Friday, March 01, 2013

Family: You Can't Live With 'Em, etc...

Today, while being the best darn can jockey I can be, I started thinking about family. My extended family. I go in spurts doing this. What made me ruminate on these folks that I am biologically connected to (but rarely see) was a reel-to-reel tape.

If you're old enough, you might know what that is. If you don't, here's what the tape and player look like:

When I was a kid, we had one of these. My father, like I assume so many GI's, brought it home from Vietnam. It had red sand in it, the kind that I assume would blow around during storms over there. It was a monster. Heavy. It had a handle, but the handle almost seemed like a dare: portability wasn't it's strong suit.

Record companies made pre-recorded tapes for these players, but really what a consumer would use it for was recording their own personal music. This was pre-VCR, even before the wide spread proliferation of cassette decks and boom boxes. My dad recorded himself playing guitar, my mom recorded herself playing the "Jew's harp" (I kid you not, that's what it's called) and they both recorded audio of TV shows and movies. One of these, the audio from the "Elvis on Tour" film, I still have. Before we ever had a video copy of that movie, I'd listen to this extensively.

On the beginning of that tape, before the movie starts in, there's me. I'm three years old, and my mom and dad are trying to get me to sing or speak into the microphone, and I'm having none of it. Every time the microphone comes close to me, I scream, saying "I don't want to, Mommy, I don't want to!". Why I didn't wanted to, I don't remember. It's ironic considering the amount of time over the last twenty five years I've spent in front of a microphone.

Lesson Learned From Family #1: People who are related to you will try to get you to do things that others won't.

When I was ten, while visiting me and my mother, my grandmother told me she'd give me ten bucks for all my Elvis 45's (I had around 40). Being a kid who wanted to respect authority, I complied. My mom didn't know about this until my grandmother was leaving. My mom, seeing that this was unfair, told her so while she was getting in her car. As she drove off, my grandmother said, "A deal's a deal!"

Of course, even when she passed away, she still had this crate of records which somehow never reverted back to me in her death. Well played, grandma, well played.

That day, my grandmother inadvertently taught me a healthy skepticism of all authority that has been lasting. I actually am thankful for it, and I feel that skepticism can serve you well. Everyone needs a bullcrap detector sometimes.

Lesson Learned From Family #2: People who are related to you don't always have your best interests at heart.

Around about that same time, I was at my grandfather's house looking through his records. Of course, I was looking for Elvis records, and I was disappointed that he only had a couple. My grandfather was a great guitarist, loved jazz and was playing professionally way before rock and roll. I asked him what he thought of "the King" and he didn't have kind words to say: "He couldn't play guitar. I suppose he could sing ok." My stepgrandmother chimed in with "Oh, those are my records", as if to provide an excuse for having such musical contraband. A couple of years later, when Sgt. Pepper never left my CD player, I inquired about his opinion regarding the moptops: "They are alright. Not great guitar players but good songwriters." They were no Django Reinhardt, to be sure, who was my grandpa's favorite player.

I find it interesting that, even though he knew of my love for Elvis, he was not accommodating of that fact. In fact, neither set of grandparents on either side of my family were known to suffer fools.

Lesson Learned From Family #3: People who are related to you don't always consider your feelings.

Here's the deal with this post right here: I'm glad they didn't take it easy on me. I don't agree with what happened all the time with my family and me, but soft, warm, fuzzy people they were not. And, in a world that isn't soft, warm and fuzzy either, those relationships prepared me for what was to come. As I got older, went to college and took jobs all around the eastern half of the U.S., I didn't see them very much. And even that prepared me to be flexible in a profession where you deal with difficult interpersonal situations continually.

This whole post might sound like I am being critical of these people. But it's really more like a travelog, that tells you how you got to where you are. Your relationships with your family are a lot like tourist traps and greasy diners: some you like, some you don't, but they all stick with you and mold you.

That these three stories each have some connection with Elvis is no coincidence: I was a big fan early on, and your family's reaction to something that's important to you as a child says a lot about them. But I don't think that negative reactions to something that a child loves are always terrible. In fact, they can build character and encourage a kid to be honest, even blunt about what they like, who they are and what they will and won't do. I'd take my relation any day over an antiseptic, milquetoast existence where nothing was ever confronted and nothing ever mattered. In a beautifully twisted way, I want to tell my family, "thanks".


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