The world’s rife with desaturated, lifeless, dutiful dads who say “I love you” all the time as they work their way through the chore of being a parent with the same enthusiasm of someone working on a quarterly report. I used to sort of envy those dads, the patient Hugh Beaumonts in the neighborhood who just sort of did dad stuff without the extremes, but times change.
My dad was horrifying.
“Don’t go in the living room,” I’d tell my friends as we’d head for the stairs to waste an afternoon playing Lode Runner on the Commodore 64. “Dad’s got his headphones on,” I’d say, rolling my eyes, which usually meant he was in his t-shirt and Sears catalog yoke-style boxers with the coiled cord to an oversized pair of AKG headphones slinging wildly around the room as he boogied down to Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
“Don’t talk to my dad,” I’d say, because he’d be studying for a play, and part of his process, as a studious actor in local community theater, was that he’d learn accents by staying in character, day and night, for weeks on end. “It just encourages him.”
“Where’s he from now?” my best friend would ask.
“I think he’s being Jewish. Everything starts with ‘oy’ and ends with him shrugging with his palms up.”
“Your dad’s hilarious.”
“Oh yes. Endlessly.”
But you just don’t know, right? You just don’t know, at that age, where the difference lies between your world and the rest of the world. All you see is that your father has purchased a ridiculous car, with the business finally doing well enough that he feels like he deserves a little luxury for his labors, and it’s insanely low, with a hood as long and wide as Delaware, with twelve cylinders and a driver who…just doesn’t quite fit the bill.
“Here it is,” he says, showing us the new car, and it’s not the new car, sparkling in the sun, we see. It’s that he’s wearing his customary overalls with one broken strap, countless stains, including a huge black splortch on the ass where he sat in roofing tar, over a shirt covered with little holes because my father firmly believed that cigarettes dealt with their ash problems without human intervention. “What?”
“Are you going to drive that car in that?”
“What? What’s wrong with this?”
Even worse, my dad was a deranged Southerner, with deranged Southern habits, and, on long trips in that flat, leathery, absurd car, he’d occasionally pull over to shoot a snake, by which I mean pull a revolver out of the trunk, standing on the side of I-70 next to a slinky Jaguar sport coupe in his splortch-assed overalls, and shoot a snake that was there minding its own business.
“Had to put it out of its misery,” he’d say. “Someone’s going to hit that snake.”
In the early years, he wore a perfect gay nineties handlebar moustache, waxed into loops, and later on, he was an absolute dead ringer for an off-duty Santa Claus, except for the overalls. I don’t know, though. Maybe Santa wore overalls in the off season.
“Santa,” little kids would ask, tugging at his sleeve in the mall, “Can I tell you what I want for Christmas?”
“I’ll be back down at my little house there in just a moment, but I’ve got my understudy there taking requests, so you can give him the whole list.”
He never actually played Santa Claus, though he maybe should have when the money got tight. My mother, however, indicated that this course of action may necessitate a divorce, so he just stayed off duty in that regard.
“Why are all those people in your living room laughing?” my friend asked.
“Dad’s having a laughing party to make recordings for some dumb play he’s in.”
“Really? That’s cool.”
“I suppose,” I sniffed.
We so seldom recognize good times when we’re in them.
I could unroll a litany of the humiliations, the absurdities, and the strangenesses, but it’s all water under the bridge. He’s gone and has been for decades now, but the underlying energy of all that is still around, a little bristling cloud of ideas that hangs invisibly over my head as I make my way through my days. The thing is—everything is embarrassing to a teenager. Nothing you can do as a parent is right, and that’s just invariably at the core of the teen years. You set out in the world, increasingly on your own terms, at least in illusory ways, and define yourself as the opposite of everything to prove that you are, right then, a real person, with real ideas and real concerns.
If your dad doesn’t embarrass you, and is one of those delicate, thoughtful, low key dads that too many people try to be if they try anything at all, there’s no opposition, and no resistance to strain the muscles of self. You become someone, but who?
My dad mortified me, but I was on TV some time ago, talking about my clock tower, after hauling myself out of the bed at four in the morning for the live remote, and cousins from all around Baltimore sent me emails telling me that I look just like my dad, so the apple never falls far from the proverbial tree. I have a set of nieces who tell me, sheepishly, that introducing me to their friends is how they work out which ones are the keepers, and I don’t have to tell them that I’m crazy about them. In our family, it’s just in the air, little lightning bolts sparkling in invisible clouds of ideas hanging just overhead, and embarrassment is just the beginning of a life lived as well as we can live it.
This next generation is a little more self-aware, which makes it more of a challenge.
More fun, I mean.
Who knew I’d ever need to learn any of these lessons?