By: Laurenne Sala
“What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” That’s what they say. I think they should amend this to “What you don’t know won’t hurt you until you find out what it is that you haven’t been knowing.”
Because sometimes it can be really embarrassing when you find out you’ve been believing the wrong truth.
The first time I learned this was in fourth grade on a bus full of Girl Scouts. Singing Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ at the top of our lungs, I realized that their truth was that the lyrics were: We are a part of a Rhythm Nation. My truth was that the lyrics were: We are a part of a big erection.
I’d seen the cassette cover (it said Rhythm Nation) but my ears heard what they heard. I knew my truth. I didn’t actually understand everything about erections at that point. I thought they grew out of rocks because I accidentaly snuck in a porn movie once and saw some lady bent over a rock with a penis growing out of it. Just as she put it in her mouth, which I thought was weird, my mom heard the familiar ‘bom chicka bom bom’ and ran so fast she slid into the VCR like it was home plate. For YEARS after that, I would have died on my sword to persuade you that erections grow from rocks. And that Janet Jackson had something to do with it.
At that time, I also thought that everyone got divorced. I couldn’t wait to grow up, have a big wedding, and then enjoy a pretty amicable separation while I raised my daughter alone. It’s what was normal and true for me.
Even though it went against my divorceé dreams, I was pretty excited when my dad got me a brand new family: A whole big one, complete with Victorian house, a new brother AND a sister! At my mom’s house, I was an only child. My friends were my fingers, my black Cabbage Patch Kid, Ralph, who I rescued from the sale bin because nobody in my racist town wanted the black Cabbage Patch Kid (I was the Harriet Tubman of that K-Mart), and the carpet. I sat behind the couch and talked to the carpet while I gave it haircuts. So, when I got this new brother and sister, I ran to tell the carpet all about them. They were so cool. And they were older. And they had puzzles. And we ate the best best dinners because my dad’s new roommate was so much better of a cook than my mom.
I made sure to tell my mom this every time I came home from the big new Victorian house. Mom! Bruce makes the best grilled cheeses! Mom! They’re so much better than the ones you make.
And my mom just smiled and nodded, surely devastated that her husband had just left her for another man. Bruce. Bruce with the grilled cheeses.
My dad left my mom for another man when I was three. And I had no idea until I was ten. Even though I saw my father and Bruce living together, it never entered my mind that they were gay. Even though his name was Bruce, I still had no idea. I didn’t know what gay was, so to me it wasn’t a possibility.Yes, they shared a bedroom. Yes, they cooked together. Yes, their hands occasionally brushed over one another at the dinner table. But they were just friends because I was little and had NO idea that the truth I learned about love wasn’t the only one. And that there wasn’t a cock growing out of a rock in the backyard.
Many say that gay people shouldn’t raise families because ‘What will it do to the children?’ But I never felt more part of a loving group than I did at Bruce’s house. We broke gourmet bread together. On a tablecloth. It was like Leave it to Beaver (If June Cleaver peed standing up). Bruce even wore an apron. And when I went home to my straight, hardworking mother, I hung out with the carpet.
It was with my gay dads that I shared conversation over dinner. It was with my gay dads that I saw how siblings can be such a calming presence. It was with my gay dads and the whole family that I lazed around the living room, drinking glasses of milk and taking turns playing the piano. It was with my gay dads that I truly felt part of a family.
Unfortunately, Bruce eventually kicked my pops to the curb. And for the next few years, my dad introduced me to boyfriend after boyfriend. And I still had no idea he was gay.
One day when I was ten, my mom took me to a Holiday Inn. I should have known something was up because it wasn’t every day I got to swim in such beauteous waters as were those at the indoor Holiday Inn pavilion. As soon as we put on dresses that evening and ordered Shirley Temples at the fancy hotel restaurant, she laid it on me:
Your dad is gay.
She explained that, for seven years, all the men I had seen my dad with were most likely his boyfriends. I was pissed. And hurt. I knew that my dad was my dad. And I loved him. And I’d loved Bruce and all the other dudes who had given me stuffed animals along the way.
But I could not believe my own parents had perpetuated this fake truth for me all those years. They could have just told me, and I would have been fine. Just like my mom might have corrected me when she heard me singing about erections at the top of my lungs.
I got back at them by being accepting and offering to be my father’s wing man. And I was. I got him a few numbers.
But I think if there’s a lesson here to learn, it’s that gay men make the best grilled cheeses.
By: Laurenne Sala
I think it’s only fair that you get a big fat celebratory hug today, too. You may have a vagina and you may not possess the other usual characteristics of the stereotypical dad, but in many ways you’ve been a better dad than many.
You bought me a skateboard and a wiffle ball and made sure I got a well-rounded childhood experience. I am not sure if that’s because you were playing a dad role or because you’re a tomboy yourself. But I liked it. Barbie was too pink for me, and she was really only good for planning sexy trysts with Ken.
You barbecued, fixed the house, and stained the deck yourself. In a traditional family, the dad would have done that stuff. In my family, I learned that a woman can do just about anything with her hands. Now, one of my most cherished possessions is my cordless power drill. Because of you, I am proud to NOT be one of those girls who needs to call a boy to help. Thank. Goodness.
You told me dirty jokes and taught me that farts are funny. That’s usually a dad’s job, but you did it really well. When you smirked and told me the real words to The Man from Nantucket my junior high popularity soared. Thanks for that. ‘Whose dick was so long he could suck it!’ Hahahaha.
You taught me all about the male psyche. When I was “dating” in sixth grade, you told me just what those little bastards were thinking. You weren’t a man but you sure knew that Caleb was flirting by calling me ugly. You were so smart. (Kinda wish you would have told me not to go see Ferngully the Last Rainforest with him, though. Horrible first date. [Side note: dating has not changed much since 6th grade].)
You came to every game or performance or big deal. And you drove me everywhere I needed to go. If there had been a dad around, you guys might have been able to rotate. But, nope. Your presence was for two, and that was enough.
I don’t think you deserve recognition on Father’s Day just because you performed the tasks of a “normal” dad. I think you deserve recognition because you performed every task. All by yourself. That’s hard. You’ve been the good guy and the bad guy. You’ve planned every birthday party, and you’ve cried enough for two every time we’ve said goodbye at an airport. You’ve done it all, and that should be rewarded.
Maybe you don’t deserve a tie or a mug because, really, who does? But you deserve recognition and thanks and love.
Happy Father’s Day, Mommy!
By: Laurenne Sala
My phone fell into the toilet. With just the unbuttoning of my pants, a miniscule splash warned me of its plunge from my back pocket. My super-fast reflexes got it out within seconds, but the device fizzled to its untimely death. Dead phone.
I guess I can’t really call it a dead phone. The little machines we constantly hold within reach are much more than phones. Mine was a map, an address book, a note pad, a Scrabble game, a news channel, and a constant connector to all things human. It’s strange I rely on something so mechanical to connect me with other humans, but I do. We all do. Everywhere. In elevators. In traffic. All. The. Time. Recently, despite my greatest efforts, I felt I was slipping into an abyss of super connectivity. I’d become too attached to my sweet, sweet device. I would freeze in anxiety when I couldn’t find it for just one minute. I would check my email two minutes after I had just checked it. I would tweet after sex. Just finished greatest kegel workout ever. LOL.
Lately I’d grown fearful of my attachment to technology, so when my phone went the way of the toilet, I decided to see how long I could go without it. Disconnected from my network, I would learn to connect with reality. I would eat out alone while reading a newspaper. I would write my friends letters…with a pen. I would make conversation in elevators instead of pretending to craft a VIP email while really texting penis jokes. I hypothesized that this new untethered lifestyle would convince me to give up my phone forever. I had only had a smart phone since May, so it couldn’t be that hard to completely disconnect. No landline. No SIM card. No texts. No problem.
Day One was refreshing. I was a free bird. Nobody could interrupt me or even find me. I felt more aware in traffic– just me, the other cars, and NPR. No sneaking texts while looking out more for cops than the road.
On Day Two, I walked to a coffee shop. With no palm distractions, I noticed more flowers. I smiled at more people. Phone who?
And then came Days Three and Four. I had to make plans. I had to return calls. I wondered what my mom was doing. Mostly, though, I needed my phone to tell people I was late. Or that I’d forgotten something and needed them to bring it. Or that I actually wouldn’t make it to their party even though I said I would. Not having a phone turned me into an incompetent bitch. Or did the phone itself turn me into an incompetent bitch?
I realized that our phones allow us to be late, to not show up, to forget things. One quick “can’t make it” text clears the schedule without any confrontation. Have our phones created a world of flakey, non-confrontational wusses? Without a phone, I was forced into accountability. I also developed a better relationship with my nails, as I was constantly cleaning them out instead of playing Scrabble.
I could do this. I wanted to be accountable. I wanted clean nails.
By Day Six, my friends had bombarded me with hate emails, each one annoyed that they couldn’t ask a quick question or tell me they were waiting out front. Though being unreachable feels somewhat like a relief, it’s a pain for those who need to reach you.
After the first week, that was my professional conclusion:
Being disconnected is possible, but not within a society so connected.
Now that I’m rounding Day Twelve, I’ve found a less professional conclusion:
Help! I’m lonely. I’m dying inside. I NEED my texts. I WANT TEXTS now.
We’re in an era where human interaction does not require voice or touch. A simple clickity click and my cousin gets a picture of a random penny because we have that joke about random pennies. A text doesn’t only warn of tardiness. It’s also the easiest way to say hi, that you love somebody, that you you’re thinking of them. Some may argue that it’s impersonal, but in a world where friends live so far away, texts are all the humanity we can sometimes get. I can give up the map and the notepad and the Scrabble, but I want the friends I’m used to carrying with me. Going twelve days without them has left me helpless and empty. I surrender.
Once I get my phone repaired, I will more than make up for my days without texting. And I’ll send plenty of penny pictures. However, I am committing right now to being a conscious phone user. I vow that I will not fall back into that zombie-like zone of constant downward head-tilting and incompetency.
And to my nails, I promise we’ll keep up our new relationship.
By: Laurenne Sala
This week was shocking. So many friends and strangers and bloggers and dads reached out to me to let me know how much they related to my Father’s Day tribute. Or how much they cried. Or how much it made them feel (It’s here if you haven’t seen it).
And hearing all this is really the most wonderful thing. Knowing that my words have moved someone to tears is astounding. And unreal. And feels so fucking good. That’s really my life’s goal– to make people feel something.
But I have a confession to make. I feel an obligation to tell you that that post took me 14 years to write. Not literally. I wasn’t sitting at a desk for fourteen years with a pen poised over paper. Then you would have probably never met me, and I would either be really fat or malnourished. But writing that piece required that I accept everything about my dad, which took a while. Accepting everything about someone is like inviting everyone on the entire street to your party. And being okay with the homeless people who show up and raid your vegetable crisper. You have to truly accept things that you may not like. Or things that scare you. And the hardest part is that you have to admit to yourself that your way is not the only way. TOUGH stuff. For me, it’s easier with dead people. I have yet to accept any boyfriend without requesting minor changes in personality and character. Yes, honey, I swear I love you but really you should be more motivated and also like the things I like.
Parents are even harder to accept. You have an idea of who you want them to be, and when they don’t turn out like that, you have to just swallow it. I didn’t imagine my dad would be gay. But I accepted it. And just when things were cool, he up and committed suicide. Great. Hadn’t imagined that either.
I gotta hand it to him– the man was an ace at surprises.
When someone commits suicide, your entire perception of him is stained. Every good memory is accompanied by flashes of death or guilt or panic. For a long time, I would see a size 15 New Balance sneaker, and I would remember my father. And I would smile. And then immediately my brain’s channel would flip to him dead on his bed waiting for someone to find him. And then I’d undoubtedly remember his neighbor saying that he only knew my father was upstairs decomposing after he’d cleaned out his refrigerator and realized that the horrible odor was indeed not Korean leftovers. Yep, my decomposing father smelled like old kimchi.
It’s gross. And perhaps horrifying. So I was positive those good memories were stained forever.
I thought his goodness was gone. I thought I could never get the good back without a slap in the face with the bad.
And then 14 years went by.
And it’s finally happened. I’m at the point where I can imagine his brown slippers and see only 3 year-old me pretending they were boats. And then smile. And then move on.
Only now can I listen to tapes of him playing the piano and simply remember his long fingers and how they swept across the keys like magic wands.
14 years is so long. So so long. It could have been sooner. All I had to do was make the choice.
But it’s hard to make that choice when you don’t understand there’s a choice to be made.
My dad had a choice. He had life right there asking him to decide. He could have said “This is hard, but I’m learning how to get through it.” Instead he said, “This sucks. I’m outtee.”
Life’s all about those decisions. I have been choosing for years to say, “I grew up with a dead dad. That sucks. Whatever. I’m not going to think about it.” And now I’m finally choosing to say, “This gives me a different perspective, and I’m going to learn what I can.”
Once I made that decision, things became clearer. I figured out that my pops was just a man. Like any other man. He had problems and fears and traumas and delights. And he spent his life winging it. Just like all of us do. We’re guessing right now. And that’s all we can do. In 1996, he felt hopeless and helpless. And he guessed wrong. He made the only kind of mistake from which he couldn’t learn. Before, I used to wonder what he was thinking in those minutes before death, completely conscious about his decision and his imminent demise. Did he think about me? Did it take long? Was he gasping for air? Was he thrashing around? Did he change his mind? Did he regret it? Did he regret anything? Did he wonder if he’d left the iron on? Did he know he’d end up smelling like Korean leftovers?
I’ll never know. But I have finally decided that I don’t need to know. I know that he was great when he was great. And I don’t need to spend any more time asking questions I can’t answer. Questions nobody can answer.
I have chosen to finally move on. To finally forgive this man and see him as just that: A man. A man who made a mistake. A man who would undoubtedly take back that mistake. A man who would be here with me right now if he could.
That’s why that tribute was so important to me. And that it means so much that other people got something from my years of work. 14 years in the making. 14 years to this moment where I can finally see our picture together and remember only the man whose feet I climbed onto. The guy who would dance me around the living room. That was my dad. That guy. That’s the guy I miss. That’s the guy who made everyone feel. Thanks again, Pops. You’re still teaching me lessons every day.
Now… on to the difficult task of accepting the people who are alive.
Me: Dad, I can’t believe you let Mom cut my hair this short. It’s hideous.
Dad: You look fine. I’m the one with this horrible beard. It really itches.
Me: Your beard is great. And those glasses. Just wait til 2010, and you’ll fit in with the hipsters in LA.
Dad: Nah, I think I’ll head out in 1996 instead.
Me: All righty then. It’s been fun. I shall remember this time we had together. Peace out.
People with dead dads don’t usually love Fathers’ Day. It sort of says loudly, ‘Hey! Look at how everyone has a dad except you!’ However, since ads for toolboxes and necktie sales are blowing up, we might as well take the day to remember our dads and acknowledge them even if they’re not around.
I especially would like to pay homage to my pops, the weirdest and coolest dad I ever had. Here ya go, Daddy-O:
As a three-year-old, I thought you were a giant. I could sit in your size fifteen slippers. And when you came to pick me up at pre-school, I would wait for the top of your head to bob around the glass above the lockers. You were the tallest dad, and of that I was proud.
You had the driest sense of humor. I barely understood you back then, but now I think we’d crack each other up. Now I’d get your jokes. I wish you were here to discuss the state of Saturday Night Live. And politics. I bet we’d have drinks until late and laugh, laugh, laugh.
You always loved a nice scotch. And after a few, there was no doubt I’d find you sleeping in a chaise at any given family party. You had a snore like nobody I’ve ever known. Silent yet never unnoticed.
I bet if you were alive, I would call you up and ask you to read the newspaper in an accent. You should have made a living out of your impersonations. You could imitate any stereotypical twang, from ‘ghetto black dude’ to ‘Harvard scholar’ to ‘Indian 7-ll owner.’ I can’t believe you didn’t harness that. Or maybe if you had, someone would have shot you.
I think by now I would have persuaded you to go on Jeopardy. You were considered a genius by Mensa standards, and I’m sure you could have won us millions of quarters from Alex Trebek. By now I would have appreciated your intelligence. Back then I just thought you talked too much. But seriously, Dad. I asked you if unicorns existed and you spent two hours talking about all the different horse species and where the myth of the unicorn came from. Thanks, though.
You know what else you were good at? Wrapping presents. I used to think divorce was the way to go because of the silent competition between you and my mom on who would give better gifts. Yours always looked like they were wrapped by fairies. Ha. HA! That just came out on accident. I wasn’t purposely calling you a fairy. But let’s get that out in the open.
You were gay.
How cool is that? I love that you were gay. I love the fact that you had the courage to say it and live it. I’m so proud that you didn’t stifle yourself, even if it meant divorce.
Unlike many at the time, I thought nothing less of you. You were my dad. That’s it. My big and tall gay dad. I know you knew I supported you. I know you knew I stood proudly in the audience watching you sing in the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus. I really was proud. I wish I had made that more clear.
But I was thirteen. I didn’t really know how to talk about my feelings so much. Now I’m much better. I bet now we would have long conversations about how it felt to finally be your real self or your first experiences frolicking with men. I would love to know. But thirteen was bad timing for me. I was insecure, ugly, and trying my hardest with padded bras to be popular. ‘Faggot’ was the most common insult in junior high. So I told you to tone it down when you came to the suburbs to watch me lead cheers.
This has been one of my only regrets. You built up so much courage to let your real self out after so many years, and here I was asking you to put it back in once in a while for the sake of my popularity.
I sometimes close my eyes and wish that had never happened. But time never lets me change it. If it did, I’d have completely erased the whole Hammer pants trend (You, by the way, were the first to tell me that those were out of style and that I should stop doing my bangs. You were right! Sorry I didn’t listen. You were gay; I should have known.).
Now that I see this whole life thing from a different point of you, I would have treated the entire situation differently. I would have told you every day how proud I was of you for finally shedding the weight of your lifelong secret. I would have talked to you about everything. I would have asked more questions and given more hugs. I would have screamed to all the cheerleaders that I had the hippest, coolest, gayest dad around. I would have made shirts that said MY DAD IS A FAGGOT AND I LOVE HIM. I would have gotten NBC news to do a story on us and how cool we were together. I would have bought us matching earrings. I would have made all my clothes out of rainbow flags and worn them every day.
But I didn’t. So I’m doing it now.
I’m saying it here: Dad, I’m grateful that you ever existed. And that you were a bizarre quirky soul. You were silly and neurotic and cynical and hilarious. And I learned from each and every little piece of you. And I keep learning from the short time I got to experience life with you. Because you are half of me, and I happen to really like that half. I wish you were here so I could hug you harder than ever and tell you that you mean a lot to me. And tell you that I accept you just as you are. And wear your shoes.