When my best friend’s mother pushed her husband down the stairs that wasn’t the only strange event I saw over the course of the years I spent in their household, but it was the exclamation point I needed to develop a new species to describe them. I called them Platypus People. They weren’t just weird, strange, and just plain different people. To my mind, they defied scientific categorization in the same manner the duck-billed, amphibious Australian mammal does. They were a housefire of strange, and I was the fireman, running into what everyone else fled. Yet, as with any veteran fireman who has run into so many fires that they become commonplace, I didn’t see their aberrant behavior for what it was back then.
When Ellis Reddick entered the room wearing his wife’s tattered, old wig and a pair of vampire teeth, I didn’t understand why it was so important to him to terrify us. He would walk slow, real slow to punctuate the terror. As a likely result, my favorite horror movies involve slow, subtle psychological terror that allows the viewer to fill in the blanks.
His daughter, someone who knew him as well as anyone, was terrified too. If he did this on occasion, say on Halloween or something, that might make it funny, but he did this to us almost every weekend. When we grew too old to be terrified, he turned the show on my brother. We knew my brother was terrified, because he didn’t know what was going on, and that made it funny somehow, sort of, and in a roundabout way. We knew Ellis better than my brother did, but for reasons endemic to Ellis’ character, we were still a little scared. I don’t know what was going on in his daughter’s mind, but I always wondered how close he was to hurting us all. We would laugh when this was directed at my brother, as I said, but there were moments between the giggles when my mouth would freeze in a worried smile. I would look over at his daughter, with this look on my face, and she would have the same concern on her otherwise laughing face. We would take everything we knew about Ellis Reddick and put those facts and concerns in a hypothetical puzzle, and we would wonder how much truth there was in the in the otherwise comical horror we were witnessing. The pièce de résistance occurred soon after his daughter and I found his hiding place for the wig and the vampire teeth, and we tried to use them to scare my brother. He was so disappointed that he was angry. He chastised both of us, because he knew, kids being kids, we would overdo it and ruin the joy he experienced terrifying us every weekend.
The Carnelias were another strange brew. I met low-lifes before the Carnelias, but I never knew anyone who whole-hogged it. The philosophy of most of the low-lifes I knew was equivalent to that of cryptozoologists and conspiracy theorists. They believe some of what they say, but they form most of their ideology around the idea that the other guy is wrong. They define their rightful place in the mainstream by exposing their peers to try to push them outside the fringe. The Carnelias didn’t waste their time with individuals, they were out to get the world. I also met angry, bitter, and resentful people before, but I never met anyone who enjoyed pain so much. Painful mistakes exposed the fraudulent nature, and they delighted in it like no people I’ve met before. The Germans invented the word schadenfreude to describe the act of enjoying another’s pain but the Carnelias personified it. Most of us know about the fuzzy line between comedy and tragedy, but there was never a fuzzy line for the Carnelias. They considered all tragedy comedic. I never saw them happier than when someone else was falling, temporarily confused, stupid, and in pain. It was their reason for living, or as the French would say, their joie de vivre.
“Your family is just plain weird my friend,” I told Matt after he apologized for an incident I witnessed in his home the day before.
“Oh, and your dad is normal,” Matt said. He was defensive. Why wouldn’t he be? I was insulting his family, and in some ways him, because some part of him knew that the peculiarities of his family would one day become his. The struggle to avoid familial institutions was best captured by the Alice in Chains lyric, “All this time I swore I’d never be like my old man, but what the hey it’s time to face, exactly what I am.”
“At least my dad knows he’s weird,” I said, “and he’s been fighting it his whole life. Your family doesn’t even see it.”
It was a harsh condemnation, and it was true. Matt’s family institutionalized their peculiarities in an inclusive manner that Matt would never be able to see without comparative analysis. Institutionalized peculiarities are as difficult for an insider to see as an accent for a native speaker.
“Everyone has an accent down here,” my very young brother innocently commented when we took a trip to see extended family members in Tennessee.
“Son, down here, you’re the one with the accent,” our cousin said.
Everyone laughed uproariously, until I innocently added, “No, you still have the accent. Don’t you watch TV? Everyone talks like us.” I don’t know what I expected them to say, but I wanted pushback. I didn’t mean it as an insult. I sincerely wanted someone to say, “Oh, and you think you speak without an accent? Just because you were born and raised in a certain locale, where everyone sounds alike, doesn’t mean you don’t an accent?” I wanted one of them to explain to me how they could think we have an accent.
They didn’t say anything.
An internet rambler said, “Middle Americans always try to say they have no accent, but …” After that but, they provided some anecdotal evidence that proved otherwise. It’s a natural inclination of ours to counter a generalized statement with extremes. If I say I don’t have an accent, you naturally point out some words or sounds to suggest I do in some cases. That’s fine and all, but I don’t think the argument is do Middle Americans speak without accents, but do they have the least? Is their language the most neutral, the most homogenous, and perhaps the most boring? An article I found, some years back, stated that actors who strive to appear in American movies and on American TV shows are taught to speak as Middle Americans, from a section of the country that stretches across Eastern Nebraska, Iowa, and Western Illinois. Most producers and directors want as little accent as possible in their productions to try to achieve mass appeal, so this is the most neutral form of speech they’ve found.
“You go around saying that everyone else is weird, but I could probably come up with about 100 people who think you’re weird.” Again, I wouldn’t say I’m not weird, but between the two of us, I would say I’m less weird. If you’re from areas of the country, such as Boston, Fargo, and Nashville, you might think you don’t have an accent, because everyone you know and love speaks the same way. There’s a certain inclusivity that prevents comparative analysis. As the old analogy suggests, they can’t see the forest for the trees. My innocent and naïve question asked our cousins if Tennesseans truly fail to recognize that they’re the ones with the accent? If they do fail in this regard, have they ever watched TV? I had a similar, unspoken query for the weird families I spent so much time around in my youth regarding their peculiarities.
I spent so much time around the Finnegans, the Reddicks, and the Carnelias that I recognized their familial peculiarities. They were some weird people. I can write that now, because I have decades of comparative analysis to back up that statement. At the time, however, I grew so close to them that I absorbed their peculiarities and developed my own lack of objectivity, until that conversation with Matt. When he pushed back with, “Oh, and your dad is normal.” I probably should’ve introduced him to the elusive baseline.
How do we compare one individual to another to derive a relative definition of weird. How do we compare A to B? Who’s the weirder of the two, and who’s closer to normal. We might take our question out to a third party, who establishes themselves as an agreed upon, baseline level of normal or relatively normal, on a day-to-day basis. Every region of the United States has some accent in their speech, indigenous to the area and the most common nationality of the settlers of the area, and everyone has quirks, but what person, or group of people, have the fewest quirks in the group we know, so we can establish an agreed upon baseline? We might say that B is definitely closer to C’s definition of normal than A is, and the best third-party, baseline barometer we have is TV.
I could see how someone might adopt a certain way of thinking, if that’s the way their parents and everyone else they knew thought, but at some point, they should’ve developed their own baseline and said, “Our whole way of thinking just isn’t right. I’ve seen the truth, and this ain’t it.”
These three families were weird, and they often failed to note anything unusual about their thought process, such that it leads to a philosophy, or their way of life. They couldn’t see it for what it is, because they were too close, and because their thought patterns were so institutionalized in their families they were ancestral. I saw their weird, strange, and just plain different behavior at the time, so often I compartmentalized it and incorporated their reality into who they were. The Finnegans just did things like that, because they were the Finnegans. It’s just what they did, same with Carnelias, Reddicks, and my family. We all did what we did, and our actions and philosophies were reinforced by cousins, uncles, aunts, and our grandparents. I threw our big, old world soup recipes into a pot and arrived at what I thought explained the world.
My broken home was just as dysfunctional as theirs, but we had a big asterisk in our favor: my dad. Though he never said such things, and he abhorred analysis of any form, it was obvious to those of us who knew him intimately that he knew he was something of an oddball. If we sat him down and asked him piercing psychological questions about his mental DNA, we wouldn’t find it, because he would tell us everything we wanted to say and what he wanted us to hear. His oddball philosophies and psychology could only be found when he thought no one else was looking, and in the effort he made to appear normal.
I went to receive Holy Communion one time, and my dad dressed me down psychologically for appearing in that line without a coat on, “Everyone else had their coats on, why didn’t you put a coat on?” That’s but a snapshot that I found quite humorous.
What difference does that make?
“You stood out like an oddball,” he said.
That’s but a humorous snapshot that provides some insight into the daily travails of my dad trying to fit in and be normal. I laughed about it then, and I laugh about it now, but I find myself examining the apparel of my peers before going out now. “All this time I swore I’d never be like my old man, but what the hey it’s time to face, exactly what I am.”
How many of us are able to objectively examine our way of thinking only to realize that we’re a bit off the track? How many of us can examine the way we’ve thought our whole lives and realize that we have some weird, strange, or just plain different ideas about the world? Due to the fact that just plain different people fascinate me, I’ve known more than my share in an intimate manner, and I can tell you that it’s rare for anyone to have substantive objectivity on these ideas and philosophies, because they’re often familial institutions. It often takes a number of people, a number so overwhelming that it becomes impossible to deny, from people we respect, to realize our thoughts are just plain different. By the time I was old enough to examine my dad with some perspective, it was obvious so many people told him “That ain’t what people think” that he knew he was an oddball.
I didn’t think my dad had perspective when I was growing up, but I knew that term just crushed him. I don’t know if so many people he loved and respected called him an oddball, but we were raised to believe it was one of the the worst things we could call someone else. Most of us say, “You’re such an oddball” with a cringy smile, but my dad said it with the meanest face he could find. He also said, “That ain’t the way,” whenever I approached him with a relatively original thought. “That ain’t what people think.” He developed an unwavering trust of experts, and he repeated their lines word for word. By doing so, he probably hoped to mirror their baseline normalcy.
Original thoughts were outside his gameplan. He didn’t trust them, and he didn’t want to have them. Again, this reaction might have resulted from the pain he experienced whenever he tried one out and others told him that was oddball thinking. My guess is he lost those battles so often that he feared there was no hope for him, but he didn’t want his sons to have to go through what he did. He never said why it was so important to him that we fit in, and be normal, but he might have thought if his sons could turn out relatively normal, perhaps he could enjoy a legacy of normalcy posthumously. It’s possible, even probable, that his fears of others considering his sons oddballs altered the trajectory of his lineage.
The Finnegans, the Carnelias or the Reddicks obviously never had such fears, for they not only continued their institutionalized, familiar philosophies, they propagated them as the way, the truth, and the light.
I had so many stories of these families lost to history, because I didn’t consider them noteworthy at the time. “Do you remember the time when the Reddicks did this?” I asked my brother decades later. He was there for much of it, as the Reddicks babysat us on weekends, and he remembered the stories. He spent time around the Carnelias too, and we both forgot more than we remembered about these people, but we both criticized each other for accepting their ways as commonplace.
I didn’t tell the stories of the Finnegans, the Carnelias or the Reddicks the way I do now, because I didn’t see them the way I do now. Decades helped me remove myself from the limited perspective of seeing it so often that it felt somewhat normal to do them.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” my friends would say the next day, following an eventful evening in which his family exhibited exaggerations of their weird, strange, and strange behavior.
“See what?” I would ask. They would explain what they meant. “Oh yeah, that’s fine. So … what are we going to do tonight?”
Kids accept, adapt, and absorb most realities they’re forced to endure, and as my brother and I learned, they can easily forget most drama and trauma. I don’t know how my friends, the children who were forced to accept these realities on a daily basis, turned out. We’ve only had brief get-togethers since, but my guess is they were unable to correct the weird, strange, and just plain different course their parents put them on. My guess is that they didn’t see the odd thought patterns, strange philosophies, and just plain different ways of viewing the world, because their parents didn’t see it when their parents taught it to them, until it became institutionalized in the family tree. I could see how children born in ancient eras, Biblical eras, or even the William McKinley-era might fall prey to believing they don’t have an accent, or act in institutionalized, familial ways, as most of them didn’t travel more than thirty minutes from their home, but we have easily-accessed modes of transportation now, mass communication, and TV and movies to provide a baseline normalcy and comparative analysis for our family’s ways of thinking. I understand that parents provide the greatest influence on a kid, and how extended family members might reinforce that influence, but how can you still try to maintain that your family is normal? Don’t you watch TV?