My topic for today is Nutty Families. Hopefully I will help at least one person out there feel more at ease with his or her own family’s excentricities.
The other day, I received an e-mail about a woman named Jennifer Seelig. (The e-mail was entitled “Jennifer Seelig is a SKANK!”, for what that is worth.) I don’t know a Jennifer Seelig, but I was curious enough to open and read the e-mail anyway. It was a slow day.
Jennifer Seelig was a contestant on “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?”, a television show I have never seen but only became aware of when two prior contestants made national news. If I remember correctly, one of the “millionaires” actually wasn’t. (Wot?! Someone lying to get on television?! *gasp* Say it isn’t so! Next thing you’ll tell me is that the Idiot People on Jerry Springer are ACTORS! I couldn’t bear the disappointment…)
Personally, I’d rather BE a millionaire than MARRY one, but that is neither here nor there, and, Gentle Readers, we are not here to judge Jennifer for her materialistic impulses.
It transpires that a radio station in Ms. Seelig’s hometown took issue with her value system and priorities and so they took great glee in mocking her on the air. According to the newspaper article quoted in the e-mail (which did not mention the word “skank”, actually), the radio station referred to her as “a local loser” and “a chicken butt”. Ms. Seelig took offense and sued the radio station. (Un)fortunately, she lost–the verdict was that calling someone a “chicken butt” is not slanderous, per se, as it is an expression of opinion protected under our First Amendement (which, among other things, grants us the right to free speech)–and she had to pay the fees owed to the court and to the lawyers.
When it was time for me to write something for publication, it was the phrase “chicken butt” that spoke to my muse. Some writers have the good fortune to be inspired by Grecian vases or fog or yawping. My muse is low rent enough to get really excited about chickens (and there’s nary a red wheelbarrow in sight to make it artistic in any way).
“Chicken butt” brings back memories. No, I’ve never been called that, but I have weird relatives. My infamous uncle Bill (who I never met before he died), for one. He had a cabin up near Billings, Montana and used to drag his kids up there every weekend so they could be bored to death while he bent his elbow a bit. (That’s a Southern euphemism meaning that he drank himself into a manic frenzy.) One of his favourite pastimes was waiting until the kids were sound asleep, say, 4 AM, and then bursting into their rooms shouting hysterically “Guess what? GUESS WHAT?!” at which point they’d groggily reply “What, dad, what?” and he’d yell “CHICKEN BUTT!” and chortle and feel that he was the epitome of wit. Good god.
This is not unusual by itself. Many families, nutty or otherwise, are hep to the comedic value of chicken butts. His timing, however, was off. Any good comedian would tell you that the difference between a good joke and a bad one is all down to the timing. (He did pop the occasional joke at more appropriate times, and I will share one of his favourites later on.)
There is also the story about how Uncle Bill invited company up to the cabin one winter and they got stuck there during a raging blizzard. His wife and kids got bored by the menfolks and went to bed. The men continued to bend their elbows with enthusiasm. At one point, someone realized that Bill had left the room. Tanked on booze, Bill had decided that the livingroom’s ambiance would be greatly enhanced by a picture window looking out over the white water. So he trotted off to the utility room, casually brought a roaring chainsaw into the livingroom with him and then he proceeded to carve a window into the wall right then and there. I’m told that when they got around to putting glass in, that they discovered he actually did a decent job of guesstimating the dimensions of the hole required. Or maybe he was just extraordinarily lucky. (Except for the blizzard part, you might say that it was a job well done.) My family tells this story with diminishing awareness of the oddity of it. It’s as if they believe that everyone has Uncle Bills who make home “improvements” during inclement weather on the spur of the moment. Me, I don’t think that’s quite the case.
I visited Bill’s kids one summer when I was eleven or twelve years old and was not quite prepared for their, shall we say, joi de vivre. They were a lot of fun, but also somewhat intimidating for a shy child such as myself. They were also all in their late twenties, thirties and early forties at the time, but not possessed of many parental skills. They took me under their wing the minute my family arrived in town.
I wasn’t sufficiently warned off after hearing several Nutty Uncle Bill stories so I agreed to go boating with the cousins. It would probably be obvious to most normal people that the cousins’ sense of propriety was somewhat challenged, but I loved them and wanted to spend time with them. So, yeah, we went boating, and the cousins drank and caroused. (There may or may not have been some marijuana involved–I am not going to clarify one way or another.) They felt that I was in need of refreshment and were somewhat saddened when I declined the beers they offered, but they respected my preferences and didn’t persist.
Later, when I discovered that the bathroom facilities were non-existent, requiring everyone to pee into a “honey bucket”, I was determined not to have to go. I just couldn’t deal with the concept. No one else had any modesty about their private functions, and for the next few hours not a moment went by when there was not at least one cousin cheerfully carrying on a conversation with everyone else while perched atop the makeshift potty, beer in one hand.
Soon I was the only sober person on the boat.
Night fell, and things got even more raucous, and the cousins all decided that it would be a brilliant idea to go skinny-dipping. There are some people you’d really rather not see naked, so I declined again. At any rate, there was much flailing about and splashing and singing and hollering. I was leaning over the side chatting and we were all having a spiffy time.
And then *ZOT!*, the brightest halogen lights in the world flicked on, blinding us all, and a stern voice boomed over the waters.
It was the local law enforcement shining a spot our way, and he was greatly perturbed to find a twelve year old all alone on a boat in the middle of the public water supply. The cousins dove to the opposite side of the boat and fell silent, correctly assuming that the fuzz would be unamused to see them all nekkid and soaking into the locals’ drinking water like sweaty rum-drenched teabags. I held my own for a few minutes while the officer got angrier and angrier and implied that I had hijacked the boat and that I was disturbing the peace with ‘some kind of loud music’.
Zoiks! Rut row!
I don’t recall precisely how we got out of this predictament. Seems like that the cousins took pity on me and that someone knew someone else’s daddy and that once the cousins promised to get and stay out of the water, all was forgiven and we headed for shore.
The cousins decided that I hadn’t had a good enough time and they made it their personal mission to show me what a real fun time could be. Naively, I figured that this would be fine. So they took me to the largest country and western honky-tonk in all of Arkansas. Even at age twelve, I had a clearly defined concept about what I liked and disliked, as far as music went. I thought that country music was depressing and twangy and I wanted no part of being stuck in a bar with several hundred country music fans outnumbering me, but my desire not to be labelled uptight and uncool (damn you, peer pressure!) kicked in and I agreed. To please my cousins, I went.
They spackled some rouge and mascara on me, but needn’t have bothered. No one blinked an eye when I walked in with them, even though I was obviously a major minor. I felt the need to be polite, since everyone else was enjoying themselves. (In other words, there wasn’t a single human in the entire place who wasn’t yellin’ and cussin’ and drinkin’ and dancin’ and hootin’ and hollerin’ and linin’ up to ride a scary mechanical bull…except me.)
The owner himself took a shine to me and dragged me out to the floor despite my protests and tried to teach me to two-step while two thousand strangers stared and shouted encouragement. I was not having any part of that and escaped. I decided that if being uptight meant not doing things I didn’t find fun, they could very well just go on and think me a big drag. Gawd, but I hate it when people try to FORCE someone to have fun.
The cousins took pity on me (or something) and settled down to indulge in yet another country-flavored pastime–the liar’s club. In a Liar’s Club, everyone has to try and top the next guy with his story, and it is an opportunity to either tell a shaggy dog story, a tall tale or something true that you want to maintain plausible denial about.
The youngest two cousins I met were brash young men of unusual size who were full of tales and who preferred to stick to true anecdotes. They listened to everyone else’s contributions and then announced that had a story from their then-recent trip to Hawaii. Apparently they and a group of friends were dining in a formal restaurant and the management had showed some foresight and discretion by putting the rowdy bunch at a table on the second floor balcony. Even with this precaution, they were attracting a lot of attention. At one point–and they were unable to explain what motivated this behavior–one brother stood up and picked another brother up and threw him over the balcony.
The entire restaurant went ape-shit and rushed to the balcony railing. The airborne brother had managed to land on an awning, roll down it and to land directly between two bemused police officers. Two gigantic humorless Samoan police officers. Earnest negotiation proceedings began, the thrown brother swore he was really a stuntman, and, miraculously, no one was hurt or arrested. Everyone was sent to their respective hotels to sober up and straighten out.
The next day, the two brothers went sightseeing and were at the top of a several story observation tower enjoying the view. Suddenly a distraught man rushed to the edge of the tower, declared that he “just couldn’t take it anymore” and threw himself off the edge. Mass pandemonium. Again, everyone rushes to the railing to look down, and the jumper is standing atop a picnic table covered with the remains of the nice lunch some innocent bystanders were enjoying before he bellyflopped into their midst.
Brushing himself off, he yelled up to the two brothers, “Hello! I saw the ruckus you caused at the restaurant last night. I am really a stuntman and we don’t like to be outdone.”
The brothers each received a lapel pin from the stuntperson union the stuntguy belonged to, and a new friendship was formed.
And people wonder why I don’t see my relatives very often. That’s just another ho-hum day for them.
Quite a few years ago, when I was fifteen, my grandfather was sent to the hospital with an advanced case of shingles. It was Easter time, and my mother got the idea that it would be cute if I borrowed the white plush rabbit suit our church used and dressed up in it to visit my grandfather. I am a good sport, so I painted my face and hopped (sorry) into the costume, and realized that there was a flaw in the plans. It was 95 degrees Farhenheit in the shade and the suit was made of non-breathable “fun fur”. I was soon about to fall over from heat prostration, but my mother couldn’t be dissuaded, so off to the hospital we went, an Easter basket for my grandfather held precariously in two furry three-fingered paws.
We visited my grandfather and I was about to present him with his Easter present when a red-faced nurse burst in and literally dragged me out of his room. “There are no children on this hall!” she barked.
“Yes, but…” I said.
“The children are in the other ward downstairs,” she said, dragging me along to the elevator. My mother rushed after us but was too late. Down we went.
“There are only two children here right now,” Nurse Ratched growled, “but you are welcome to try and cheer them up.”
And with that, she left me standing in the middle of the hallway, feeling hot, miserable, confused and ridiculous. My mother came tearing out of the elevator and I explained.
“Well…while we’re here, I suppose we can spread some cheer,” she chirped. So we did. The first child was about four and shrieked in terror at the giant perspiring rabbit I appeared to be, so we fled. The second “child” was sixteen or seventeen, and I’m not sure which of us was more mortified when I boinged into his room to hand him a coloured egg. Groo.
As we were heading back upstairs to say goodbye to Granddaddy, we heard a fire alarm go off and nurses were galloping back and forth in a panic. We rushed to Granddaddy’s room and discovered that he was happily puffing away on a giant cigar he’d managed to sneak into the hospital. Soon the nurses found out where the “fire” was, and, well, we felt that our welcome had worn out.
Granddaddy was unrepentant, and rather cross that his stogie was confiscated.
Recently my mother, of whom I am very proud, has been spending some of her free time playing in an accordion-saturated polka band. They wear live crabs on their heads. You’ll have to take my word for it when I swear that our cultural background doesn’t include polkas (or the wearing of live animals as hats). Anyway, I take this sort of thing in stride these days. Perhaps you understand why.
I must confess that, every now and then, I, too, do things that probably aren’t all that ordinary and I think nothing of it until someone boggles. After college, I was working three jobs and hating all of them. I decided that this was the best opportunity I was ever going to have to travel around the United States, so I packed up and settled my affairs. It wasn’t until I hit Tennesse that it dawned on me that I had forgotten to tell my family. They didn’t know I was no longer in North Carolina. Also, I had no idea where I was going to end up. I sent a postcard from Graceland and promised to call when I hit Boulder City or Las Vegas, Nevada. I figured it would be easy to get a job in Vegas. My mother immediately assumed that I was running off to Vegas to marry some strange man and panicked. Instead, I ended up working in the casinos (they actually were easy jobs to get) and travelling on my days off through 20 states and Mexico. And then when I got tired of living in a dive and out of a few boxes, I picked a place to live at random, drove back across the country and, well, I’ve been here ever since.
So there you have it–you may have thought your family was crazy and that no one could understand if you tried to explain. You’re not alone. Like I said…if I’ve helped even one person out there feel validated and understood, I have done what I set out to do.
Anyway, here, as promised, is one of my late Uncle Bill’s favourite jokes.
There’s this guy, and he’s been out celebrating and is knee-staggeringly intoxicated. He manages to reach his apartment building without incident, but can’t remember how to work the elevator. However, he only lives on the third floor, so he decides to take the stairs. He’s happily singing to himself and half-way home when he hears a little voice.
“Drunk!” it says.
So he turns around and there’s nobody there. Confused, he resumes climbing the stairs, but soon he hears the little voice again.
“Drunk!” it says.
So he decides to investigate and climbs back down a few steps and lo and behold, he sees an enormous purple alligator sitting on the lower landing looking up at him disapprovingly.
“Whad yew shay?” says the drunk.
“Drunk!” says the alligator.
“Who yew callin’ names?” says the drunk, belligerently.
“Drunk!” says the alligator.
The drunk thinks that he’s had enough inconvenience for one night and is not in any mood to take any lip (so to speak) from a giant purple talking alligator.
“If yew inshult me again,” he says, “Ahm gonna come down there an’ turn yew inshide out!”
And with that, he starts weaving his merry way back up the stairs.
“Drunk!” says the alligator.
“Aw right, Ah warned yew,” says the drunk, and he goes downstairs and reaches inside the alligator until he catches the small part of his tail, and with one mighty *snap* he has pulled that purple alligator inside out.
“That will teach yew,” says the drunk. Brushing his hands together briskly, he turns to depart the scene of the unhappy event, but just then, he hears a little voice.
“Knurd!” says the rotagilla.