A Letter to Dad

Dad,

I know it must seem a little weird to get a letter from me, but I thought it would be good to catch up a bit, since we’ve been out of touch for so long.  It’s gotta be at least . . . fifty years, right? Continue reading

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parenthetically crazy

This is a piece from my new collection, “The Line Between Funny and Crazy,” which will be available soon. Until it’s published, you’ll have to be satisfied with a short teaser from the book

Until the book is finished, you'll have to be satisfied with looking at the cover.

and this mockup of the cover…

 

According to a recent study, over forty-five million Americans have a mental illness. While that still leaves us with two hundred sixty some-odd million people who don’t, it is more than ten percent of the population. And based on my experience, that estimate is low.

In just my circle of friends, we’ve got

  • bipolar disorder
  • anxiety disorder
  • PTSD
  • depression
  • OCD
  • emotional withdrawal
  • anti-social behavior

We’ve also got more than a couple narcissists, and at least one person who avoids going to the doctor even though he has some things he ought to have checked because he’s afraid of what might be wrong with him. My apologies if I left anyone out.

My point is simply that, in my experience, mental illness is . . . pretty common. But I’d take it a step further—I’d go so far as to say that, on some level, everybody is looney tunes. Okay, maybe that’s more than one step. But I believe we’re all screwed in the head.  It’s just a matter of degree.

braincrop

Everyone is at least parenthetically crazy. As in, “I’d like you to meet Jim (who happens have depression),” or “Do you know Mary (who, by the way, has a lot of anxiety)?” That doesn’t mean that they’re defined by what’s in the parentheses.

As a society, I think we could help wipe out the stigma of mental illness simply by acknowledging that we’re all mentally ill. Understand that I’m not trying to minimize the darkness some people have to slog through because of their particular brands of insanity, and I’m not saying there aren’t valid cases that warrant actual medical care.

 lobotomy

But ‘insanity’ comes in a lot of flavors, and there are definitely times when crazy is funny. So, where’s the line? How about the guy screaming obscenities in the alley? Clinically speaking, he might be a depressed alcoholic with Tourette’s, but take some video of him with your cellphone from a safe distance, and you could create a hilarious viral sensation. It’s all about context.

In theory, I suppose it’s not ‘normal’ to find humor in mental problems, but we all do it. Now I realize there’s creepy crazy, and scary crazy, and violent crazy, and I’m not suggesting there’s a lot of humor there. Some, but not a lot.

However, if you don’t think mental illness can be entertainment, then you don’t watch enough basic cable. Take, for example, the popularity of the show Hoarders.” It’s on the A&E network and since it’s clearly not art, it must be entertainment.

Now, if you’ll turn to the new DSM-V, the standard reference book of mental disorders, you’ll see that hoarding gets its own chapter. And if you’re one of the two million viewers who tuned in for this season’s premiere, you suffer from voyeurism, which I’m pretty sure is also in the book.

Then there’s Bravo. It spawned the ‘Real Housewives’ franchise, and you don’t need a psych degree to know how messed up those gals are. This year, they’ve added a show called “L.A. Shrinks,” about shrinks in L.A. Sure, it diminishes the integrity of the psychiatric profession as a whole, but now we get to see into their dysfunctional personal lives! Bravo!

The ‘Biography’ channel has a new show called “Look Who’s Stalking.” This should be a huge hit, at least amongst the one of every six women in the country who have been traumatized by an actual stalker. Talk about a key demographic! The website for the show promises “disturbing stories of obsession,” so . . . make some popcorn and get comfortable.

What’s next?? A show called “I Had a Psychotic Break?” If you include all the conspiracy theorists on TV (or as they’re known in the manual, people with “delusional disorder”), and the medium has fulfilled its initial promise as a way to watch weird people do weird things.

I realized a long time ago that I’m not wired like ‘most people.’ Only recently did I figure out that most people aren’t wired like ‘most people.’ As soon as I figured out that nobody is ‘normal,’ I started to see just how crazy we all are.

And I started to laugh at my own lunacy. Bad choices, stupid moves, broken relationships—when I took myself seriously, those were heartbreakers. Now, I like to think of them as amusing anecdotes with wacky twists—the kind of stories I might tell on a late night talk show.

Instead of ‘mental conditions,’ I choose to use terms like ‘idiosyncrasy,’ or ‘peccadillo,’ or ‘quirk.’ Much less judgy than what you’ll find in the DSM. But you can draw the line where you want.

As a licensed humorist, I will give you one rule of thumb for laughing at people. If someone does something unusual, and the word ‘quirky’ comes to mind instead of ‘sick,’ you can laugh at them. It’s the difference between collecting umbrellas and collecting Nazi memorabilia.

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a pain in the neck

If you’re following along at home, you’ll remember I visited a neurologist recently to find out why my body seems to be breaking down like a car with a just-expired warranty. Like any older car, it’s a little sluggish to respond (especially in winter), and I’ve definitely got some alignment issues. Begrudgingly, I agreed to take their fancy tests, because, well, I’ve always been good at taking tests.

Of course, these weren’t like the exams I used to ace in school. My English teachers never hit me with a hard rubber hammer or poked me with needles or shot electric current into my arms and legs, although that might have given me more incentive to actually read “Paradise Lost.”

I was hoping the tests would be both definitive and reassuring. They were, I suppose, a little of both. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Buried a few paragraphs down, in amongst these 1,689 words, you’ll find what the diagnosis is, but first I should talk about the tests. Whatever’s wrong with me, I still have an understanding of dramatic structure. (If you don’t mind spoilers, the answer is in the twenty-first paragraph.)

The Neuro-Conductivity Studies were done by a very quiet man named Dr. Sharazz, which I kept thinking sounded like the name of a Bond villain (“We meet again, Doctor Sharazz…”). The name of the test had me imagining being strapped into something some gigantic, shiny apparatus like you might find in ‘Star Trek,’ but in fact the device looked like some precocious kid’s Science Fair experiment, very low-tech and definitely not shiny.

After an hour or so of this particular doc putting electrodes on various parts of my body and cranking the voltage to 11 (I’m guessing here), causing my arms and legs to twitch on his command (“You won’t break me, Sharazz!”), he began the EMG, which is like the previous test, except the electric jolts are sent through needles deep into your muscles.

I got an ‘incomplete’ on this one, because frankly, I wimped out. The pamphlet said, “The pain is less than a typical hypodermic injection” and “You may feel a tingling in your muscles,” which was accurate if by ‘tingling’ they meant ‘really disturbing radiating discomfort that will make you believe your leg is on fire.’

So after twenty minutes of this vaguely medieval process I said “No mas” and eventually he stopped. He seemed empathetic, and said he “got a lot of information.” Mostly, I’m sure, about what a wuss I am.

Next up was the MRI. Since I was pretty stressed, I wanted to have a cigarette, but at this clinic, there didn’t seem to be a place where I could have a cigarette in the MRI machine.

The room and the machine were all cool and sterile looking, like the second hour of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Now I was getting the high-tech wonders of modern medicine. Unfortunately, this was another ‘incomplete.’

They were hoping to do four MRIs, two after being injected with contrast dye. I thought it would be just like a flu shot (damned lying pamphlets!), but as they started describing it, I just remember hearing terms like “put you on an IV” and ‘side effects’ and “nausea’ and…you can guess where this is going. I’ll take just the two MRIs for now, thanks.

Almost everyone I dealt with at the clinic had at least pretended they understood my irrational fears. Not the MRI lady. She was thoroughly professional, but let’s just say she didn’t have the warmest bedside (‘tubeside?) manner. I would try to lighten the mood (at least my mood—I suppose she was fine) with a joke, which just seemed to make her more annoyed.

At one point I had an itch and I moved a little, and she seemed genuinely put out when she said “You know, every time we pull you out of there we have to start over, and I’m not going submit crappy test results.” Now, I suppose she could have had a full slate of people she still had to shove into the pod that day, but c’mon—I might be a little easier to work with if I didn’t feel like I was being scolded.

me, looking all cross-sectional...

I had a week to wait for my ‘consult’ with the neurologist, and spent much of that week trying to distract myself from the test results. I even went out to a ball game for the first time in years.

In my somewhat reclusive writerly life, I can go days without real reminders of my ‘condition.’ But at the game, around forty-three thousand other people, I felt a bit more ‘disabled.’ There were two moments in particular that strengthened my resolve to see this medical stuff through.

First, since I can’t lift my right arm above my head, I’m incapable of giving a proper ‘high-five,’ and there’s not much point to watching sports if you can’t do that. I tried left-handed, but that felt really awkward and I knocked over a guy’s beer.Second, when ‘the wave’ came around to our section, I could only sort of half-stand stand and could only raise one arm, making it look like I was mocking the wave, or worse, trying to stop it. This was the compelling evidence I needed to get me back to the doctor.

I suppose sitting in a room with a guy is one of the better ways you could find out scary news. Although it might be cool to have those Publisher’s Clearinghouse people come by with an oversized envelope announcing “You may already have won an invasive procedure!”

But this was just my-far-too-young-looking-to-seem-like-he-knows-enough neurologist. My neurologist is young enough to actually have used Facebook in medical school—I’m just hoping his status updates were along the lines of “Can’t go out tonight—studying again” rather than “Can’t believe how hungover I am again.”

Suddenly I wanted to be in 1972, so that my doctor could be Marcus Welby, M.D., all gentleness and aphorisms, with everything wrapped up in about an hour. I wanted a kindly old doctor who would take my hand and start his talk with “Now, son, I know this has been hard…” I don’t think they even teach ‘kindly’ in medical school anymore.

Actually, by this point, I had gone from dreading the results to hoping I had something they had never seen before—maybe an article in a respected medical journal about my strange pathology, or some grant money. Then I realized the grant money would go to the doctors, not to me.

So, ready for the worst, I walk in with The Girlfriend, and the doc says “Well, you don’t have MS or ALS.” Okay…so we’re going to have me guess, by process of elimination? “Uh…Is what I have…longer than eleven letters?”

Then he says, “I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong.” Keywords: ‘think’ and ‘figured out.’ It’s at this point that I remembered the old saying that medicine is an art, because he sounded exactly like a chef stating, “I think I know what the sauce needed—more tarragon.” Great—now I’m worried I have a tarragon deficiency!

I tried to make a joke about not taking all the tests, and he just sighed and said “Well, I have limited data to work with” with the same resigned but mildly disapproving tone as your freshman biology professor saying “Well, the midterm is forty percent of your grade…”

For some odd reason, he did the Hitting Me With A Metal Hammer test again, and either my HMWAMH responses were ok, or he got bored hitting me, because out of nowhere he said “Your brain is fine.” Not ‘you’re fine,’ just my brain.

"Why, that's a FINE brain you have there, young man. Just fine."

The it was time for the slide show. I saw pictures of my ‘fine’ brain, and he pointed out how the pictures showed I didn’t have MS. “The problem is in your neck. You have severe spinal stenosis.” More pictures, this time clearly showing my spinal column narrowing until, at one point, it looked like my spinal cord was being pushed through a straw. This, it turns out, is not good.

Severe. Spinal. Stenosis. I liked the alliteration, but a long-held theory of mine says that if your diagnosis starts with the words ‘severe’ and and ‘spinal,’ it doesn’t matter what the third word is. I wasn’t gonna be able to just get a prescription for this.

As for how it happened, it was one of those Zen moments in which I got the impression that didn’t matter either. The doc muttered something about “wear and tear,” and since I had been clumsy all my life, he thought I could have injured my neck in a fall, but what he knew for sure was that I would need surgery to fix it.

He went on to say “The concern is, if you get in a car wreck and get whiplash, you’ll be a quad.” I guess he figured it didn’t need any sugar-coating, but…YIKES! Get me Doctor Welby, stat! Look, I’m not sure when I might sign up for spinal surgery, but I know damn sure I’m gonna try to avoid getting into whiplash-inducing car wrecks.

When I left they gave me a CD with all my pictures, though I’m not sure why. I’m probably not gonna look at them again, but maybe I’ll put one of the brain scans on a t-shirt or a hat with a catchy phrase (This is MY brain on drugs.”) Anyway, the next step is a consultation with a neurosurgeon.

After not seeing a doctor for decades, I see a GP, then a neurologist, then a neurosurgeon…you know what, I’m gonna keep going up in the medical hierarchy—see if I can get seen by someone who teaches neurosurgery, or maybe a dean of neurosurgery somewhere. Just to be sure.

Eventually I may even become comfortable enough to have the operation I need. If I do, I know the first thing I’m gonna do when it’s over…I’m gonna high-five the hell out of someone.

seeing a guy about a thing…

I saw a neurologist today, and by that, I don’t mean I spotted one from a distance (“Look, there’s one now!”)—I had an appointment. If you know me, you know that I’m dealing with some health issues, and I’m irrationally afraid of going to doctors. But, thanks to the State of Minnesota, I have insurance now, and my friends would kick my hypochondriacal ass if I didn’t at least start the process. So, I saw a neurologist today.

Actually, I told myself I was just ‘seeing a guy about a thing.’ That’s not scary—and it sounds a helluva lot better than SEEING THE NEUROLOGIST. People don’t see THE NEUROLOGIST unless something is seriously wrong. But this is just some guy—just gonna talk to him about some stuff. And besides, I’ve realized something that makes this ‘process’ a little less daunting—whatever I ‘have,’ I’ve already beaten it so far.

Now I don’t want you to think you’re gonna have to suffer through regular updates on my condition and progress—I don’t intend to become the inspiration for a Lifetime original movie, “Tingling and Numbness—the Michael Dane Story.” I will let you know if my case gets written up in any medical journals, but if I’m still writing, assume they haven’t found any BSD (Big Scary Disease).

I figured I had an advantage going in, because I know a little something about medicine, having been pre-med for two years as an undergraduate. Still, I think everyone fondly remembers their first ‘specialist.’ I’d seen the occasional general practitioner, but this time I was gonna see a guy who took extra years of school specifically to figure out my shit.

The neurologist’s lobby looked like a cross between an airport Starbucks and a bank, all curved lines and earth tones and a water dispenser that looked like an espresso machine. And the people couldn’t have been nicer. I was glad The Girlfriend was with me, because otherwise I would have been pestering the other patients with my wry observations about the health care industry.

The receptionist/teller asked if I wanted The Girlfriend to be able to access my medical records, and it felt right, so I signed a form. After all, anyone willing to deal with my anxiety and drive me to clinics and wait around calmly while I flip out should be able to find out the results of my paraneoplastic antibody panel.

Awkward moment: figuring how to discretely go outside for a smoke. Yes, I get it. Kinda defeats the whole “getting health care” purpose to burn a cig while you’re waiting. Regardless, I made my exit, and just past the “No Smoking” boundary I saw the charge nurse, enjoying a refreshing cigarette. And I gotta tell you, there’s a perverse fun to smoking in front of a hospital. And fitness centers with big picture windows.

The neuro guy was what you would get if you were casting “a dramedy centering around the life of a quietly witty neurologist” (how have I not made it as a writer with ideas like that?). Good-looking in a vaguely ethnic way, he was easy to talk to and seemed to listen.

After some questions about my history, and what seemed to be an unnecessary amount of time hitting me with a metal hammer, the doc and I agreed there’s something wrong with me. I was hoping he’d say something along the lines of “It’s just a bad cold,” but since only about half  of my limbs seem to work properly right now, he thought some tests might be in order.

I had hoped that the ‘tests’ would consist of asking me a bunch of questions, after which he would deduce what was wrong (“It’s murky, but I’m getting a vision of…it’s becoming clearer…peripheral nerve damage.” Apparently I had ‘doctor’ confused with ‘Gypsy fortune teller.’)

In fact I will be having eight tests: five blood tests, an EMG, and two MRI. And I think I have a punch card that gets me a free procedure of my choice after ten, so that’s nice. The blood tests are no big deal, but I didn’t really know what an EMG involved.

Turns out, an EMG involves someone poking me repeatedly with needles and electrodes. I guess it’s not as fun as that sounds, and I wasn’t thrilled to read in the little pamphlet (“Your First EMG”) that it is used to test for “blah blah blah,” “blah blah,” “some other random thing,” and ALS. That’s right, there’s like fifteen things listed, but all I remember is Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  And not because I’m a huge baseball fan. That’s just how my mind works.

I didn’t need the pamphlet to tell me to “avoid tobacco and caffeine a few hours prior to my test,” since I figured being jumpy and edgy and jacked up might affect their ability to stick needles and electrodes in the right places. And I’m sure there will be highly trained professionals doing the poking. But I bet they get burnt out on their jobs like anyone, and sometimes just screw with people by making their arms and legs do funny things –“Watch—I can make him hit himself in the face.”

I have free time, nervous energy and an internet connection, so I looked up ‘EMG machines’ online and found a catalog where they sell them. Reading through it I got an idea: right before the test starts, I’m gonna mess with their minds by asking ridiculously detailed questions about the machine, like “This one does have four channels of surface electromyography with analog and USB output, right?” Or, “Please tell me this thing does at least three paraspinal images and has the E-Stim trigger option.”

Speaking of selling things, any idea how much an MRI machine costs? They start at around A MILLION AND A HALF FREAKING DOLLARS! I’m not really familiar with how much big machines typically cost, but isn’t that about what a rocket costs? Am I being sent into space for this test? Because I don’t think Medica covers that.

I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to smoke before the MRI, either (doctors are so militant about the smoking thing). The overly perky twenty-something who scheduled my procedure told me I’d get to see some ‘cool pictures’ of my brain, and I explained that those pictures might show signs of a debilitating terminal illness, which got her to ratchet back the perkiness a bit.

She also asked me whether I was claustrophobic, and I said, “No…,” but in retrospect, I should have said “I’m not sure, because up till now, I’ve managed to avoid getting trapped in big metal tubes, so I guess we’ll have to see–might want to figure out a way I can smoke in there.”

Apparently, you get to listen to music while you’re entubed, which seems great, depending on who has control over the playlist. What if they pipe in ‘80s arena rock (“Just relax…we’re gonna play Poison’s second album now in it’s entirety.”)? Or if, just as the anxiety of claustrophobia has passed and I’m very calm and still, the lab tech-slash-DJ decides to blast that part of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with all the bells and chimes?

I’ve always known that my mind doesn’t work the same as most folk, and the great thing is, now I’ll have the pictures to prove it. From now on, whenever someone questions why I’m doing something, I’ll just whip out a wallet-size copy of my brain scan. They won’t know what it means, but they’ll figure I must have a reason for having it with me and leave me alone. And since I don’t have kids, I’ll have something to show at parties!

In the end, this isn’t about needles, or electrodes, or being in a claustrophobic coffin-like metal tube while someone magnetizes the atoms in my brain. It’s just about me, seein’ a guy. Just checking out a few things. No. Big. Deal. After years of not dealing with my health, if whatever is causing my various infirmities hasn’t stopped me yet, I’m not gonna worry about it.

fine, i’ll see a doctor

I’ve never been too worried about my age, and I’m sure when asked “When did you first start feeling old?,” everyone can point to something different. For me, the first time I sensed a ticking clock was one day about a year ago, when I looked at my hands. See, you might look like someone out of a Bowflex ad from head to toe, but the hands don’t lie.

I can’t say time has treated me badly—if you never saw me walk, and were looking at me from a distance, you might even think I’m in my forties. Losing my hair never made me feel old—that started in my twenties, and I’ve been shaving my head for twenty years. But those hands. They have some explaining to do.

Truth is, in fifty-plus years, I had never really worked with my hands, unless you count…typing. But there they were, looking (and feeling) like they’d been on an assembly line installing tiny widgets for the last thirty years. It looked like someone had Photoshopped my stepfather’s hands onto my body. I had Larry King’s hands. Even my fingers looked old.

I think as I’ve stumbled on in later years, it seems I’ve spent about half of those years just fixing things that younger me messed up. And paying attention to the little things. Like my health. Which I had pretty much ignored. What with being afraid to go to the doctor and all.

One morning, five or six years ago, I woke up and couldn’t lift my right arm higher than my chest. No pain—I just couldn’t lift it. Now if you’re a math whiz, you know that one arm is at least half of the total number of arms you have. For a lot of people, THIS would enough to see a doctor. Not me.

Then, over the past few years, I’ve developed a fairly pronounced hitch in my stride, on account of my left leg not being on the same page as my right. We’re down to TWO working limbs, people—obviously time to call the doctor. Or not.

I’ve never been the doctor-seein’ type. First, they work in hospitals, and I hate that ‘hospital smell.’ I got my fill of it visiting Mom. I always thought it odd that Mom, who had been a nurse, was such a horrible patient. I still remember tracking down some poor beaten-down orderly to apologize for the way she made him essentially reconsider his career choices.

Odd, also, that I am so doctor-phobic, considering when I started college I was pre-med. My high school yearbook is filled with things like “I’m sure you’ll be a right-on doctor (it was 1978, after all). Nobody wrote, “Remember me when you’re a published humor essayist.” I thought ‘being a doctor’ was what you were supposed to do with a 4.0 GPA, until I realized it would mean being around sick people all the time.

But beyond that hospital smell, I had what I felt was a very rational reason for not going to the doctor–I might get bad news. Now, I KNOW that going to the doctor won’t actually CAUSE me to have some telethon-worthy disease, but it’s damn sure where I’m gonna find out if I NEED a telethon, and why would I want to know that? That’s depressing!

I don’t handle run-of-the-mill bad news well—I went into a funk when they cancelled ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ I start frantically calling vets if the neighbor’s cat seems sick. I got a little weepy when Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon broke up. You get the idea. Friends usually offer some variation of  “Wouldn’t you feel better knowing what’s wrong?,” to which I can definitively say, “Ummm…I’m not sure?” Sorta depends on whether ‘what’s wrong’ can be fixed, doesn’t it?

And since I didn’t pay much attention to that memo about smoking being bad for me twenty-five years ago and have had more than a few times in my life when I drank more than the USDA recommended daily allowance of vodka, I figured, why push my luck? I felt the same way about my health that I feel about the Tea Party—what little I know bothers me, and I’m not sure I want to hear any more about it.

Besides, the few times I’ve been to a clinic, I’m as bad a patient as my Mom was, I think because I watched all fifteen seasons of “ER.” So when nurses ask me questions, I throw out words like ‘contraindicated.’ I tell them I’m ‘presenting’ with certain symptoms that seem ‘consistent’ with a specific ‘pathology.’

Of course even without the medical guidance of George Clooney, I’ve got the internet.  Doctors must hate WebMD. Just enter some symptoms and…click! With zero training, I can diagnose with at least twenty distinct illnesses, conditions, and syndromes I probably have. WebMD is like Wal-Mart for people with Münchausen Syndrome.

It doesn’t help that I tend to, given several plausible explanations for a symptom I’m feeling, latch onto the one most likely to be featured on an episode of “House.” I have a headache, it must be a brain tumor. I get a muscle spasm, I’m joining support groups for people with MS.

Now, if you’re following along at home, here’s where we are—I’m paranoid about my health, but at the same time I’m afraid to find out if anything might be wrong with my health. Talk about wanting to have it both ways—there’s not much point in being a hypochondriac if I’m not gonna see a doctor! I was missing out on one of the perks of thinking I’m sick—the attention!

Then it hit me. Let’s say I go to a doctor and find out I have some scary neurological weirdness (often referred to as ‘SNW’). First of all, it’s not like I have to DO anything about it. I can be every bit as careless with my health as I’ve always been! And it wouldn’t be bad ‘news,’ exactly, because it wouldn’t be news! Whatever yer fancy book learnin’ and yer computers and yer spectrographomometers tell you I have, it obviously hasn’t kicked my ass yet and I’ve clearly had it for a while.

Gotta admit, it makes a difference having The Girlfriend in my life. Beyond being someone who is willing to listen to me whine when I hurt, it’s a lot easier to face the health care boogeyman knowing someone has my back if I happen to have some made-for-tv movie affliction .

What I’m getting at (talk about burying the lead) is that I have an appointment in a couple weeks with a neurologist, which my friends assure me is a kind of doctor. Don’t get too excited–it’s just a conversation—just a couple of guys sittin’ around talking about, oh, I don’t know, degenerative neuromuscular diseases and the like. It is, however, a step. One wobbly step toward dealing with my shit. So do your worst, doc. But if I see one jar of leeches I am out of there.

elmer

Weird name, Elmer. It probably sounded old-fashioned a hundred years ago. But I knew an Elmer once, only thirty years ago. He was my step-dad.

I never knew my biological father, and I deliberately use the word ‘biological’ and not ‘real.’ The man who was ‘really’ my father is the man who drove me to band practice, not the man who apparently just drove away. You know, sometimes language is so limited, and so limiting. ‘Step-dad’ is an awkward construction, implying someone who’s at least one step away from being a ‘real’ dad.

Since I’m a baseball fan, I’d like to suggest a new term—‘relief dad.’ In baseball, a relief pitcher comes into the game, in a tight spot, to help the team out of a jam, and if he does his job, the team has a shot at winning. That was Elmer. Relief dad.

Growing up, all I really knew was that my mom met Elmer when she was a nurse, and that he was a patient at a V.A. hospital. I learned most of what I know about Elmer after he died.

About once a year, I do some searching online to try to find some clues to my  background. There’s a great, if a bit morbid, resource called the Social Security Death Index. Curious about that person you lost touch with from high school?  If they had a Social Security number, and they’re dead, you’ll find them here. Birth date, death date, last residence…all there—along with their social security number (which doesn’t seem to be a good idea at all).

Anyway, I wasn’t finding any clues leading me to the BioDad. But one search led me to a genealogy someone had posted, and there was my mom’s full maiden name. One ‘ctrl-f’ later and I found a paragraph listing my stepdad. Granted, I was trying to find out information about the biological dad, but this was interesting, too. Here’s what I learned from a random stranger’s website:

Elmer became a Catholic in his twenties. He changed his name at least twice. We don’t know why. He abruptly moved to Montana after the war to become a gypsy truck driver. During World War II, he frequented brothels, contracted syphilis, lost his first child and his first wife went insane because of the syphilis, and—wait, what was that last part, after the Catholic thing?

Now understand, I knew about NONE of this, and it felt almost proctologically invasive to read about it on someone’s website. Oh, and I also learned that Elmer adopted me in 1967 (weird, seeing myself described in print as my mother’s ‘illegitimate son.’ Makes me feel all wrong-side-of-the-tracks; turn my life into a movie and the tagline could be “He spent half his life trying to prove he was legitimate!”)

You’re probably thinking, “How could you not have known these things? When you got older, didn’t you ask about any of this?” Oddly enough, no, and I’m not sure why. I never asked questions. I guess I felt that if I had asked about Technically Dad, it would be somehow disrespectful to the guy who actually played the role of ‘Dad.’ Or maybe I’ll find out in therapy that I was afraid that if I messed with that illusion, other illusions would be exposed, turning my safe, comfortable childhood into a maelstrom of drama. But I’m pretty sure it was the respect thing.

Here are some things I remember about Elmer that aren’t mentioned in anybody’s family tree:

  • like a character in a sitcom, he had his catchphrases: “Can’t complain, and it doesn’t matter if you do.” (Yeah. Dad was an existential philosopher like that.) “A place for everything, and everything in its place” (And, thanks for the OCD.)
  • Despite wearing a neck brace and a back brace from war injuries, he would climb on the roof to adjust the TV antenna so he could watch the Oakland Raiders. He was apparently, however, unable to get out of his chair to adjust the rabbit ears on top of the set, because that was always my job.
  • He was the easiest person on the planet to shop for. He never needed material things, so at Christmas it was ALWAYS something made by Old Spice and a can of Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco.
  • Speaking of Christmas, although as far as I know we lived on his Veteran’s benefits and my mom’s social security, there was always a tree, and there were always things under it for me.
  • Even though henever went to college, he did everything he could to make sure I had a shot. When he couldn’t afford to buy me a desk, he built a damned desk out of an unfinished door and four milk crates.
  • Even though he had zero musical talent or even interest, he made sure that I took up an instrument in fourth grade, because on some level he knew it was a good thing. And he put up with someone learning the clarinet, which, in the first few weeks, sounds like someone torturing a cat.
  • The most frustrating thing for this former mechanic was the realization that his adoptive son, though ‘book smart,’ had an astonishing, almost breathtaking lack of mechanical aptitude.
  • He never slept much—but strangely, he was always ‘resting his eyes.’ “Are you still watching this show, Dad?” “Yeah, leave it on, I’m just resting my eyes.”
  • He drove me on my first date, at thirteen, with a girl named Eileen, to see “The Sting.” Dropped us off, picked us up in our ’64 Plymouth Belvedere, and discretely ignored my enormously awkward ‘move’ as I put my arm around her in the backseat. Since I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do once I my arm was there, I didn’t move the arm during the entire drive to her place, and it fell asleep, causing me to wave at her spastically with a dead arm.

The thing I remember most about Elmer is how much he loved my mom. This was no gushy, Hallmark love—I’m not sure I even remember them holding hands. But I always knew. My mom and I had a very…volatile relationship—a lotta love, but there were a lot of arguments. Elmer was fond of reminding me that my mom was the queen of the household, and I was just the crown prince, and that metaphor seemed to be enough for me. The only time I ever remember him crying was when he overheard my mom and I yelling at each other, and he heard me swear at her.

The State of California does a couple of strange things when there’s an adoption. First, there’s the whole not-telling-you-that-your-stepdad-went-to-whorehouses-and caught-syphillis deal. But the real weirdness is that they amend your actual birth certificate to list adoptive dad as birth dad! Okay, I can see some discretion, but it’s a legal freakin’ document! I don’t think it’s supposed to include MADE-UP ANSWERS!

If I had to choose one adjective to describe Elmer, (other than ‘elmeriffic’) it would be ‘stoic.’ He wasn’t the warmest, fuzziest dad, but I remember even as a young boy feeling his strength. I never saw anything faze him, even when he was badly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis  When the pain got really bad, the only thing that gave him any relief was, of all things, acupuncture. Still not sure how Mom convinced him to try it.

But then there came a moment when I knew Elmer was checking out—that his ‘relief’ outing was almost done, and he could give the ball to someone else and go to the locker room. I asked him how he was feeling one day, and instead of “Can’t complain” he simply said “I hurt.”

Elmer was just a good, solid man, and, in this critic’s eyes, he was perfectly cast as ‘Dad.’ He never took me fishing, or had a catch with me, but I will always think of him as ‘Dad,’ no ‘step’ about it. I am a bit more interested in tracking down BioDad than I used to be, though. For one thing, I’d like to know if there’s anything health-wise I should know about on his side.

More importantly, even if he was a total putz, maybe he knocked up someone in addition to my mom, and so I might have some cool half-siblings out there. But see,  now we’re back to language. ‘Half-sister’ and ‘half-brother’ sound so wrong. Honestly, after yet another holiday without any family, if I find someone who’s at all related to me by blood, I won’t be using the word ‘half.’  ‘Brother’ or ‘sister’ will work just fine.

Category: IT'S PERSONAL | Comments Off