My Dad Yelling At Clouds

I’ve been obsessed with the recent SFWA kerfuffle. I’m not a member. I even feel a bit self-conscious describing myself as an aspiring member. Nevertheless, I spent last weekend sneaking moments away from my visiting parents so that I could read the latest blog or twitter posts about the Resnick/Malzberg crazy talk and reactions thereof.

Now that my parents have gone home and the SFWA brouhaha has mostly died down, I’ve pinpointed the source of my fixation. It was, for me, a personal issue writ large. My Dad, the man who gave me science fiction, has become an Old Man Yelling At Clouds, right along with Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg. And it breaks my heart.

When I was about eight or nine, I took a stab at reading my older sister’s favorite book. It didn’t sound like my sort of thing, but you never know, so I gave it a try. I tried. I really did.

At one point, Dad noticed and the following conversation ensued.

Dad: Hey, Dianna, how’s it going with that book?

Me: It’s just…it’s just so boring! I’ve only got about 15 pages left and I’m not even sure I can finish it. It’s just so, so boring.

Dad: Here, Honey, why don’t you try this.

And I can still see it there in my memory, his outstretched arm and the paperback he was holding. It looked a bit battered, but there was some sort of fascinating, futuristic bubble castle-city on the cover…and a jeep. The cover of the book my sister had recommended? A girl cradling a doll.

No contest. I slammed Little House in the Big Woods shut (very satisfying, it was hardcover), pushed it aside, unfinished, and reached for Here Abide Monsters by Andre Norton.

I’m certain that Dad knows that Andre Norton was a woman. I do wonder, though, when he first realized that fact. Was she already his favorite author by then? Would he have chosen her books, for himself, if he’d known that “Andre” was a pen name? In the end, though, whatever his original attitude toward “Lady writers,” she was still his favorite author. Over the years, he has assembled a complete collection of her works. No small task for an author so prolific.

After Here Abide Monsters, he fed me Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D and then The Stars Are Ours. Then we branched out into Heinlein (Starman Jones and The Rolling Stones). After that, I lost track. I took after my father and became a voracious reader, as did my younger brother. The rest of my childhood took place against a backdrop of science fiction and fantasy.

Dad would take us to the “Book Bin,” a local used book store, and we would leave with a grocery bag full of paperbacks. We would take turns reading them, passing around the good ones, and debating which were the best in the batch, the ones that we’d keep for ourselves instead returning for store credit. I remember Mom once saying, “You guys talk about these characters like they’re people you know!” We laughed and said, “Well, they are!”

I vividly remember being so proud that I was the one who discovered Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg. I pulled it off the shelf, selected it as my purchase (each child was allowed one book, Dad filled the rest of the bag), and talked it up to everyone else. And it is a fantastic read. So much so that Dad purchased brand new copies of all subsequent Majipoor books, rather than waiting for them to show up at the Book Bin – a sincere compliment from a man raising four children on a teacher’s salary.

I’m not sure when Dad stopped taking my recommendations. When I went to college? Possibly. When we stopped making book-buying excursions as a family? Maybe. But it was more than just getting older and going away, because it didn’t apply to my brother.

I once bought Dad a copy of Vernor Vinge’s Fire Upon the Deep for his birthday, certain that he would love it. He gave it a cursory glance and set it aside. Months later, he wanted to tell me all about this great book that my brother had lent him. All I could say was, “Fire Upon the Deep, yeah, I’ve read it. Isn’t it awesome?” And then we talked about the cool pack-mind aliens, while I resisted the urge to dig through his bookshelf and pull out the brand-new, unopened copy that I knew was there.

I still go to bookstores with Dad, but I don’t bother making suggestions. I’m really just there to keep him company, and to listen while he looks at the shelves and lists off all the books and authors that he’s already read. Funny the things that his brain is holding on to, and those that it is not.

My Dad has non-alzheimers dementia. He had to quit playing golf because he couldn’t keep track of his strokes. During a recent family vacation, my husband and I rented a five-room apartment with my parents; Dad kept getting lost and wandering into our bedroom while looking for the kitchen. I can see the day coming where he will not know, for sure, if I am his first born child or his second. Or maybe even his baby sister. This, when he used to know that she was the one who loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and I was the one who loved Andre Norton. I’m not sure, but I think that my Aunt was never much of a reader – Dad was the oddball in his family.

He’s losing some more subtle things, too, like pieces of his civility. I know that my PhD gives him pause, as does the fact that I didn’t marry until I was past 30. It surprises him that my husband cooks almost as much as I do. It confuses him that my sister and I are aptly described as “strong” and that my brothers, while strong, are both probably best described as “kind.”

But he never actually says anything about all this. He either learned to accept, maybe even appreciate, changing gender roles and the opportunities they afforded his children, or he knew well enough to build up a very thick filter for these topics. Now, though, there are tiny strokes worming their way through his brain, and they seem to be eating away whatever “lessons learned” or barriers were keeping his tongue in check.

He and my Mom were visiting last weekend, as they do twice a year on their sunbird migration between Arizona and Oregon. I’m lucky enough to have the world’s greatest science fiction bookstore within walking distance of my house, and Dad and I always go to Borderlands Books when he’s in town. We were on our way home, with a bag full of books, when Dad noticed a young woman walking down the streets with a couple of friends. Her clothing and grooming were conventional, almost conservative, but you could just barely see a colorful, elaborate tattoo peeking out from the bottom of her right sleeve. Here’s the conversation that ensued:

Dad: I don’t understand all these tattoos. Why do people do that to themselves? I just don’t get it. Or maybe I’m just an old fogey.

Me: You’re an old fogey.

Dad: Well I just think that it makes a woman unattractive.

Me: Dad, just, just don’t say things like that.

Dad: Well it’s unattractive!

Me: She has other things that important to her, besides being attractive to you.

Dad: Well she put it out there! So I have the right to comment on it, don’t I?

Me: No, Dad, you don’t, that’s the point.

Dad: Well I have always been a flaming liberal! Most of my friends, they don’t understand how I could be such a flaming liberal…

And he continued on in that vein for another 10 minutes or so. Then we got home. He buried his nose in a book. I curled up with my laptop, where I read post after post after post about Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg and their self-absorbed, tone deaf, old fogey misogyny. And I thought, yeah, that’s Dad.

So, what do I about that? What does the SFWA do about Resnick and Malzberg? What do we do, in general, about grasping, cranky old men who are confused and outraged about the changes in the world around them?

Honestly, on a personal level, I have to say that I feel bad about arguing with Dad. Even with my righteousness, I feel bad. I can’t win anything with this sort of argument. He’s not going to learn (or relearn) to view anonymous women respectfully, or even that it’s best to keep disrespectful views to himself. I’m wasting my breath.

Worse yet, I am wasting my time – the remaining time I have with him. On the way home from our favorite bookstore, I argued with Dad instead of asking what was in his bag. I should have talked to him about his books, about what other books we had read by those authors and about what else he had enjoyed recently. I don’t know how many more opportunities I will have for these conversations. In the not-so-distant future, dementia is going to consume some part of his brain that he literally cannot live without, and he will die. And I will grieve forever.

So, I am resolving to argue less with my father. This applies even when he says completely obnoxious things that would shame his younger self. However, I do reserve one exception: he can’t say that shit in front of my five-year-old. If that happens, I will argue. My son needs to understand that women and girls are people and should be treated as such. For all the love and respect that we have for the past, we cannot allow it to poison the future.

And that’s what brings me back to the SFWA. I don’t know Resnick and Malzberg. I don’t know if what they said might embarrass their younger selves, as is the case with Dad, or if they’ve always been such jerks. But what they said is threatening to poison the future of a very good organization. I was impressed and heartened to see so very many articulate, strong voices arguing against them.

And, honestly, who says those old men even own the past – Andre Norton published her first, thoroughly awesome science fiction novel before either one of them had even entered high school (Star Man’s Son, 2250 A.D. – 1952).


5 thoughts on “My Dad Yelling At Clouds

  1. I really liked this. You generously commemorate your father’s role in developing your reading habit while at the same time are honest about his shortcomings, and you deal with the ambivalence that these things are both true. You might be interested in this article about why aging men say inappropriate things: I’m not sure it’s great science, but it suggests there’s a mechanism behind those cringe-worthy statements.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Trisha. Writing up this post really helped come to some level of peace with it (at least for now). I’m thankful for being able to write it and having a place to share it.

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