grumpy about brothers (happy birthday, Eric)

It’s my brother Eric’s birthday today. He’s three years older than me, but at this middle-aged point in our lives we’re practically the same age. I’ve always called Eric my “little brother”, as in, my littlest big brother, but I guess once you’re a big brother, you’re a big brother no matter how old everyone gets. Even if you started out a little cutie like this.

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Eric’s the one in the middle in the feast shot, with our brothers Mark to his left and Ted to his right. That’s mom with the beehive. I don’t exist yet, because this was Eric’s one-year celebration, Korean style.

Here’s Eric with his lifelong best friend, brother Mark, who’s 14 months older than him. Eric’s on the right.eric2

They look like characters in a Maurice Sendak book.

I hesitate to write the rest of this post, but sometimes the heart needs to speak. Eric may well get a bit miffed at me for this, but I’ll just go ahead and say it: he is a first-class keeper of the grumpy flame. There’s a reason we sometimes mocked him with the nickname Mr. Sunshine, alongside my grumpy dad. But don’t think for a second that I’m judging. It’s been some long years since I accepted my place on the list of flame keepers and recognized that Eric and I share a lot of grumpy DNA.

These days I wonder a lot about whether the relationships we remember with our siblings are reality-based or rather figments of the apocryphal stories we’re told over and over again by our parents and other observers. I thought for many years that I grew up in a constant state of conflict with Eric. As a teenager, he was pretty damn hostile and angry a lot of the time, but it wasn’t really that. There were the stories. I heard again and again about how he wouldn’t share his GI Joes with me at Christmas when I was three, so I punched him in the face and gave him a bloody nose, and then there was the time I bit him so hard he bled after he was mean to me. Ha ha ha what a great indicator of our relationship. There were always stories about us fighting and about Eric picking on me. I don’t remember anyone ever telling me stories about stuff we did together that was fun, about the love we shared as siblings.

When Eric went through some tough times in high school, no one invited me to be compassionate, patient, or accepting. My parents didn’t play parenthood that way. They yelled, they threatened, but they didn’t listen or sympathize readily. No one explained to me that Eric’s rage probably wasn’t about me but about something else, something hurting inside him. No one asked me to be bigger than a spoiled little sister. So that’s how Eric saw me, if I have this right. He called me spoiled, bitchy, stuck up, and much worse than that. He would even say, “Mom always loved you best.”

I always hated hearing that last bit. I still remember a particular occasion when that blurted out, when we were nearly adults. It reflected so much insecurity and sadness, and it wasn’t true. I felt terrible for Eric that he felt that way. But I didn’t have any magic moves in my emotional skill set to fill his cup in that moment. They didn’t come instinctively to me, and my parents didn’t teach them to me. My heart told me he needed to hear that he was loved, without any anger attached to it, but I couldn’t find my way there. I just kept yelling back at him.

When I root around in my memories of Eric, without the filters of other people’s stories, I find a lot of good stuff. We played together, we ate together, we watched TV and shared games. Of course we fought, but that’s normal. And Eric supported me in a lot of ways, like any decent and excellent brother. He helped me with homework; he cooked food and treats for me; he played games with me; he defended me; he posed for awful photos with me.

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What more can you ask of a grumpy big brother than to tolerate a little sister with such a dopey look on her face?

Echoes of Eric’s insecurities haunt me to this day, because I always wish I had been more sensitive to them, in all the ease with which I passed through school and college. But never mind. Here and now, I’m laying it on the line with this birthday message to my brother:

Eric. You are and will always be my big brother. Just like our grumpy dad was an anchor that brought our family together, in his stead you’re becoming the anchor that brings our family together. Your grumpy is an important part of it, a reminder of a father who I adored and still miss so much. I love that you’re a devoted husband and father. I’ve seen you apologize to your family for your grumpy behavior. It’s not something our parents taught us to do; it’s BIG that you found the courage to go there. May you always own your grumpy more than your grumpy owns you. I’m working on it too. And no matter how flawed you are or I am, I love you, bro, and I’ll always be on your side. I wish I could have told you that a hundred times, decades ago, when you probably needed to hear it more.

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Grumpy about iFart

Jesse had a tough morning at her new dentist yesterday. They did a full cleaning, took x-rays, painted sealants on her molars (don’t start in on me about toxicity and all that — rotten teeth are toxic too, and she was born with ’em, so we’re in a balancing act here), took out an ineffective space-maintaining appliance (hence new dentist) between some missing molars, and did a mold on her upper teeth (which took two tries, ugh) for  a new orthodontic contraption that will hypothetically work better.

Jesse handled it like a Marine — tough and pretty grim, but also polite and compliant. Afterwards, she was spent. I gave her my iPhone as I drove her to school. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw her staring blankly at the phone as she tapped away. A few seconds later, I started hearing her iFart remix.

In case you’re one of the rare people who don’t yet know what iFart is, I hope you can guess from the name. It’s a smartphone app. You hit a button, it plays a fart. Many fart options are available, and you can repeat and layer them on top of each other to create rich symphonic effects.

Jesse can knock out a dance mix on iFart like the best house DJ you’ve ever met. She lays down thumpers and high descants, embedding them in repeating rhythmic patterns that leave me bouncing my head against all sense. Fart noises shouldn’t make me want to dance. Yesterday Jesse was all business as she laid down her track post-dentist, her face set in a serious mask. You wouldn’t have known she was having fun. Except for the extensive fart noises.

iFart is, sadly, one of the most-favored apps on my iPhone. It says something so sad and juvenile about me, but iFart never lets me down. When we were in California last month, I sat down one day on the big sofa in my mom’s living room. To my left on a neighboring sofa was my brother Eric — a master scatologist, a keeper of the poop flame, never ashamed of his bowel functions. To my right on a neighboring barca-lounger was his wife Wendy, a mild-mannered and modest-souled woman who I imagine excuses herself from a room to go silent-fart in private. Poor Wendy. I wonder if she knew what she was marrying into, this family of free-farting animals passing for human beings.

I don’t know what came over me. I placed my iPhone next to my right hip on high volume and punched up The Wipe Out, a fart option that lasts exactly five seconds. It doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but trust me: a five-second fart is unholy long.

The Wipe Out sang out.

I looked to my right and smiled. Sweet Wendy, who would never make fun of anyone or call someone out for something embarrassing, looked at me. 1.5 seconds into The Wipe Out, her face screwed up into a mix of horror and revulsion as she cried out in earnest from her barca-lounger, “Oh my God, Carla!”

I looked to my left and smiled. 3 seconds gone. By now Eric was also looking at me in total disgust. “Jeez Carla, what the hell is that??”

5 seconds gone. I started laughing and couldn’t stop. It took just a moment for them to figure out that it was the app and not me, but for that short moment they must have thought my pants were full of crap and I was the most revolting human being in the world.

It set me to wondering. Just how much does it take to fill Eric with a sense of scatological loathing? A lot, really. He’s my brother, after all.

But iFart did it, in just 5 seconds. That’s impressive.

Grumpy about a heart attack (a sibling tale)

I learned yesterday that my brother Mark was taken to the hospital the night before. He had a heart attack. He seems fine, but it’s early in the evaluative process. So far all indicators are that my family is still completely ridiculous.

I heard the news after we finished a pretty strenuous 4+ mile hike with the kids in the Shenandoahs. We’re still on our 3-week vacation. There’s very little cell coverage in this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the hike ended at an overlook where we had a few bars of coverage. So on a whim I unlocked my phone. I was greeted by a text from my brother Eric, filling me in briefly on Mark’s attack. It was a terrible emotional jolt, and I blurted out an exclamation.

My bad. I got about .4 seconds to process the news before Jesse stepped into the fray. “WHAT?? What’s wrong??” She’s already been in full-throttle jackass mode for a couple days, so this came easy to her.

Uncle Mark seems to have had a heart attack, I answered.

“What does that mean??” She yodeled. “WHAT’S A HEART ATTACK??”

Deep cleansing breaths as we looked for kind ways to tell her to shut up.

Standing on the overlook, I called Eric. He was at the hospital. He started to answer my questions but there was noise in the background, and in exasperation he said, “here, I’ll just let him tell you himself.”

Mark got on the phone. He spoke in a gravelly, sickened whisper. “Hey Carla, thanks for calling…” Then he started cracking up and spoke in his normal gravelly voice. “I’m just kidding, sis!” Sooo funny.

I hit back. “What happened, Mark?? I got Eric’s message and almost had a heart attack!!”

He answered with more. “Hey don’t worry, sis. You know most FATAL heart attacks happen in women. So I’m fine.”

There’s nothing like stupid joking around to mask deep, painful feelings of love and fear.

Here are the essentials of what I understand happened, based on what Mark and Eric told me:

For two days, Mark experienced pain in his left shoulder and severe heartburn. Also he couldn’t stop sweating. Finally Mark called Eric, who lives about 3 hours away, and asked him to get on the internet and look up the symptoms of a heart attack. Bingo. Eric also called a doctor friend, who suggested Mark take an aspirin and get help. Now. Eric passed this along.

Meanwhile, at my mom’s home (where Mark was hanging out)…

Mom’s husband John also called a doctor for advice. He called Dr. Kim, who’s something of a family doctor. For the dogs. He’s a vet.

Mark realized he didn’t want Mom or John to drive him to the hospital. Mom doesn’t drive since her stroke. John’s driving would have just given Mark another heart attack and finished him off.

John promptly pulled out the yellow pages. He was going to find an ambulance company, presumably under “A”. Mom decided this wasn’t the right approach. She called 911. But her English has gotten so bad since her stroke that she couldn’t articulate the situation to the operator. Also she gave the address of one of her rental properties, not her house. Mark, recognizing that all of this was problematic, took the phone from her and cleared things up.

Mark made it to the hospital in one piece, they did something with a stent, and he’s alive.

I learned most of these details from Eric, who shared them with me in a tired, wry voice that told me he had moved past anger straight on to humor as he tried to manage the situation and keep me and our brother Ted (currently in Malaysia) in the loop.

Some time after I spoke to Eric at the hospital, I called Mom’s home number, hoping to find her there. A male voice answered in Korean. “Yoh boh seh yoh?”

“Hi John, it’s Carla.”

There was a brief silence, and then, “Helloo?” piped the voice in a Korean accent.

I was irritated immediately. I didn’t need this shit right now. I spoke very slowly and carefully, as I’ve done many times before. “John. It is me, Carla.” I prepared myself for more confusion.

The voice started laughing. “Carla, it’s Eric. I’m just messing with you.”

Sigh. We both made fun of me for getting grumpy so quick. We chatted about Mark, Mom, John. Without my asking, Eric gave me the data points he knows I need. BP, O2 sats, heart rate, status. We told stupid jokes, made loose fun of the situation without really meaning it, gave each other a few laughs.

As my brothers and I held each others’ emotional hands, my heart broke and healed and broke and healed. If I’m the princess of grumpy, then Mark and Eric are the crown princes. We grew up under the same duress, grumbling and yelling our way through the days. But in a time of crisis and fear, Mark and Eric are both coming through, as I hope I’m doing, turning that grumpiness from ugliness into a head- shaking acceptance of the comedy that shapes our world. If Ted weren’t in Malaysia, I know he’d join us in this essential, life-affirming self-mockery.

I’d probably break if it weren’t for the laughs. Mark is an anchor in my life. He keeps me grounded when I get uppity; he picks me up when I’m down on myself; he face palms me when I get too grumpy. I can’t imagine this world without him. So I’m afraid right now.

But good news: Eric just told me that Mark has now achieved full volume and grumpiness, and he should be going home soon. Mom and John are going to visit Mark at the hospital today anyway. He isn’t all that thrilled. “They’re just going to stand there and stare at me.”

Yeah I know. It’s annoying. But it’s probably what I would do too if I could be next to Mark right now instead of 3000 miles away, because I’m so grateful that he’s still alive.

Grumpy about diplomacy

I’m on day 4 of a pretty long visit to my mom’s house with the kids. I haven’t posted anything since I got here. Today my brother Ted mentioned that he was surprised not to be reading some stuff about my visit.

I’m surprised too. After all, I’m home. I’ve descended into the maelstrom of grumpy. Grumpy winds whine through this house when we all get together, a perfect storm of grumpy waiting to happen if we all vibrate the right way at the wrong time, like a choir of Tibetan monks droning on just the right frequencies.

Is that enough inane metaphors and analogies for now? (I sometimes have to think to assure myself of the difference, and right now I don’t have time to do that, so I’ll assume I have both just to be sure.)

Anyway, I’m hypothetically right where the best material resides when it comes to my inner grumpy. But grumpy isn’t the same as mean, and I’m not sure I could muse about my family in close quarters without just being mean or hurting feelings, however unintentionally. We’re all ridiculous — I mean all human beings, not just my family — but most of us don’t want our noses rubbed in this fact.

My family has had some doozies of collective grumpy meltdowns over the years, and we’ve also had individual hissy-fits. As a result there have been long periods of absence for various reasons, for one or another of us. Traditionally, we have at it with each other – a gift of battle-ready gab bequeathed to us by our parents. But we don’t do that so much anymore, and I really don’t want anyone to bug out ever again. There aren’t enough years in a life for it. Some years ago my mom and I talked a lot about how we could all get along better. Love is pretty constant. Mom liked to tell me that breaking a family is like cutting blood with a knife. But sometimes, we concluded together, love asks more of us than just love. It requires diplomacy, and of course respect. Love is the easy part.

So here goes: I’ve really enjoyed seeing my brothers and sisters-in-law and nieces and my mom and her husband and all the blessed shedding dogs. Awesome visit. I dearly love my mildly insane, mildly grumpy family. My kids are a good fit here. Diplomacy demands that I leave it at that.