I hadn’t yet connected beyond wisecracks and laughs with a new acquaintance last weekend, when he and I discovered that we each had 17-year-old daughters.
Suddenly it was like we’d shared a foxhole at the Battle of the Bulge.
“She and I used to be so close!” he said. “Now it’s just, Dad, where are the keys.”
I called it “mourning.”
I thought he was going to hug me.
He added that it was just shocking to go so suddenly from being such a central, heroic figure in his daughter’s life, to being an essential non-entity—no, an anti-entity, whose every suggestion is met with an immediate dismissal, on principle.
My new brother and I were together, huddling for warmth in the frigid Ardennes.
And I thought of him the other night, when I was watching a documentary on Ethel Kennedy—RFK’s wife. She was pretty great! Funny! Imaginative! Crusty! Contrary! Tough! Sad! One of a kind, stubbornly un-Kennedy-ized. Certainly one of the cooler Ethels in history, and a woman who knew exactly who she was. I wanted my daughter to watch it, and I was willing to watch it again, with her.
There were about 13 years where she’d pretty much watch anything I’d put in front of her; or put her in front of, was more like it. When she was little, I used to hoist her on my lap at my office desk and play YouTube videos of great and inspirational dancing, singing, fighting!
In that way and through TV documentaries, I also introduced her quite purposefully and thoroughly to:
Dorothy, Scarecrow and the gang. (On the monkey bars, she would will herself to take her hand off and reach for the next rung, saying out loud, “Courage.”)
Scout Finch, it goes without saying.
Ray Charles. (She was so young when I introduced her to him that she thought Ray had a woman way over town because “She saves me money.”)
Johnny Cash. (She entertained our cocktail parties when she was three by singing, in perfect time and pitch, about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die.)
Elvis. (At Graceland.)
Jay Gatsby. (I read the book aloud.)
Joni Mitchell. (I’ve already talked about this.)
All the wonderful women on the World Cup-winning 1999 USA soccer team.
And most of all, Muhammad Ali, most of whose fights she’s seen, and some twice. And When We Were Kings, and all the other documentaries.
And many in-person legends, too!
When she was four weeks old, Studs Terkel kissed her bald head at a Christmas party and shouted, “Welcome to the world!” while someone from another room cried, “Sign the baby, Studs! Sign the baby!” At five, she was a regular political campaigner for our pal, the great Illinois pol Pat McGuire. She grew up believing that parades involved riding on your father’s shoulders, throwing candy to children lining the street.
And those are just the name guys. Before she was 10, she knew more people than I knew when I was 30. Cool cats, partiers, Hyde Park intellectuals, moral giants, musicians, teachers, writers, young hipsters and old hippies, tough guys, nice guys, wise guys and funny fucks—dozens and dozens of men and women who surround my happy life.
Not to mention professional women football players, with whom I played for several months as a gonzo journalist for a story when she was six. First time she saw me in my Chicago Force uniform she said, “Dad! You look like a real girl!”
And not to forget: me and her mother ourselves—and our character-filled families, among whom she has always been deeply embedded.
But goddamn her, she’s not going to watch the Ethel Kennedy doc, even though she would love it. Nor the one about Nina Simone (though I did force her to see Summer of Soul before she went to Lollapalooza).
I know better than to even bring it up.
Because she’s at least temporarily done taking my recommendations, which always seem to turn out to be a major drag compared to whatever TikTok tells her her high school friends are up to at the time. Sometimes in a fit of rage, I call them “practice people.” Oh, come on, I’m kidding!
Of course, I might have told my new war buddy that he and I should really focus on the wonders of what independent women we seem to have raised our daughters to be. How cool it is to see them operating in the world, without our guidance. (My kid just up and got a job at Dairy Queen yesterday, for instance.) How great it will be to be their pals, in a few years—drink beer with them. And how they’ll surely turn all the emotional seed and intellectual fertilizer we’ve sewn, into nourishing crops for us, in what might otherwise be our fallow old age.
But I didn’t want to ruin the mood.