How To Not Stick Your Head Up Your Ass and Other Valuable Lessons From Dad
“Gryffindor! Fifty points!” my dad shouts in his best British accent (which is not very good) from the driver’s seat. We’ve just seen the first Harry Potter film as a family, and we are driving to dinner. We were discussing the film — 20 minutes ago. But my father is completely unaware, and unconcerned, that we’ve changed the subject at least three times.
When he would drive me to school, we’d sit in silence. I’d gaze out the window thinking about important high-school matters, like boys, and we’d listen to Sam Cooke or Patsy Cline tapes. Dad would quietly sing all the wrong words. Whatever poetic phrases had been written were merciless against these “Rick Originals,” his very own odes to everyday mediocrity: “Oooh….gonna…wait…gone on…wishing…mmmhmmm…walking after…afternoon time….”
Then, without warning, he’d unleash a booming “Moooooooooo.”
We were passing a field of cows. He would moo at them. He did this, almost always.
It’s not just cows. He meows at cats, barks at dogs, and neighs at horses. And not so much at them, but to himself, in regard to them. For his own amusement, I can only guess. Then he chuckles to himself or simply states the obvious, “Cow. Chewin grass.”
My family and I have spent a great deal of time scratching our heads over dad’s interjections, if not his motives for almost any conversation piece. It’s as if his mind rolls on a perpetual hamster wheel, sucking in random thoughts from corners of his brain. Most conversations with my dad involve one of four components, if not all four: (1) aimless drifting in which he says something that doesn’t make sense, (1) self-deprecating remark, (1) unexpected joke, and (1) Rickism, a term my brother and I coined for the life lessons dad repeats frequently. An average conversation:
Me: How was dinner?
Dad: Ohhh (sounding very impressed), we went to a niiice place. Real nice. Tables…table clothes. [aimless drifting] Good bisque. You’d have loved it.
Me: Oh alright, sounds fancy.
Dad: Yeah, honey, we’re doin’ fine. I’m just sitting on my fat ass watching TV, aw, you know not really watching, just flipping. [self-deprecating comment] Working like a dog. I’m just running up to people to tell them how much money I make! [unexpected joke] But all you can do is keep on, idn’t that right?
Me: Yeah, sure is.
Dad: The only thing you can count on in life is change, sweetheart. [Rickism] Just, be safe. Be smart. Don’t stick your head up your ass. [another Rickism] And go with the flow. [disconnected Rickism, thrown in for posterity]
As we have this conversation, I know that he is most likely wearing beat-up khaki shorts from 1987, a pair of worn-in Cole Haan loafers, and a two-size too-small yellow t-shirt airbrushed with a sailboat and his name, “Rickey,” splashed across the front.
The day my husband asked my dad for permission to marry me, I accidentally interrupted their beach-front conversation. They wrapped up; my dad quickly granted his permission, most likely to avoid crying, which he does forcibly. Then he immediately stood up and walked into the ocean. The action alone seemed to hold metaphorical significance. When he stumbled back towards us on the soft, Gulf Coast sand, I asked, “Daddy, how’s the water?” Most dads might answer something like, “Oh pretty chilly!” or “Not too bad!”
My dad responded, “Aw hell, well, you just keep runnin’ til you fall down.”
Was that a euphemism for marriage? Or was he implying that the water was very cold and one should run quickly into it to avoid shock? To this day, I haven’t figured out if my dad is purposefully using metaphors, or if he’s just talking out of his ass.
He lives in a world all his own, but I actually ‘get’ my dad in a lot of ways.
As a teenager, I often exhibited the typical behavior of indecisiveness, flippancy, and general disinterest in other people’s feelings. On one particular occasion my mother yelled at me, “You’re just like your father!” and stormed away. She had her own reasons to be upset, but she was right.
I naturally developed a kind of selfish, me-first attitude that my dad has apparently shown to others, but as his children, my brother and I never experienced this. I also inherited his green eyes and his forever case of FOMO, which was a condition he developed long before Fear Of Missing Out was an acronym. Even as an adult I see the similarities.
We both value practicality and agree that wastefulness in money, food, time, and effort should be avoided as often as possible. We’d happily wile away hours watching Planet Earth. We’re two peas in a pod, watching thunderstorms from the garage, walking on the beach, or spying on people in the ocean with binoculars from our condo balcony.
Now we disagree on things like politics, my tattoos, and white bread over wheat, but when it comes to my dad’s outlook on life, I admire it.
His philosophical nuggets of wisdom may come packaged like an Easter egg on a Christmas gift, but they are valid nonetheless.
Among the aforementioned Rickisms my dad has passed on to my brother and me is, “Repetition is a good teacher,” “Don’t go fillin’ up on bread,” and “Nothing good happens past 1 a.m.” Sometimes he imparts these jewels in the middle of an unrelated conversation, and to ask their relevance is to subject oneself to further confusion, but he’s usually right.
Sometimes his Rickisms are delivered with cleverness and clarity. Upon complimenting a new leather blazer of his, he replied candidly, “Oooh, thank you. This was a gift. To me. From me. For being me.” When I asked him if he was excited about our upcoming family vacation he told me that he couldn’t wait to do his “best imitation of a rock.”
His Rickisms have even bled into a kind of native language, manifesting most often with the misuse of proper nouns. “Jurassic Park” turned into “Generic Park.” The Girl Scout Cookie “Samoa” turned “Samosans” and “Mayor Giuliani” has been referenced as “Ole Goolianna.” Even my boyfriends suffered. “Heath” was called “Keith,” “Daniel” became “Les,” and “Travis” took the name “Daniel.” He was always indifferent to the boyfriends.
The irony of all this Rick Talk is that, to strangers, my dad is actually a man of few words.
He does not dawdle or buy into excessive social graces. He does not tell dad jokes. The only jokes my dad makes are left of center. Some people even find him downright intimidating.
On occasion he’s been known to drive to dinner with a roadie of red wine. In a stemless wine glass. He even puts it in the cup holder. Wearing a mock turtleneck and blazer, he sits upright, sipping with fearlessness and sophistication, as though he were a VIP guest at a tasting in Napa Valley.
During my now-husband’s first trip to Mississippi, my dad casually reared a gun.
“Registered my gun downtown,” he shouts as he carelessly admires it. My now-husband is terrified and stands very still.
“Daaaadd,” I say, sensing the tension, but knowing the gun isn’t loaded.
“Aw yeah, had this one a while. Just for safety.”
My now-husband laughs nervously, surely plotting our break-up or a nose-dive out the front door.
Don’t be fooled by my tales; my dad’s not a redneck. He’s just a good ole’ country boy. He was a jock, actually, an all-star athlete of national acclaim, and he had the ego to prove it. He nicknamed himself “Silky,” as in “Silky Smooth.” Even Bear Bryant, legendary University of Alabama football coach, recruited my dad. He was offered a full football scholarship, but turned it down for fear that Bear would kick the bucket before his four years were up. That was in 1966. Bear Bryant went on to secure multiple national championships with the Crimson Tide and didn’t die until 1983.
My dad dropped out of college to play baseball. He traveled the world when he played in the minor leagues. Then he worked on multiple oil rigs off the coast of Chile, Louisiana, and California. He likes to tell me about how bright the night skies were, spattered with the clearest stars you’ve ever seen. Now he sells advertising time at a television station and wears a suit everyday. He is beginning to feel exhausted by the changing professional climate, the younger salespeople and the switch from paper to digital.
My dad taught me invaluable lessons: that you should always move with the flow of traffic on the interstate, regardless of the speed limit, how to ride a bike, and how to laugh at myself. As a baby, he would toss me up in the air and I would squeal with elation and terror. My mom would beg him to stop, “She hates it! Stop throwing her!” My dad would laugh and continue pushing my boundaries.
He’s always encouraged my brother and me to expand our horizons, to try everything once, but he was never the rule enforcer; he was the final word. Growing up, mom did the heavy lifting, managed the day-to-day bullshit. Dad was funny, loving, and available, but he was rarely the bad guy. Even back then he seemed to operate in an otherworldly sphere. These days I can tell that he is growing ever more nostalgic. Sometimes I’ll get an email from him reading, “Hey sweetheart. You do have a daddy you know? Just checking in on you.”
Beneath my dad’s misunderstood, gruff exterior is a massive softie. He borders the verge of tears each time he drops me off at the airport and he weeps during other children’s dance recitals. On my wedding day, just before I was whisked away for the ceremony, I shared a poignant moment with my parents. My mother started in on their love for me, their hopes for my marriage, and she handed me our wedding gift. My dad began to cry when I hugged him. “I’m such a wuss,” he choked through this tears.
“Aw honey, we just want you to be happy,” he says to me often. He doesn’t get into the details, never has. He doesn’t care. The bottom line is all that matters.
Every parent I know, young and old, often says, “Some day, when you’re a parent, you’ll understand.”
I don’t have a child, but I recognize how valuable my parents are, and how lucky I am to have the kind of dad I do, to have a dad at all.
My whole life, I knew dad would be there for me. He told me I was beautiful and he hugged me a lot. He encouraged me to be courageous and confident. He protected me. Not everyone is so lucky.
We love to joke about my dad’s peculiar quirks, what with his offhand remarks and inappropriate timing. But sometimes I wonder if he’s the one that’s really got it all figured out. Since the day we were born, he’s been rationing these bits of advice. Doling out an underlying lesson discreetly embedded in every conversation. Did he know what he was doing all along?
I imagine my dad will go on mystifying us for the rest of his life, which I’m OK with. I wouldn’t know what to make of him otherwise. And if in 30 years, I’m telling my kid not to stick her head up her ass, then I’m OK with that, too.