TANSTAAFL, and Other Things I Learned as the Daughter of an Old-School Geek

I have been trying to write a post for this blog that explained how and why I became the geek I am today. I tried to write about how it’s a rebellion against a society in which I don’t feel I fit yet am forced to reside. I tried to write about how it’s me defining my role in the world. I tried to write about the community, camaraderie, and sense of belonging I feel while sitting at a tabletop game with friends, attending a cosplay panel at a convention, or running around as an avatar in Guild Wars 2. All of these are true, but they all felt flat and lifeless, like they were missing something.

They were missing something big. SomeONE big. Someone 6’2”, with giant shoulders that were always the best for sitting on to see over a crowd at a joust at a Renaissance Faire. Someone whose eyes would light up while regaling me with tales of the original Spider-Man comics he bought as a kid. Someone whose normally calm, quiet voice would get a quick, sharp uptick when it got to the scene between Bilbo and Smaug while reading The Hobbit as a bedtime story. Someone who was my solid rock to lean on while I was trying to navigate the shifting sands  of being the only Star Wars geek in my grade at my new school.

Someone who turns 63 today, and who deserves the best birthday present in the world: My father.

My dad grew up the second youngest of 6 kids. By the time he came, my grandparents had already had 4 kids and figured they had done their duty of raising proper citizens, and figured they could let the last two kind of slide. When he was a kid, guys trying to flirt with his older sisters would give him a dollar to “scram”, and my dad used this money to buy comic books at the corner store. The Amazing Spider-Man was his favorite, but the X-Men and Iron Man were “pretty cool too, man. Real cool.” He was 17 during the Summer of Love, and he grew his hair long, wore bell bottoms with a poet shirt and green vest, and was the resident hippy in school. He read Asimov and Heinlein and Hemingway. He says he never went to prom because he wasn’t very good with girls, but damn, did he ace is mechanical drawing class.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, geeks did exist before our generation, and I am proud to say my father counted among their numbers. He kind of marched to the beat of his own drum, and when the pitter patter of little feet (oh god, did I really just use that term? Someone shoot me!) came into his life, he let them march to their own drum too.

I loved the Ninja Turtles, and if I was going to miss an episode, the VCR was always programmed to record it. He read The Hobbit to us as a bedtime story. As I grew older, he faithfully drove me to and from my various nerdy commitments–drama club, debate team, Sunday afternoon D&D games. Unlike kids at school, or my mother, he never asked me why I preferred reptiles to mammals (because they’re cool, okay?), or dragons to princesses.

I became fascinated with dinosaurs around the age of 8 when my dad let me read Jurassic Park because I thought it sounded cool. For my 9th birthday, he said I could pick where we went for our summer vacation trip. We usually went to the shore, or to visit family. But I had heard about the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and I took the chance and asked to go there.

“Okay!” my father said, and that summer he packed the three of us up in a van and took a three-week long road trip with us so that I could see REAL dinosaur bones in the GROUND in Utah. Anyone who has been in the car with a child under the age of 13 for more than 2 hours would probably be horrified at the idea of spending 6 or more hours in a car with 3 of them for 19 CONSECUTIVE days. Keeping in mind the fact that this was before there was such things as iPads or Nintendo DS’s or portable DVD players existed, and the only things we had to keep ourselves occupied were books, toys, and irritating the hell out of each other, and most adults would think my father is either crazy, or a saint.

He’s both. He’s crazy according to my mother–and probably most child psychologists– for giving me a copy of Jurassic Park to read when I was 8, which started off the whole dinosaur obsession. He’s also a saint for giving me that book, and every other book I ever asked for, and taking me on that trip, and other trips like it, because it sent a message to me that said he wanted to support me in all of my interests.

Some of my dad’s parenting strategies came from his own geekery. One of my father’s mantras while we were growing up was “TANSTAAFL” (pronounced TAN-staff-ell)– “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” It’s a slogan used by the lunar colonists in Heinlein’s sci-fi classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. While the political theory of the book was over my head at the time, the furrowing of my father’s brow and the low rumble in his voice that accompanied “TANSTAAFL” told me everything I needed to know. “TANSTAAFL” was shorthand for “I get up at 4am everyday and go to work so that you can have a home and clothes and food, so you best believe that you’re going to clean the living room and take out the trash before you go out, and that living room had best be spotless when I get home.”

He instilled in us a sense of wonder and the sense that it’s okay to get excited over small things. He came home one day carrying a normal-sized egg carton. “Hey, kids, want to see the BIGGEST eggs in the world?” We all squealed, and when my father opened the carton, we weren’t looking at the largest eggs, but the smallest. “Humming bird eggs, aren’t they cool?” my dad said, sounding almost like a kid himself.

Middle schoolers are little bastards, and my peers made my life miserable during those years. The thing that held it together for me was the endless encouragement from my dad. He humored me while I rambled about Star Wars and Animorphs (hey, just because I COULD read at a higher level didn’t always mean I DID).  I don’t know if he even knew what Gundam Wing, or even ANIME, was, but he paid attention and knew I liked it, and got me the posters and calendars I asked for at Christmas.

And I think that’s the big thing. I don’t think my father always GOT it. I don’t think he always understood the pull of the Final Fantasy games, or why I enjoyed playing D&D so much more than softball. But I think he knew he didn’t HAVE to get it, he didn’t HAVE to know every little detail about everything I liked and why. All he needed to know was that it made me happy, and as long as I was happy, he was going to encourage it. Unlike the rest of the world who just saw me as a weird, socially awkward girl who refused to like the things everyone else liked, I think my dad saw the creative, strong, original person I had the potential to be if I was just given room to express it.

Being a geek for me is a lot of things: It’s a statement of identity. It’s an act of defiance in the face of conformity. It’s the ability embrace my love of things outside of the box. It’s the conscious choice to not only march to the beat of my own drum, but to hijack the entire fucking marching band and lead them in a rousing rendition of “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar” and having the confidence that while I do that, there will always be someone there in the stands supporting me.

My dad sometimes thinks he wasn’t a good parent. He looks at the fact that he worked long hours, yelled at us when he got mad, and was a single father during the times when all of us, probably me most of all, really needed a mom, and feels like he came up short. I’m sure he felt like he was making it all up while he was going along, and just hoping for the best. Well, guess what? The characters in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were working with a sentient computer during their rebellion, and they were still making it up as they were going along. Bilbo Baggins was making it up while he was going along during his stare-down with Smaug and the riddles in the dark with Gollum. Peter Parker, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner were, for the most part, just normal guys who made it up while they went along. They didn’t know if they were going to succeed, they just knew they had no other choice but to try.

In light of that, I think it’s fitting to say today, from geek daughter to geek father:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAD! YOU ARE MY FAVORITE SUPERHERO!

Diana and her two brothers were raised in rural New York by a man who has been described as resembling a hippy-biker-lumberjack-Santa Claus. While she’s not sure if this is accurate, she knows he’s the one who taught her how to find humor in everything, and to always feel free to laugh, even if she’s the only one laughing. Except at funerals. That shit’s not cool.  

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