My Dad’s Finest Moments In Dad-dom

The Birds and the Bees

When the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in the media in January of 1998, I was 9 years old.

That afternoon, my dad and I sat in the living room watching the news, when a reporter began a story on the scandal by saying, “President Clinton facing allegations of oral sex with a White House intern…”

Being the curious, bright-eyed child that I was, I turned to my dad and said, “I don’t understand why he’s in trouble.”

My dad’s expression didn’t change. Not a lip snarl, not an eyebrow raise. He asked what I meant.

“Well,” I continued, in my infinite child wisdom. “Oral means ‘talking’ and sex means ‘sex’ so if he had oral sex that means all he did was talk about sex! That’s not illegal! I don’t know why they’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

There was a beat.

Then, in the best parenting save I’ve encountered anywhere ever, my dad replied, “Yeah, sweetie. I don’t know either.”

And that’s how I came to believe “oral sex” meant “talking” for the next six or seven years.

All Boys Eat Cockroaches

I grew up in South Florida and so my parents’ house, even though it was in a less-than-ideal neighborhood, had a really big swimming pool. The pool was fun because it gave me and my little sister a place to play that wasn’t riding our bicycles through Mom’s freshly-vacuumed rug or knocking glass decorations over to shatter on the tile.

We spent a lot of our childhood outside.

Neither of my parents were particularly fond of the pool. My mom always complained that she looked frumpy in her one-piece bathing suit (not true) and my dad preferred to spend his time outdoors pruning the many fruit trees in the backyard. There was a gate around the pool too, because they’d seen one too many TV reports about children drowning (an actually horrifically common occurrence in Florida).

But my dad did love being outside. Every Sunday morning, he’d put on The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, throw on a pair of University of Florida orange and blue shorts, slip into black Adidas sandals and no shirt and head out to cut down wayward branches or to gather mangos, avocados, grapefruit and bananas.

So when my dad did jump into the pool at the end of his chores, my sister and I always reacted like a couple of 60s teenyboppers at a Beatles concert. We were psyched.

Dad in the pool was awesome chaos. He’d dive way under the water and come up from under us, balancing our squealing bodies on his shoulders, or toss us from the shallow end into the deep end or cannonball in and leave us soaked by his splash.

Because we lived in Florida, the pool also often had some creepy-crawly visitors. There were constantly swarms of cockroaches getting stuck on the sides. Whenever he spotted one, my dad would pick it up, dangling it by its scrawny, kicking legs and then, as far as my sister and I were concerned, drop it down his throat.

“Mmmm, delicious,” he’d say, rubbing his hairy belly.

My sister and I would flip out. “NOOO!” We’d yell, “Don’t eat the cockroaches, Daddy. That’s gross!”

My dad would laugh, treading water out of our reach. “It’s okay, girls,” he’d joke. “All boys eat cockroaches.”

Again, it was another six or seven years before I realized he was dropping the cockroaches behind his head and it only looked like he was eating them. But I kind of still think “all boys eat cockroaches” was an effective metaphorical warning.

“Boys can be gross, girls,” he was saying in his own dad-like way. “Stay away from them for just a little bit longer.”

He was right.

Be a Cowgirl and a Native American?

My dad was raised in Elkhart, Indiana. He fancies himself a sort of Shane, Clint Eastwood, Wild West kind of character. He wears a cowboy hat, pointed boots and a “screeching eagle” belt buckle like its his uniform.

And yet, when I was in elementary school, he and I joined a father-daughter bonding group called “Indian Princesses.”

“Indian Princesses” was sponsored by the YMCA and was basically like a Native American-themed Girl Scouts, except the purpose was to encourage dads to spend time with their daughters while, you know, co-opting and white-washing an entire oppressed culture. We won badges and did arts-and-crafts, participated in community service and went on weekend camping trips.

It was a total misappropriation. No one associated with “Indian Princesses,” I realize now, was remotely an “Indian,” let alone a “Native American.” I’m still sort of confused as to how this program exists.

But anyway, the thought was what counted. My dad did all these silly activities (three-legged races, building a pine-box derby car, making dream-catchers, learning survival skills etc) with both me and my sister until we were forced to “break arrow” — a.k.a. “graduate” from the tribe — when we were each thirteen. He took us camping, he drove to meetings, he even served as our tribe’s “chief” so that we could wear the large, furry headdresses that only chief’s daughters got to wear. It was silly, it was weird, it was probably embarrassing for him, it was time-consuming and it was definitely racist; but during my volatile tween years, it was something consistent he and I got to share.

You Can Be Anything You Want to Be

Before turning off the lights, as he tucked me into bed, my dad would always say, “I love you. You can be anything you want to be.”

It’s a controversial statement, especially with the entitlement of this current generation. “It’s the parents!,” people say. “They made these whiny idiots think they could do anything and now look at them, whining idiotically about the sad realities of life.” Totally. I get it. My dad’s catchphrase caused me to grow up with as Tina Fey puts it (about her own overzealous parents), “confidence exceeding my looks and abilities.”

But what my dad did differently is this: If you’re going to say something like that to your kid, the problem lies with letting it sit. His encouragement motivated me to get good grades, to work hard and to accomplish the goals I wanted to accomplish. Yes, I could be anything I wanted to be. But was it going to happen without hard work and a lot of struggling? Of course not. The underlying message was: “You can be anything you want to be, but you have to want it and you have to strive for it and you have to make it happen for yourself.”

He constantly pushed me to achieve more, learn more and do more — without him holding my hand. As a kid, one of my biggest frustrations was asking my dad what a word meant and having him reply, “Go look it up in the dictionary. You tell me.”

His other major point was this: let the real world crush your spirit, kid. I’m your dad and I will always believe in you as long as you keep wanting to move forward. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. TC mark

image – Gaby Dunn

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  • Eatadick

    This is a very nice article. 

  • http://www.about.me/tanyasalyers Tanya Salyers

    This made me cry, and I emailed it to my father.  He was just as encouraging and active in my life, and still is.  

  • http://twitter.com/wesjanisen Wes Janisen

    Gaby, this was the cutest! It’s no wonder you turned out to be such a top-notch individual! 

  • JEReich

    Dunn family = love.

  • http://twitter.com/princessology Chakacoaster

    I love this.

    My dad is better than your dad though. AND YES IT IS A COMPETITION.

  • TJ

    This made me think of my Dad – especially the “look it up in a dictionary” part.  This was such a good reminder about how lucky i am to have him

    • guest

      my dad was the exact same way! i loathed it as a kid, but he truly helped me learn how to do things for myself and work hard for where I am today.

  • Amanda

    hahaha the first thing happened to me too (I’m the same age too) except with my mom 

  • Laa

    The articles you write about your family are always so lovely. I hope you all may enjoy many more years together. :)

  • michele

    Yes!! I was also in indian princesses. Regardless of the name, I have fond memories of bonding with my dad and doing things like collecting arrowheads and feathers. I also felt sort of better than everyone who did girl scouts instead..

    • Anonymous

      Omgsh YES. Literally 0 of my friends have ever heard of Indian Princesses when I try to bring it up in conversations, and it’s such a weird thing to explain. “Yeah, you’re just in tribes and you go camping with your dads, and there’s vests… and you pick an Indian name… then you shoot an invisible arrow into the sky.”

      • Prettyman Rebecca

        I was in it too and always get the same reaction! My dad still has his purple, black, and white chief’s headress. Best. Costume. Drawer. Addition. EVER.

      • michele

        i just remembered that my dad’s name was “sitting squirrel.” i wish i remembered my name!

  • http://twitter.com/mitzyredmango Mitzy

    I love how your dad pushed you to be much better person while letting you dream as well. :) Perhaps some of the lines written here also inspired me to be who I want to be, but work hard to become who I want to be. 

  • Michaelwg

    The cuteness. It’s too much. Can’t. Take. It. Anymore.

  • Jasmine

    It made me reflect on my dad’s finest moments as well… Slightly clumsy, but nonetheless endearing :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    my heart is warm!

  • http://twitter.com/philosolaktor Lakshitha

    Daddy :’)

  • Sophia

    ohhhh I loved this. So much nostalgia flooding in!

  • JH

    D’awwwww. 

  • Anonymous

     Loved it.Reminds me of my daddy!:)

  • A-W

    Your dad sounds like a sitcom character in the greatest way possible.

  • http://www.nicholeexplainsitall.com EarthToNichole

    Indian Princesses sounds way cooler than the father-daughter square dances I attended as a child. Your dad sounds awesome.

  • Anonymous

    I love this. I would also love to share that my first oral sex talk also came as a result of the Lewinsky scandal. but I was 11 and my mom was not quite as delicate…I could not fathom why such a thing existed.

    :) You had a great dad…thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.theaablog.com/ Marc

    It helped to have a daughter who challenged me to be in the moment, and a daughter who is interesting and fun to spend time with. I love children and adventure and have been blessed with children who hear their father’s call. Love You Do

  • Anonymous

     So True! South Florida houses are all pools very little house. 

  • RKP212

    I grew up in South Florida as well, and the description of your dad doing yard work in the UF shorts (Go Gators!) and then jumping in the pool while playing the Beach Boys really brought me back. I always loved saving the teeny tiny mini frogs that would find their way into the pool!

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