It Gets Better / Wonderful dad

Yesterday, I was filmed for a Stanford “It Gets Better” video, talking for quite a while in the colonnade in front of the Bing Wing of the Stanford Library (on an, alas, overcast and chilly day, after three days of beautiful weather), telling parts of the story of my life — large parts omitted, because I’ve had a long, complex, and very eventful life — and being encouraging and supportive to lgbt teens and persecuted young people in general. With multiple takes on some sections (especially when passers-by hovered in the background of the shots instead of just, well, passing by). We’ll see how it turns out; it will be edited down, and there are other people to be filmed, so it might be a little while.

Along the way, I was, of course, asked to talk about my childhood and adolescence, which led me into Wonderful Dad territory. So here are some Wonderful Dad stories that have to do with sex.

The Sex Talk. At some point, when I was maybe 10, my dad took me aside to have The Talk, saying that it was time I learned about sex. To his immense relief, his precocious son reassured him that he’d used the resources of the Reading Public Library to pick up an education on the subject. So my dad, off the hook, just asked me if I had any questions. I did — about his experiences, and about what they felt like — but I had enough sense not to pull him very far into emotionally tough territory, and just asked him, in a general way, what it felt like. And he gave me an honest but non-specific answer that was in fact useful to me: he said that it was a tremendously pleasant but powerful experience, something you felt with your whole body, and at some point you lost control. And that the girl felt the same way, and you needed to know that.

That was something the books didn’t tell me.

The books, like the health texts we eventually had in high school (awfully late in the course of things) were full of anatomical diagrams and terminology and dry descriptions of intercourse, conception, and birth. But I was thankfully saved from analogies to mating in animals (I’d spent enough time on farms to be familiar with that) and from gauzy lectures about sex being a deep sign of love and commitment that should only happen in marriage (you could, however, learn a fair amount about pleasure and passion from fiction and, especially, from women’s magazines).

Thanks to the Kinsey Report, I learned about masturbation — kids should really be able to get non-judgmental advice about masturbation and its pleasures — and a number of things I’d only imagined or fantasized about.

At least my dad got the pleasure and powerfulness parts right, and the attention to the other person.

Uncle Paul. Not too long after this — it’s very hard to work out the chronology from this distance in time — my father called me in for another serious talk, which he started by asking me if I’d heard about my Uncle Paul (the brother of the husband of my mother’s twin sister). I hadn’t.

It seems that Paul had gone from Allentown PA, where he lived and worked, to New York City for a night (probably a weekend) on the town, and was arrested, in one of those police sweeps of gay bars so common in those days, for dancing with another man. As was standard then, the names of people arrested in such cases were published in newspapers, and for out-of-towners the NYC papers shared the information with local papers, so that the Allentown Morning Call ran a story with a head something like “Local Man Arrested on NY Morals Charge”. And Paul’s life was ruined: his brother and local acquaintances refused to have anything to do with him, he was fired from his job, and he fled to NYC, never to be heard from again.

[I knew Paul pretty well, especially from summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm. He treated me much like a younger brother, and we spent time hiking in the fields and forests and just talking. I think he saw in me something of what he had been as a boy. In any case, he never said or did anything sexual with me. I did divine something of his feelings towards men, though, when his best buddy from the Army — Paul and his brother were both World War II vets — visited the farm, and they spent all of their time together, much of it in the bedroom they shared; there was a visible bond between them.]

Now, my dad on Paul: he laid out the situation, pretty much as I have above (well, I got the story from him), and went on to explain, earnestly, that some men loved other men the way most men loved women, that that was just the way they were, and there was nothing wrong with that. He added that he knew I liked Paul — and that he and my mother and my aunt all liked him, still did — so I should know there was nothing wrong with Paul, and if I heard nasty talk about him (I never did; apparently the news didn’t really make it from Allentown to Reading) I shouldn’t let that affect my opinion of the man.

Remember: this was the early 1950’s, scarcely an enlightened time. Wow.

My dad could not have known how electrifyingly comforting his words were to me. (Maybe, at some level he did.) In any case, all through his life I never heard him say anything disparaging about gay people or saw him go along with anyone else’s disparagement.

(Meanwhile, my mother, as co-owner, along with my father, of a costume jewelry story, picked up a sideline as an adviser on jewelry and other accessories, and clothing in general, to the drag queens of Reading, an activity she very much enjoyed. Yes, there were drag queens in Reading.)

Coming Out. Move well ahead in time. I married, had a daughter, came out to myself, to a few friends, then to my wife, then to (almost) everyone. In Columbus OH, my guy Jacques moved in with us, and he and Ann and I became a married triple (this my dad did not know), together until Ann died and Jacques and I became an ordinary gay couple. Meanwhile, my mother died and after a bit my dad re-married (story below).

Not long after Ann’s death I started teaching at Stanford one quarter a year, and Jacques moved back and forth between Columbus and Palo Alto with me. So Jacques and I were about to have visits from my father, sometimes along with my stepmother, and we were about to visit them regularly in Arroyo Grande (about 200 miles south of us). It came time to have The Talk with my dad.

I drove to Arroyo Grande for a weekend, told my dad I had some important things to talk about. I launched right into it, explaining that Jacques and I were not just friends but lovers, and had been for eight years; we were partners in life, and everyone important to us knew this, had known this for a long time — except for him and Ruth. I started to apologize for the delay, but dad brushed that aside. He looked thoughtful, saying “Oh, that explains a lot” (meaning, as it turns out, that it explained Jacques’s presence in my life and the closeness he could see between us).

Then he smiled broadly and said, “Well, I always wanted another son!” (meaning, not that he’d wanted a different son, one instead of me, but that he’d wanted a son in addition to me). He’d known Jacques for years, and they liked one another, so it was all pleasing to him.

And that was it. (I don’t understand now why I hadn’t come out to him earlier — possibly because I feared he would disapprove of my having relationships with men while being married to Ann; my dad was a loyal and faithful husband, absurdly so in the face of provocation — I’ll mention a bit about this in the next story.) We visited back and forth as couples, staying in each other’s houses. Jacques and dad spent a good bit of time talking about one of their shared passions, roses and their cultivation. Dad helped us look for a place to buy in Palo Alto. And so on. Jacques picked up my family as in-laws, just as I had picked up his family some years before (and my daughter Elizabeth had too).

Gayness was simply not an issue. (On occasion, Jacques and I talked matter-of-factly about gay activism and our gay friends.) Maybe this was all eased by Elizabeth’s role in our lives (and our roles in hers); after all, she’d gone through her adolescence with a mother and two fathers, and she was now one of our closest friends.

Certainly, the least painful coming-out-to-parents scene you could imagine.

Party Girl. As time went on, I became more open with my dad about other parts of my gay life, in particular what became my practice of picking up relationships with boyfriends when Jacques was away for the summer with his family in Maine. Eventually, my dad became concerned about this part of my life, so different from the way he conducted his.

He was concerned for my sake, worrying that I might be out of control, and especially worrying that I might be hurting Jacques — hurting Jacques the way my mother had hurt him, over many years, by her affairs with other men and by her sometimes outrageous public flirtations with other men. My father and I had developed our private vocabulary for talking about my mother’s behavior: she was a Party Girl.

I knew a great deal more about this than I let on to him, had known about some of it from when I was a small child; telling him more than he already knew would just have been giving him needless pain. On his side, he did tell me some things that I didn’t know, in particular that the miscarried child, the Baby Girl Zwicky interred in the family burial plot, was not his but a neighbor’s (the father of one of my childhood playmates). Of course, if the child had lived, he would have raised her, with love, as his own. He was that kind of man.

One of the things I never said to him was that he was far too nice for his own good, and that he was absurdly determined to follow up on his commitments whatever the cost to him. (My first father-in-law, also a wonderful man, faced with a painful marriage of his own, just got out, and no one, including his wife’s family, faulted him for it.) In anger and despair, he seriously considered leaving her, several times, but that was just not something he could bring himself to do.

My dad ended up nursing my mother through her death from lung cancer, despite everything that had gone before. Well, he made a commitment and he stuck to it.

I am my father’s son in many ways. I cared for Jacques through the 12 years of his dying from radiation dementia, when I could have walked away. But I’d made a commitment — we actually said the words, “until death do us part”, though just as a pact between the two of us (he thought he was going to end up caring for me) — and I had years and years of happiness (of course there were rough times; there are always rough times) that went before, while my dad had years of unhappiness, though punctuated by occasional good times.

It was only late in his life — in a conversation that he and Jacques and I had about my childhood and how untroubled (in dad’s ridiculously sweet re-painting of the past) and pleasant it had been — that I realized just how important I had been to him. He told me, a lot, all through his life, how proud he was of me; eventually I realized that I had brought happiness into his life.

(And then he had the pleasures of a good marriage with Ruth. So the story has a happy ending.)

I tried to allay my dad’s anxieties, explaining that Jacques knew about the boyfriends (and, in fact, met several of them and became friends with one of them) and that we had our own code of decent behavior, which was not the same as his, but did involve respect and caring. He accepted that; we were, after all, very different people.

I imagine he talked to Jacques about these things, but of course that would have been between the two of them.

What is so sweet in all of this is dad’s concern for Jacques, which I took to be not merely a projection onto Jacques of dad’s feelings about my Party Girl mother, but also a reflection of the concern that anyone might have about the feelings of a friend — or, indeed, a son.

Marriage counseling. I’ve left the best sex story for last, even though that means taking it out of chronological order. We go back now to the time, after my mother died, when my dad proposed to Ruth. He asked me to be his best man, for a wedding in Santa Barbara (when the time came, Elizabeth traveled with me from Columbus, and we stayed in L.A. with the linguist Vicki Fromkin and her husband Jack). But first he needed some advice from me.

He prefaced his request by saying that he knew I’d had more sexual experience than he had — at the time, he had no idea of the range of my sexual encounters — and he hoped I could use that experience to help him. When he saw that I wasn’t troubled by his asking his son for sex advice, he unburdened himself.

It was about having intercourse with Ruth. Being the sort of man he was, he was waiting until after they were married to have intercourse with her, and he was now afraid he wouldn’t be able to satisfy her. (At this point I realized that it had been quite a long time since he had sex, in particular with my mother; he was getting back into something he hadn’t done for many years.) The problem: he was concerned that his penis wasn’t big enough to satisfy her.

(I was deeply touched that he trusted me enough to confess these fears to me and respected me enough to suppose that I would be open and honest in my answers. And I thought, oh god, who else could he have asked about this?)

I suppressed the desire to reassure him that his dick worked just fine by saying, “Well, Dad, you fucked me up! He almost surely wouldn’t have gotten the allusion to the first line of Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse” from High Windows — “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” — and if he had, he would have been dismayed by the pessimistic way Larkin plays on the ‘ruin, mess up’ sense of fuck up.

Here I should point out that I had some idea of my dad’s dick size, though from many years before, when I was a kid and my summer camp had father-son days that involved (among other things) swimming, with changing in an open locker room and showering afterwards in the gang showers, where all the boys and dads were naked, so that their equipment was visible. Of course, at the time all adult men looked huge to me, looked like something I could never attain. But there were easily discernible differences between the dads, and my dad was on the small side.

As am I. So I started with that.

“Look, dad, I’m a little guy myself. Within the normal range, but on the low side. We’re probably about the same size, and mine works just fine, no complaints”. (I didn’t tell him about those gay men who reject guys they see as having little dicks, like me. Anyway, at the time, he didn’t know about me and guys.) “Maybe it seems small to you, but you have a big frame, and that makes it look smaller. It’s probably entirely normal in size.” (Neither of us was about to do an on-the-spot comparison, but if we had, my dick would probably have looked bigger than his, because I have a smaller frame.)

That was the reassurance. Dad was right to think that I’d be willing to talk about pretty much anything and wouldn’t laugh at him or worse.

Then some actual advice.

“Dad, as women get older, they tend to have less natural lubrication, and that can make intercourse uncomfortable for them. So, for Ruth’s sake, get some lube and use it. Lube is your friend.” (Yes, I actually said that.) “There are lots of brands, on the shelves in any drug store, and you might want to get very small sizes of several so that you can try them out and use the one that feels best for the two of you.”

Dad, immensely relieved, thanked me, and we went on to talk about something less personal.

They got married, they were physically affectionate with one another, and in fact Ruth thanked me, briefly but sweetly, for the advice I’d given her husband.

Always satisfying to be helpful to a friend.

Extra: Dads Supporting Their Little Boys. This is not about sex.

I write fairly often about how my parents, my father in particular, coped with a son who was so far from their expectations, and I offered a bit of the story for the “It Gets Better” video. In brief, I was deeply unathletic (my dad was a high school and college jock), bookish, highly academically oriented, freakishly smart, unaggressive and uncompetitive, artistic, and (as we would say now) geeky. My parents just rolled with that.

My dad tried various activities with me, and if I wasn’t comfortable with them, just moved on to other things, without rebuke, and looked for activities that might suit me better, especially those we could do together, and he listened to my opinions about things I might like to try. I led the way to piano playing (just for me) and shortwave radio (eventually he helped me build a ham radio transmitter, from scratch, and took me to Philadelphia to get my license). Dad aced one Christmas by getting me the largest Erector set then available (it must have been ruinously expensive; the only other presents I got that year were two Oz books), though my mother was dubious about the whole thing, fearing that her husband had really gotten the thing for himself, the way some men give their wives tools on special occasions. But it was a stunning success, providing many hours of joint pleasure.

There’s a lot more. But there’s a deeper point here, something I only very recently came to appreciate. The significant piece of the background is that, according to her doctors, my mother was not supposed to be able to bear children — neither of her sisters, who were apparently similarly indisposed, ever did, and the miscarriage of Baby Girl Zwicky, during which my mother nearly died, was a sad object lesson — so I was a miracle child. I was going to be the only kid they’d ever have. (You can see why my dad took such pleasure from having Jacques become another son for him.)

I understand now that my dad’s response to this was to commit himself to his kid and find ways to make the relationship work to everyone’s satisfaction. To say that he saw rolling with the kid he got because that kid was his only chance (he was one of five, and he was the only one of the siblings to have only one child, so in this crowd I stood out) is not to diminish his accomplishment in supporting me so unconditionally; that came from his character, and many men would not have responded nearly as well as he did.

4 Responses to “It Gets Better / Wonderful dad”

  1. Eleanor Houck Says:

    Wow! Inspiring! Thank you!

  2. Journalists’ request « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] so I’m especially resistant to requests to be recorded. Back in January I agreed to be filmed for a Stanford It Gets Better video, but that’s a special case; the video hasn’t yet […]

  3. Sweet daddies « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] is even more preposterous. I’ve told some of my Wonderful Dad stories on this blog (here and here). They should make it clear that there’s no dad-shaped hole in my emotional life; I was […]

  4. It Gets Better « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on January 30, I posted that I had been filmed for a Stanford QUEST “It Gets Better” video (and added some touching […]

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