Friday, April 15, 2005

Old people have a wealth of experience. Decades of discovery. A lifetime’s worth of observations and wisdom to share. Yet they repeat the same damn stories over and over.

Imagine taking all the music from the ‘80s and siphoning it down to a greatest hits album. And it’s not as if the best, most representative music is chosen -- there’s nothing from Springsteen, Thriller, Run DMC or even Falco. The selections are more along the lines of some hair band screecher no one remembers from when it hit #89 on the Billboard charts for one week back when Dukakis was campaigning, or it includes the B-side to that Kajagoogoo song.

At least that’s what it’s like with the elderly members of my family. My dad repeated the same schtick. Mostly rants -- argument-starters about science or history. The first fifty times I heard ‘em were mildly fun.

I had once presented this theory that perhaps there was no other life in the universe. That maybe there are so many physical variables which need to be just right -- the perfect proportion of heat, atmosphere, gases, liquid, solids, a correct combination of chemical mixtures cooked up with the proper timing... Sure, there’s “biwwions and biwwions” of stars out there, but there could be billions of factors that need to be in synch, and we Earthlings won the lottery.

My father loved that theory. Loved to repeat it and loved to refute it. Every time we were outside and he spotted some bizarre plant or neat-o bug on the ground... “See, Mike? See how tenacious life is? Did I ever tell you the time I was building this chemical treatment plant in Syosset...?”

Yes. For some reason a giant concrete basin wound up filled with two antiseptic liquids of different densities, so they settled into layers. And between the layers -- the only place anything could possibly survive -- was a disgusting film of algae. “They called it monkey vomit,” he said, and I had to try my best not to monkey him as he repeated that now-too-familiar phrase. “So you see, even in such a forbidding environment, an organism grew. Don’t you think life would find a way on some other planet? How can you say there’s nothing else out there?”

Same conversation every time. And I always ended it the same way -- with a shrug. “Just a theory.”

But strangers had never heard these discussions. So if I was with the old man and new people, I was subjected to it all over again.

Last time we were in the Caribbean together, there was a group of British tourists who were telling us about all the islands they had visited. I could see my father’s mind working, looking for that segue to a Dad Diatribe. The English were inventorying their excursions: “Bermuda was lovely... and we went to Trinidad once... oh yes, and Cuba...” Aha. There it was. The tumblers fell into place and the vault of invectives was open. Here we go...

“You wanna know something about Cuba? Y’know what Castro did wrong...?”

I had to walk away. Couldn’t listen to this rant about how Fidel shoulda held elections to make him a democratically-elected leader and then the U.S. wouldn’t have had to hold an embargo and that whole Bay of Pigs thing blah-blah-blah... and don’t get my father started on JF-fuckin’-K...

There were times you had to walk away, times you had to grin and bear it, and times you had to know how to work the system. Like when the discourse du jour was about me:

“So Mikey, what’s gonna be? Y’know, by the time I was your age, I had already -- ”

“Hey Dad, what’d you think of Harry S Truman?”

“Oh… They should build a statue to that man! A fuckin’ monument. The way he handled the end of World War II, lemme tell you...”

See? Just kick the jukebox and skip to the next track.

And as the years go by, you would think there would be even more songs to sing. Yet even fewer numbers remain on the playlist. My grandmother seems to have just a handful of diddies that go into heavy rotation. She’s not even aware that she just told you the same thing five minutes ago.

I don’t want that to happen to me. See, I know I’ve mentioned Grandma’s short-term memory before. And I try not to repeat my stories. Like last week, the family was sitting around, and I suddenly recalled a fresh anecdote about my dad.

How he’d rudely prop his legs on you if you sit next to him on the couch. So I’d pull out a felt-tip marker and start drawing tattoos all over his big-ol’ hairless shins. I’d create a pretty elaborate cartoon before he even could react. Gave me some crap about getting ink-poisoning in his bloodstream. Yeah, right. He just didn’t like having a giant tat of Foghorn Leghorn declaring, “Who -- I say -- who’s got the chicken legs here, boy?”

That story prompted my uncle to sit up. “Well, when I was in jail, the guys used to find a way to get the ink out of the newspaper, and then they’d file down their toothbrushes into a needle, and inject the newsprint into their arms and make their own tattoos.”

Wait -- hold the phone. He was in jail? When did this happen?

Oh, it was back in the early ‘70s, he said. He and his hippy friends had ditched their van full of pot -- total Cheech & Chong mobile -- up in Canada. They avoided getting busted by Washington state troopers searching vehicles at the border, and then got arrested for hitchhiking on a highway outside Olympia. Since he and his buddies didn’t have money to pay the fine (they had planned to get some cash by selling a little weed), they had to spend the weekend in the slammer. Wound up in the joint even though they didn’t have any joints.

I hadn’t heard this story. Nor the other ones about all the crazies he met in jail. They weren’t half as wacko as the wastoids with whom he roamed the country that summer.

And my uncle is retired now, traveling the world and coming back with fun anecdotes and interesting character studies. I was concerned that as my uncle gets older, he won’t remember all these adventures. He might end up like my dad -- or worse, my grandmother -- repeating just two or three yawn-inducing yarns from his youth.

I told him he should write his stories down. Hell, keep a weblog.

That’s why I do it. Safety precaution for old-age amnesia. When I’m a senile senior citizen, I can just sift through the archives, and regale my grandkids for hours:

“Aww, Grandpa Mike, not the pumpkin story again! Gross!”

“Fine, you whippersnappers know about my dog Max? Like the time he broke his paw? Or when he puked in someone’s lap? How ‘bout when he pissed on a Christmas tree?”

“Heard it, heard it, heard it.”

“Okay, I was saving this for when you were a little older, but I’m gonna tell you about yer ol’ Grandpa and his ginormous --”

“Yeah, Grandma Eliza Dushku already told us the truth about that one.”


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