“It’s hell getting old,” was my dad’s answer to questions about how he was doing. “How you doing Hank?” they would ask. “It’s hell getting old.” He wasn’t trying to be funny, and he wasn’t changing the subject. He believed his age was the answer to most questions, the explanation of why he was the way he was, and his fate in life. If age is a state of mind, my dad he was old his whole life, or at least as long as I knew him. He was old in his eighties, but I remember him saying, “It’s hell getting old,” when I was a kid, when he was in his forties. We believed him too, because we were kids, and anyone who is older than us is old. When I gained a different perspective by reaching my forties, I told him that if he ever considered writing an autobiography, he should call it It’s Hell Getting Old. It was his ‘learn it, live it, love it’ meaning of life. If we attributed his health issues to something other than age, we knew we were in for a battle.
Friends and family were sympathetic to my dad’s “It’s hell getting old!” rants … in his eighties. They would nod, sympathize, and back up and give him the room necessary to develop his rant. I write the word develop, because he talked about his advanced age so much it almost seemed like he was working out material for an act. He repeated certain phrases and lines so often that I could say them with him, as he delivered them to friends and relatives. I heard him provide different emphasis and strategic subtlety to his pleas, over the years, and I heard him employ different ways and means of convincing them of his plight. I don’t think there was anything artificial about my dad’s pitch, as I know he believed every word of it, but he did get better at it after practicing this presentation for forty years.
When I told he might be able to defy the aging process, by some measure, by working out, he dismissed me before I finished the sentence. “I already own a weight set,” he would say.
“I know Dad, but you have to use it.”
“Ok, Mr. Smarty Pants.” He often switched between Mr. Smarty Pants and wise guy to anyone stating the obvious, but no matter what he called us, he always concluded his argument with some about his age. “Old people aren’t supposed to work out with weights.”
“How about a walk then?” we said, and he silently gave us some points here, but what does a person do on a walk? My dad walked in life, when he had a specific destination in mind. The idea of walking just to walk seemed dumb to him. What if someone he knew saw him doing it? “Where you heading Hank?”
“Nowhere. Just walking for the exercise.” My dad would never subject himself to such a vulnerable Q&A.
Some cherish their youth, and the telltale signs that it’s slipping away freak them out. Some of us look forward to getting old, because we know that greater levels of clarity, sanity, and stability await us on the other side. I suspect my dad couldn’t wait to get old for all of those reasons, but he also knew that getting old grants one the freedom to talk about their “gross” and “funny” bodily functions without being called out for violating societal norms. The asterisk in that ointment is that such discussions are exclusive to the domain of the old. If the old attempt to have such discussions with the young, they will be met with crinkled noses and uncomfortable laughter. If we tried to rein our father in by telling him that we, and of our friends, find such discussions hilariously gross, he’d say, “Oh, grow up!”
“What comes out of the rectum can be used an indicator of health, but it’s not the indicator,” was a reply I had to an update he provided me on the current state of his bowel movements. “It shouldn’t be used in place of a handheld pulse oximeter, an ECG monitor, or a glucose monitoring device.” Unless his daughter-in-law, a nurse, administered these in-home tests, the devices his doctor sent home with him were never used. My dad thought that what came out of the rectum was a better indicator of health than all of those medical devices combined. Either that or he just enjoyed talking about it.
Knowing that his diet consisted of baked beans, Oscar Mayer Bologna, butter brickle ice cream, and Swanson’s Mexican TV dinners, it was no surprise to us that he began to face some serious health issues, but knowing it’s inevitable doesn’t make experiencing the reality any easier.
“How you doing today Dad?”
“It was like pounding concrete today.” That was his favorite analogy. He’d replace the word “concrete” with “bricks” at times, just to keep it fresh. I don’t know where he picked it up, or what it meant, but I didn’t waste any calories trying to uncover the true meaning of his analogy. I understood what I needed, and more than I wanted, to understand.
My dad was a former military man who devoted most of his life to the factory. I write that to note that he didn’t waste his time or effort in life on creative pursuits. Creative descriptions of his daily doody, to my knowledge, were his only forays into artistic expression, and he displayed such a rich, provocative vocabulary in this arena that the imagery was almost impossible to block. I write almost impossible, because my mind has chosen to forget the trauma of many of his vivid descriptions, but the “pounding of concrete” stubbornly clings to a place in my memory. I thought of jackhammers destroying concrete.
When people hear others talk about jackhammers destroying concrete, or bricks, or any of my dad’s far too casual conversations about what happened that day in his alimentary canal, they might say, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.” We say things like this just to say them, because we’ve heard other use it to describe uncomfortable confusion. Few decided to cry, of course, though I suspect that one of the third parties he and I sat with in diners may have considered it just to get him to stop. I stepped in to solve their dilemma by saying, “Dad, that’s Gross.” I’m quite sure he wanted to tell me to grow up, but whatever he saw on our third party’s face told him they agreed. Our third party companions didn’t know him like I did, of course, so they’d laugh uncomfortably. I suspect that they laughed, because they enjoyed our father-son interplay, and they might have believed that my dad was tweaking me in some way for their entertainment.
He wasn’t. He tried his hand at entertaining people, but he was so horrible at it that he knew it, and those of us who struggle in this area learned a lot about what not to do from him. That isn’t to say that he wasn’t entertaining, because he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, unintentionally and in his natural state. Friends and family found him just as entertaining as we did, and we flirted with taking our show on the road, but we knew it would be impossible to keep him in his natural state. Anytime he thought he was funny or entertaining, he put forth effort, and he subsequently lost that audience. Smiles turned to confusion and confusion turned to polite laughter when they saw how hard he was trying.
The difference between an occasionally humorous person and an entertaining person is complicated and multi-faceted. One way to achieve short-term laughs is to repeat a joke. Achieving the vaunted title “entertaining”, requires the subject to know what everyone else knows so well that it challenges our understanding, our foundation, and everything we believe in. It requires us to examine ourselves, others, and others’ views of us so well that we briefly imagine an alternative universe if just for the moment it takes us to find laughter. We could even say that attempting to be entertaining asks us to be a little phony for as long as it takes to get a laugh. We might have certain beliefs, certain hard-core, concretized beliefs, but it’s considered entertaining to let our hair down and analyze from a partially fictitious, self-deprecating angle to challenge those beliefs.
My dad was many things, but he was not phony. I’m not sure if he had the code in his DNA necessary to be a little phony when he wanted or needed to be. If he did have the code the rest of the human population does, he didn’t use it often enough to harness its capabilities. I called him many awful, mean, and regrettable things in my tumultuous teens, but phony was not one of them. If one of my friends suggested that I might want to try the name out on him, I would’ve rejected them. He was a man of simple truths that he developed in life, and he could not waver on them, even to poke holes in himself for comedic effect.
He spent his whole life believing he was inferior, and he might have done some things in life to prove to that he was not, but my definition of phony involves someone who acts in an artificial manner to convince others that he is superior. To those who stubbornly insist that the term phony refers to someone who tries to be something they’re not, then perhaps he acted in artificial ways in some instances, but my dad did everything he could to fit in so he didn’t stand out.
When he got older and sicker, I suggested I interview him to provide his legacy a transcript. I suggested that his young nephews might never know who he was otherwise. He rejected me saying, “When I die, I want to be forgotten.” It’s illustrative, a little funny, and very frustrating to those of us who wanted others to remember him, but it’s not phony. Try to dissect that sentence for a trace of phoniness. To me, that sounds like a genuinely strange character who felt he was not fit for our world.
He was a fundamentally flawed human being, stubborn, and one of the weirdest human beings I’ve ever met, but he did not put on airs to impress anyone. Anyone who suggests otherwise need only look to the shoes and socks he wore in life. They were not what a man, built to impress, wears.
“I don’t understand how you and your brother view the world so clearly,” he once said. “It’s always been so cloudy to me.” He was skeptical to the point of denigrating, regarding his abilities in life. Driving, for example, was such an “awful responsibility” to him. In many instances, Dad talked about the difficulties of life, the “horrible responsibilities” the “accountabilities” and the “misery of life” that he said we’d fully understand once we became responsible adults who were responsible for others. Some of it involved lessons he used to lift our eyebrows and prepare us for the “awful responsibilities” that awaited us, but the anxiety he experienced while driving was very real to him.
We couldn’t play turn on his car stereo, for example, because that could’ve distracted him from his concentration on the road before him. We could talk and stuff, on most trips, but we didn’t have to “get so carried away” with it. If we laughed too hard, he put the kybosh on that, because it diverted his attention from the road too much. He didn’t care for uproarious laughter, in general, because he thought it made the laugher look foolish.
Whenever we tried to divert him from 90-degree angled driving, my dad rejected that outright, as he feared he wouldn’t make it to our proposed destination. “You could take A street to 130th and take a right, but if you take Stonybrook, it cuts straight through.” Dad did not care for bisecting the angle. He was a tried and true 90-degree man.
“We could get lost,” he said with tones that asked us to appreciate his predilection. We didn’t. “We could get so lost that we don’t know where we are,” he added in a tone that suggested there is a point of getting lost that could lead a traveler to never being able to return to the existence they once knew. We didn’t understand the severity of our dad’s anxiety, until someone relayed a story to us of Dad being so lost one time that he almost started World War III.
He was in charge of the map for a tank battalion. We all suspect that one of the great attributes of a military’s boot camp is to determine a soldier’s strengths and weaknesses. Why else would the military put a person through six weeks of intense physical and mental challenges. They want to see what we’re made of, and they want to how they can use our natural talents and gifts. How the military could put a man who lived his whole life in one city and didn’t know his way around in charge of leading a tank battalion with a map challenges my perception of the men in charge of the military at the time. Whatever the case, they obviously didn’t know my dad’s preference for neat and tidy 90-degree turns, because they put him in a position to fail, and fail he did. He led the tank battalion into enemy space, Russian enemy space, and he could’ve, in the words of his sergeant, started WWIII.
I didn’t know any of that as a kid, of course, but I knew that the only time I saw my parents’ fights devolve to screaming matches occurred soon after the map was unfolded. Thanks to GPS apps, I no longer experience deep seated anxiety I used to when someone pulled a map out.
The first time I saw Shrek I enjoyed it with a strange sense of familiarity that I couldn’t put my finger on. Shrek was a lovable loser with huge ears, a large belly, and he could be unintentionally and habitually gross in ways he didn’t understand, because he spent too much time in solitude. Shrek also had a strange yet simple philosophy of life that could prove humorously wise at times. I couldn’t shake the sense of familiarity during the movie, and I couldn’t pinpoint it for many years, until someone said, “Shrek’s your dad.” I didn’t laugh, and I found it a little insulting at the time, but when I watched the movie again, in that frame, I realized that the writers of Shrek might owe my dad a royalty for at least some tangential influence.