Relative Thinking

I was born in the fall, so as the weather grows cooler and the leaves start to turn; as everyone begins to think of who they’d like to be come Halloween and children, freshly back in school, begin to wonder if there really is an end to classes; as stores anticipate three big holidays all at once and radio stations trot out “Santa, Baby” and other old chestnuts; at that time of year I typically reflect on how to be less of a schmuck.

As explained by Robert Anton Wilson, in a book I lost long ago in college, every now and then you should take a moment to think about what a schmuck you’ve been. The thought appeals to me, especially since I’m fully aware that I don’t always function according to societal specifications. I mull over events every week, but once a year I take the time to make a deeper examination.

This isn’t a birthday-related activity, at least not in the traditional “oh crap, I’m aging” manner. I’m not afraid of aging any more than of any other inevitability. I’m in no particular hurry to shake off my youth, mind you. I’m just too busy worrying about everything involved with daily life; I’d need another lifetime to fret over the big issues. No, I hold my yearly mental audit in the fall because it’s a good time for putting things in order.

For years Wendi and her mom have commented on how I’ve been taking lessons from Ken, my father-in-law. This is meant as a joke about how I’ve picked up some of his more playful traits: feigning ignorance, playing with the wait staff, etc. But it’s truer than that, and more intentional.

I never had a very good father figure from whom to learn. He met his obligations, and I’ll credit him with doing the best that he probably good, but his personal skills were that of a rabid weasel. What I learned from my dad was to belittle people, to treat others as malfunctioning objects when they didn’t serve my needs, to resent any aspect of life that did not cater to my desires — in short, to be a colossal schmuck.

My father had a good life right under his nose and rejected it for not matching his dreams. A good job, a big house, a successful wife, kids that did well in school and largely avoided trouble — he dwelled instead on what he didn’t have, which largely resembled a late-night sex comedy on Cinemax. With bagpipes.

Imagine my confusion as I got to know my father-in-law. Ken stayed at a job he didn’t like, a job that hastened his hearing loss and furthered the destruction of his back, because he wanted to support his family. Sure, he wanted other things — who doesn’t? — but the people around him were important enough to put dreams on hold or even give them up. He never acted resentful for it or suggested to anybody that they owed him anything. I saw him grumpy a few times, but his normal disposition was one of good cheer.

I hope this seems perfectly normal to you; it stunned me. That’s not how people behaved, in my experience. Once I processed that he was for real, I realized that I finally had a model for acceptable behavior. This whole “caring about others” approach intrigued me.

So this year with my normal season of reflection approaching, and my frustrations at work growing, I’ve been thinking of Ken. There’s a lot that I get from my job: a good salary, fantastic benefits, and access to a huge collection of reference materials, to name a few. Wendi and I are in easy shot of paying off our bad debts, and we’ve finally started to fix up our house.

Is it really that bad if I don’t get the project I want at work? No. It’s just disappointing. If my car needs a new transmission is it a catastrophe? No. It’s an unfortunate inconvenience. Are Tom Hanks’s Oscar wins a sign of the End Times? Probably. I’m still consulting the ancient texts about that.

The point is that I need to remember to step back from the immediacy of events and put them into a larger context before reacting, because my initial reactions tend to be hyperbolic and aggressive.

In late September I got a head cold. My brain was fogged, and I was tired, so I had difficulty maintaining a civil attitude. I found myself snapping at people and getting angry over minor upsets. Finally I stayed home for a few days, mostly out of fear that I might start screaming at people.

At about the same time, Ken had a hip replacement and a double bypass in rapid succession. His chief complaint appeared to be that his butt hurt from all the lying around, and he joked with the nurses during his recovery.

Perspective. I need some in order to be less of a schmuck.


First Impressions Can Leave a Mark

Having an innate fear of fathers, I was particularly nervous about meeting Wendi’s dad. Fathers know what boys want to do with their daughters, and I didn’t imagine he’d enjoy meeting the boy currently wanting to do those things with her.
It didn’t help when Wendi told me that her dad referred to her first two boyfriends as Ick I and Ick II. I assume that the first one was merely Ick until the second came on the scene, but it’s entirely possible that the man suspected there’d be more Icks when he met the first one.
I already believed I was worthless (thanks, dad), so I figured on being quickly labelled Ick III. Maybe I’d even rate a new, worse title. Perhaps Smegma, the first of his name. Or the less poetic That Asshole.
I’d already met Wendi’s mom, who’d confused me deeply by being really nice and not grilling me at all. She flustered me so badly that I blurted things like “I’m perfectly willing to go on welfare to keep writing” and other winning phrases that parents like to hear out of their daughter’s suitor.
She never batted an eye, which only convinced me that she knew I wouldn’t last long.
Now I was going to meet Wendi’s dad. I sat in her dorm room, willing myself to keep my stupid mouth shut. When her folks arrived they were supposed to take us to the mall, where we’d have lunch. Wendi needed to pick up a new bra, so the mall seemed to be a good all-in-one destination. Besides, it was the early 90s; mall culture hadn’t been Amazoned away yet.
There was a knock at the door. I stood up, and my pulse tried to establish new blood speed records. I don’t remember Wendi’s dad coming in. All I know is that one moment there were pleasantries being exchanged out of my sight and then an angry Burl Ives charged me.
Burl Ives was a big part of Christmas for me. He’d done voices for a few animated holiday specials, he vaguely resembled Santa Claus, and he had commercials for his Christmas recordings that strongly implied he’d invented all holiday music.
And now he was backing me into a wall. Wendi’s dad was Santa, and Santa had scratched me out of the Good column.
Angry Santa

He seemed to suspect that I’d been naughty…

When angry Burl Ives had pushed me backward as far as I could go, he glared into my face.

“What are you doing to my daughter that she needs new bras?” he barked.
If you’ve ever wondered what goes through the mind of an animal staring into oncoming headlights, I can tell you with some degree of confidence. It’s an inarticulate mixture of bewilderment, fear, and helplessness.
Then he grinned and stuck out his hand. I took it carefully, as Wendi and her mom doubled over with laughter.
There have been times since then when my presence on the Good List has been debatable, but I’ve never dared slide onto the Naughty List. I don’t want to see Santa when he’s really angry.

Fathers Day

I have one good memory of my father.

This is not to say we only ever shared one good time. My memory has always been unreliable and skewed toward the negative, so it’s likely that there are several events that I’ve forgotten. So I have just the one good memory, and even that is tinged with awfulness.

For context, you have to understand our relationship. He appeared to believe that I was filled with lies, and I believed him to be unpredictably abusive. The Beta incident is typical of our interaction.

For those of you born after the heady early days of movie rentals, there was a format war for VCR tapes. It was somewhat akin to Blu-ray vs HD DVD. You don’t remember HD DVD? Never mind. The point is that my folks got a great deal on a Betamax player, precisely because Beta had just lost the war for home systems.

Anyway, the Beta incident began with my dad trying to hook up the player. He couldn’t figure out why the cable channels weren’t coming in through the VCR. I picked up the installation manual and looked through it until I found the answer. There was a hatch on the top that opened up to reveal a frightening array of dials. You were supposed to set and tune each channel individually in order for the Beta to read their signals correctly.

I guess that’s why it was called a Beta.

So, like Charlie Brown running at the football, I told my dad what I’d read. He was furious. He swore at me for interfering, and he sent me outside to pick up sticks in the yard so he could mow.

I went outside and cleared the yard, front and back. That only took a few minutes, and it was much too early to go back inside. The TV was right next to the stairs, and he’d certainly notice me heading upstairs to hide. So I did it again, picking up even the most minute twigs I could spot. Half an hour later I figured it might be safe enough to risk going in, so I did.

Dad caught me, but he wasn’t pissed anymore; he was triumphant. He marched me into the living room to show me the TV. The picture came in perfectly.

“I figured it out,” he proclaimed. “You have to tune each channel in that top panel.”

This wasn’t an unfortunate aberration; this was my everyday experience. Nothing any of us did was right, even if it was, and he was the self-proclaimed genius who told us we were stupid. When he ran off with his secretary while I was in my last year of college, I was more than happy to write him off and start repairing my confidence.

Happy Sun

Smile. We’ll all be long dead when the sun explodes.

That was pretty much it for 20 years. Then Wendi found a message on our answering machine two weeks from the Department of Human Services of a county I hardly knew existed. It turned out that my father had applied for a fostering permit, and they needed to talk to his own offspring as part of their screening.

I wanted nothing to do with it. For one thing, I had elected to have no part in his life. I didn’t want to get involved. Additionally, I hate phones. No, that’s not right. I’m afraid of accidentally committing to something while talking on a phone. There’s a story in that, but I’m already on my second digression. I’ll explain that very particular phobia another time. Let it suffice for now that I do not make phone calls if I can help it.

The message nagged at me through the week. I’d sought help a few times in my adolescence, but nobody had wanted to get involved. Wasn’t my silence contributing to the problem?

A form from the Department of Human Services arrived in the mail. I could fill out the paperwork, assuage my conscience, and avoid using a phone! I read the form. The bulk of it obsessed on how well I was doing, and there was just one small space allotted for opposition to the foster application. That wouldn’t work for me.

By now I’d convinced myself that it was my duty to respond, but the safe route led away from the response I needed to make. Steeling myself, I dialed the provided number.

I got an answering machine. After rambling confusedly for a bit I left my cel number. Then I went to Wendi for comforting. Thinking about my father had wound me up, and imagining all of the ways that the phone call could go south had left me shaking. She calmed me down and sent me away again. Then my phone rang.

The county worker was nice enough, but I didn’t feel as though she believed me. She kept saying “That’s too bad” in a way that seemed well-worn and disinterested. I imagine she’s dealt with people who’d suffered neglect and physical abuse, and that mere emotional abuse is pretty low on her list of concerns.

Or, and this is a distinct possibility, I simply read into her responses what my head meat expected to hear. Regardless, she assured me that she would include my statements in her findings. This means that now there’s likely official documentation of my father calling me a “worthless piece of shit.”

But I do still have one good memory of him. I have to admit that.

Image of the tingler being extracted from behind a screen

Vincent Price removes a full-sized tingler from his “test subject”.

(image altered from screen capture of “The Tingler”)

I had just settled down to watch “The Tingler” on HBO. My dad wandered in and asked what I was watching. I told him, adding that it starred Vincent Price. To my surprise he sat down to watch it with me. A few minutes in, he asked if I wanted nachos. Did I?

We raced out into the kitchen, poured chips on a plate, sprinkled shredded jack liberally on them, popped them in the microwave for a bit, and raced back the living room with our goodies. Bing, pow, zap! A plate full of cheesy sadness!

We didn’t care though; we happily munched away as the glorious Mr. Price proved his theories on the physical nature of fear — by killing people, of course. The chips vanished quickly, and we raced to the kitchen for a second batch. Bing, pow, sadness!

It was after we’d eaten half of the second batch that one of us looked at the snack we’d prepared. The nachos were far more terrifying that any of the on-screen silliness that had been holding our attention. There were patches of green in the melted cheese. It had been moldy, and both of us were so fixated on a stupid movie that neither one of us had noticed until halfway through the second serving.

Feeling our stomaches churn, we pushed the plate aside and tried to enjoy the finale of the movie. We had to admit though, they’d been pretty tasty.

For that brief span, we were in sync. We acted as one with no friction, and we (mostly) had fun. That’s the father I wish I’d had more of. That’s the man I’d endorse for fostering a child — with the provision that he not be allowed to make nachos.

What’s in a Name?

Yesterday, a coworker told me that she’d met a couple who were also named Frost. She beamed at me as though she’d handed me a birthday cake. I’m socially awkward under the best of circumstances, so when I’m in a situation I don’t understand I tend to fight or flee.

This puzzled me enough that I couldn’t react. I’m used to getting questions about my name — am I related to Robert Frost? Jack Frost? (No, …yes, dammit) — but this approach was unknown to me. It wasn’t a question, but clearly some manner of response was expected.

“Ah,” I said. This acknowledged the statement without inviting its own response. This always seems like a good approach, and it never works. What I’d like to convey is “please stop talking to me”, but I’ve found that I can’t say that. Not because it’s rude, but because it actually extends the conversation as I’m then expected to explain in detail why I don’t won’t to talk to the person. So, “ah”.

“I wondered if you were related,” she returned, and told me their names.

Ah, indeed. I was afraid that’s where we were going.

“I have no idea, and I don’t want to know if they are,” I told her. This was a bit rude, but I really needed to convey my disinterest in the subject.

“They’re really nice,” she informed me.

“Then we’re not related,” I quipped.

With that I went back to work.