Dessa is a Twin Cities-based hip-hop artist. Her new album, "Parts of Speech," comes out next week.
I have a complicated relationship with my father. I get the sense his relationship with me is pretty straightforward.
When I was a girl, my dad studied audiology. To impress him, I studied it too. I leafed through his textbooks, hung a poster of the fingerspelling alphabet in my bedroom, and studied the anatomical model of the inner ear that sat on our dining room table. I tried to learn ASL from a book, but without anyone to practice with, I never learned to read sign. I did get halfway decent at translating pop songs on the radio. Like a synchronized swimmer pulled out of the pool, I sat waving my arms for hours in my room.
Sometimes my dad took me into the audiology lab to use me as a test subject. I loved that. He once sat me in a glass, soundproof room, outfitted me with a big pair of headphones and told me to raise my hand whenever I heard a tone. The signals got quieter and quieter. I strained to hear them, eager to impress with my keen hearing.
My dad came back in, looking stern. I was raising my hand when there were no tones. I was making false positives. I had to listen more carefully and only raise my hand when I was sure.
As it happened, my dad didn't become an audiologist. He became a glider pilot instead.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm unduly influenced by his opinion. His thoughts about the music I write, for example, matter much more than would seem reasonable. Sixty-year-old aviators with a scholarly passion for World War II narratives are hardly my target demographic.
Still, when I'm alone in my closet (where I record my vocals), I can't get him out of my head.
Would he like this part?
Which part? The part that right now you're singing halfheartedly, distracted by this speculation?
Yes, that part.
Well, he's certainly not going to like that take. Try again.
In the midst of my parents' divorce, my dad took me and Max on a nighttime trip to the lake near his new apartment. We were 8 and 14. He put a coin in Max's small hand, one in mine, and kept one for himself. We made wishes in the darkness, then threw the coins in the general direction of the lake. My throat began to ache.
"What did you wish?" I asked my dad.
"I wished that your wish would come true." My father is proud of us, and says as much. Still, at least half of the conversations I have with my father are imagined, and in those conversations we seldom agree.
A writer I admire might make an appearance on NPR and stammer while fielding a question. I'll hear my father issue his oft-repeated mandate to public figures: "Speak like you write, sir!" I'll defend the writer to my father — not everybody is a Churchill. Before I know it, we're embroiled in an emotional debate about language, class and privilege — while the radio blares on and I stand frozen at the kitchen sink, staring through the dishes.
As a pilot, my father is preoccupied by birds, particularly the soaring ones who locomote the same way he does. When driving, he'll sometimes lean over the steering wheel, straining to get a view of the hawk circling overhead. He'll mutter some pilot-ey observations — High ceiling, winds from the northwest at 10 to 15 knots, all right, all right — before his full attention returns to piloting the Chrysler.
Driving alone, I've caught myself craning to see a bird above me. Of course, I have no special meteorological knowledge, so I find myself making some general statement like, So there it is, a bird, flying, pretty high, but not too high. Looks safe.
It occurs to me that someday, years from now, after my father dies, soaring birds will be sad to see. I expect I'll still contort myself to catch a glimpse, keen for whatever feeling of connection I can get. Our conversations, real and imagined, are likely a permanent ringing in my ears. Even now I don't know when to put my hand down; I can always hear you.