Every young, hopeful, starry-eyed English major makes the decision to compromise his or her dream of ever making money because they have another dream: that somehow, someday, they will write and publish the Great American Novel. The one perfect piece of prose that critics will hail, that English professors will sigh over, and that publishers will print out endless editions of. The smashing publication would astound the New York Times Book reviewers, and international book tours, college commencement speaking invitations, and requests for appearances on Oprah would ensue. The world would deeply contemplate the musing and predictive comments of the prophetic writer, the writing itself would live on to inspire an endless horizon of future musings and predictions.
At 17, I knew that I was destined to be the next Sylvia Plath because my family dysfunction was so consistent and outrageous that at that young age, I had enough fodder to sustain an entire writing career of stranger than fiction stories and personalities. Then they came out with Little Miss Sunshine, which pretty much summarized my childhood experience. Actually, I am convinced that some scenes were directly lifted from my 6th grade diary.
But before I was old enough to know that turning my halting cursive into a movie starring Toni Collette as my weary yet determined mother and Alan Alda as my perverse yet lovable grandfather (mine came with a thick Lithuanian accent that never reached a decibel below the ear screeching range of a Linkin Park concert), I confess that our family antics, our obvious eccentricities, and our bizarre habits embarrassed me.
I'm not talking about that old-fashioned teenager "Mo-OM-I-can't-believe-you're-wearing-navy-pants-with-a-fanny-pack kind of embarrassed either. I grew up surrounded by the kind of families that we all know. The father is athletic, sensible, still blonde or Distinguished Silver. The mother is a MILF. The kids are between 2-3 in number, and are naturally athletic and docile. They have the blue-eyed blonde haired good looking easiness of a Got Milk? ad, and they can trace their American heritage back to the Puritans. They play polo. On horses.
Enter my family. You can trace us back one generation to the villages of Eastern Europe. Our last name was bastardized by my grandparent's entry into America and is mispronounced in some fashion by pretty much everyone. Our stockiness and tendency to carry weight around our hips is a testament to our ability to adapt to a harsh winter subsisting only on leftover potatoes and weak beet soup. We could have easily made the trip through Siberia on the storage of fat in our asses. My mother, so fond of regaling us with stories of her childhood, used to tell us how on her 9th birthday, her father grandly gave her her first goat-herding switch, a toy she loved and so much that she felt that I should have my own. Let me tell you, when I was nine what I wanted was a goddam Gameboy with SuperTetris. The goat-herding switch did not go over well. Not with me, and not with the kids I invited to my 9th year birthday party. They didn't like the birthday potatoes or beet soup either. Thanks to that birthday party and the endless years of ostracism that followed, I developed a massive inferiority complex that far outlived the goat I received upon reaching my 10th year.
Remember that timeless Christmas classic starring McCauley Culkin where his parents forget him accidentally as they venture off on their annual family vacation? Don't tire your poor brain too much trying to decipher whether I am referring to the original or the tireless procession of sequels that ensued- the family seems to suffer from this kind of hilarious absent-minded stupidity on a yearly or semi-yearly basis so we can expect them to continue to forget McCauley until he moves on from Pampers and into Depends. But guess what? TRUE STORY. And not just the original. Just as the movie spawned a million-dollar making sequel, so too did my family twice enjoy the good-natured family fun that is leaving one's offspring behind. Except nobody got paid to do it. But we didn't get fined either, so I guess I can write it off as a wash.
The year was 1993. A young boy in Los Angeles had just accused Michael Jackson of molestation. Science was breeding our first human clone. Frank Zappa had left us for a better place. Schindler's List had just hit the big screen. I was 10, and had a soup-bowl hair cut that made my gender truly ambiguous to all I encountered in that true It's Pat tradition.
We began our annual Hajj- the yearly road trip that involved packing three kids under the age of ten, two car seats, and one dog into the Buick Station- you know, the kind with the seats in the way back that went backwards and ensured that at least one person would have to stop for a Technicolor yawn. Of course, in a kickback to our ancestors who lived in their village hovel with not only the immediate family but also every cousin, aunt, uncle, chicken, etc., we never journeyed alone, but rather always caravanned along with my father's elder sister and her clan of six in their large and cavernous 1987 Dodge van.
Seven hours later, we would arrive at our destination and would spend a week or two of unsupervised bliss torturing each other- as one of the older ones I was naturally one of the torturers rather than the tortured- while our parents gambled at nearby casinos and ignored the pleading cries for help coming from the younger ones.
Two weeks was just enough time for us to tire of making my little cousin Elmer slap himself while asking "why are you slapping yourself, Elmer?" or convincing my younger brother Donny that in his past life he was a frog and was thus required to kiss every woman that we met (with hilarious consequences!) to turn him back into his true form. At that point, our folks would pack up all our clothes, swimming gear, toys, diaper bags, unfinished uncooked food (throwing it away would be a crime worse than any other evil for which our Biblical ancestors had been punished by God), dog and kids, and take off for home.
I can proudly say that we never left the food behind. Or the dog. The kids- now that's another story. I would say that we traveled a good 4 hours, stopped for gas, ate lunch, and did the whole bathroom break dance before we realized that Elmer had neither ate, nor had he peed. In fact, there was no Elmer to feed nor to relieve.
I think I can assume that this is every parent's nightmare, so I feel a little bad drawing comedy from this story. But my English professors throughout my undergraduate experience kept telling me that comedy and tragedy are differentiated solely by the eye of the spectator, and watching four grown people go absolutely apeshit in Ernie's Gas and Goods was, to be honest, a little funny. Also, experience has taught me that anytime I can make people laugh with me rather than at me, I should run with it.
The folks eventually realized that Elmer had not merely wandered off but rather had never been with us to begin with, and drove back to our summer lodgings, where a very confused Elmer was standing alone in the driveway, holding his sippy-cup and kicking a small boulder by the road. I'd like to say that a kindly neighbor had seen the kid, become concerned, and helped him or that perhaps we were greeted next by child protective services, but no one had stopped to help poor Elmer. Perhaps he just didn't have the kind of face that inspires sympathy. Or perhaps our neighbors, knowing our family's lackadaisical ways, figured that we had left him there and would pick him up in a day or so when we figured it out. Maybe they thought it was as funny as I did and wanted to let the comedy unfold. In any case, there stood Elmer, and there went four hours of driving time.
Elmer has since gone on to achieve, as have we all. He has enjoyed a successful college career, and is a lifelong member of a prestigious fraternity. He has done something that I have not yet been able to do: maintain a relationship with someone of his sexual preference. And he still joins us at family functions and get-togethers, so he must have decided to put the past to rest at some point, choosing to pursue a path of reconciliation rather than the vengeful path of Gary Coleman.
And so have I. Chosen the path of reconciliation, I mean, although some people say that I do resemble Gary Coleman. I am finally at the point in my life where I feel that my family's antics are the subject matter of comedy, not tragedy. And I guess that's the thing about perspective: like a stinky cheese, too close and the result reeks of catastrophe. But give it the right amount of distance, and you're left with a faintly putrid perfume.