It happens at least once a week; I will get a telephone call from my aging father. He’s in his seventies now and is starting to slow down a bit. But he is still as feisty as ever. Even before I answer the phone, I have a pretty good idea of how it will go: the voice on the line will be garbled, semi coherent, half babbling, half raving about some astounding finish to a football, basketball, or baseball game (which of course I haven’t watched). Or it will be a rant about the recent comments by some idiot politician, or it will want to know the best way to change a light bulb in the house.
Some things never change.
I braced myself before I answered because last week, the conversation started with him screaming into the phone:
“Did you see what that dumb son-of-a-bitch Jim Hendry just did? That fucking idiot just signed Carlos Pena! Who the hell is this asshole? I looked up his record, and you know what? This guy strikes out 150 times a year! The Cubs need him like a hole in the head. He weighs about 225, and what did he hit last year? He hit .196. He can’t even hit his own weight. There has to be a minor leaguer that can at least do that! Hendry must be taking dumb pills! You know they used to have a decent first basemen [Mark Grace], and he would probably still be playing if they didn’t let him go to fucking Arizona. No, no, but they traded him away, just like they did with Ted Lily, Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot. Did you see all the hits they got? Those fuckers [i.e., the management of the Chicago National League Ball Club] might as well send Zambrano’s ass to the Yankees, too!”
For those who don’t follow Chicago sports, Jim Hendry is General Manager for the Chicago Cubs, the biggest bunch of sad-sacks in professional baseball. The Cubs, as everyone knows, haven’t gone to the World Series since 1945. A number of us thought this was going to change a few years ago when the team miraculously came within five outs of clinching the pennant. However, a tired and overworked starting pitcher, fan interference, and bobbled grounder conspired to doom Cub fans to another hundred years of waiting.
As the book of Revelation asks, “How long, O Lord, how long?”
I’ve come to see my old man’s frothing at the mouth as pretty normal. I think he is happiest when he is screaming at the television. Over the years, my family and I have sat through the more jaw-dropping tirades and diatribes about bad relief pitchers, dumb luck, untimely hitting, and “wait until next year” disappointment than we care to recall. You go numb after forty years.
It wasn’t always this way, though. I used to take the Cubs losses pretty hard when I was a kid. I assumed that they were losing because I had done something to deserve it. Maybe the Cubs were losing because I was watching, or because I wasn’t watching, or because I was wearing my baseball glove, or because I wasn’t. It’s pretty traumatic for a kid to have to shoulder this kind of burden over a 162 game season year after year.
But watching the Cubs with my old man and brother became a ritual, like going to church, smoking cigarettes, and drinking beer. Few of us can recall the thrill of watching the 1:20 starts on WGN throughout the summer. First it was Bozo’s Circus at noon, then some silver-haired dipshit read an editorial, then it was the Leadoff Man with Lou Boudreau. After that, it was Cubs baseball, day baseball, the way it was supposed to be played. And, during that time my brother and I became initiated in the language of men: the inevitable stream of foul-mouthed explicatives that spewed from my father’s monologues about the national pastime.
My father’s tirades might have been a rite of passage for us, but they were never for the faint of heart. The first time my sister-in-law came to visit, my brother forgot to warn her about what would happen if the Cubs were to go down in defeat. She sat patiently observing our family ritual until somewhere around the third inning when Sammy Sosa went down on strikes, swinging at a ball that was clearly over his head. Without warning, the old man leaped out of his arm chair and launched into a finger-pointing and profanity-laced diatribe calling Sosa a “worthless, fucking steroid junky!” who would have needed “a fucking ladder to hit that fastball.”
For us, it was nothing. As battle-hardened veterans, it was nothing more than mild artillery fire in the distance; nothing to be concerned about. We were even used to the traces of spittle that would build up on the sides of his mouth when he was really raving. However, my sister-in-law, whose parents were never very expressive, thought that her sport crazed-father-in-law was off his nut and was going to dropkick the television through the uprights. She cringed in horror as if it were the final scene of Apocalypse Now with Marlon Brando shouting “exterminate the brutes!” and sat petrified in her seat until the seventh inning stretch, assuming that escape was futile. I suspected that she was wondering what kind of trailer-park family of weirdoes she had married into, and more importantly were they capable of passing on their genes.
For some reason, none of my father’s rants ever bothered me. There are a scant few who still can share the pain of the Lou Brock and Bill Madlock trades. So, I understood perfectly why the old man was upset. The Cubs traded away a great left-handed pitcher, and worse yet, Ryan Theriot, the former .300 hitting shortstop for the Cubs, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and will no doubt go five for five the first time he plays at Wrigley Field. For a “Die Hard Cub Fan” the Cardinals represent the anti-Christ, Satan, Ayatollah Khomeini and all of the collective evil of the Nixon years. My father actually prays that their team airplane will go down in a ball of molten fire over Lake Michigan. As the old man would say, “it would be a fitting end to that fucking Tony LaRussa!”
Being that it is the dead of winter, I suspected that this phone call wasn’t related to baseball. We still have another couple of months before spring training. What would it be this time? After the typical formalities, he finally got around to the crux of the problem:
“The television… damn thing, I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with it. We were watching it the other night. And, everything was fine. Now, all we get is fucking snow.”
Even though I have years of experience, I try to be rational and walk him through the steps to fix the problem. I should have learned by now to let the volcano burn down, especially after my experience trying to give him a new cell phone, one that actually worked. However, nothing I could do could break his savagely unnatural attraction to his 1992 Nokia. The damn thing doesn’t even ring anymore! I don’t know why I do it.
For me, the snow of the screen was indicative of one possible problem: no signal. There are two possible places where the problem can be located: the television or the cable box. The first step is to determine where the problem is. So I asked, “Is the cable box on?
The cable box, the brown box with the red light that sits on top of the TV. Is the red light with the numbers on?
I don’t know.
Suddenly, I could tell that someone was calling on the other line. My folks originally got call waiting when we lived at home, and they have never removed it. Nor have they ever learned how it works.
“Hang on,” my dad said, “I have to see who is calling.” I heard a long BEEP and he said, “Hello.”
I replied, “I am still here.”
He replied, “This fucking thing never works. Goddamn flash, what the hell does that mean? I hate it when those fuckers call in the middle of a conversation.”
It’s okay. Just push the button that says “flash” and you can answer the other line.
Okay, let me try it again. Beep. Hello!
No, it’s still me, dad.
This fucking thing is driving me crazy. I don’t know why we even have it. I am right in the middle of a conversation and then someone else calls. Hey, I think it stopped.
Don’t worry about it. They will call back.
They can fucking wait because I am not going to answer it.
Getting back to the TV, can you see numbers on the cable box?
Yeah, it says 35 but there is nothing but snow on the television.
Okay, that tells me you have power. Maybe your television is the problem. You are probably not on channel 3 anymore, which is what you need to be able to watch the channels from cable.
I hear a deep groan and a sigh. I said to myself, “Oh, Sweet Jesus, here it comes.”
Huh? 3 is 35? How the fuck could that happen? I didn’t touch the goddamn thing. We were watching Wheel of Fortune yesterday and it worked fine. I hate it when those fuckers [i.e., the cable company] goddamn change everything. The TV used to work perfectly. Now those goddamn geniuses have to get in there and mess everything up, and I can’t even find the news. They call this an upgrade. You know what I call it? An up-yours, that’s what it is. Now those bastards have to reprogram the thing…
I will explain it later. Do you have the other remote control handy? The one you use to turn the television off at night. I think what you have to do is check and see if it is on channel 3. You can do that by hitting 3 followed by enter.
There is a profoundly disturbing silence on the other side of the phone line. I hear mild explicatives in the background, cats howling and running for cover, drawers opening and closing at light speed, and more audible groaning. I can tell he can’t find the second remote control. This is exactly why I have yet to try to introduce my parents to the concept of the universal remote. He picks up the receiver and says:
That’s not going to work. I am going to have to call those sons-of-bitches and get someone to come in here and fix this. Right now, we can’t watch TV upstairs…
This went on for several minutes. I was going to let him wind down a bit. Whatever idea I had about changing the channel wasn’t in the cards. It would be a day or so before I could get over to my folks house to restore balance to the cosmos, which is always nice to do. Unlike when I was a kid watching the Cubs lose, this is something I really can do. It is no trouble at all to drop by and move a picture, change a light bulb or fix a squeaky door. It is a good excuse to see them, and it makes them happy.
Despite all of this insanity, I owe a lot to my father. And, so do my daughters. They have learned a lot about life; they have especially learned how to swear with conviction. There is nothing that evokes paternal pride in me as seeing my eight-year-old daughter announce at dinner that former infielder “Shawn Dunston was a dick for swinging at curve balls in the dirt.” I have also learned about technology from the old man. I know it doesn’t solve problems; it just creates new ones. If we are lucky, the problems will be interesting. Some of it we frankly don’t need.
My father grew up in a time and place when indoor plumbing was for the wealthy people that lived in town. The idea of having a toilet in your house with moving parts was met with suspicion. My grandfather was known to say, “That is just another thing that can go wrong!” In fact, my grandparents lived in a one bedroom apartment their entire lives. The place was so small that it didn’t have their own bathroom. It was located in the garage and they shared it with the other families that lived in the building. As a kid, I recall walking down that hallway at night as one of the most terrifying experiences a five-year-old could have. To this day, the only modern convenience my father has really taken into his frame of reference is the air conditioner, which he dutifully sets at 62 degrees year round. After growing up in the hot and humid Midwest, a house that is so cold that a person can see his breath in the summer is the ultimate sign of middle-class success. But cable television and air conditioning mark the borders of his tenuous relationship with technology. He did his best for a long as he could to avoid things like automatic car locks, power windows, and microwave ovens. We were in my first car when he was finally forced to deal with the door locks. Despite the sound of the doors bolting shut when the car reached 15 miles an hour, he would forget to unlock the doors manually when we arrived at our destination. In the classic struggle of man versus machine, he would pull on the door lever and throw his shoulder into the door repeatedly until I reminded him to unlock it.
It was a day later when I finally made it to my folks’ house. They’re always very appreciative. I was right about the television: the problem was the lack of signal from the cable box. After a couple of minutes checking to see if the channels were lined up right, I looked behind the television to see if the wires were plugged in tightly. All of the wires going into the cable box were connected, except one, the one that the cat must have pulled out. I put it back where it went and the picture came back to the screen.
Peace and harmony were restored to the universe.