“Doe je ogen dicht,” my mother invariably said whenever a breast came onscreen, everif silhouetted; she’d say it, as well, when a Hollywood kiss languored for two seconds too long.
Dutch for: “Shut your eyes.” And obediently I would.
Except that I always peeked. Having been already exposed to a bikini-clad Princess Leia; also the long-legged Gillette model that, at every General Hospital advertisement break sank sighingly into a bathtub of shaving cream; my libido was already and irreversibly informed before graduating first grade.
This wasn’t, mind you, warning of any precocious or untoward sexuality, rather proof of a normal one.
Regardless, I did get into trouble once with the playground aide. She blew a whistle on my particular wrapped-leg negotiation of the monkey bars, and she glared at me with an aspersive contempt generally reserved for vicars and Victorians. I was banned to the classroom for the remainder of recess, and I was confused for years as to what crime I’d committed, why my head was assigned to the desk.
“Doe je ogen dicht.”
Sexuality is a long-formed identity, not a swift and overnight maturation. Science class had us watching time-lapse films of seeds erupting into germinal tender, then flowers, then back to seed. It was all bad metaphor and precursor to the later conversations we would have about sex, that puberty blossomed as eruptively and quickly as the fast-forward flower on a science reel, that it needed be addressed as such.
Sex-ed was hidden beneath the innocuous term ‘Family Studies’, a pronouncedly sixth grade thing. It was a class to explain the suddenly sprouted hairs and the sudden need for hygienic pads, a week-long discussion only.
One week, then we’d return to the regularly scheduled program of dissecting frog bellies and discussing transitive properties. It was The Talk, school-sponsored, parental signature of approval necessary.
I remember my principal, Windsor-knotted and blazer unshed, responding to a group of playground-sweaty kids. He pulled pieces of paper from the lottery of anonymous questions.
“How does sex feel? Well, it’s nice actually,” he intoned.
The principal used the words ‘wave’ and ‘pleasure’ with little elaboration, unenthusiastically, even; he cleared his throat, then wandered rhetorically back to the idea of ‘responsibility’ before pulling a second question from the lottery. It was about puberty. He seemed more comfortable with the second question: scientific, anatomical, a do-able. Meantime, though, there were kids burgeoning adolescence, wondering, “What do these combined things mean?”
Birds and bees could’ve buzzed the room and landed in the rafters. Meanwhile, we just learned sex was pretty ok and that menses had to do with uteri. There was also something about Eve.
‘Take the Talk Home’ was the suggestion, in which case my dad unearthed his college textbooks and laid them out on the dining-room table every night after dinner. I got The Talk.
The textbooks, they were gross-anatomy textbooks. At the age of nine, and in eye-opening detail, I learned well before most nineteen year olds–the sweaty and unversed drive-in breast-petters–where exactly everything is located. There were glossy and colored diagrams, lines pointing to the mons, all the majoras and minoras, frenula and deferens. I knew all this years before ever seeing a tri-fold spread. My dad took The Talk seriously. Brass tacks, learn the Grey’s version of things, black and white, before the bees began buzzing too loudly in errant bee-direction.
He was beyond clinical though. It’s something I’ve held onto all these years and where I’ve always been hugely impressed with my dad. Over the cracked textbooks, my dad talked about sex as practice; as an expansive and loving act; not just a curiosity or an anatomic locking of A into B. We talked about sex as function, sex as expression, sex as technique. Imagine Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ paired with an instruction manual.
My dad did beyond well. He could have an emeritus in Family Studies.
I vowed I would do this, too—This Talk—with my own and eldest son. I was nine when I was allowed to open my eyes and understand that blossoming happens in slo-motion, that tender shoots need informative direction well before bolt and bloom. I have sons, not daughters—just like my dad—and I was prepared to pass on my dad’s wisdom.
Except I didn’t get the first chance.
My wife was driving, and my son was eight. From the backseat, and while Mama was navigating the roads, my son described something his friend had shown him. It wasn’t as if the boys had discovered a musty cache´of National Geographics in an attic somewhere, had tittered nervously over the photographs of tribal breasts, or milk-feeding women in Scandinavia–natural, beautiful anthropological pictures, women with mammaries, not ‘tits.’ They had found an internet cache´ instead, involving derogatory terms, crude hashtags, explicit video.
It’s how you as a parent fear so much easy access. What do you say, when The Talk seems usurped by broadband? The trick is—and it’s not a trick—you keep talking. You talk talk talk.
My wife was driving, so the conversation was necessarily obstructed by means of a headrest.
“That’s not exactly Love, Sweetie. That’s fake,” and my wife had to look into the rear-view to make her point, worried, and with hands gripping the wheel all the more tightly.
“That’s people pretending they’re in love.”
I tell Cayde later, “It’s ok. There’s a lot to learn. We’ll keep talking.”
I have to tell him sometimes: “That’s to yourself,” and I never chastise him, though now he knows how babies are made and his bath-time is his.
At the Home Depot, Cayde plays a game of ‘Hot Lava’, and he occasionally hurls himself onto a pile of fertilizer, the concrete floor something imaginarily magma. There are rows of plants, perennials and annuals, and I explain the difference.
“The perennials seed but keep living; the annuals don’t.”
He sits on a bag of compost.
“I never choose annuals, Kid. I don’t like ripping out dead flowers. The annuals only last a few months.”
“This,” and I finger a bladed Strelitzia, “This lives, right?” When you tap the purple on a Bird of Paradise, the seeds get exposed.
“These make more flowers, Kid.”
He nods; he literally sits on manure, but his feet are clear of lava.
“You and me, Kid, let’s pick out some more plants.”
He runs off.
“Hey! The ones that haven’t blossomed just yet!,” and I roll my fingers to rid the seeds and they drop on the concrete.
He picks a flower–a phaelonopssis–with a stalwart stamen and a bit something Georgia O’Keefe. The Talk, then, must continue.
There is an incredible online resource now with videos that aid in The Talk: amaze.org. Great and accessible videos, which can help you with what is, always, a difficult conversation. You can follow the Amaze parents for #MoreInfoLessWeird on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AMAZEparents/ I have been compensated for this post, but all the views are my own, particularly the admiration I have for my father in doing The Talk well, and in hopes of continuing the same conversation with my sons.