Nana

My grandmother has never been a picture of health, especially over the past decade. There have been many days that looked to be her last, but she has always pulled through. When she went to into the hospital with abdominal pains this past Monday, I’m not sure why any of us thought this time would be any different. Her blood pressure dropped dangerously low on Wednesday, but the doctors continued administering pain medication and scheduled a number of tests for Wednesday. Still, for some reason we thought we should make the 90-minute trip to see her.

My mother, my wife, my son, and I piled into the car Wednesday night and drove to the hospital where my grandmother (I call her Nana, pronounced NAH-nuh) was staying, where my grandfather and aunt had been staying with her all day long. When we arrived and were allowed to enter the room—she was in a non-contagious unit, so Tater was allowed in—she was barely conscious. Tubes penetrated her arms, and some sort of medical contraption made its way into her body through her nose.

We spoke to her. She opened her eyes to see her nine-month-old great grandson smiling at her, and she smiled in return. She drifted back to sleep as nurses entered the room to perform a cryptically named and apparently grotesque-looking procedure, so we had to wait in the hall for about an hour. During that time, Grandad played with Tater. They both smiled and laughed and had a grand time. When we were finally allowed back into the room, Mrs. Happy, Tater, and I got to spend about fifteen minutes with her. She fought sleep so she could talk to us. She asked about specific issues in our lives and held my hand as I stood beside her bed. She was still in a great deal of pain, so we kissed her and left her to a blissful combination of sleep and morphine.

Wednesday morning, we received a phone call from my aunt saying that Nana had died during the night. By all accounts, she went peacefully and without pain, never having lost her wits. She had apparently been watching The History Channel when she passed (it was playing on her TV when we arrived at the hospital that morning, though out of respect I will refrain from any snarky comments about that).

There’s always a void in your life after the death of someone you love; the unique part of you that surfaced only in that person’s presence dies with them. There is grief, confusion, fear, hope and, when you believe in Heaven, joy. Family comes together in ways they never would otherwise, and sometimes relatives reconnect or forge new connections in the process. For my part, I’m thankful to God that I was able to see Nana and say good-bye before she died. I’m glad Tater got to see her and bring her a measure of happiness in her last hours. I’m happy she was able to know about another little one we’re expecting in February (more on that later), and that it made her smile as well. One of my fondest memories of Nana will always be how from her hospital bed she lifted a shaky hand to point at my pregnant wife and with supreme effort whisper, “How is she feeling?”

Nana and Grandad were married for 59 years. Grandad handled the affair with bravery, grace, and good humor, though it was obvious to everyone how hard he took his bride’s passing. Toward the end, she was elderly, feeble, and sometimes cranky, but I’m sure he didn’t see that. He saw the young girl he married within a year of returning from war. I love the fact that in a time when many people see marriage as expendable, my Grandad will tell anyone that he spent 59 years living with his best friend, and that he doesn’t regret one second. I can certainly identify with that.

Funny movies, according to me

I haven’t blogged in a while because I’ve been busy, lazy, and uninspired. Somehow, though, MCF (as he so often does) has found a way to put a burr under my saddle, as we say in Texas. He made a list of what he considers to be the 20 funniest films of all time, and it is such a travesty I feel I must set the record straight.

First, a few disclaimers:

  • I hereby admit that humor is subjective, and that my sense of humor does not completely coincide with anyone’s, though there is bound to be some overlap.
  • I have never, even as a child, found The Three Stooges to be funny. I can respect the Marx Brothers and their pioneering ways, but I’ve never been able to sit through one of their films.
  • I love gross humor, but only if it makes sense. I thought There’s Something About Mary had some wonderful bits in it, but American Pie was trying a little too hard.
  • The easiest way to fake a sense of humor is to do a spoof. In general, spoofs hold no appeal for me. Airplane is the only film in this category that deserves even an honorable mention, unless you count Scream as a spoof. Scream was brilliant.
  • My list of “funniest” movies has less to do with how funny they are and more to do with how good they are.
  • My definition of “good” as it applies to any art is “something that stays with me for a long time, teaches me something, makes me think, and makes me want to watch it again.”
  • My list holds no particular number of movies and is in no particular order, but I have divided the movies into categories.
  • This list is not definitive. There are too many movies I haven’t seen, and in fact a number of them (six) are on MCF’s list.
  • My favorite movie ever is The Princess Bride, but I do not consider it a comedy. It transcends genre, though when pressed I call it a fairy tale.

Movies that probably no one but I would put on a list like this

Ishtar
I hesitate to include this film because 1) I haven’t seen it in nearly 20 years and 2) it is universally reviled. I saw it in high school, and I remember laughing hysterically. Granted, I was a teenager at the time and had the sensibilities of a teenage boy, but in my memory, Hoffman and Beatty were brilliant as Simon and Garfunkel wannabes to whom international espionage was a necessary evil in their quest to get their awful music heard. I want to see it again to see whether I’m remembering correctly, but it will probably never be released on DVD.

Addams Family Values
This film is the exception to the rule that sequels suck worse than the movies that spawned them. This follow-up to the mediocre original had an actual story to tell, three-dimensional characters who behaved consistently from beginning to end, brilliant one-liners, wonderful performances (I will never forget Christina Ricci’s “smile”), and hilarious situations that the Addamses breeze through with humor, passion, and a strangely morbid love of life.

Young Einstein
I have found in talking to people in the film business that great movies are not usually the ones that inspire. What makes most people get into films is seeing something of poor quality and thinking, “I could do better than that.” When I saw Young Einstein at the age of 20, I watched it no fewer than 15 times simply because Yahoo Serious has a sense of humor remarkably similar to my own, and an acting, writing, and directing abilities that are roughly equal to mine. If he can do it, I can do it.

Joe Versus the Volcano
I hated this movie when I saw it in the theater. Years later, I saw it again on video after I had worked for some time in a door factory. With that experience, I understood that JVtV was not the romantic comedy I had taken it for but rather a comic fairy tale written by someone who knew the feeling of losing your soul to a tedious job. It is not laugh-out-loud funny, but rather an internal, ho-ho, I-recognize-myself-in-that kind of funny.

Movies whose merit can be respectfully debated

Rushmore
Jason Schwarzman is perfect in his debut as an average high school student with aspirations of greatness. He lives and acts as if he has already achieved something, as if he’s capable of achieving anything, when in reality his earnest delusions affect people in ways true ability never could. I think this movie must be a guy thing. I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who enjoyed or even understood it. I saw it with Mrs. Happy and a friend of hers, and they didn’t crack a smile from the titles to the credits. I, however, could barely catch my breath from laughing so hard and so constantly. It is the funniest, most heartfelt movie the Anderson/Wilsons trio has yet produced.

Dumb and Dumber
The Farrelly brothers know what’s funny, and this is freakin’ hilarious. Most people I talk to claim not to like it because “it’s stupid,” to which I reply, “You were expecting Shakespeare from a movie with this title?” For the record, the characters are ridiculously stupid, but the movie itself is wonderfully bright. If it were otherwise, the guys who sold a decapitated bird to a blind crippled boy, traded a van for a scooter, and tried to return lost luggage to Ms. Samsonite (they found her name imprinted on the suitcase) would have accepted the invitation of a bus full of supermodels at the end of the movie instead of directing them to a nearby town where they’d be sure to find a couple of guys happy to service them.

Blazing Saddles
No one thinks this movie isn’t funny. I include it in this category because all the profanity it contains lowers it slightly in my estimation. The censored TV version actually showed more wit and verve than the unedited theatrical release. Mel Brooks is not my favorite moviemaker. I think his films tend to contain more self-conscious parody and jokes-for-the-sake-of-jokes than original thought and storytelling. Blazing Saddles is an exception, as is Young Frankenstein, and both are among the funniest movies ever made.

The Cable Guy
Movies rarely admit that movie behavior is borderline psychotic. We all imitate what we see in the theater and on TV to some extent, but what happens when someone goes all the way and truly becomes the characters he idolizes? Jim Carrey show us in this film. It is dark and disturbing, yes, but highly entertaining and eye-opening. It didn’t do that well at the box office, but I think that was because people went in expecting another Ace Ventura and just didn’t get it.

Life Is Beautiful
Like real life, this is both comedy and tragedy. Roberto Benigni shows us what humor is for as he perseveres in an unbearable situation (a Nazi concentration camp) and saves his son’s life in more ways than one. No single movie has made me both laugh and cry as hard as this one. Some people object to it on grounds that the Holocaust is in no way funny. I agree, but I don’t think the movie makes light of suffering. It simply shows how one man mustered impossible levels of bravery and strength with his sense of humor and love for his family.

The absolute funniest movies I have ever seen, and any arguments to the contrary will have to be settled with fisticuffs

The Muppet Movie
Is there anything this movie doesn’t have? Wonderful songs, great characters, sharp dialog, brilliant jokes, celebrity cameos, a barely-there fourth wall, a ludicrous road-movie plot, and all those wonderful muppets.

This Is Spinal Tap
The mockumentary to end all mockumentaries and, ironically, the one that started them all. What I loved about Ishtar, Rushmore, and Dumb and Dumber was the exuberant earnestness of characters that had no business taking themselves as seriously as they did. That trait is embodied by every member of England’s loudest band, and delightfully so. It is full of amazing performances.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Every film requires its audience to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. The opening scene should let the audience know exactly what the rules are, and if the film is worth its salt it will stick to those rules. The first character we see in THG is King Arthur pretending to ride a horse, and he is followed by a stooped servant clacking two empty halves of coconuts to make a horse-clomping noise. So we know it’s a movie where ridiculous things will occur. But then the first bit of dialog has another character questioning where he managed to find a coconut in Britain’s temperate zone, so we know that the main characters are the ridiculous ones, and others are more sensible. The line between farce and nonsense is razor-thin. Many have tried to walk it, and most have failed pathetically. It has always been the Pythons’ strength. The Holy Grail is the pinnacle of their comedic achievement.

Raising Arizona
The Coen brothers are masters of their craft. How they came up with the idea for this movie is something I’ll never understand, because it’s not something that can really be explained. Their pitch for the studio had to be something like, “Okay, there’s this guy who’s a chronic convenience store robber, and he falls in love with the female cop who takes his mug shot every time he gets arrested. They get married and set up home in a trailer in Tempe, Arizona. They’re devastated when they find out they can’t have children, so when the local bigwig furniture dealer has quintuplets, they decide to kidnap one and raise it as their own, figuring the family won’t be too upset since they have four others just like him. And that’s the opening sequence.” The characters speak in a sort of redneck, high-brow poetry that seems not only natural but preferable to regular speech. The visuals are stunning. Certain camera movements are nothing short of breathtaking. The scene where John Goodman and his younger brother try to rob a bank is one of the funniest scenes in the history of cinema. It’s not often one can describe a comedy as “stunning.” In fact, there may be only one that can be described as such. This is the one.

My vow

Mrs. Happy and I used traditional vows at our wedding. Now whenever we attend a wedding where the bride and groom exchange the traditional vows, we effectively renew our own. That’s why we chose to use words that have been spoken by millions of others in the past and hopefully millions more in the future. That’s why tradition is so powerful. That’s part of why I don’t like it when couples write their own vows. I also dislike that practice because most people don’t have the ability to succinctly express their feelings, so they tend to give flowery speeches that say nothing. Even when people know how to articulate what they feel, I don’t think feelings should even be mentioned in wedding vows—a vow is a promise and not a statement of emotion, and original vows also tend to leave out the promise.

Having said that, I should also say that I have never understood the practice of formally renewing wedding vows. I don’t disapprove, but no one has ever explained to me the reasons for it. People I respect have renewed their vows, several times in some cases, so I think there must be something to it; I just don’t know what. Still, it occurs to me that there may be some merit in periodically reminding my wife of what I promised her eight years ago. It also occurs to me that if I remind her in private, I don’t need to concern myself with tradition for the benefit of witnesses, which frees me to write something original.

I spoke traditional vows to my bride at our wedding. I’ve learned a lot about her, about myself, and about in the years since then, and this is now my vow to her:

I, Curt, promise you, Happy Bride, that I will love, honor, and cherish you for the rest of my life. I will do my best to provide for you, protect you, encourage you, equip you, and celebrate you in your beauty. I will treat your hardships as my own and comfort you in your troubles. I will make it my mission to deserve your devotion and be worthy of your respect. I will set an example for our children and work alongside you to raise them with love and discipline. I will grow with you, laugh with you, cry with you, dance with you, offend you, beg your forgiveness, bear your offenses, and always forgive you. I will love you with all of my soul, with all of my mind, and—as long as I have both breath and blood—with all of my body. I thank God now and forever that he has brought us together.

Hindsight is 20/40

I lost my job as a copywriter in March of 2005. I haven’t had a full-time job since then, though I’ve done quite a bit of freelance work. I like the variety that freelance provides, but I hate not knowing whether I’ll have enough money to pay the bills next month. Mrs. Happy and I have always managed our money wisely, though, so even the lean months have not been too scary. Even so, I think I’d prefer having a regular job that provides a steady income and health benefits for my family.

I actually received a job offer a few months ago. It would have brought us fantastic insurance and a so-so salary, but it seemed to be a tedious job that would suck me dry and send my career in a direction I didn’t want. So I turned it down. Our money is now running low, and our insurance is still outrageously expensive. I wonder sometimes whether I made the wrong decision in turning down that job. I believed a better job was waiting for me and that I would find it in a matter of days. I believed I would not stay unemployed long enough for our money to run out. It seems I was mistaken about pretty much everything.

I’m still not convinced I should have taken that job. They say hindsight is 20/20, but that applies only to what has actually happened. I can look back and see with perfect clarity the consequences of turning down that particular job, but I can’t see what would have happened had I accepted it. I imagine that if I had taken the tedious job, I would be abjectly miserable right now. It would have entailed doing the dullest work in an industry renowned for its dullness. It would have meant earning more than $10,000 less per year than my last job. It would have pigeon-holed me for future employers as the kind of writer I don’t want to be.

I can’t know that for sure, of course. I really liked the people I interviewed with. The work might actually have been challenging and rewarding. I might have received a quick raise in pay. The job might have been the first step on a great career trajectory. I’ll never know. What I do know is that, at least in this instance, looking back doesn’t help. Did I make the right decision? Were there even right and wrong decisions to make? Were there other options that I didn’t examine? I’ll never know.

I’ve heard it said that experience is a teacher that gives you the test, then gives you the lesson. As I get older, I’m finding that experience is often a little unclear about the lesson even after the test. If a smart man learns from his mistakes, and a wise man learns from others’ mistakes, I wonder what kind of man can’t even figure out if he made a mistake. Uncertainty is one of the heaviest burdens for someone who places a great deal of value on solid understanding. If I can still have the love and respect of my wife after a decision like that, and my wife does let me know every day that I have her love and respect, it’s a burden I can bear with faith and fortitude.

If cartoons were meant for adults, they’d put them on in prime time

I think my favorite TV comedy of all time has to be The Simpsons. I judge the effectiveness of any piece of art by how deeply it affects my life, and The Simpsons has affected my life to the extent that I find an extreme emotional pleasure in quoting it at every available opportunity. This practice can draw confused stares from non-Simpsons fans, but it can also elicit appreciative chuckles from fellow Simpsonians. These are just a few ways I work The Simpsons into everyday conversation:

Note: The information that follows is not meticulously researched. It is from my imperfect memory, so actual quotes may differ from what you see here. Furthermore, please be aware that this post was almost certainly more fun to write than it is to read, and I won’t be offended if everyone skips it altogether. Also, I got the idea for this post from an article in The Onion.

The setup: Lisa meets a boy her age whose interests and intellect are a direct parallel to hers. He introduces himself as Thelonious. Awe-inspired, she asks, “As in Monk?” He responds…
The line: “The esoteric value is worth the beatings.”
When I use is: This one’s hard to pin down. I just use it whenever someone admires something I have, and that something is more fartsy than artsy.

The setup: Homer is on the grounds of Mr. Burns’ mansion, threatening him. Mr. Burns tells him to leave immediately. Homer responds…
The line: “Or what? You’ll let out the dogs? Or the bees? Or the dogs that have bees in their mouths so when they bark they shoot bees at you?”
When I use it: Whenever someone gives me some sort of cease-and-desist imperative.

The setup: Mr. Burns has hired some old-school strike breakers to end the labor walk-out at his power plant. The guys he hires are the ones who used to break up strikes before labor laws were passed and enforced, so they’re all really old. Grampa Simpson, one of the strikebreakers, explains that one of the techniques they use is to tell stories that go nowhere. For instance, the time he went over to Shelbyville in aught-six. It was during the war, and…
The line: “…I was wearing an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time…”
When I use it: I like to explain complex ideas with metaphors that approach a given topic from a completely different direction than the discussion at hand but reach a conclusion that satisfies the original problem and illustrates the process of…um…sometimes I go so far afield that I forget the point I was trying to make. Also useful in this situation is a dialog between Homer and Bart, when Bart wants something his parents won’t give him:
Homer: Son, when I was your age, I wanted a dog worse than anything in the world, but my parents wouldn’t give it to me. So I held my breath until I passed out and hit my head on the coffee table. The doctors said there might be brain damage.
Bart: What’s the point of this story?
Homer: I like stories.

The setup: Bart perpetrates an elaborate hoax on his teacher, making her believe she has a pen pal who is a handsome fighter pilot that has fallen in love with her. Through the letters they exchange, Bart sets up a date for her and her “boyfriend.” She shows up at the appointed time and place only to wait two hours for the dream man who never arrives. She drops her head and sobs into a dying candle as Bart watches from afar and says, “Aw, she’s heartbroken….
The line: “I can’t help but feel partly responsible.”
When I use it: Any time I do something ridiculously stupid that I can’t even tangentially blame on someone else.

The setup: Comic Book Guy wins a Batman-style utility belt at a Star Trek convention, then tries to return it to a novelty shop because it is a medium size and will not fit around him. He berates the proprietor in his trademark fashion, but the shop owner is unimpressed, saying…
The line: “Ooh, a fat sarcastic Star Trek fan. You must be a devil with the ladies.”
When I use it: I use this only when either MCF or Jerry ticks me off with a snide quip.

The setup: This line is actually a combination of two unrelated lines. I can’t remember in which episode the first line occurred; I just know Homer says it, I think to Bart. The second line came from an episode in which Homer brags to Lenny and Karl about how smart Lisa is, telling them that some sort of scientific institution hooked a computer up to her brain to make the computer smarter, but she was so smart the computer exploded. Lenny asks him if that’s really true, and Homer says yes, yes it is…
The line(s): “Your ideas are intriguing and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter. On a completely unrelated matter, I have to go.”
When I use it: When someone I like blathers on about something so trivial and unimportant that it tests the limits of my considerable tolerance.

The setup: Homer and Moe try to go bowling one night only to find that the entire alley is occupied by a bowling league. They sit at a table and complain, when Moe speaks a beautiful and farcical bit of self-pity…
The line: “They’re treatin’ me like dirt. Well, I’m better than dirt! Except for that fancy store-bought dirt. It’s full of nutrients. I…I can’t compete with that stuff.”
When I use it: When I feel the need for a bit of beautiful and farcical self-pity.

The setup: Homer gets a job taking cannon shots to the gut in some sort of Lollapalooza-type traveling music show. When he appears on stage, a teenager in the audience deadpans, “Here comes that guy who gets shot with a cannon. He’s cool.” When his friend asks him if he’s being sarcastic, he sighs and says…
The line: “I don’t even know anymore.”
When I use it: My sense of humor tends to be pretty dry—so dry that people often don’t know when I’m joking. Every once in a while someone will question whether I’m being serious.

The setup: Bart is developing emotional problems due to difficulties in school and draws a picture of a monster called Satan Clause. Marge asks Homer to look at it, but Homer is watching TV, so he simply raves about the picture’s beauty and insists they should hang it on the fridge. Marge forces him to actually look at the drawing, and when he does…
The line: “Eek! Send it to hell! Send it straight to hell!!”
When I use it: This line, and my delivery of it, never fails to make my wife laugh hysterically. Therefore, I say it any time I see any piece of mildly disturbing art.

The setup: Bart is in some sort of academic competition at school. His project finds favor with the judges, and Principal Skinner gives him the big award, but repeats his words as he hands Bart the trophy. Bart wakes from what turns out to be a dream, only to find Lisa bending over him and saying…
The line: “First prize! First prize! First prize!”
When I use it: The brilliance of this line is that Lisa says it for the sole purpose of messing with Bart’s dreams. I sometimes use it when I wake up Mrs. Happy.

There are other lines that occur to me when the moment is right, but I’ve already gone on too long. I’ll just end with a few that I love but hardly ever get to use:

  • “You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Society.”
  • “Can’t we have at least one meeting that doesn’t end with someone digging up a corpse?”
  • “Beer—the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
  • “I’ll be deep in the cold, cold ground before I recognize Missour-a!”

Wow

Sometimes I recognize the humanity of other people, and it overwhelms me. When I recognize my son’s being, overwhelmed comes nowhere near describing what I feel.

Sometimes I look at him and think, “He used to not be.” There was a time not long ago when Tater did not exist, and now he does. I don’t understand. I know that a biological process occurred—conception, pregnancy, and birth did not surprise me. What staggers me is the overpowering personhood evident in every move he makes. To sit beside a baby is perfectly reasonable, but to see that baby exhibit such joy, such agony, such desire, such intent, such humor, such curiosity, and to have no self-consciousness simply boggles my reason.

I believe in God. I believe he has always existed and that he created the universe and everything in it, including the first humans. But if I didn’t believe in God, I would think that perhaps there was a time when humanity decided something must exist beyond this life, and thus was born religion. Perhaps a couple of parents in antiquity sat with a baby and realized that biological processes didn’t fully explain the person resting in their arms. Perhaps those parents considered that maybe something outside of nature infused babies with something beyond blood and bile. Perhaps they came up with the idea of an all-powerful creator because nothing else could explain the wonder they felt at the sight of their precious child. And perhaps they were right.