How to Be a Dad

How to Be a Dad

Epic Dad Embarrassment Story

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Two dads talking

An ad for Dad’s radio station in the late 70’s. Not sure it’s psychedelic enough…

My father was the prototypical radio DJ/writer parent. A mild bohemian and anti-establishment renegade (in San Francisco β€” really?), he was a professional at both charming and pissing people off, especially his employers. Dad also felt it necessary to explode our pre-pubescent ear drums with blasting music. The house was a reverberating subwoofer, night and day. Much like the deaf people we might one day become, he probably thought he could hear the music better, if he physically felt it.

My parents separated when I was rather young but, as a matter of record they were never married so when they had my younger brother and I, they just cemented the fact that we’re a ghastly bastards. Dad did his best to look after us, when he did. His birthday presents were generally odd or esoteric. Hostess donuts. A weird Chinese toy of unraveling paper. Transgendered-looking babushka stacking dolls. And, as my brother will also attest, every time my father looked after us while my mother was away on business, we reaped the benefit of a ton of future stories.

My dad, Stephen Capen, was a radio disc jockey in San FranciscoDad was part of the clergy. The clergy of dudes in priest outfits trying to pick up women.

One Spring day, in Seventh Grade, I was waiting for him to pick me up on the curbside at school. He was late, as usual, and I waited for a good 30 minutes. I was just preparing to do my two mile walk home when there he appeared, putt-putting up the school driveway in his old Volvo. I was relieved because the man, for all his finest points, was a ‘forgetter’ and today he had not forgotten. Or perhaps he did forget and then had an “ohshitimsupposedtopickupcharlie” moment. In either case, he made it and that made me happy.

He parked midway in the school driveway, next to a median at a slight diagonal, not giving a flying funk how other traffic would get around him. As he began to get out of the car to call to me, I squinted my eyes to get a better look at him. Thank God I was already heading over to the car because I noticed as he got out of the beat-up vehicle, which was between us, his hair was sopping wet and his wrinkled shirt was drenched. I was 15 to 20 feet away as he rounded the front-end of his car.

He was wearing just a towel.

my dad, a family friend, and myself.Maybe if I hold really still and smile, they’ll wander back into the forest and leave me alone…

“Sorry I’m late,” he said with the verve and swagger of a person not quite in his right mind, which he usually wasn’t. Dad almost looked like he was enjoying how nonchalantly ridiculous he was. “Dad, get in the car. Let’s GO!”

Just then I saw some friends of mine exit the school building. I executed my best RIOT POLICE PUSH MOVE. If you don’t remember, Middle School is one of those horrible ages when parents embarrass you just by talking. My dad had just won the Olympic Gold Medal of Dad Embarrassment. “Dad let’s go. Come on. Let’s go. Let’s go. I’m serious. Come on.”

Now, to really know my father, you have to understand that he liked going slow when people wanted him to move fast. It was his trademark move. It probably had nothing to do with him being high 95% of his waking and sleeping life. He reveled in going slow and yelling at people to “cool (their) jets.” He was loud when the prim people around us were silent. He stuck out like one of the Blues Brothers in a fancy restaurant.

Stephen Capen headshot“Oh right, like you’re embarrassed of meee?”

My father died almost six years ago and I dwell on his choices, his lack of decision-making, his search for something he never could quite articulate. Being a father now myself, I have so many questions about his behavior, about mine, about how I was as a child from his vantage.

I cite that moment of terror now as one of only a very few that shaped my lack of shyness, my sheepishness and catalyzed a desire to push myself as an artist. As an actor, I’ve played some very flawed people with abandon and openness because of him. Who could retain their modesty around constant experiences like that?

But we laughed and played and enjoyed each other so much. Our singular style of humor and inside jokes is now an endangered species. My brother and I try to keep it alive. But I can only hope to embarrass my kid(s), as my dad did me.



27 Responses to “Epic Dad Embarrassment Story”

  1. julie says:

    Awesome. This could not be more opposite of my dad. (But not so unlike my kids’ dad. Interesting.) I love visualizing this – good luck embarrassing those kids of yours!

  2. Non-Stop Mom says:

    Thank God my parents didn’t do anything like that. But, they embarrassed me in much more subtle ways. Such as being chaperones for every. single. band. trip. I couldn’t enjoy any of our band trips in high school (and we took some good ones) because my parents were always there. And they were old. Well, they still are (they were in their 40s when they had me) but you know what I mean.

    Now, I wouldn’t put it past my brothers to do something like that to me……


    • andy says:

      Yeah. If it were possible to choose such a thing (parental embarrassments) I’d go with the towel school pick-up extravaganza. It’s more like a tearing of a band-aid, short and sharp. Sounds like you got the slowly-applied lemon and salt treatment. πŸ˜‰

  3. Loren Helgeson says:

    Wow! That’s straight out of that one Simpsons episode, except without the towel.

  4. flip says:

    charlie, this story is fantastic… but even better is your delivery, the just right amount of background, the viewpoint of a twelve year old, your perspective on your dad, it’s beautiful…you sir have talent.

    • charlie says:

      Wow, thank you, Flip. I really wanted people to get a sense for him. I loved that guy. Your comment is one of the most complimentary I’ve ever gotten. Would you like flowers or chocolates?

  5. Giacomo says:

    Wow, and you’re still alive to look back and laugh? And you’re not in therapy either? LOL!! Well you can’t blame a dad for trying his hardest, even if they’re not equipped.

    • charlie says:

      I am still alive. I’m not in therapy… unless you count the therapy live hands you every day that forces you to confront the realities of working shizz out. Life can be a great teacher, sans therapy, if you’re observant and try to improve, I guess. Or you could just be crazier than the rest of the planet like me.

  6. Nate says:

    Great story, great storytelling! Can’t decide if I’m envisioning Bill Murray or Chevy Chase… Both in the best way. Thanks for the tale and the perspective on what we learn from dad.

    • charlie says:

      Why does it have to be an either/or proposition? I say Chevy Murray. My father actually reminded me of a cross between Lebowski and Harrison Ford’s character from Mosquito Coast.

  7. Taylor says:

    wow. This reminds me so much of my old man. He too passed away about 4 years ago. I wish he were around to meet his little grandson. I hope I do him right to tell him crazy old man Bill stories. We have TONS! We even made a blog about the ridiculous stuff he did. He was a high school drop out, surf-bum hippie and felon who totally turned his life around when he met a pair of mormon missionaries changing his life, and mine, forever.

    He was a Jedi master of embarrassing our whole family. He had a brain tumor when he was 25 and he survived it for 25 years but he did have a frontal lobotomy. Yup, they chopped out his right frontal lobe leaving a funny dent in his head by his temple that I was so used to that I didn’t even notice it. Here’s a picture of it:
    Anyways, he used to love to mess with people when he saw that they were staring at it. One day I was like 16 years old and we went to the grocery store and he saw some kid staring at it while we were waiting in the check out line. He nudged me and starts giggling. I know EXACTLY what he’s up to. “DAD! Don’t even think about it” I whisper as threateningly as I can. Next thing I know my dad drops to the floor and starts kicking and spitting and convulsing pretending to have a seizure. Everybody starts freaking out and rushing to help him and stuff and I’m so embarrassed I’m yelling at him “Dad!! You’re a faker! Quit it! He’s not really seizing!!” People must have thought I was the worst kid ever- they actually believed the old man! I just walked straight out of the store and went and got in the truck to wait. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later he comes giggling out to the truck so pleased with himself.

    In the 25 years I knew the man I don’t think I ever saw him really embarrassed more then a few times.

  8. Louise says:

    This reminds me of my father so much! My dad once walked me to school in nothing but a dressing gown and slippers on a windy day. Needless to say i screamed and cried the whole way while he dragged me by the wrist. Bad memories!

  9. Hysterical AND sweet! Wow – that is an incredible memoir post. LOVED IT!!!

  10. Wendy says:

    I loved this story!! Reminds me of my crazy dad(adore him)..oh, fun times and many blushing moments. Life would’ve been boring
    without him πŸ™‚

  11. Sometimes the hardest part of growing up is realizing our parents did the best they could with what they had. Nice tribute. Sounds like he was an unusual man in unusual cicumstances.
    Well written

  12. Kat says:

    This is fabulous. If you had had a “stuffy-guy-in-a-suit- kind-of-dad”, a “cats in the cradle type”, you wouldn’t be as happy as you are now. Good thing he showed up. That’s what counts! My parents were mainstream, and they often “didn’t show up”. Great read!

  13. Lacey says:

    My Dad is a free-spirit, an artist, a long-haired hippy and had a lot of fun in his youth with non-prescribed medications. But by the time I came along he was settled and married, a dedicated dad and family man who never embarrassed me or forgot me anywhere. He’d had enough life experience that he could tell me very funny stories and give me guidance to ensure I avoided some of the mistakes he felt he’d made. We share many passions – art, bicycling, science and sci-fi. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that not everyone had such a wonderful father, one who told them daily he loved them, and still brings up how proud he is in every conversation.

    I could tell from your writing you loved your father and you seem to have a deep understanding of such a multifaceted man. Congratulations on surviving the embarrassment long enough to gain that understanding πŸ˜€

  14. Tessie says:

    I can relate to the music volume situation. However, my stepfather would do it on purpose to cause pain.

    When my mother would leave the car to go into a convenience store to pick up some things, he would turn up the volume as loud as possible. Thus, turning our Astro van into a chamber of pain.

    He would laugh maniacally from the front seat. Could only tell this from his movements, since the excruciating volume was all I could hear through my plugged ears.

    Thankfully, my man is not the kind to damage our child’s hearing for his own amusement.

  15. orla says:

    Hilarious. although it does help me alot when it comes to knowing that its happened to others aswell as me.

  16. Jo says:

    I swear I saw you recently in a TV commercial! It was for some disorder… Chrohn’s disease or somethingorother…tell me it was you, I have to know!! You look a lot like your dad, BTW…very handsome men!!

    • Charlie says:

      Yep! It was. πŸ™‚

      • Jo says:

        I knew it!! πŸ™‚ I’ve seen it a few times now…. The first time I was like, nah, it can’t be him. Then I saw it again and I was like, it’s HIM! Then just the other day it was on and I got up close (I have a 52 inch HD TV) and and I was like IT’S DEFINITELY HIM!!! LOL

  17. Dashing Dad says:

    One day, during my sophmore year of highschool, my girlfriend called the house (remember when nobody had cell phones). I answered it, and decided I didn’t want to talk to her in the kitchen with my dad, step mom, and younger brother in the room. So I asked my dad to hang up the phone when I picked up the other line. I pick up the phone, and was about to say “got it dad” when I hear, “So, did you know that my son was mentally challenged?” (He use the now dreaded “r-word”). At 15, I nearly died. Luckily, it was only to her, and not a bunch of other people. Though I have stories for that as well.

  18. Becca Jo says:

    Embarrassing? Lol, my parents, as brand new nurses, volunteered to teach my health ed class (sophomore year!) on sexually transmitted diseases… which they did- Jerry Springer-style and complete with gory pictures. Fourteen years later and I’m still hearing about it…

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