m not sure why, but I treated his decline like my dirty little secret. So instead of using my own words, I carried Mary Hoffman’s everywhere. And my friends hated it, especially the cover. The eyes shining out from the mask were supposedly creepy as was my ability to recite the entire first chapter word for word. Valid point on that last complaint.
At some point, my mom noticed. And she told my dad. Gosh, I was so scared of him finding out. I don’t know why. I think it was because I was using it to cope with his imminent death. And it seemed wrong to even acknowledge that he was going to die, even if we all knew that was the case.
He asked to see the book, so I handed it to him. He studied it for a moment, and he said, “You know, I can buy you a copy, right?”
I didn’t. I might have been young, but I wasn’t good at asking for things. I said nothing. I didn’t need to say anything. He just put the order in with rush shipping.
A couple days later I came home from school to find my own copy of City of Masks sitting on my bed. And my word, I was so happy. It was the happiest I had been for quite some time. For the first time in several weeks, I tossed aside the library’s copy. Now I had my own to hold onto. And it fit perfectly against my body.
Dad came in while I was silently celebrating. I did everything silently.
“You know that book’s the first in a series, right?”
I did. There was a slip of paper in the front of the library book advertising such. But at the time, I didn’t care about those books, only this one.
Dad bought me those too. In a time when everyone else in the world had a different interest, he was the only one to validate the one I had. I wonder if he knew his kid was a little different. If he didn’t, he was the only one who didn’t notice. It just didn’t bother him. He wanted me to be happy.
The actual stories in those books are great. I love them. Still love them when I re-read them. And I definitely recommend them to everyone, though they can be somewhat hard to find. But those books stopped being about the narrative in the pages when the physical books took on their own story. The story of a dying father’s attempt to create a sign of his love and acceptance that will outlive him. They became a symbol for the process of growing into myself in so far as my dad was able to see.
Dad died shortly after. Maybe a year later. Or maybe he didn’t make it that long I read those book nonstop around that time. Once again, I didn’t want to completely escape. Doing so meant leaving my mom and my grandma, and I couldn’t lose them too, not on top of everything I had just been through.
There were books in the series that came out after he died. The series was popular enough that Mary Hoffman was able to expand the world. And not to be mean, I was surprised about that. My love of Stravaganza had been so isolated, I guess I forgot the rest of the world existed and there were likely more fans out there. I just didn’t know any of them. I did join a few fan forums, but they didn’t have enough activity to keep me going. Regardless, three more books exist, and I haven’t had the heart to read them. I can’t even explain to you why. Maybe it’s because I outgrew the genre? But I still read those first three from time to time. I brought them with me to college and to graduate school and to my first apartment. Then again, those books had long since stopped being books but had become the last tokens of my father that I have.
Stravaganza taught me the power of books. Not just to inform or to persuade but to comfort and soothe. Books can take on so many different meanings or purposes. Their power comes from the words and from their nature as objects, physical or digital. They became part of the way we relate to each other but less so in recent years. Giving books isn’t so popular anymore despite them being great ways to communicate sentiments like “I love you” or “I think you are amazing and smart and so much more” or “I will never leave you. Not completely”
Making things is making gifts for people directly or otherwise. I thought about writing to Mary Hoffman and telling her this. But I don’t know how. Well, I do know how. I just can’t push myself to do it. Some habits never die, I guess. Some ideas never translate from the nonexistence words you tried to put to them when you were younger. This podcast has forced me to try, but as I’m writing this script, it doesn’t seem like enough.
I love Stravaganza, for so many reasons. And I loved my father for so many reasons. And I miss him for so many reasons. All of these reasons resist description. But they are still real to me. And that’s okay. It’s part of my reality. I can’t change this aspect of my reality, but I can define my relationship with it, and I like what I’ve come up with.
(Music fades in)
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(Music fades out)