Tuesday, December 30, 2008


"Grueling" is not a word that I use often, readers. I had cause to look it up this morning because Oliver Twist famously wanted more gruel, and I wondered why you'd want more of something that's considered disgusting. Extreme hunger, one supposes, is the most obvious reason, but I'm pretty sure that in Emma, Miss Woodhouse's father (aka Mr. Woodhouse) was very fond of his gruel and was apt to offer a bowl to those people he was most fond of. As it happens, "grueling" is the present participle of "gruel," an obsolete verb meaning to punish. And punishment is also a secondary meaning of the noun "gruel," though, apparently, that usage is mainly British.

In any case, I'm just back from a weekend trip to see the extended family in Florida, and on the one hand, I would have liked to stay longer, but on the other hand, I couldn't get away soon enough. Grueling.

I'm very fond of Florida in the winter, and I especially enjoyed the outdoor activities, which included a short trip to the beach, a short trip to a local nature preserve, and a short trip to the home of a cousin whom I had not seen in perhaps thirty years. We spent half an hour walking around his property and picking his citrus. It's always the ready abundance of fresh lemons (and other citrus fruit, but mostly the lemons) that makes me think I ought to be living in a more nearly tropical climate. (The heat convinces me otherwise.)

EFU and I stayed with my parents, as did my sister, her husband, and their three sons aged twelve, nine, and four. They are very active, where "active" means "entirely out of control," and it was mostly the unrelenting whinging of the four-year-old that made much of the trip unpleasant. I suppose that anyone who has three sons has to develop a thick skin and highly selective hearing, so it's not surprising that all the chaos and crying go unnoticed by my sister and brother-in-law, but as I have been cursed (apparently) for the last few years with inordinately well-behaved and drama-free children (for whom I am exceedingly grateful), I have not had the opportunity to develop sufficient apathy tolerance to noise and bad behavior. On our last morning in Florida, the four-year-old was whinging because EFU would not sit next to him. ("I sat next to you yesterday morning, and all you did was whine. Why would I sit next to you again?" EFU is not one to mince words.) It struck me (for the fourth time) that sitting three brothers next to each other at a table with six other people was guaranteed to cause trouble, so I sat between the four- and nine-year olds, saying, "I'm going to sit here, and if you give me any trouble, I will eat you." The four-year-old then got sullen and sat under the table and pouted, making my sister remark, "You get up there and sit down. You'll hurt Uncle TED's feelings." To which I replied, "Are you kidding? He's not going to hurt my feelings. I'll finally get to have a meal without having to listen to him cry." This statement, apparently, was impolitic, and my sister glared at me for a bit before saying, "He's only four years old. And he's tired." I thought it wise at that point to refrain from pointing out that he was likely tired because he was allowed to stay up until midnight the night before. Instead I ate my grits. Grits are a corn product and are conceptually similar to gruel, but they are much, much tastier.

Anyway, despite the chaos, EFU and I mostly enjoyed the visit, especially the beach, where she collected many shells, and the nature preserve, where we saw two herons. And a kayaker with perfect abs. EFU forgot to bring her camera on the trip, and she had commandeered mine at the preserve, so I didn't get a picture of the abs, or of the extremely fit young man riding a bicycle while wearing a wife beater (multitasking!). The nephews were also a lot more fun when they had open space to run around in and no walls for their noise to bounce off.

I didn't so much enjoy the flights, even though they were both on time. I cannot decide whether it's more stupid for airlines to put reclining seats on cramped airplanes or cruel for people to actually use the reclining feature. I also didn't much like looking at my credit card activity this morning and finding that Hertz had charged me $200 more than agreed on for my rental car, but I suspect that I'll be able to fix that with forty-five minutes or so of increasingly annoyed calls to customer service.

But mostly I didn't enjoy having my mother and then my sister and then -- finally -- my father tell me that his PSA level was recently tested (twice) at over 13 and that the doctors tell him the only explanation is cancer. He survived prostate cancer over fifteen years ago, and I would guess that it's entirely possible that the current iteration is one of those slow moving varieties that are too lazy to kill their hosts before some other age-related ailment gets them. My father is almost eighty, but I still don't think of him as old, really. Over the last six or seven years, he's had a variety of ailments and has rather faded before my eyes, but I still don't think of him as mortal, exactly. I think I'm a lot more accepting of my own mortality (I became aware of it during the divorce, I think) than I am of his, but that's probably because -- as I thought during one of the long drives along Interstate 275 -- I conceptualize my own death as something that I'm heading towards but that's a long, indeterminable way off in the distance. It stands out on the landscape, but I'm not going to get there any time soon, probably, and between here and there are all sorts of other things that I can't see just now but that will be wonderfully or horribly vivid when I get closer to them. Hearing that Dad almost certainly has cancer (and that the nature and extent will not become clear until after some tests taking place next week) is much more immediate and frightening. 2009 could be a difficult year.

I have to surmise that the health news is what really made me so susceptible to the chaotic nephews. I'm usually very unconcerned by noise and mayhem, but I tend to deal with emotional trauma by emotionally distancing myself until I've had time to process it, and that's harder to do in the midst of so much volume. I also deal with emotional trauma by distracting myself with easy busywork, which would probably explain all the food (candied lemon peel, lemon curd, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and two kinds of biscotti) that I left in my wake. They tried to get me to take much of it home with me, but I hadn't checked any luggage, and I could reasonably claim that the biscotti wouldn't fit in my carry-on bag and that lemon curd is both perishable and a liquid.

Anyway, I noticed while I was picking lemons that two fit guys in their fifties drove by in an SUV and chatted with my cousin (who is of a similar age) for a bit. Then I noticed that he seemed to live alone, and my mother mentioned that he'd never been married. Hmmmm. I probably should have asked EFU to turn her gaydar on him, but I don't think hers works on blue collar types over thirty. We were driving home from the airport, and we stopped at a drive-through window to get some sodas, and as we were pulling away, we had a brief conversation:
EFU: Well, he's gay.
TED: Who?
EFU: The guy at the drive through window.
TED (who had only noticed that the guy at the drive-through window was tall, Asian, and cute, and possessed of a nice bass voice): How could you tell?
EFU: The way he carried himself. Also the ring and the watch, but mostly how he carried himself. A straight emo guy might have worn the ring and the watch.
TED: How is your gaydar so much better than mine?
EFU: Lots of practice. Besides, you're with somebody, so you really don't need to know. It's more important for me to be able to tell. I can't make the same mistake that Mom made. No offense.
TED: None taken.


Jérôme said...

Your daughter is just wonderful and lots of humour

Jason said...

An emo gaysian? They are the dangerous ones: a lot of times they don't even know what they really are: a man dreaming of a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming of being a man.

The Blackout Blog said...

EFU = hilarious.

Sorry to hear about your father's declining health. My grandfather's battle with prostate cancer made me get over my dislike of tomatoes.