Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Patriarchy Day

I'm glad I waited until the last hour of Father's Day to write this, because otherwise I would have gotten it all wrong.

I was going to start out by saying Bah Humbug, which is the way I start out every holiday.  Then I was going to talk about how dads already get more credit than we're due when it comes to child-rearing, so there's no reason to set aside a whole day to celebrate us when we really deserve no more than a certificate of participation.  That observation is not my intellectual property, by the way.  The first stay-at-home dad I ever knew told me that people regularly commended him about how "brave" he was for doing a job that every woman is expected to excel at and for which she can expect no accolades unless she's a celebrity.  And just the other night I was reading an essay by Michael Chabon that made the same point, but of course with exquisite lyrical tumidity.   Indeed, it has been my experience that most folks, when they find out that I've been taking care of these little girls for the better part of the year and none of us has required hospitalization, are ready to nominate me for a Nobel Prize.

But I decided not to hate on Father's Day this year because the embarrassing ticker-tape parade as I walked through the farmer's market and the crashing servers due to all my emails and Facebook messages did not quite materialize.

In fact, I received more Facebook well-wishing on Mother's Day than I did today.  But I'm not going to try to unpack that right now either, because I'm too full of ice cream, wine, and self-satisfaction.  My wife made dinner tonight and I didn't even have to do the dishes, and that's exactly the amount of recognition I am comfortable with.  It's a gesture that says, "Yes, you are the World's Best Dad, but don't expect a coffee mug."

And I'm pretty sure my own dad feels the same way.  But I'm going to mention a couple things about him anyway, without making a big deal about it and embarrassing him.

Things I may or may not have learned from my dad but probably should have

1) Don't be an idiot: Dad is really smart and, as far as I know, never did the stupid stuff I used to do like wrecking cars, wasting money, and generally being a liability to himself and others.

2) Don't be an asshole: I never witnessed or heard an account of my dad being unfair to anyone.  I've seen him get angry about five times, and all of them were with good reason.  At least two of those incidents were caused by me. 

3) Don't be a pussy: Dad was in the Army for about 25 years and retired as a full colonel.  He did two tours in Vietnam, had a chest full of medals, a Ranger tab on his shoulder, and Airborne insignia even though he doesn't really care for heights.  I've never seen him show fear.  (Except that one time when he was a little nervous at my wedding--see #10)

4) Don't be vulgar: I've heard my dad cuss about five times.  Usually it's while quoting someone in the context of a story.  If the cussing is in anger though (see item #2), you know things have gotten very serious.  It's really effective to only cuss in the most extreme situations.  Unfortunately I have not learned this lesson well, and I have no high-impact words in reserve, should the need for them arise.  

5) Have some style: According to legend, Dad used to get his fatigues tailored, and Mom would press and starch them.  When he became a civilian and worked for the Defense Department, he favored Armani shirts with French cuffs.  I don't think he's ever had a car that wasn't customized in some way.  He still skis like it's the seventies: you can pick him out from two hundred yards away because no light is visible between his legs--it's not the way they teach people to ski these days, but it looks pretty badass.

6) Have some culture: Although he's from Montana via Arkansas, and everyone else in his family makes (or made) their livings farming, ranching, driving trucks, working on the railroad, etc., Dad loves opera, espresso, crusty ciabatta,  and highbrow literature.  We lived in Europe for many years when I was a kid, and Mom and Dad dragged us around art museums and historical landmarks all the time.

7) Do cool stuff: My dad is way cooler than me, and I wouldn't be able to forgive him for that if I didn't hope that by the time I'm his age I will have caught up.  If that's the case, I have some busy decades ahead of me.  During his career, Dad learned Vietnamese and Russian fluently (even now, Russians think he's a native speaker with a slight regional accent), led troops into battle, trained ROTC cadets to fight on skis (among other things--but that was the coolest), was a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Moscow during the Cold War, and negotiated arms reduction treaties in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Now he spends the winters skiing and the summers mountain biking.

8) Books are good for more than just book-larnin': Dad always had those Sunset home improvement books around, as well as Chilton manuals for the cars.  Armed with those, a basement full of tools, and a cultural background in which men were expected to be able to build and fix things (women too, to some extent--my mom certainly has driven her share of nails), we built a log cabin on the side of a mountain (literally--the downhill side of it is on sixteen-foot posts) in Montana, upgraded every house we lived in that wasn't government property, and kept all the cars more or less roadworthy.

9) Beverages are important:  I've never seen my dad act buzzed.  But he sees no reason not to have beer, wine, coffee, and cognac with a meal.

10) Do cool stuff for your kids: Here's one example.  When my wife and I got married there were 350 people at the reception, 275 of whom were, like my wife, Vietnamese.  Probably 150 of the Vietnamese guests were my dad's age or older, and most of them had been in or around Saigon at the same time my dad was there, and had fled the country when the communists took over.  

Over the course of the reception, the old Vietnamese guys had been flocking around Dad and comparing notes about the old days.  I'm sure Dad hadn't been around so many Vietnamese people for 35 years, and it must have been surreal and maybe disorienting (I know even I had a couple flashbacks, having watched Full Metal Jacket twice).  But when the MC asked my dad to give a toast, he finished his beer (and his wine, and the beer of the guy next to him as I recall), and took the stage.  

He gave a toast, in Vietnamese, which he hadn't spoken for over three decades, honoring all the Vietnamese heroes he had served with, many of whom, he said, were in the reception hall at that moment.  I had seen some of my father-in-law's buddies get choked up while singing patriotic Vietnamese karaoke songs, but never before had I seen a hundred ong's weeping in their Heinekens like that.

For the nine years preceding that moment, I had been painstakingly clawing my way into my future in-laws' good graces, which was necessary since I was the first non-Vietnamese person to attempt to marry into their family, and I wasn't even a lawyer or engineer.  I was on pretty solid ground with the nuclear family by that point, but the community of which my father-in-law was a pillar was certainly skeptical.  But after that toast, I was golden.  As far as the crowd was concerned, I was from the best of stock.  And regardless of which lessons I did and did not learn from my dad, I couldn't agree with them more.         



  1. Wow. Your dad is cool. I am jealous.

    Fo' realz.

    My old man is the exact opposite of yours. He tried to teach me to swim. But he didn't know how to swim.

    So he taught me to float. I guess it's good for Cuban to learn how to float. You know, to make it easier for the Coast Guard to catch me and stuff.

  2. Your dad sounds awesome! I found it funny that my dad (who was also in Vietnam) is the polar opposite of yours, but I think my dad's totally awesome too. I think that's what father's day is about: celebrating each dad's awesomeness.

    I'm not crazy about these holidays myself, mostly mother's day because my mom is a total disaster, but also father's day- for all my friends who grew up without fathers and still had to make sparkly ties for a brother or or uncle or mom. It's not fair for so many kids.

  3. Nicely said. Your dad seems like a great man and you are obviously very proud of him. Any chance he's adopting? I'm always on the hunt for a decent father figure. Happy Father's Day to you, regardless of your feelings on the subject. Your attitude towards the day is refreshing.

  4. Wow, sounds like you have a pretty fantastic dad. I realize that this is breaking lesson #3, but the Vietnamese speech at your wedding totally made me cry.

  5. Well said! And I agree totally.

  6. I love your dad. One of my favorites is the random and totally unintentional name/event dropping in the middle of a long story. ", right about then Caspar Weinberger walked into my office..."

    We got pretty lucky in the parent lottery.

  7. I am moved by your assessment of your dad, so moved as to dodge my way into 3d person. You must have believed most of his stories. You may not remember the story about rolling his pa's 1938 V-12 Lincoln-Zepher in the middle of the block, half way between your mother's and father's houses. They were at the time 14 and 15.You probably didn't really know about the other reckless driving charges, the year without a license, or the installment-plan with the city of Havre, Montana to pay fines (most for excessive vehicle noise) over an extended time.

  8. This is a great post. It makes me feel like I should write or do something to list all the things I admire about my own dad, who's a great guy -- but then he'd realize how much I secretly respect and admire him. And I can't have that.

  9. That made me cry. So nice. Happy (belated) Father's Day to you and your dad.

  10. Dude, I totally got a coffee mug. Suck it, Beta Dad!

    -K Fed

  11. Frank,
    That's messed up. But hilarious.

    I know. It really sucks how many dads bail on their families. And it's self-perpetuating.

    1 Blonde,
    I'm pretty sure Mom and Dad are done with having grown up children. Sorry about that.

    Ah hah! I can make people cry! I am the puppet master!

    Granny J,
    I thought I might get an Amen from you!

    I know! I have some great stories about your dad too. Did you hear the one about when we went out riding horses in the winter, stopped and made a campfire, and then he set his cowboy boot on fire? That's one of my favorites.

    You're getting soft, old man! I remember the story about the Zephyr, but I also remember an elaborate explanation about a bad cable on an old pre-hydraulic brake system that led to asymmetrical braking and caused the rollover. I always figured there was excessive speed involved. The main point is that you were smart enough to keep that info from me until after my reckless years were mostly over.

    Thanks! I recommend holding out on the sincerity until you need to hit the old man up for a loan.

  12. Yeah, finally I remembered to add you to my Reader (I'm a touch slow at getting round to these things, it's quite pathetic!) and I'm happy I did. Personally, how anyone can raise kids is a mystery to me. How do you drink margaritas and stay up late painting and do other selfish things? You don't! Stay at home moms or dads are crazy but deserving of praise. Anyone who doesn't think that's a job equal to any other is an idiot.

    Also, your dad sounds like an amazing man. I think I'm pretty badass because I can read Russian, albeit slowly like a six year old, but hey! Your dad's fluent. I can have a conversation in Russian so long as that conversation involves Boris and Natasha going to the opera. Ha! Happy belated pop's day.

  13. That is some list. You're a very lucky man to have been raised by a man like that.

  14. 1. love michael chabon.

    2. the vulgar lession is an elusive bugger, ain't it. oh what the fuck, i like being expressive.

    3.both men and women are pretty amazing when they're doing their thing and doing it right.

    4. your dad definitely did the man thing right. very right. he sounds like a total gem and gentleman.

  15. you have a wonderful dad! the perfect role model for future fatherhood.
    hope your Dad's Day was wonderful. xo

  16. Very well said. Happy belated Dad's Day.

  17. Your Dad sounds like a badass.

    This post cracked me up.

  18. I hope you had a great father's day!

  19. You're dad sounds like a combination of Ronald Reagan, James Bond and that guy who does all the Dos Equis commercials ("Stay thirsty my friend").

    All that and the best work he probably did was as a father.

    PS - doing that toast in Vietnamese, THAT was the sh*t.

  20. Okay, this is awkward, your dad available? Because I am totally in love with him. I mean, I'm not available, but I could do something about that if he was willing. I'm totally fine with older men. I'd be an excellent and loving stepmom. I'm a good cook, and not bad looking. Tell me what you think.

  21. @Gretchen,
    No worries. I'm often asked to act as pimp to my parents. As far as I know, my dad's not in the market for a mistress at the moment. And Mom and Dad always promised they would wait for us kids to die before they would consider splitting up.


Don't hold back.


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