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.

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found in translation

Recently, I joined a Facebook group dedicated to my high school, and as we chatted back and forth, the names of my teachers came spinning at me like calendar pages in a film noir. Then I realized that, while I remembered the teachers, I wasn’t as able to remember the things they taught. Oh sure—I remember random fragments—bits and pieces of mid-seventies curricula. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to pass a midterm exam in any of the classes I took in high school.

For instance, I can picture Mr. Simonds (I even remember that his first name was Ira), but I can’t recall much of his American History class. I think the South lost. That’s about it. Or Mr. Hague and Mr. White, good friends (of each other) who taught chemistry and biology respectively, and looked a bit like Penn and Teller. I remember using a pipette to distill something in chemistry, and I think Mr. White had us cut up earthworms. I’m not sure why.

Yet for some reason, I remember most of my two years of high school German. When I went to high school, in addition to knowing the capitals of  all forty-five states, students were required to study a foreign language for two years. Our choices were Spanish, German, and French, and of course, living in Southern California, I picked…German?

What I remember most about German class are the ‘dialogues’–short conversational snippets designed to put you right in the midst of the culture. And the first dialogue in my German I textbook? My initial exposure to these storied people?

Fussball, nein. Limonade ja! (Soccer, no. Lemonade, yes!)

We also learned the following:

Wo ist Monika? (Where is Monica?)

Im Boot. (In the boat.)

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Wohin geht Peter? (Where is Peter going?)

An den See. (Out to sea.)

Forgetting that the last two exchanges seem to cast the mostly landlocked Germans as seafarers, the first one is really the foundation on which German literature is based–a long, hallowed tradition of choosing lemonade over soccer.My point is this: The main reason people in other parts of the world hate us is that when Americans visit other countries and try to ‘fit in,’ we never learned any really useful phrases. So we sound like idiots.

If you’re at a restaurant in Paris, and you are able to remember how to say “I have a spoon” in French, your waiter won’t be impressed by your cross-cultural gesture, he’ll think you’re a patronizing buffoon.  It’s classic American ego to think that a handful of Berlitz phrases tossed around allows you to ‘fit in.’

If we want our friends abroad to welcome future generations of rich, spoiled American college kids, foreign language classes should teach phrases we could actually use in Germany, France, or Spain, for example–

Die meisten Amerikaner sind anders als die Leute auf “Jersey Shore.” (Most Americans are different than the people on “Jersey Shore.”

Je souhaite que mon pays ne cesse de se mêler dans les affaires des autres nations et commencer à s’inquiéter de nos propres problèmes. (I wish my country would stop meddling in the affairs of other nations and start worrying about our own problems.)

Fue todo culpa nuestra que la economía mundial colapsó hace un tiempo. Lo sentimos! (It was mostly our fault that the global economy collapsed a while ago. Sorry!)

<the preceeding comedy idea was brought to you by Google Translate>

 

I’ve always been a student of language–in fact, when I was fourteen I invented my own alphabet. Because as a junior-high kid with a clarinet and a briefcase (?!), I could afford to be even weirder. I also own the book ‘Winnie-the-Pooh‘  in seven different languages, including the Latin version, which is the only book in Latin to ever make the New York Times bestseller list…Anyway, after my zwei Jahre of German, I figured college French wouldn’t be too difficile.

I was wrong. I didn’t realize it would be a ‘total immersion’ class, obviously named for the drowning sensation students feel when they’re only allowed to speak A LANGUAGE THEY DON’T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK YET! It may work for some, but I just kept wanting to scream, “I don’t KNOW how to ask it ‘en français,’ because this is SUPPOSED to be Française 101!” Other than being able to…count things, I’ve retained nothing from two semesters of French class.

Since I switched to Team Judaism a few years ago, I’ve had every intention of learning Hebrew, but it’s a little daunting. I have a hard enough time writing English letters, since I’ve typed everything for the past twenty-five years. To say nothing of the whole ‘right-to-left’ thing. Makes me wonder if there are any dyslexic cantors. Which would be a great name for a band–Dyslexic Cantors.

Having lived in New York, Chicago, and L.A., I’ve had a pretty multicultural life. Based on the random phrases I’ve picked up, I think I can handle just about any situation:

I can say “I want to be your friend” in Japanese, in case I’m in Tokyo and…want to be somebody’s friend.

I can greet someone in Warsaw with a hearty “Jak sie masz,” but unfortunately, I won’t know how to tell him I want to be his friend.

When I travel through Russia, I will only be able to drink or say goodbye to people.

In Italy, I will be able to talk about anything that is mentioned in the song “Caro mio ben.”

It’s worse to know a little bit of a foreign language than to be blissfully ignorant. Here’s why. If you happened to pull out just the right phrase for the situation, the person whose native language you just ‘spoke’ will think you really speak the language and start a conversation. Meanwhile, you’ve already used all the conversaitonal Farsi you remember, so you stand there mute while Guy Who Speaks Farsi thinks you’re either stupid, or that you were mocking him.

I’m not sure how Mrs. Dashiff (again with the names!) did it, but she managed to instill a deep, lasting knowledge of the most pedestrian German interactions (“What are you doing?” “I’m practicing the violin.” “Are you tired?” “Yes.”). But to be fair, and to her credit, I also still remember the first four lines of Heinrich Heine’s lyrical and wistful poem, “Die Lorelei”.

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin,
Ein Märchen aus uralten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

I don’t remember what it means, exactly, but if I’m ever in a bar in the middle of Hamburg, I’m using it. At least I won’t be asking where the nearest McDonald’s is.

Category: COMEDY | Comments Off on found in translation

patents pending

 

For some reason, my neighborhood has more labradoodles than most. Makes me wonder if there’s some kind of canine genetic engineering facility in Uptown, disguised as a Vietnamese restaurant or a bike repair shop.

 

 

I don’t usually weigh in on bioethical issues, being a comedy writer, and I realize the labradoodle was bred to be a service animal, but I think it’s a slippery, if adorable, slope. What’s to prevent an enterprising breeder from crossing a crow with, say, a raccoon, creating a frightening flying destruction machine, swooping down on trashcans in the alley, all claws and beak? Point being, you open the door to labradoodles, and eventually the bus stop at my corner will end up looking like a bizarre, surreal bio-lab.

Despite my skittishness about tinkering with genetics, what is typically called ‘Frankenfood’ doesn’t bother me.  If a some scientists can come up with a way to breed garlic cloves that you don’t have to peel, or brussel sprouts that taste…different than brussel sprouts, I say give ‘em a grant. If there’s a way to breed broccoli so that it’s all florets and no stems, that’s science helping mankind.

I’ve always dreamed of being an inventor, but my dreams have always been stymied by my lack of actual inventions. I also can’t draw, and I have no mechanical aptitude, so I have to basically describe my inventions with words. This has made my ideas harder to pitch, what without some sort of…thing to show people.

I’m sure if I had a workshop, and knew what one did in a workshop, I could build something that would be huge. Not sure what it would do, but I’d make it really big. Understand that my visions require you to not only think outside of the box, but to actually get in a second box and think outside of that.

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For example, the Bicycle Ashtray™. Let’s face it. Not everyone bikes for their health. Sometimes you bike because you need to get to the store for a pack of smokes. But what if you want to have a smoke WHILE you’re biking?

Attaching to the handlebar at an ergonomically designed angle, the Bicycle Ashtray™ is, technically speaking, an ashtray, attached to the bicycle. Some of these things invent themselves, people.

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We’re Americans, and as Americans, we like as many vices at one time as we can handle. Soda pop with extra sugar? Check. Chocolate-flavored wine? We got that. Vodka AND Red Bull? Who doesn’t want ox bile extract in their cocktail?! So why not caffeinated cigarettes?

The reality is, the few people who actually have jobs are very busy. And I’m sure there are times at work, when you need a pick-me-up, but you don’t have time to get a cup of coffee on your smoke break.

Now you can enjoy the jangly buzz of the bean and the edgy heart-racing of a cigarette in every puff! Hello? Phillip Morris? Might want to jump on this. Call ‘em, Sippin’ Cigs™, and put a cartoon hipster with dreads on the box.

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If you live anywhere that has winter, you know that not everyone is diligent about getting the ice off their sidewalks. Well if the landlord isn’t gonna hunker down with a bag of rock salt, do the next best thing—walk in shoes that have the salt already built in!

With each step, tiny holes in the bottoms of your Slushers™ will release enough snow-melting salt to turn treacherous sheets of ice into whimsical puddles (note: focus groups seemed to resist the idea of keeping a bunch of salt in the bottom of each shoe, and having lots of tiny holes in their shoes…this concept may need more work).

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Love to read? Love hot baths? Until now, you couldn’t take your favorite author into the bath with you without getting your Dan Brown damp and your Ludlum limp. And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to take your Kindle or Nook in the tub at all. So…..waterproof books!

These would be special versions of current bestsellers, each page laminated with a splashproof coating. You can finally read underwater! Sure, an eight-hundred page laminated novel might be a little cumbersome, but none of those eight hundred pages will be wet. Here’s a slogan for you: “Bath Books™–making reading almost too relaxing.”

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Lastly, as a novice cook, I’m all about the gadgets, especially gadgets that have more than one use. Then I got to thinking, why not combine every essential kitchen appliance into one mega appliance! You’d have the OmniChef 3000™! The bottom part would be a broiler, then above that a toaster, and coming out on the sides would be an electric can opener, a blender, and a cappucino maker.

Then on top of that you have a built-in wok/steamer, and coming out from that would be various sharp things you can use to peel potatoes, husk corn and zest whatever you want to make zesty. At the very top would be four electric burners, with a removable lid for grilling. Oh, and I picture a foldout cutting board, and probably a mandoline.

Sadly, in addition to some potential safety issues, the original design would have to be about four feet tall and three feet wide, require a special power cord, and cost about seven thousand dollars each to manufacture, but for the right kitchen they’d be perfect.

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Despite the obvious genius in these inventions, I’m far too busy mocking things to actually make something, so I’m giving these ideas away. That’s right, free. Are you good at makin’ shit, but not so good at thinkin’ up shit to make? Here you go—knock yourself out. If you make a few bucks, good for you.