Apr 21, 2012

Leveling Up

Yesterday was a field trip. No, that's not code for playing hooky from work, I volunteered at my daughter's fifth grade field trip to UW's college of Engineering "Discovery Days". It's sort of an open house, where many of the students display some of the more vibrant and dynamic projects in which they are engaged. She was excited about it, and insisted I take a day off from work so we could hang out at a college.

Seriously, who could say no to an invitation like that? Not this dad.

So in spite of some rain - yes, this is Seattle, so what did we expect? - it was a great few hours at the event. We saw an actual wind tunnel, a human powered submarine, and - my personal highlight of the day - met Monty Reed, inventor of the pneumatic-driven lifesuit. Dude is Tony Stark, only thus far Robert Downey Jr isn't playing him in any movies. But it's still early.

Jillie had her iPod handy, snapping pictures of the architecture of the school, and remarking frequently to me how much she loved interesting buildings. We talked about going to England someday so we can look at actual old buildings. Science and innovation was everywhere, floating around the air like cherry blossoms.

Since I'd driven down, we decided to hang out a bit longer at the event, and then take a nice drive around the city. Since we live about a half hour out, we don't usually get the chance, so now that the rain had gone away, it seemed a perfect time to do so. We drove around aimlessly in the downtown streets, Jillie pointing at this building or that, and I even pointed out a few buildings I've been considering for inclusion in an upcoming novel. As most of our downtown trips require, we swung by Uwajimaya's and picked up a few new manga (which catches her up on Soul Eater) and some treats for us to share later as a family. You know the drill - pocky, Ramune, all the basics. A short lunch later and we were back on the road.

Now, ever since Jillie was a wee thing, we've tried to be open and honest with her, and tried to encourage an air of sharing between us. Frequent readers of this blog or my Middle Age books will no doubt recognize
this pattern. It does, on occasion, lead us into potentially awkward situations (such as being asked to help her shop for bras a few months back), but every time I've come away being more and more impressed by this wonderfully intelligent child that I somehow have been granted the opportunity to help raise and be a father to.

Our drive back home provided the perfect backdrop to a new series of conversations. It started with a reflection on the Discovery Days, and with both of us wondering aloud just what Jillian might be when she grows up. The choices are out there, broad in scope, with no real demand for a decision as yet. For now, Jillie is enjoying writing stories and drawing. She's not far off from how I was at her age. Dungeons and Dragons, video games, friends, comic books and music. Pretty standard fare, yes?

We talked about life wishes, and I confessed that Neil Gaiman has stepped up to share the top spot with Sting on my list of people I'd love to hang out with someday over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. We both agreed that Yoko Kanno would also be extremely cool to meet, and she started thinking of a list like that of her own.

This conversation led naturally into one about growing up in general - exploring the world, learning everything, and yet Jillie insists that she will always live near us, calling or visiting us every day to share in the joy of new discoveries and celebrating new successes of dreams realized and boundaries broken. I can think of no greater way to spend a life, really.

I laughed when I told her that one of the things that worried Lizz and I was the general tendency of teenagers to rebel against the constraints of their parents. I admitted that although it wasn't like we just let her go insane on the world, we tried to apply logic and wisdom to every restriction we applied to her life - and even then, it isn't like there are many of them. We try to help her learn from every rule - why it exists as a rule and what we hope she will gain from it. In the end, we want her to be able to be the master of her own life.

It went from there into a brief conversation about her shaving her head and getting tattoos - by which I mean to say she made the cartoon gagging face at my implication that she'd ever do either. I told her it was at some point going to be her choice, and that like so many choices she would face in life, there would come a time where Lizz and I were not going to be in the room when she had to make them.

One of the things that I carried with me from my youth was the idea of making your decision before you ever had to make a stand - to decide what you wanted to do in certain situations long before you found yourself in a place where you were being asked to decide it.  I told her, also, that things like drinking (before you're 21) and smoking, doing drugs, and having sex were all things that, in the moment, may no longer seem like such bad things. Almost as if they're good things. People might like you. They might like you more. They might not make fun of you. In that moment, it's almost too late to decide what you want to do.

At this point, we'd gotten home, but she asked if we could stay in the car and just talk - that way the dogs wouldn't interrupt.

Drinking, smoking, doing drugs - those were all clear issues for her. But when we listed off sex, she made a horrified and confused expression. "Oh my god, why would I want to do that ever? I'm not having sex until, like, at least two or three years after I get MARRIED!"

My laughter surprised her, so I had to explain. (author's note: I asked her before I decided to write this for her permission - she thought it might help other dads feel more comfortable talking to their daughters about sex, so told me to go ahead with her blessing)

Me: "You mean, you're not going to try and have babies until two or three years after you get married, right?"

Her: "Right. So I can wait and have sex, then."

Me: (after a healthy pause) "Well, you know sex isn't ONLY for making babies."

She looked at me like I was a crazy man. "But it's GROSS!"

Me: "Okay, let's be honest about it. Sex might seem gross to you, but it can be a pretty wonderful thing that two people who truly love each other and love being with each other can do. It's like kissing, only thousands of times better - it's like kissing, hugging, riding a roller coaster, eating a bite of the best chocolate ever made, laughing, tickling - it's one of the truly best feelings two people can ever share. But, yes, it's also a way that people can try and make babies. But it's not JUST for that."

We'd talked a bit earlier about Darwinism, and about how his theory suggests that (for example) only the tall giraffes could eat, so the short giraffes all died, leaving only tall giraffes. I added that people felt good having sex so that they'd do it a lot - because if people didn't make babies, then the people were all gonna die.

"But also," I added, "when you're with somebody you really really like, you're gonna kiss them (No, Jillie, stop making the yuck face, it's going to happen and it's okay. It'll happen). But when you do, you're going to feel all kinds of tingly, and your body is going to start thinking it's time to go further than just kissing. It's going to feel like it's okay to do more."

Her: "So you kiss and then you have sex?"

Me: "Well, no, there's a few steps between one and the other."

Her: "Oh, like people touching your...."

Me: "Your 'privacy bits', yes."

Her: "Well, that's OFF LIMITS."

Me: "But as you get older, and when you start to really kiss a person you really like, that part might not feel like it wants to be off limits."

Her: "Well, I'm just gonna tell them no. And if they try it, I'm gonna punch them in the face."

Me: "I'd rather there was no punching, but if you say no and they don't listen, then do what you have to do, yes."

Her: "If a boy doesn't listen when I say no, then I'm not going to be friends with them."

Me: "If a boy doesn't listen when you say no, then he's already not friends with you."

Her: "And he better not punch back."

Me: "Better not."

Her: "So that's why I'm going to wait."

Me: "Well, I just think it's best that you take any of those steps one at a time, and give yourself a chance to make each choice with a clear head. And THAT's the decision you have to make before you even find yourself kissing someone."

She pondered this for a moment, and nodded thoughtfully. And what she said next made me feel like I was somehow witness to the greatest realization of the universe.

"I think it's like in a video game. You have to start playing by learning how to fight little stuff, and then when you level up, you can fight more powerful stuff. But you have to level up and get cool weapons and equipment first, and level your party up, too. And sex is like...the BOSS. If you try to fight him before you're ready, he just KILLS YOU."

So there it was. My 11 year old daughter just explained sex with a metaphor as playing video games. Leveling up.

We laughed about that for a few minutes - I admitted that I couldn't have imagined a better metaphor to use for that entire conversation, and we decided it was a good point to wrap it up, go on inside and watch a bit of television and relax. Meanwhile, I sat there and pondered the fact that my daughter is simply amazing.

Twelve years ago, I was terrified. I felt - no, I was certain - that I was unfit to the task. I didn't think my experiences or knowledge were anywhere close to being adequate to the responsibility of being a father. There are still days I feel that sting of life-applied humility. But yesterday... I felt like I'd kind of leveled up in the Dad video game. Or at least, she leveled up as my little girl. She's just awesome. Eleven years old, and already making analogies like an old pro.

So, yeah, college is still a few years off, and no, I'm really not in any hurry to see my little girl going off into the world - - but I definitely feel a lot better about her ability to do so in a grand way.

Hear that, world? Get ready.

1 comment:

Dave Glenn said...

Sounds like you have a wonderful daughter. I am anxious to meet your family someday. It has been too many years.

You are, and always have been, a gifted writer. I enjoy reading your take on things. You described being taught to make decisions about important things before actually being faced with the opportunity. I remember the same lesson being taught to me as a youth. It is one that I preach to my own children and the ones I am privileged to teach at school. I think there are so many times that making decisions early with a mind void of outside influences can steer us clear of hazardous decisions made in the heat of the moment. I hope Jillie can make great decisions early and stand strong in the midst of adversity. Sounds like she has a great head on her shoulders. Way to go. Thanks for sharing about Leveling Up.