Saturday, July 31, 2004

How my Dad's warped sense of humor made me a better person

My father was an odd, odd man. He had an extremely strange sense of humor and I like to think that I inherited it. Sarcasm mixed with slapstick, tempered by a very dark appreciation for the absurd. Here are some examples of how he molded my tender mind and helped me evolve into the person I am today.

Example Number One:
It's a Saturday afternoon during the late 1970's. Dad has visitation and has picked up Kari and I. He is planning on taking us to a movie, The Muppet Movie. We get to the theater and The Muppet Movie has sold out. What does Dad do? Take us out to eat and bring us to a later showing of The Muppet Movie? No. He buys us tickets to Animal House. I am 12, Kari is 10. This is probably not the best choice for us, right? Well, I can't speak for my sister but I loved Animal House and thought it was hilarious (this probably explains a lot about why I am seriously considering going to see "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle").

Example Number Two:
Staying overnight at Dad's (I'm about 13-14?). I forgot to bring a book. Those of you who have read The Fish Hook Saga are painfully aware of what can happen if I don't have reading material. I come across a book that strikes me as being somewhat interesting. It is called The Happy Hooker. Hmm, perhaps it's about fishing. It is not about fishing, not by a long shot (for those not familiar with the Happy Hooker, her name is Xaveria Hollander and she wrote several books about her life as a prostitute. There's even a movie (which I did see but not because of my father)). It is extremely interesting until my little brat sister narcs on me to Dad. He later tells me he would have let me finish the book but he was afraid Kari would tell Mom.

There are many other things that Dad did which would strike many people as odd parenting choices but I don't have time to list all of them. One of the things you should know about my Dad is that he was extremely brilliant but also, throughout the majority of my childhood, a raving lunatic drunken lush who I observed choking my mother on at least one occasion and, apparently for fun, would throw beer bottles at her. I've blocked out most of my childhood and didn't remember the thing about the beer bottles until Mom was having the dining room remodeled and I was helping her take pictures down. There were all these holes behind the pictures.

"What are these holes from, Mom?" I asked. She looked at me blankly.
"You honestly don't remember?"
"Uh, no, I wouldn't have asked if I remembered," I said.
"Well, that's from when your father would use me as target practice," she said nonchalantly. I have to give my Mom a lot of credit. My Dad was not a good man when he was drinking. She stood by him when he went through treatment several different times, tried to support him and her two children and finally divorced him when I was 13. And even after the divorce, after all the things he had put her through, she rarely ever had a bad word to say about him.

So how did this make me a better person? Good question. One day, during the late 70's, I came home from school with an assignment for one of my classes. I needed to know what nationalities I was descended from. I asked my Dad for help even though I could tell he'd been drinking. I remember watching him weave back and forth in the breezeway, clutching his beer bottle, scribbling down information on the sheet of blank paper. I read what he had written. "German, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Scot-Irish." This was written in normal handwriting. On another line, his handwriting became more bold, slashing against the whiteness of the paper. "Polish. Black. Jackass, on your mother's side."

I knew the Jackass part was a joke but was puzzled about why he had written that I was part Black. He then proceeded to tell me how my great-great-great-great ("I don't know how many greats. It was a long time ago") grandfather had been a slave owner, raped a slave girl and, when she had a son that passed as white, forced his wife to raise the child as her own. He told me about Rosa Parks and gave me his copy of "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin. I was probably about 13 or 14 and learning about Civil Rights at the right knee of a man who wouldn't remember our conversation, or, even my name, two hours later.

Because of this new knowledge, I began to hate ethnic jokes. Why did the joke have to be about an American, a Polish person and a French person? Why couldn't it be about three different people, one of which just happened to be dumb? I would listen to the person tell the joke and then, very politely, smile and say "You know, I am part Polish." Inheriting my father's warped sense of humor, I enjoyed watching the person stumble all over themselves apologizing. The same thing worked whenever someone would make remarks about Blacks around me. I would listen to them, smile and say "You know, I am part Black." Shut them up every time.

Because of my Dad, I grew up to believe that you should follow the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you) and stand up for what you believe in. Even when, years later, I found out that he made the whole thing up. I'm not part Polish, I'm not part Black, it was all a ploy to make sure I grew up to treat everyone the same.

After his funeral, my sister, 3 half-sisters and some of my 4 half-brothers got together and were reminiscing about Dad. I brought up the previous story. I remember my half-sister, Suz, laughing as she related the story about how Dad told her and several of our brothers that the reason they loved spaghetti so much was because they were part Italian. Another sister mentioned being told she was part Native American and that was why she liked camping.

I really believe that you treat people the way you learn to treat them. Environment is a big part of learning and your kids watch what you do to find out how they should react. If you're teaching hatred, don't be surprised when your kids start teaching it themselves. My parents set good examples for Kari and I and we will set good examples for Josh and any other child that follows into the family. But I'm glad he made up this elaborate story to bring this situation home just a little bit more. He made me start thinking and researching and wondering about other cultures, other lives. He made me who I am today. I really believe that if he was still alive today, he would be telling Josh about his great-great-great-great grandfather who was gay and that's why Josh is such a snazzy dresser (okay, Josh is 10 months old. He doesn't have any particular tastes yet, I'm just using a very broad example. Kari dresses Josh, that's why he's snazzy. Unless the Vikings are playing, then Eric is in control of the wardrobe).

Previous comments

At 11:47 PM, DeAnn said...
I couldn't agree more. We become what we learn. And it's awesome when that influence makes you funny. Or good-natured. Or happy. Or just calm.Even odd is fun, don't you think?