On Talking “Dirty”

Sappho and Homer - Charles Nicolas Rafael Lafond

Sappho and Homer – Charles Nicolas Rafael Lafond (Wikimedia Commons)

I often speak in a blunt and explicit fashion about sex. I like having sex. I like thinking about sex. I sometimes meet attractive women and think, “I wonder what she looks like naked…” or “I wonder what she’s like in bed…” or “I wonder if she finds disappointing sexual performance amusing or just sad?”

I talk honestly about these things, and other sexual topics, with my friends because I think friends should talk about what’s on their mind, and what interests them. Leaving something many of us think about a lot, and are very interested in, off the table keeps us from building honest intimacy with those we love and trust.

I also think that the more open we are about our private thoughts, the easier it is to distinguish between what is healthy and what is unhealthy. Sex is a powerful desire, but one that gets channeled in countless unhealthy ways in our (and every) culture. Being open about it takes the stigma away, and allows thoughtful people to engage in real, meaningful discussions – without shame – about what constitutes healthy sexual expression.

Case in point. Some Trump apologists are referring to his jubilant claims of sexual assault as “locker room talk” or “private, boys-will-be-boys conversation.” No. Just…no. There’s a world of difference between: “Wow, oral sex is amazing. Isn’t everything better after a oral sex?” and “…when you’re a star, they’ll let you do it. You can do anything…Grab them by the pussy…You can do anything.”

One is sexually explicit, intimate conversation. The other is an endorsement of sexual assault.

We are all kinds of screwed up about sex in this culture, but listening to people confuse sexual assault with “dirty” talk is the most egregious example I have seen in a long time. We need a sexual ethic of healthy intimacy AND healthy honesty, but before we start working on that we need to draw a clear and explicit line that – no matter how wealthy and/or powerful you are – you are never, ever, under any circumstances entitled to sexually assault someone else.

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For Friends, When Your Children Leave for College

Off to College

Off to College

This is the year when a critical mass of our friends must face their progeny heading off for their first year of college. Talking with our friends their grief (and make no mistake, it is grief – gut-wrenching, agonizing grief), and also noting that today is the one-year anniversary of when we dropped John-Francis off for his first day at Haverford, has brought back all of those memories from this time last year.

It remains the single saddest day of my life. I sobbed for hours, and then spent months simply sad and off-kilter. I felt like a limb had been severed from my body, and everywhere I looked was a reminder of my loss.

A few thoughts for those of you going through the same thing right now:

1. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re not crazy, or melodramatic, or over-reacting. Don’t let anyone de-legitimize just how much this hurts. Just like any other kind of grief, allow yourself to move with its rhythms, and surround yourself with people who won’t try to talk you out of your feelings. (I feel compelled to offer special thanks to those who were there for me at this time last year, especially my own parents, Ginny Little, and Kim Pike. Thank you for not judging me for how often or how much I cried.)

2. Your friends who haven’t been through this are very unlikely to get it. In case someone in that category is reading this, please try to understand. It’s not that we’re not happy for our kids, or not proud of them, or wanting to shelter them. It’s that we realize that the nature of our relationship with them has changed forever. From this point forward, looking in on their room and seeing them sleeping in their bed will be the exception, not the norm. Staying up late, sitting on the couch, watching a bad movie together will be the exception, not the rule. Walking by and seeing them sitting at the table will be the exception, not an everyday occurence. Until you feel that tectonic shift in your life, you can’t appreciate how hard it hits.

3. It does get easier, but there’s no rule for how long that takes or the degrees to which it happens. Skype and texting help…a LOT! My own experience is that this past summer has made all the difference. It helped me to see first-hand how all of his good choices and hard work have made him even more the exceptional young man he already was when he left. My brain has also processed the fact that he does, eventually, come home, and that when he does he’s still my Boy.

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Congratulations John-Francis!

John-Francis - Senior Photo

Photo Courtesy of Patricia O’Driscoll

John-Francis graduates from High School tomorrow.  Even though I’ve been reminded of this reality every day for weeks, it still seems highly unlikely since, only yesterday, I was dropping him off at The Galloway School for his first day of kindergarten.  I remember how he matter-of-factly climbed out of his carseat and introduced himself to the teacher working carpool that early morning.  Another kindergartner overheard that John-Francis was a new student.  She firmly grabbed his hand, and the two of them headed off to begin the adventure of learning – hand-in-hand.  That’s how we do things at Galloway, eyes forward and hand-in-hand.

Of course, I was having trouble watching this beautiful moment of camaraderie.  I was too busy sobbing – something I continued to do for the hour-long drive back to our house.  John-Francis and I had stayed home together for almost six years.  Nearly every minute of every day of his life I had answered his questions, laughed at his jokes, cleaned his cuts, and held him when he needed a hug.  Suddenly someone else, an institution was going to take on that role for part of each day.  I was terrified of the possibility that he might become conventional, that the convenient norms of a children’s academic setting would somehow stifle the uniquely thoughtful and creative spark that I had watched come to life in him.

When he scheduled a protest on the playground – complete with rally signs and a rhyming chant – for the return of peanut butter to the classroom, I realized I had nothing to worry about.  (He informed me that, after a rather contentious circle time, “The man won.”)  John-Francis was at a school that valued four pillars:  fearlessness, community, mastery, individuality.  These were the very things I wanted him to learn to privilege in his life, and, rather than undermining them as I feared any institution might, Galloway nurtured them and allowed them to take deep root in every aspect of his education.

I watched John-Francis’ journey in awe, as he moved down the long hall of the Early Learning building, through the floors of the Middle Learning building, and then to the old, brick classrooms of Upper Learning.  It was like having a front-row seat for an epic performance where the lead character is exceptional in every way.  Looking back on the individual scenes, they form a consistent pattern – a biography of integrity, courage, and genuine wisdom that may be hard for him to see as he lives it out, but that is abundantly clear to those of us who have been watching, dumbstruck, since the curtain rose.

I saw him fight back (verbally and, sometimes, even physically) against bullies of all kinds, including a (no longer at Galloway) middle school principal who battled him tooth and nail on the LGBTQ Day of Silence observance.  When the day came, the involved grades had 85% participation, under the leadership of a ten-year-old John-Francis.

I listened, with genuine admiration, as John-Francis refused to tell even the tiniest lie, even the smallest mis-characterization of the facts, for his own benefit.  If an assignment was late, he took responsibility.  If the rules said no looking at your textbook, he wouldn’t even glance at it.  And if he was being irrational in an argument he would stop, look down for a moment, and then concede, “You’re right.  I’m being irrational about this.”  Even as a teenager, he wouldn’t lie to himself.

Nor would he let me lie to myself, which can be terribly inconvenient as an adult.  Self-deception can make life easier, albeit much less worthwhile, in all sorts of ways.  Nevertheless, John-Francis – even at a young age – has demonstrated the confidence and the insight to hold me accountable to my own principles in everything that I do.  I am certain I am a better person, because of the extraordinary person he is.

The conventional wisdom is that a child can’t be that person, my friend, someone to whom I am accountable, and also be my son.  My experience as his father has been just the opposite.  From the moment he was born, when I warmed him up with a blanket, put his first diaper on him, and told him, “You and I are going to have great fun together,” I have been his Dad with a capital “D.”  I am responsible for him, and growing into that responsibility has had a larger impact on me than all of the other things I have done in my life, combined.  But – as my own Dad has taught me every day for forty years – fathers and sons can be best friends and still understand that Dad is in charge.  Friendship is not about an equal dynamic of authority, it is about an equal dynamic of loyalty, trust, and respect.  I trust and respect John-Francis as much as I do my own Dad, which is to say completely, and my loyalty to him knows no limits.

John-Francis has earned that loyalty.  As he was growing up, we rarely talked about what he had to do, we talked about what his goals were, what kind of person he wanted to be, what kind of impact he wanted to have on the world.  Together, we mapped out ways to work toward those goals, and then he took it upon himself to do the hard, challenging, everyday work to reach them.  When, at the age of 12, he wanted to start taking classes in the high school at Galloway, he went – by himself – to meet with the Principal and request the opportunity.  From that point on, if he needed an advocate with the administration, he took the role upon himself.

Fearlessness:  a young man who stands up to bullies, even when they have all the power, and who advocates for himself rather than relying on others to do so.

Community:  a young man who creates a space for LGBTQ students’ voices to be heard, and who earns the trust of his friends through his loyalty and kindness.

Mastery:  a young man who seeks out every opportunity for learning, and who passionately, relentlessly engages his peers, his teachers, and his parents out of a desire to understand.

Individuality:  a young man whose integrity is such that he speaks the truth as he knows it, regardless of the consequences or the expectations of those around him.

That is the kind of man Elliott Galloway was.  That is the young man I hoped John-Francis would be when he left home to find his path.

In every way, by every measure, John-Francis has exceeded my wildest hopes in every single one of these categories, and in countless more.  Tomorrow he will get a diploma that is meant to represent over a decade of accomplishment, but there is no single piece of paper that could sum up all he has done – and all that Galloway has done for him – in that time.

For me, the words of his achievement are not writ on the parchment, they are carved deep into my memory by the sound of his voice saying, “I love you, Dad” and by the knowledge that this son whose love I have earned is a person who has earned my respect and my admiration a thousand times over.

Pictured with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

John-Francis with my Grandma Sue, in the kitchen where she taught me a master class in how to love someone.

 

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How To Never Become a Grown-Up

"Daybreak" - Maxfield Parrish

“Daybreak” by Maxfield Parrish

If you wish to download this as a PDF formatted for a single page, click here: Never Become a Grown-Up (Printable).

Few people actually grow wiser as they age.  Even if we do, we all feel like we’re walking around in our parents’ clothes pretending to be adults.  90% of the time when an adult chides a teenager for something, the adult had the exact same idea.  But they know they have to sound like an adult, so they mumble the admonishments they think they’re obligated to repeat.  Most of the “wise, adult” things you hear adults say, especially the lame and irrelevant ones, are just them parroting what they heard growing up.

Ultimately, most adults journey through their lives jettisoning all the things that are truly wonderful about youth:  passion, creativity, freedom, spontaneity, and loyalty; while also clinging to the very weaknesses they hoped to outgrow:  insecurity, pettiness, jealousy, gossip, and selfishness.  It all looks very “grown-up” from the outside, but that’s just window-dressing.  Don’t let the nicer clothes and more expensive toys fool you.  Unless you choose your friends and your path very carefully, most of adulthood is just a larger version of the high school cafeteria, but the cliques are more stratified and their members are more tired.

Some people, however, manage to become adults without ever becoming “grown-ups” (a patronizing word I have never liked).  Over the years, I have tried to figure out their secret, and tried to incorporate what I could into my own life.

So, for all my younger friends and friends who hope to stay young, here is my advice for how to become an adult without selling out to a system that never grew-up but insists that you should:

1.   When confronted with doing something new or doing a familiar task differently, ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?” If you can’t think of a good reason why not to, then do it.

2.   You will constantly hear people say, “I always wanted to…” or “I wish I could…” When faced with those statements, ignore their excuses for why they didn’t/couldn’t/won’t and start thinking about how you can/will/must!

3.   Remember that most people are unhappy, most people are unfulfilled, and most people are not in control of their own lives. With that in mind, doing things the way most people do them is insanity.  If you’re not weird, you’re wasting your life.

4.   Pay attention. Most people don’t. Train yourself to look for patterns in the way the world works, and then take advantage of those patterns to gain more freedom for yourself and control of your environment.

5.   Morality is often the opposite of what you think it is. Most people define “morality” as “doing the same things they do.” They allow any compromises that they, themselves, make, and scorn anyone who doesn’t avoid the same things they avoid.

Real morality is very different, very rare, and most often found where you least expect it. Truly moral people have an inflexible code when it comes to two things: betraying another’s trust, and harming someone else for their own gain.

Everything else is bullshit.

6.   “Achievement” is a meaningless goal in and of itself. Even the greatest achievements – landing on the moon, curing polio – are infinitesimal when you look at them on a cosmic scale. It’s the small decisions that will ultimately lead up to your greatest achievements. In whatever space you are given, make the choices that will improve the lives of the people around you.

There will be days when crooking your arm so a baby can sleep more comfortably will be your greatest achievement. It seems a small thing, but  being someone who makes others safe and comfortable is an amazing accomplishment and a tremendous legacy.

7.   Do not waste time or energy on unhealthy people. Only a small number of people are worth making your close friends.  This bears repeating.  Choose your friends very, very carefully.  They can, and should, be different from you in myriad ways, but they must be people who value:  Loyalty, Integrity, Kindness, Generosity, and Intentionality.  There is no room for flexibility on these things.  Be kind to everyone, but you should only entrust your friendship to those rare people whose lives are defined by those five traits.

8.   Stand up to bullies, of every kind and in every place.

9.   If you don’t find yourself occasionally saying, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke” then the joke is on you.

10. Remember that the silly stuff, the painful stuff, the embarrassing stuff, the icky stuff – that is where ALL of the magic in the world is to be found. Not some of it, ALL of it. If you pretend that stuff doesn’t exist, you will lead a life devoid of magic.

If you insist on seeking out those things, if you celebrate them, if you deal with them honestly and publicly you will scare people, but magic is not for the timid and afraid.

“Adults” become masters of pretending that stuff doesn’t exist. Don’t ever buy into that.

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