Friday, August 9, 2013

A Practical Man

Today I learned that my grandfather Earl Brown has died at the age of 94.

He managed to avoid ever having a real two-way conversation with me for my entire life. That's just part of the way he was with me, he was a relentlessly practical person and I'm not. We all open up differently to different people, and I know that in some settings and with some people he was far more gregarious.

But I didn't know him very well, and this has hit me pretty hard, because time is up. I had my whole life to get to know him, and I tried, but I failed. I asked him to teach me to shoot about ten years ago, and we drove out to the range west of town a few times and spent the days out there. I can't say I love shooting, I just wanted to try to get into his head a little. Maybe I did, but what I found in there was mostly shooting.

But I think there was a time when Granddad reached out to me.

A year ago I was going through a really horrible time. I don't think many people knew how bad it was, certainly Granddad didn't know the extent. But right in the middle of it, Granddad phoned out of the blue to see if I might have use for a dremel set.

This was always the way with Granddad ... there had to be a reason to visit. I knew that much, and I hadn't seen him for a while, so I said, yes, I could probably find a use for it.

So I went by the house and sat down with Granddad and had a beer or something. He said he was sorry to hear I'd broken up with my girlfriend. Me too, I said. That's too bad, he said, I was really hoping to see you two develop into something serious. Me too, I said. He said, well, maybe we could work it out. I said no. He said, are you sure? You both seemed so happy. You never know, maybe you can sort it out.

"Granddad," I said, "There is another guy."

"Oh!" he said. He looked down at his beer, embarrassed, I think. "Next subject."

He thought for a little while, and trying to think of something practical to talk about. We sometimes talked about renting property, that's how he landed a comfortable retirement, and so he said, "How's your renter?"

"That's the guy," I said.

"Oh!" he said.

He thought about that for a really long time. Then he said, "Well. It's not advisable to shoot him."

That was the first laugh I'd had in weeks. It felt pretty good.

We talked about something else for a bit, and then he asked what day it was, and I told him it was May 20, or whatever it was. There was a calendar on the wall, and he looked at it and said, "Let's see ... May 20, May 20... yes, there it is. That makes it three years ago today that Edith died."

Edith, his second wife. I realized Granddad was having a bad day too. Coincidentally, the day that he decided he suddenly didn't need his dremel set anymore. And I, the unlikeliest of his many progeny to ever find use for a dremel set, was the one to bestow it to. It's still under my desk, whatever it is.

We sat and finished our beer, Granddad announcing whatever unrelated topic came to his mind ... I don't remember what, but I do know it was all about practical things. His computer, or investments, or something. And then he asked if I could use some spoons.

Spoons? Sure, why not. He had a whole drawer full of spoons. Those I do use, I noticed some of them are engraved KOCR, for King's Own Calgary Regiment. They look very old. Then he started rummaging around in his closet. Do I need a tea cozy? Not really. Well, you could use it as a heat pad or something. Sure, I guess I could. How about these paintings, can I use any of these paintings? I took one, it's a little boy in a cowboy outfit and hangs on my wall next to the closet.

He went through all his stuff looking for anything he can give me that I might actually use. I had to draw the line at some point, he got into things so profoundly useless and unsentimental that I knew I'd have to throw them away if I accepted them. But it gave us some time in which we could talk about anything at all besides grief.

There are times when practical subjects are the only ones that don't hurt. That was one, and so is this. Listen in at a funeral -- not his, he was too practical to want one. But listen in at somebody's. Other than an occasional toast to the deceased, that's what people talk about more than ever. Practical things. My first thought when I heard that Granddad had died was that I needed to drop what I was doing at work, go home, and fix my clutch.

I did leave work, but I'm writing instead of fixing.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The World's Most Socially Oblivious Man

Last night I met the World's Most Socially Oblivious Man. I defy you to present anyone who is even a contender against this person. Here is the story. To protect the sensibilities of bosses and girlfriends, I am using pseudonyms for everyone except me.

Every Wednesday, I play guitar at open mic night at a pub downtown with my friend Brian. Last night, about an hour before open mic, I went to Brian's place to learn a few new songs and practice for what we'd play that night. Our friend Mike met us there, and a guy I don't know so well, Brian's friend Skeletor.

Skeletor gets a distinctive pseudonym because, I learned later, some of the guys at work call him that. He's got an angular face with protruding jawbones, a gangly build, bald head, googly eyes, and an oddly vacant intensity. And as you will see, he is evil, but also oblivious. Hence, Skeletor.

Skeletor showed up last to Brian's place, cornered Brian in the kitchen, and launched into a convoluted story that took about 15 minutes. From the snippets I overheard, it was partly about someone he doesn't like at work, and also partly about where he likes to buy weed. Actually I think he was baked at the time. It's hard to tell with Skeletor.

The story kept on going and going, and I told the guys we had to get to the bar. I was first out into the hallway, Brian was still looking for his keys or something, and Skeletor followed me into the hall and continued the story as if nothing had changed. I hadn't even been in the conversation when he had started the story. To Skeletor this was not important.

Actually it wouldn't have helped anyway. Skeletor's stories have a fizzy kind of uncertainty principle to them. One second maybe he's talking about an argument he had with some guy at work, and the instant you start to think maybe you're following him, the next sentence is about which of the My Little Ponies that guy at work most resembles. They're related in the sense that they're both about the same guy, but also completely not related at all. You feel like you must have missed something between those two sentences.

And he mumbles a lot too, so probably you did miss something. But I am sure that if he were subtitled and I read every word, I would be more confused, not less. I remember thinking that at him in the hallway: "I have no idea what you are saying right now."

So we get to the bar and take a seat. Somebody is already on stage, and the open mic host, our friend Jake, comes and sits down with us. Brian is on my left, Skeletor is on my right, and on the far side of Skeletor is this table full of people I've seen a few times before. There's a girl at the table who I saw perform last week, she was terrific. She's one of those people who makes music look easy, one of those people who I'm definitely not. I close my eyes when I sing, partly to forget anyone's watching, but mostly because if I'm going to sing and play guitar at the same time, I can't also keep my visual cortex running. Insufficient RAM, gotta close some windows.

Anyway, this girl comes over to our table to ask Jake when she can go up. Jake starts flirting with her pretty hard, I can't hear what he's saying but she is clearly enjoying every word, and she leaves with a grin.

"Hey Jake," I said, "How old is that girl, anyway?"

"Too young for you!" he said.

"Well, how young is that?" I said. What I should have added was, "...since you're the one flirting with her!"

Jake admitted he didn't know how old she was, but maintained that whatever she was, it was too young for me. So we got into a brief speculation about how old she might be. For the record, he's in his late 20s I think, and I'm 41. But I wasn't trying to snag her phone number, I was mainly just curious. She's got a face that's hard to guess, I would have believed anything from "fake ID" to "early 30s." Also, as a musician, I was partly wondering how many years it had taken her to get so good. So, we speculated a bit, average guess coming in somewhere around 25, and then we talked about something else.

Throughout the evening, I was ignoring Skeletor, because I couldn't understand anything he said. I kept having to pretend to understand, and it was making me feel like an idiot. And the one time I did think maybe I had heard him correctly, what he seemed to be saying was, "I always keep a toothpick handy because I have hockey teeth."

See what I mean? Hockey teeth. He clearly has teeth, somehow they haven't all been punched out yet. So what are hockey teeth? The more you hear, the less you understand.

With me ignoring him, and everyone else too far away, Skeletor had nobody to talk to but the people at the next table over. That's the table the girl had come from. So he chats with them for a bit, and then he leans back to me, and says, "That's her mom," pointing at one of the women at the table.

"Huh," I said. The woman appeared to be in her early 40s or so. "Maybe she's younger than I thought."

Then I went back to ignoring Skeletor, and talking about something or other with Brian. So I only peripherally noticed Skeletor shuffling back over to the other table again. The girl was on stage at this point, singing beautifully, and her mother was watching with rapt adoration and pride as her daughter sang to the angels over the clattering of the pub.

And into this moment of mother-daughter bonding shambles Skeletor.

Skeletor, four years older than me, but who was once mistaken for my dad. Skeletor, with his intensely vacant googly eyes and stoner stagger. Skeletor, with a toothpick and a big hockey-toothed grin on his face.

And he says to the woman, in front of all the woman's friends, "Hey, how old is your daughter?"

You might already be thinking, damn, you're right, that is the World's Most Socially Oblivious Man. But to Skeletor, this is just laying the groundwork for his magnum opus. Close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine the creepiest, most disturbing thing a man could possibly do or say next without breaking any law. I wager that whatever you're thinking, Skeletor will still top you with what he does. Which is:

He turns back to our table. He is still standing right next to the girl's mother, literally still at her shoulder. And he shouts the first clear, concise, perfectly pronounced sentence out of his mouth the entire evening:

"Dude, she's 18!"

I instantly realize what he has done. Hot murderous rage floods into my system. But if I kill him where he stands, everyone will know he was talking to me. So I pretend not to notice or hear him, I just keep talking to Brian hoping everyone will think he's talking to somebody else, or himself.

"Dave!" he shouts. "Hey, Dave! Dave, listen!"

I look sideways at him and mouth, "Shut up!"

He does not notice that, nor does he notice that the mom and the mom's guests are all listening too. He doesn't care about any of that. He just wants to make sure I'm listening, and not interrupting his amazing discovery with any wild gesticulating or zipper-mouth pantomiming. He waits until I am sitting utterly still.

Then he shouts. "Dude! That girl's 18! Too young for you, you bad boy!" And I swear to you, he actually waves his finger at me.

Then Skeletor goes and takes a piss.

"Too young for you, He-Man!
I switch seats with Brian so that I don't have to sit next to Skeletor when he comes back, or talk to him, or rip his kidneys out with a chicken wing. And when Skeletor comes back, in the bathroom he has suddenly discovered social awareness. He sits down and immediately asks Brian why I have switched seats.

"What's the matter," he says. "I farted or something?"

I don't recall ever being quite so angry and so amused at the same time. Once a dog took a wet dump into the intake vent for my furnace, that was probably the next closest juxtaposition. Both Skeletor and the dog walked away from their roles without even knowing they had done anything extraordinary. And I ended up elbows deep scrubbing dog shit out of an intake vent, but still chuckling to myself.

The dog shit in this case is, I play at this bar every week, and it looks like that girl is planning to play there every week too. I will probably see that whole table full of people again. It's not like I can keep a low profile when I'm singing on the damned stage. In fact, the better I play, the more they'll remember, and tell their friends, "Hey, that's the village pedophile!"

But I also think it's funny. Because actually, she was pretty hot.