June 30, 2004

Reaching for the stars

I finally got my hands on the new David Sedaris book, and spent the afternoon on the couch reading, which, surprisingly, came in conflict with mowing the lawn. My mom came in and made a point of noticing my non-lawn-mowing status, and we started some small talk about the book. My mom's a librarian, and I'm on the library board, so it's easy for we bibliobibuli to get carried away. This was one of those times.

We got to talking about David Sedaris: how it was the first book by a gay author she read that didn't revolve about coming out to family or AIDS, how awkward it must be for his family to have all sorts of unflattering stories about their puberty top the NYTimes Best Seller list, how I think that it would be easy for me to write in the same vein.

She said that she could see me writing similar stories, since my family could give Sedaris' a run for their money.

My nuclear family, pronounced noo-klear and not nukular, is fairly normal. I have two sisters: a sixteen year old who studies hard, is a virtuoso clarinetist, and is on various All-City sports teams, and a 14 year old jazz dancer, trombonist, going through an awkward stage, as all high school freshman are prone to do. My parents are normal enough. My mom was engaged to someone, but went out with some friends to a bar and played my dad in foosball, and decided that maybe she wasn't ready to get married at the time. Three months later though, when my dad proposed, she was ready. Very much a made-for-tv movie.

There are stories to be told about them, of course. My dad is about as mature as a three year old, and does things like 'ooh' and 'aah when he sees fireworks on the television. My mom has read every book about the Wild West that our library owns, and was once the district leader of La Leche League, and is consequently one of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to breast-feeding. The 16-year-old sister is your classic middle child trying to overachieve, and the 14-year-old was once suspended from sixth grade for writing a note giving up her dessert if someone would shut her teacher up forever. (It was a few weeks after Columbine, and so the note was seen as the Second Coming of Hitler.)

But really, those stories are all nice and dandy, but the real meat and potatoes of the family can be found in the extended family, the ones that legally we're not allowed to meet.

Well, my grandpa is the only one with whom we're legally not allowed contact, but I like that phrase so I'm sticking to it.

I remember meeting my grandpa Keith once. It was my 6th birthday, and we went to a greasy spoon restaurant. He gave me a rubber band gun and a bagful of rubber bands. My mom had been trying to keep violent toys away from me, and had told my grampa as such, but he didn't think that the gun was all too violent. After all, it only shot rubber bands, not giant foam balls or anything dangerous like that. With a newborn to whom I was still getting accustomed and a toddler whose sycophantic imitations were beginning to get on my nerves, my mom wasn't too pleased with this present or with the power that it would give me. She tried confiscating it from me in the restaurant, but I threatened to cause a scene. I got to hold it until we got home.

When we pulled into the driveway, she turned around in her seat and wrestled it from my greedy little hands, complaining "Why couldn't he have given him a drum set, or something that isn't... this."

The next week, we got a phone call. My grandpa was embezzling funds from local churches, and, when confronted, escaped from police. He was considered armed and dangerous, and if he made any contact with us, we were to call the police.

Apparently, he spent his spare time going door to door throughout the state, claiming to be collecting money so the local church or school could build a new playground. He had amassed over $200,000 before people started getting suspicious. Apparently, he asked the president of some church board for money, which didn't go over too well. He was last seen at my grandma's house, sticking signed divorce papers in the mailbox, and was now on the run.

I overheard all of this when my mom told my dad when he returned from work, when I was ostensibly getting ready for bed. My dad saw me standing near the door, and said something along the lines of "Well, now we know why he gave Bob the gun for his birthday."

It slowly dawned on me; my eyes opened with enlightenment. My grandpa wanted to team up with me and fight the law. I didn't know much about these things, but according to cartoons I assumed we would ride horses throughout the countryside, and stop by little towns by the side of the road. We'd go to a restaurant or saloon, and everyone would stop what they were doing and nervously gawk. They'd point and stare, and when the bartender tried to call the police, my grandpa would pull the phone cord from the wall, and demand a beer. I'd chime in too: "Make mine a root beer" in a nasaly, prepubescent growl. Later, he'd sense something was amiss, and we'd have to shoot our way out, him not so much shooting bullets but the smoke that the chamber emits, and me with my rubber band gun, making the other guys drop their guns and wave their hands in stinging agony.

The next week I practiced my moves like no one's business. I found the rubber band gun in my mom's drawer, and snuck it upstairs to my room. I practiced for hours, cocking poses and practicing catch phrases. My favorite was "RRRRrreach for the starrrrrrs," as I had just caught the hang of rolling my r's.

The gun wouldn't quite fit in my pockets, so I tucked it into my sock, which worked well with my cowboy gait. I practiced bending down and whipping the gun out, but I could never pull my pants leg up, grab the gun, load it, aim and shoot without dropping the gun or accidentally shooting myself in the foot. Eventually I worked out a way to drop to the floor and roll while I loaded my gun, figuring that I'd be escaping stray bullets.

Well, the week went on, and he never showed up. Being a six-year-old boy, my fascination with the cowboy way of life slowly dwindled, since I had to practice without letting my parents know, and there were only so many excuses for the noises I made while rolling around on my floor. I ended up watching (some would say obsessing over) the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and practiced my moves with some neighbor boys from across the street. We would always practice in their yards so my mom wouldn't find out. I soon found that hitting sticks together and kicking the air was much more fun the dropping to the ground and hitting myself with rubber bands.

A few years passed, and eventually the law caught up with my grandpa. He had settled down and gotten married in Missouri, and was living in a trailer park, spending his days watching television. I was crushed. So much for the idea that my grandpa was a cowboy, a rebel with a cause, (though I do like to think that he spent most of his days watching old Western movies).

He was dragged back to Wisconsin and stood trial. He was guilty as all hell, and was convicted in no time at all. If he hadn't run away, he probably only would have been in jail for a few months, but he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Of course, he couldn't stand to spend 10 years in prison, even though with good behavior he could be out in 5. He faked having a heart attack, and tried running away in his little white gown dragging along his IV. They caught him stealing somebody’s coat to use as a disguise, and his sentence was extended. The guards later found out that he tried to organize a prison break, and his sentence was again extended, and he was sent to a prison further away.

He was just released a few weeks ago, and is now living in a minimum-security retirement home for convicts. He's now in his early seventies, so he spends his time playing cards with the other former inmates and watching Matlock. My mom hasn't seen him for years, and has no plans to. We got a letter from the home, asking for some clothes, but with a complete warning that only my mom could visit; it was one of the sacrifices he made to be admitted into the house.

My mom is the only surviving child, and my grandma still harbors bad feelings from when the house was surrounded by cops who knocked down her front door. He’s only allowed a few visitors, and my sisters and I are not on the list. He’s allowed a few hours outside every day for errands and exercise, but we’re under strict orders not to make any contact with him. They must have known about my cowboy days, and are afraid I’d bust him out of jail with my magnum. They don’t have to worry as I’m not into wearing leather chaps and spurs, but it looks like they’re not taking that chance.

Well, I finished the book and passed it off to my mom, who is now reading it in her room. I have half a mind to tell her the book is evil—I still haven’t mowed the lawn, and there’s half a dryer of towels that she was folding up until David distracted her. The book should come with a warning label: Warning! Reading this book will cause White Trash Housekeeping! Open book at own risk.
Here lies a most ridiculous raw youth, indulging himself in the literary graces that he once vowed to eschew. Now he just rocks out.