I never thought much about having The Talk with my son. My wife brought it up in passing -- "Hey, honey, are you going to talk to Zachary about the birds and the bees?" -- with one of those wry smiles that accompany parenting's occasional Norman Rockwell moments. I thought of it as one of those kind of cornball parental things that you're supposed to do, but don't quite know why.
Like every other kid, at least in the San Francisco Bay Area, Zachary has been indoctrinated with earnest warnings and information about AIDS, safe sex and drugs from an early age. In seventh grade, his class practiced putting a condom on a cucumber. In his sophomore year, they moved up to dildos. There were three, one black, one pink, and one clear, which the sex ed teacher named, respectively, Don Juan, Casanova and Clarence. (Clarence?) She advised the girls that if they were planning to steal one, they should take the rubber one (Casanova), because the fiberglass ones would be very uncomfortable.
I wasn't sure what I could add to that. Plus, it's not as if I'm a Bible-thumper who would freak out if I found out that he had engaged in "premarital sex" (is that antique expression even used anymore?) or smoked a joint in high school. It didn't really seem that urgent to warn him not to get into crank, drop too much acid or knock up girls.
So although I was vaguely aware that this was something I was maybe supposed to do, I didn't think about it much and certainly didn't plan to do it. It's quite possible that if that guy hadn't put that joint in my hand, I never would have had The Talk with him at all.
But I'm getting ahead of my story.
A few years ago, I took Zachary to a Steely Dan concert in Concord, Calif. He was a month shy of his 15th birthday and had just started high school. We had a fine old time, although as with all these dinosaur-band shows, it was humiliating to look around and see how bad we aging fans all looked. Toward the end of the show, lots of people crowded down into the first few rows and started dancing, and we did too. That was when the guy boogeying next to me offered me a very large joint.
I hesitated. I smoke dope on occasion, but I had never done it in front of Zach before. Was he old enough to handle it? Was it time to end this faintly hypocritical charade of "protecting" him from something I didn't think was dangerous or wrong? Yep. I accepted the joint and took an enormous hit. I glanced at Zachary. He was rocking happily away, but he definitely saw me. The Dan -- who, by a strange coincidence, derive their name from a stainless-steel dildo in a William S. Burroughs novel -- rocked on through another encore or two. The joint came around again and I took another major hit. The band finished their last song and left the stage, and we all began to file out, an inglorious army of balding men in shorts, Tevas and Costco Hawaiian shirts, and soccer moms losing the battle of the bulge.
By the time we had walked the mile or so to the car, I realized that I was extremely stoned. Which probably had something to do with at least part of the conversation that ensued.
"So, Zach," I said as I pulled out of the parking lot, "we should probably talk about drugs. Since you saw me smoke that joint back there."
Zach said, "OK." That was pretty much the only thing he said for the duration of The Talk, except for a few affirmative grunts. If these conversations are embarrassing for parents, they must be excruciating for their kids.
"Well, obviously, I don't think smoking marijuana is a bad thing," I said. "Actually, in a lot of ways it's better than drinking. Drunks kill a lot more people and do a lot more harm to themselves than people who smoke dope. I don't smoke that much, but sometimes I think I should smoke more and drink less. Marijuana is a more interesting high than alcohol."
Zach said, "Mmm."
Somewhere in the course of this lecture a stray thought blew through my buzzed brain like a brightly colored piece of paper. I realized with horror that my lofty pronouncements about the mind-opening virtues of marijuana would lose some of their credibility if I were to start babbling incoherently like Cheech or Chong. I had to focus.
"But you can abuse any drug, including marijuana. It's probably better to wait a while before you try it. Like 'til you're 17 or 18, or in college. The longer you wait, the better."
"But some other drugs aren't as benign as dope," I went on. "Hallucinogens can be really powerful and scary, and cocaine makes you really wired and is bad for your health. Plus people blow all their money on it. And speed is terrible -- don't ever do that. I've never tried heroin, but it's extremely dangerous and addictive."
Zachary listened to this fire-breathing Just Say No sermon in silence.
I was on a roll. My synapses were firing in all directions, like Blackwater employees after a few drinks. I'd plunged in, and found that the chilly waters of The Talk weren't so bad after all. I decided to keep going. I'd done the drugs part, why not do the sex part too? It's like the doctors say -- if you're going to remove the spleen, you might as well get the pancreas while you're in there.
"And while we're on the subject," I went on, "let's talk about sex."
Zachary grunted. If a thought balloon had appeared over his head, it would almost certainly have read "When will this conversation end?"
"You probably know all this already," I went on, "but the main thing is to not get any diseases or get anyone pregnant."
"So you should practice safe sex," I said. "That means using condoms."
It felt a little strange doing this Father Knows Best routine while stoned. There'd been a few other occasions when I'd done things with the kids while aloft, and I'd often ended up having conversations with them that were out of the ordinary. Afterward, it felt like we'd gotten closer. Maybe being high ripped off some of the grown-up numbness and brought me closer to their sharper, quicker sense of life.
After mumbling a few more be-careful, have-fun platitudes, I looked over at Zachary, wondering what he was thinking.
Zachary said, "I should be so lucky."
I cracked up, and he smiled. "OK, that's the end of the sermon," I said. We listened to Steely Dan the rest of the way home.
Since then, I've sometimes wondered if that talk was useful to him. In one way, I doubt it. He knew all that stuff anyway, and I don't know that hearing it from me made any difference. But just in case some morally outraged reader is preparing to call Child Protective Services on my degenerate ass, I should point out that by his own reliable report, Zachary's drug experimentation has been so modest it would probably put him in the bottom 5 percent of American youth. He's hitting college with a ludicrously clean bloodstream. Six weeks ago, when we were driving Zachary to the airport, he said he'd never even gotten drunk. So maybe the best way to keep kids off drugs is not to intone Just Say No, but to lay down morally relativist raps while under the influence of Humboldt County's finest.
In another way, though, I'm kind of glad we had that talk. Like most parents I know, I tend to avoid stilted and artificial interactions with my children. I've had very few Serious Conversations with them. It isn't that I'm afraid of being an authority figure and want to be their friend, not their father. I have no problem with "because I said so"; I've delivered more domestic commands than Gen. Patton -- and at least 10 percent of them have been obeyed. I just prefer to be who I am and let them learn organically. Basically, my attitude toward kids is that they're going to be OK unless you screw them up, and striking highly conscious moral poses or laying down abstract lines they have to walk between is more likely to screw them up than just being yourself.
But there's no reason to be absolutist about your relativism. And even though it feels stilted, sometimes actually telling your kids in a formal way what you believe is OK. Even if all you're telling them is that you want them to be a good person, try to make the world a better place, and avoid the brown acid.