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.