Friday, May 27, 2011

Eulogy for a Grandmother

I’m not sure how you begin to talk about a life that spanned nearly a century—a woman whose time included half a dozen wars, The Great Depression, and 17 different presidents. But of course, this isn’t about history. It’s far more personal. For some people, we’re here to celebrate “Lou.” For others, “Mom.” For others, “Great Grandma.” For some who are here in spirit, it’s “sister,” “daughter” or “spouse.” For me, and many others, it’s “Grandma Lou.”

As Lou’s grandchildren, let’s face it, we were spoiled rotten. A lot of people don’t get to spend as many years with their mothers as we did with our grandmother, and she made every moment count. For those of us who grew up in and around the Twin Cities, Grandma was an everyday part of our lives. Even for those who visited from New York, Chicago or Anchorage, Grandma Lou was still a presence we always felt—someone who gave life some much-needed grounding. She was the center, the heart.

For me, as a child, I usually only got to see Grandma Lou and Grandpa Bob once a year, in the summer. After the interminable 500-mile drive from South Bend to the Twin Cities, you finally took that glorious left turn onto Avon Street, where the sight of the ivy-covered house at the bottom of the hill meant that you would soon be eating exotic sweets like Poppycock, running around a huge back yard that had a maple tree planted in your name, and glancing at faded black-and-white photos in the TV room—images that proved that even your grandma and grandpa were children once. At the end of one trip, I famously cried my eyes out when it was time to leave. Even more famously, I once served as a teenaged bartender during a mortgage-burning party in the basement. (For the record, I needed instruction on how to make every drink.)

Fortunately, my “Grandma Lou time” increased greatly when I moved to Minnesota in the winter of 1993. The first stop was Grandma’s house, where I would stay in the basement for a week before securing an Uptown apartment. My first memory of this experience is walking up the steps the morning after arrival to see a strange man eating bacon in the dining room. Grandma Lou strolled into the kitchen as if this was a normal occurrence, and when I finally cornered her to ask “who is that?”, her response was nonchalant: “Oh, that’s Don, the plumber. He seemed hungry.”

Like many in this church, in the last few years, my visits to 756 Parker Avenue took on a different meaning. We all tried to pay back some of that surplus of nurturing that had built up over the years, as impossibly wide as that deficit was. Some did the hard work—stopping by frequently to look after Grandma’s medical, household, financial, social and spiritual needs. I played the role of the hack documentarian. Armed with lunch and a laptop, I would visit sporadically—usually, it seemed, in winter—and we would talk for an hour or so over chicken chow mein and coffee. I was discreet about where I placed the USB microphone, but Grandma would always look at it as if it were an alien, a cockroach, or (worst of all) something from Minneapolis. The idea of recording our talks clearly made her uncomfortable. And when I started our first session by asking her standard oral history-type questions like, “please state your name,” “where were you born?” and “what were the names of your siblings?”, it felt more like a test than a real conversation. So I decided to wing it.

Of course, when it came to memory, Grandma’s long-term was far more lucid than her short-term. But even with the distant past, she wasn’t as quick to elaborate as I had hoped. I craved detail. I wanted room-to-room descriptions of her childhood home on Manomin Avenue. I wanted deep character sketches of her parents and siblings. I wanted her to remember what she got for Christmas when she was 6 years old, the smells of Thanksgiving dinner, the feel of her wedding dress—anything to give me a cinematic portrait of the past. I also wanted to capture actual recordings of the stories I already knew and loved—especially Grandpa Bob’s visits on the streetcar that ran from Midway to Cherokee Heights. And the story where she gave Grandpa an ultimatum during their courtship: “If you don’t get a car, I’m going with the other guy” ... and how Grandpa promptly spent all his money on a used Whippet and covered the torn seats with old suit jackets. (At family functions, my cousin, Erin, would often elicit a big smile from Grandma by reminding her that none of us would be here without her. I used to think, “Man, without that Whippet, I am toast ... ”)

I captured fragments of these well-known stories, but not as much as I would have liked. I did, however, uncover the occasional gem, like the story about a train trip to see family in Chicago, during which one of Grandma’s cousins basically proposed to her. Or the one about going to confession at the German church, and being told by the priest through the screen to “keep walking” another six blocks to the Irish one where she belonged—a story that I later snuck into a screenplay. Or the one about how during the Depression, her mother would gladly welcome complete strangers into their home who were going door to door looking for work, or a meal—something that we agreed would never happen today, and a story that suddenly made sense out of the whole “Don the Plumber” incident.

Over time, I realized that Grandma Lou’s dementia wasn’t erasing memories randomly. It was hierarchical ... a process that I thought of as distillation—like a fine spirit. The most important memories—the real flavors of life—clung on. And that makes sense. After all, in the big picture, “what did you have for dinner last night?” isn’t really that important. I came to expect that Grandma would tell certain stories in every session. Like the time she gave birth to her first baby, and the doctor said, “Wait, there’s another one in there.” Memories of her father’s strictness, which she regretted for the distance it placed between them. The unfairness of having to iron her brothers’ clothes and make their beds. The joys of the family’s summer cabin, and swimming across Lake Owasso to visit a boy she had a crush on. Or ice skating in Cherokee Park, and the thrill of having “a fella” skate up from behind and put his arm around her (something that I found rather forward, if not downright creepy, but that always brought a smile to her face). When she would inevitably ask me if they still “let kids skip a grade in school these days,” I finally caught on that the proper response wasn’t “I think so,” but “didn’t you say that you once skipped a grade, Grandma?” I tried to get her to say “colorful” things about her own children—Annette, Anita, Bob, Tim and Sue—who, let’s face it, all seem a little too good to be true. But she wouldn’t dish on any troubles or fights. The challenges of motherhood had all disappeared. I could see by the twinkle in her eye, all that was left was the joy.

Grandma Lou never stopped eyeing my microphone with suspicion, but over time, she did come to enjoy our sessions. I imagine that for a person who lives in a confused present, the chance to spend an hour or two walking through life’s deepest, clearest and most vivid memories is somewhat of a relief. Truth be told, I wish I had started sooner and done a lot more, because she always seemed a little younger when we were done.

But what I remember most about these sessions are the times when Grandma Lou would seem to drift away for a few seconds. Sometimes she would look out the window at that big back yard, and talk about deer sightings, or the days when the kids would skate or swim down at the pond beyond the fence. But other times, her gaze would turn inward. After talking about her childhood, her parents, her siblings, her husband, her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren ... after finishing her second cup of coffee and looking at endless pictures in photo albums and on the refrigerator that documented the tremendous amount of life that she brought into the world—as I would wait for an answer to some specific inquiry like “what was your favorite Halloween costume as a girl?”—Grandma Lou would let the question drift away and say, almost to herself: “I’ve lived a good life ... ”

And I knew that this was the ultimate distillation. The memory, the feeling—the spirit—that would never leave her. Or any of us, for having known her.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Troy Smart: World's Worst Stuntman

This morning, I found myself interviewing the world's worst stuntman, Troy Smart (he's here on Facebook, Twitter handle: @actionologist).

Troy is the product of idle time spent on a movie set. He's part Michael Scott, part Ricky Gervais in "Extras." He doesn't fancy himself a "stuntman." He sees himself as an "actionologist," which isn't simply an occupation, but an entire way of life.

What I learned in the interview is that this man (who actually thinks of himself as the greatest stuntman ... sorry, actionologist ... in the world, even though research shows that he's never done a stunt that has appeared in an actual movie or TV show) is confused. He's not sure where he's from. He claims that he has doubled Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and "the lion in 'The Lion King.'" And judging by the somersault stunt he attempted during the interview, he's only marginally acquainted with the laws of physics.

Maybe I'm the one who's confused. For example, I'm not entirely sure why Troy Smart keeps a plastic packet of fresh dill in his oversized fanny pack. I'm not sure if the spider he talked about living in his apartment really qualifies as a "pet." I'm not sure if or why he was pretending to talk to Michael Bay on his cell phone (or if what he said about Bay's mother was entirely appropriate). I'm not sure if it was wise for him to be slamming a "health martini" at 9:00 in the morning. And I'm not sure if the classmates who applauded after a student pushed him down the steps in the 9th grade (the incident that, he says, launched his career) were inspired to do so because of his performance.

At any rate, it was an interesting start to the day. And I hope to soon post some "excerpts" from this "interview" for your "enjoyment."

Monday, May 9, 2011

It's the Empathy, Stupid

About five years ago, Chris Rock had a standup routine where he argued (convincingly) that if you haven't fantasized about killing your spouse, then you're not in love. He should have done the bit about kids instead, and I don't just say that because yesterday was Mother's Day.

Oh, don't shoot me that shocked expression. I would further riff on Rock by stating that if I find myself talking to a mother or father who acts positively MORTIFIED that I would would DARE say something like that about my OWN child, and that they have simply NEVER felt that way, nor WOULD they ... I make a mental note that I cannot be friends with this person.

Our joys and challenges with our little boy are well-documented (mostly by me). But after having spent an intense weekend with this certifiably intense child (we sponsored a belated birthday sleepover, two other boys), I have a slightly new perspective on the matter.

Childhood is a war zone, and I don't know how we survive it. James' buddies (The Alienteers) are good kids ... really good kids. But every five seconds is a new competition, especially with a party of three. The political grounds constantly shift to produce a roving two-against-one advantage. Each boy has to constantly fight for his turf, even if that's simply "calling middle" in the back seat of the Honda. It's exhausting. And sometimes it seems the only way to unify a group of boys is to do one of two things: Play the enemy, or play the clown. I find myself doing both.

When James was 5, a friend of my parents once patiently listened to me vent about the challenges of raising this boy. When I finally gave her an opening to respond, subconsciously hoping that she would say some version of "poor you," she said, "I think it's really tough to be James." Ouch.

Those words instantly rewired my brain. And this weekend, the insight finally hit home. This is a kid who senses everything around him to a level I probably can't imagine. I know that on paper, but this weekend was different. You know that sensation in your mouth after you've had an Altoid, when everything you eat or drink feels like it's hitting a million raw nerves? This is how I imagine James' whole body feels ... all the time. (Hey, it's not a great analogy, but it works.)

I'm used to his combativeness, his teenager arrogance and impatience at home. But until now, I've never really imagined what's it like to be James in school, except intellectually. Now I've seen more clearly his insecurities with friends: wanting to be liked, wanting to be as funny as the other guy, wanting to fit in, not wanting to feel like he's the odd man out. This is normal stuff, but when it's your son ... I don't know, there's just a trace of heartbreak in it. Maybe it's because you feel simultaneously that you've been there, and you're over it, and you want to tell him (and you do, later in the hammock) that there are ways to deal with this stuff, that he shouldn't be so sensitive, and it's all going to be okay. But at the same time, a part of you realizes that this struggle never ends.

Chris Rock had it right. But even his bit wasn't an original insight; it was his own riff on a phrase that I still find to be one of the only incontrovertible truths out there: The opposite of love isn't hate; it's indifference.