Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ring of Fire and Two Self-Made Men

Ring of Fire
Originally uploaded by Rozanne.
Would you drink this? It looks like something out of Clockwork Orange (either that or a pint of nail polish), but it is in fact my vaunted Ring of Fire (patent pending), a concoction consisting of a beet, an orange, an apple, and a sliver of fresh ginger. When I described the Ring of Fire to a friend, all she could say was, “yuk!” But this is a friend who won’t go near a mushroom, a green pepper, or a brownie that is contaminated with walnuts. So her opinion is to be discounted. Anyway, it was tonight’s Pauper dinner, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a pretty tasty drink and is also nutrient packed and energizing. In reality it isn’t actually as sci-fi and futuristic looking in real life as it looks in the photo. It's a case of the flash having gone berserk.

Moving on.

When I finish writing this blog entry, I have the option of reading about one of two self-made men. One is actually a woman who decided to live life as a man for 18 months and see what would happen. Our book club chose to read her book Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again for our April discussion. More stunt journalism. Whoo hoo! Actually, I’m a little chary of this book because of this statement (which appears in the dust jacket blurb): “Having gone where no woman (who wasn’t an aspiring or actual transsexual) has gone before, let alone for eighteen months, Norah Vincent gives us her surprising account…. ”

Now I just know that that blurb almost went to press without that parenthetical qualifier and then someone at the last moment said, “Wait a minute! What about transsexuals?” and everyone flipped out because now their big claim was pretty much totally deflated. But instead of reworking and refocusing the blurb, they just added the absurd parenthetical qualifier. It’s like saying “Having discovered a new continent that no one (except thousands and thousands of Indians) had ever explored before, Christopher Columbus blah, blah, blah….”

But I shouldn’t judge a book by its blurb. I admit I find the idea of traveling incognito in the world of men intriguing. I wonder if she'll mention the Push Butt phenomenon?

The other self-made man I could read about is my grandfather (my mom’s dad). My dad is still in touch with my horrible fascist uncle who, it turns out, had the original manuscript of his father’s (my grandfather and my mom’s half-brother) autobiography and had absolutely no use for it. My dad mentioned that he had the manuscript, and I told him I’d love to read it.

My grandfather died when I was about 5, and I have basically one memory of him. We went to visit him in a nursing home and his false eyeball popped out, fell on the floor, and bounced toward me in a most terrifying and ominous fashion. It’s not so great when your only memory of your grandfather sounds like a scene from a horror movie.

And my parents’ memories are not much better. My dad recalls getting into extended arguments with my grandfather about professional wrestling. My dad insisted the matches were fixed; my grandfather insisted they were totally above board. My mom often told me that she dreaded hearing the following words from her father, “Let me have a look at your teeth.” She would then have to dutifully go sit on his lap and let him check each of her baby teeth. If one was just the teensiest bit loose, it had to be yanked. My grandfather would tie one end of a string around my mom’s tooth and the other around a door handle. Then he’d slam the door and out would fly my mom’s tooth, followed, no doubt, by a torrent of blood. Wow. Typing this, it is just now hitting me how incredibly sadistic that sounds. My grandfather was old school.

So perhaps you can see why I’m eager to read his autobiography, which turns out to be massive. Heck, I’ve got a camera, why not take a photo, so you can see what I mean by massive?

The Massive Manuscript

That’s 4 inches of paper and, according to my grandfather’s calculations, approximately 142,000 words. I wonder what kind of portrait will emerge? I do hope that I come away with a more positive impression than I have at the moment.

I did skim the last chapter entitled “We Cross the Rio Grande” which is about an automobile trip he and my fascist uncle took in the 1950s. In it he marvels at the ease with which people can travel thousands of miles by car—something no one would have dreamed possible when he was a kid. When they cross the border into Mexico, they go to a bullfight, where he meets a Jewish man whom he repeatedly refers to as "the son of Abraham." Yikes. Today that term is definitely considered pejorative, but I have a feeling he was simply trying to give his writing a bit of literary flair, as he says nothing else disparaging about the man and seemed to have enjoyed his company. But maybe that’s just me hoping that I’m not going to find out my grandfather was a rabid wingnut.

What I’m really looking forward to reading about are the early years of his life. He grew up in the late 19th century on a farm in Iowa, so that is pretty far removed from my own reality. His grandfather (my great-great grandfather) traveled from Pennsylvania to Illinois and then Iowa in a covered wagon—a real pioneer. My grandfather considered himself to be one of the last pioneers and in fact entitled his autobiography, rather grandly, The Last of the Pioneers. He saw horses and buggies give way to automobiles and lived through the Great Depression, which--I should have mentioned earlier--is where the self-made man part comes in. According to my own highly unreliable memory of what my mom told me, he invested in stocks throughout the Depression when prices were low and other people were skittish about the market. Apparently, he made a pile of money, much of which was inherited by the fascist uncle who (after he singlehandedly won World War II) proceeded to live a hermit-like life of leisure in the mountains of northern California among pot growers and crackpot survivalists—a strange choice for a guy like him or maybe not. I think the one thing they all have in common is that they don't want the government snooping around. I should write a blog entry about him some day.

Back to my grandfather. He also lived though World War II, McCarthyism, and the onset of the Cold War. Interesting times. Even if I find, as I have reason to suspect, that he and I wouldn’t have seen eye to eye politically (after all, he did spawn the fascist uncle), I will still be grateful to have something more to remember him by than that bouncing eyeball.

Here’s a passage selected (somewhat) randomly from the chapter “The Houseboy.” (Jamie, there may be some tips in here for you.)

During vacations and on Saturdays I baked cakes, pies, and made doughnuts. When I decided that we should have fried chicken for dinner I called Vic, the little rat-terrier, and caught a nice young Brahma rooster. I used the hatchet to cut off its head which I threw to one side and immediately doused the chicken up and down in a pail of boiling water to loosen the feathers. When I could pull out some of the wing and tail feathers, I knew it was time to pluck all the feathers. If the chicken is held too long in the hot water it cooks the skin and makes it impossible to pick the chicken. When that happens the only thing to do is remove the skin. After I had finished picking the chicken I took all the feathers, except the wing and tail feathers, and placed them in the sun to dry; we used the feathers to make feather beds and pillows.


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