When I was a kid, I remember thinking about my father: “Were you ever young?”
I love my dad, but he is and has always been a bit of an old fogey, and I used to wonder at what point he became that way. I understood, of course, that he had to have once actually been a child, but to my young eyes, it appeared that he hadn’t managed to hold on to any kid-like qualities at all as an adult.
He’s always been kind of like the anti-Phil Dunphy (the dad from the TV show Modern Family who acts like an overgrown kid) – there has never been anything immature about my father. Everything he did was Dad-like and every bit of culture he consumed was always just the kind of thing that a dad would like.
His books were all Dad-books – they weren’t there for relating stories about people struggling with their feelings or going on voyages of self-discovery. The Civil War and World War II – those were conflicts worth reading about. And any voyages of discovery were going to be about Lewis and Clark or Christopher Columbus.
A good movie was a movie that starred Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. And all the best films took place during World War II or the old West. TV wasn’t for wacky sitcoms, but for watching news programmes – or for catching old films set in the west or during World War II – ideally starring Richard Burton or Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. He never paid any attention at all to rock or even pop music, despite being a teenager during Elvis’ heyday. To this very day, I don’t think he could name a Beatles song. But he could tell you all about Perry Como. That was his jam.
My dad was a dad’s dad, who was absolutely impervious to any and all current trends or pop culture. Science Fiction? Video games? Superhero comics? Forget it. He is and was always a square. Straight as an arrow. An old fuddy-duddy through and through.
He once told me that when he was very young, he used to read comic books and watch cowboy movie serials, but that he gave those things up as he got older. I used to wonder why. Did he lose interest in those things, or did he sacrifice his love of them to fulfil some sense of adult obligation or duty? I remember thinking to myself “I don’t want to give up being interested in the things I like when I get older. I don’t want to like ‘dad things’.”
I remember getting into arguments with my father whenever we drove anywhere because he would invariably have the car radio tuned to a “Muzak”-style station – the kind of “light,” manufactured, easy-listening music they used to play in shopping centres. Dad music.
“Dad, PLEASE can we listen to something else? This is horrible.”
“My car. My music. Tough”
“But Dad, this is the kind of music they play in elevators. This is LITERALLY ELEVATOR MUSIC! How do you even find the radio stations that play this stuff?”
-Music still playing-
“Will you shut up and let me drive. It relaxes me.”
“Do you like elevator music?”
“I said leave me alone.”
“So when you’re in an elevator, do you press the buttons to stop on every floor just so that you can just stand there and have more time to enjoy the elevator music? Is that what you do? Elevator-music lover!”
“…..Do you want to walk?”
Yes, I was a wiseass. But that’s what being an immature kid is all about, right? Being a little bit of a know-it-all and thinking that the stuff you like is modern and good and that the stuff your parents like is old and tired.
As I got older, I vowed I would never give up on liking the things I cared about. Unlike my dad, who succumbed to it at the first hurdle, I was going to make myself immune to the disease of fatherly old fogey-ness. I was going to be a cool older man and someday, a cool dad.
And for many years, I thought it worked. At least that’s what I believed – until just a few weeks ago.
It was late in the evening, around 9.30pm and my 10-year-old daughter was meant to be getting ready for bed. She had a big day ahead of her. She needed to bring her trumpet to school, make sure her gym kit was packed and she had to finish writing in the reading log that her school required to fill in every evening. Instead of doing any these things, she was in her room, playing. I was frustrated with her inaction and it caused me to shout at her in an attempt to move her along.
That’s when it came out. The one sentence that revealed all of my plans to stay young at heart and never really change as I got older, were all lies and self-delusion. An utterance that seemingly came out of nowhere, but had really always been there, floating around, waiting for an opportunity to reveal itself. The words that forced me to confront the fact that old-fogeyness wasn’t something you could choose to accept or reject. That it was part of nature’s inevitable and unavoidable plan for all fathers.
These 12 words are what did it:
“Enough of this malarkey! Quit your gallivanting and get ready for bed.”
That’s what I said, and when I said it I didn’t know where the words had come from. What is a malarkey? What the fudge does that even mean? Isn’t gallivanting a word that stopped being used in like, Victorian times? It’s not something I recall learning from my own experience. As much as I thought my dad was an old fuddy-duddy, I don’t recall him ever telling me not to gallivant. My teachers didn’t talk to me about the dangers of gallivanting. The word isn’t commonly used in popular culture. It’s not like Batman tells Robin in the comics to “stop gallivanting and get in the Batmobile.” Actors in TV medical dramas don’t say “give me 10ccs of adrenaline – and none of your gallivanting.” They just say “stat.”
So why wasn’t I saying “Get ready for bed. Stat”? Or “Get ready for bed. ASAP”? Or any of the other normal/modern terms that it would make sense for me to use? Why ‘gallivanting?’ Is it the same impulse that made me write the word fudge, instead of fuck in the paragraph above? Am I just turning into a conservative old man? Is that what fatherhood does? But even if that’s it, it doesn’t explain the use of that particular word.
Once I realised what I had said, I started to think about the way I spoke to my daughter and with some horror, I began to become aware that that wasn’t the only bizarrely old-fashioned word or phrase I was using regularly. The others were just as bad:
“Stop dilly-dallying and go find your school shoes.”
“Hustle your bustle!“
“Chop chop! Get a move on!
“Move your caboose!”
These are all things that I really do say now. Regularly.
When did I become some strange, archaic mixture of Ned Flanders and Boris Johnson? Why was I talking like this?
It’s embarrassing. Particularly that ‘chop chop’ one. I’m afraid to look it up online because I just know that it probably has racist origins – the kind of thing that a British factory owner would shout at his coolie servants during the opium wars in order to get them to pull the rickshaw faster.
So why can’t I stop saying these things? And why are all of these sayings variations of “hurry up?”
My best guess is that all fathers carry some kind of Jungian connection to all the other dads in history.
None of these words and phrases came from nowhere. They have histories.
I believe fatherhood isn’t something you’re taught in a class, except in certain court-ordered circumstances. For the rest of us, you learn how to be a dad by having watched your own dad, but there’s also a strong element to being a father where you just follow your instincts – impulses that have been passed down in our DNA over hundreds or even thousands of years. The language and words of dads before me are a legacy I can try to suppress, but it’s still a part of me and using those anachronistic words was just a case of them bursting out of me when they were needed most.
Perhaps there’s a lag – a glitch in the matrix that makes us hang on to the vernacular of previous generations of fathers, like a latent virus where the symptoms only present themselves when you’re a dad.
Whatever the reason for my use of words like malarkey and caboose, it doesn’t really matter. The fact that I was speaking like the kind of old fogey I vowed I would never be finally pulled the wool away from my eyes. I had hornswoggled myself for years. The kind of dad who speaks of malarkey and gallivanting really is no different nor any better than my dad or any other dad. I was an old fogey too.
All I really wanted was for my darn kid to hurry up so that I could finally have a nice restful evening at the end of a long day. That’s what all dads want and it’s that desire itself that makes us into old fogeys.
We dads cope with the stress of a kid who won’t hurry up and stop being such a wiseass in different ways. My dad did it with Muzak, and movie westerns. I do it with science fiction movies and comic books. Different generations, different hobbies – but it’s all just window dressing – even for Phil Dunphy.
Underneath it all, we just want the shenanigans to stop.
Me and my daughter. She’s clearly up to some tomfoolery.