Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tales From The Lebowskis - Can't Say That Anymore

Around 1999-2000, my immediate family was in the process of moving from our old house to our new house. Because the old house was sold about a year before the new house was finally done being built, we had to make certain arrangements to have living space in the meanwhile. Luckily, my maternal grandparents, David (aka Jaja) and Mary (aka Nonnie) Lebowski kindly and generously let us share their house until ours was finished. I got to live in my uncle's old room in the basement (David "Blaze" Lebowski, Jr., not Stephen "Hulka" Lebowski), which was pretty sweet, while my parents and my sister, Meghan, occupied spare bedrooms on the main floor. There were aspects that took getting used to, and it was probably easier on me than others since Nonnie treated me like gold and I was in the basement, removed from most of the drama anyway, but all in all, it worked out really well.

One evening, all six of us were seated around the kitchen table eating dinner. I forget what we were talking about specifically, but I guess it came out that my father, Steven Thirty, had done something helpful or kind. Nonnie, wishing to show her appreciation for my father's good deed, told him:

"Well, that was awfully white of you, Steven."

Normally Meghan and I were pretty good about not actually laughing out loud and embarassing our elders for a remark like that. But this time the defenses were down, and we both nearly choked laughing at Nonnie's politically incorrect remark. My mother just looked embarassed. Jaja kept eating, absolutely unfazed. Nonnie, meanwhile, looked confused and a little hurt, and couldn't understand what was so funny. My father, with trademark patience, explained to her the racial connotations of her statement.

Nonnie was shocked. Surely we understood she meant white as in pure, like snow. His soul was glowing white, and this had nothing to do at all with skin color. My father continued explaining that today, a comment like that would be taken as having a racist meaning, even if she didn't mean it that way. Perturbed, but determined to salvage the conversation, Nonnie switched topics and started telling us about her latest night shift at the local convalescent home she worked at part time. It was pretty standard for the most part. But then, she started telling us about an orderly who she spotted catching a nap in a side room. This orderly was a big black man. She told how how:

"I walked right over to that big jungle bunny and told him 'quick, wake up before the supervisor sees you!'"

Again, Meghan and I couldn't hold back our laughter. My mother was laughing too this time. Jaja, still, continued eating without missing a beat. Again, Nonnie looked confused and hurt. While my father explained that "jungle bunny" was considered a racist term now, she explained how she was trying to help him out by waking him up before the supervisor could catch him. Surely we didn't think she was racist or disliked this man because he was black. My father (who, by the way, Nonnie adored. If she thought me golden, he was platinum) told her that he knew she was just trying to help, and that it was only the choice of words that was an issue. He told her he was sure the orderly appreciated her helping him not get caught. Finally Jaja spoke.

"He probably thought it was awfully white of you."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tales From The Lebowskis - Hulka, Prince of Lies

A lot of the Lebowski family tales are brief moments, that don't really translate well to a single, dramatic narrative. This is because these stories are real life events, and real life doesn't always follow the traditional "rising action-climax-falling action" pattern of stories. For this entry in the Tales From The Lebowskis feature, I'm going to share with you a number of brief, unrelated episodes on a common theme. Stephen "Hulka" Lebowski is my uncle and is quite a character, as you may recall. He is also an accomplished artist of the English language, and can use his linguistic prowess for both truth and lies.

Over the course of my life, I have borne witness to many of Hulka's finest lies, so I would like to relate a few of my favorite untruths from Uncle Hulka. Before I do, let me say that Hulka's lies to me were often spun with the intention of entertaining me, filling my head with images of a fantastical world where anything is possible. It made my childhood that much more fun, and I wouldn't trade those wonderful lies for anything. Here now are a few chosen lies that I've enjoyed from Hulka over the years.

  • Hulka supposedly had two alternate dog-like personalities that would come out from time to time complete with gruff voices. They were Lockjaw (the nice dog person) and Dogjaw (the mean one). When I was being a little shit, Hulka would warn me that Dogjaw was taking over, usually scaring me into behaving and pleading with Dogjaw to let Lockjaw take over instead.
  • Dogjaw was not enough of a deterrent for bad behavior I guess, because Hulka also warned me of The No-Fun House. The No-Fun House was the worst place in the world. Anything bad I could think of to ask if it was there, Hulka told me was there. Any redeeming qualities I could think of to ask if they belonged to the No-Fun House, Hulka denied. I was terrified of being sent to the No-Fun House. The No-Fun House was located in Moosup, CT, where they have nothing but wheat. When I was told this, I cried. Once I was being particularly spazzy in the car and Hulka pulled his car up in front of an abandoned house and told me this was the fabled No-Fun House, and to get out. I was scared shitless and immediately behaved like a model child, at least until we were far enough away.
  • Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy apparently used to live in the house next door to the one Hulka lived in at the time (his parents, Mary "Nonnie" Lebowski and David "Jaja" Lebowski's house). They were not the best neighbors for Hulka because they used to wake him up very early by coming over and jumping on his bed, instructing him to Mousercise with them. They had moved away to Florida before I was born, because their new home, Walt Disney World, had been completed.
  • Hulka, while driving one day, spotted a car being driven by a cat, with another cat riding in the back. The car pulled up next to him at a red light and he recognized the cats as my cats, Jammers (driving) and Jiggs (passenger). The car was my mother's brand new Subaru station wagon. Jammers tried to convince Hulka to drag race against her by revving the engine, but Hulka did not. Jammers peeled out when the light changed and zoomed away, as Jiggs waved out the rear windshield. I was dubious of this, but Hulka convinced me by correctly identifying the make, model, and color of my mother's car.
  • Hulka was part of a conspiracy of adults who successfully had me believe that our elderly family friend, Katherine Kookaburra was trapped in a number of dryers in a variety of family members' homes. Katherine had a distinct and easily imitable voice. Did you know that if somebody stands at the dryer vent outside a house and speaks into it, it sounds like the voice is coming from inside the dryer? Hulka, his siblings, and at least a few of their spouses knew this. Obviously upon opening the dryer, I could see she was not inside, but I believed she had somehow gotten herself trapped behind the tumbler (so many times! Katherine, stay away from dryers for Christ's sake!) and if the adults would just cooperate with me, we could get the tumbler out and save her. But no, not only did they let me futilely try to figure out how to get behind the tumbler, they also would inform me, after a minute or two had passed, that we couldn't wait any longer to run the dryer. "But there's no clothes to dry! Katherine's in there!" "I know, but it's time to run the dryer now. Let's hope Katherine can handle it."
  • Hulka and his sister Patty "Pappy" Rudedawg nee Lebowski (the one who accompanied Great Jaja on his trip to the Springfield Bus Station) collaborated on the wonderful idea that the live lobster they were going to cook for their father as a Father's Day feast was in fact the new pet lobster, Leo (named after Leo Bootywitz? Maybe.) Leo enjoyed crawling around, and even visited me while I was in the pool, although he wouldn't actually get in. He had rubber bands on his claws so he wouldn't hurt his new family. They did not think this lie through, because eventually they had to murder Leo and let my grandfather feast on the corpse of our new pet. When I tearfully pleaded for him to stop, that Leo was a pet, I was told by my loving grandfather, Jaja, "Oh, horseshit! *crunch*"
  • Hulka's lies were not always to me. On one memorable occasion, he lied for my benefit. Hulka and my father, Steve Thirty, had just taken me to Wal-Mart so I could buy the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (packaged with The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past!) that I had saved up a $2 per week allowance for for over a year. We got back to Hulka's to drop him off before going home. While at Hulka's, Hulka wanted to loan me a few more SNES games for my new system. My father did not want to wait, and told me to go get in the car. Hulka, from the bedroom where he kept his old SNES games, told me to come and take them from him. I was trapped between contradicting orders from two adults I loved and respected. "Remus, come here!" "Remus, go to the car." "Remus, come here!" "No, you go to the car." Then the stalemate was broken by Hulka: "Remus! I'm on fire!" Now, I didn't believe him. Nor did my father. But I looked up at my father, shrugged, and ran to get my games. Upon returning to the living room, I said to my father, "I'm probably in trouble, huh?" "Yeah." But Hulka came to my defense! "No, Steve," he said, "Remus saved my life. A comet crashed into me and set me on fire. It flew all the way from Uranus! It hit me in My-anus!" A good laugh was had by all, and I did not get in trouble.
From MyAnus to Urs, take care, all!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bruno: Close, But No (Phallic) Cigar

I have been a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and his zany personae since about 2001. A friend of mine found a few clips of Ali G from his run on the BBC our freshman year at college shared on the network. How he found them I'm not exactly sure, this was back when there was no search engine or file sharing hub for the network so you had to search shared hard drives individually. Anyway, somehow he stumbled across these video clips that had us in stitches, quoting Ali to each other for months and years to come. Since then, I was delighted when those of us in the States were treated to HBO's Da Ali G Show, I was mildly entertained by Ali G's big screen endeavor, Ali G Indahouse, and I was overwhelmingly thrilled with 2006's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.

Rarely if ever have I laughed as hard in a movie theater as I did at Borat. The whole theater was full of raucous laughter, in fact, on the opening night show I attended as part of a Borat release party I hosted with my roommate at the time. Subsequent viewings helped me find less obvious jokes in Borat, and also helped me really think about which gags were funny because they were shocking and which gags were well-done comedy (many were both). I've had a long time to reflect on Borat, and my admiration for it as a groundbreaking comedy film has not waned.

Of course, I was very excited to see Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest film endeavor. While I've always considered Bruno to be the bronze medal of Cohen's characters, I still had high hopes for the film, seeing as Cohen's 3rd movie attempt would likely benefit from his increased experience in making a feature-length movie. I saw Bruno about six days ago, and have had time to process it now. On the whole, I really enjoyed it. But I must say, I think Borat still trumps it in my opinion. Having taken some time to explore why that is, I will try to explain my contrasts and comparisons here.

There are probably going to be spoilers for one or both films, read at your own risk.

First of all, I think one of the main differences in the films is the likability of the protagonists. Borat, while misogynistic and anti-semitic, was portrayed as a naive innocent whose faulty world views were a direct result of his fictionalized homeland's policies and culture. We, the audience, are sympathetic to Borat because he is trying his best to get by with no knowledge of American social graces or customs. Much of the laughter in Borat comes from his "honest" misconceptions, such as believing human feces should be bagged and discarded, believing pubic hair is a viable resource for bartering, or believing, like a child who has read a scary fairy tale, that Jews are shapeshifting monsters who will kill him if they can. Bruno, in contrast, should know better. Neither being gay nor being Austrian should impart the same level of social ineptitude that Borat's fictionalized homeland of Kazakhstan believably does. Bruno comes across as shallow and somewhat vapid instead of just naive. The character is still quite funny, don't get me wrong, he's just not as easy to root for.

Secondly, while there is some real daring, gut-busting humor in Bruno, a little too much comes from laughing at the fact that, "hey, he's gay! That's so weird and raunchy!" For example, faked up photos of Bruno holding his adopted son in a hot tub while other gay friends engage in sex acts seems to erroneously conflate being gay with lacking sexual boundaries. It could easily be said that the character of Bruno is simply both gay and wild sexually, but this is not the layered image that will likely stay with viewers. GLAAD seems to agree. Let me say though, again, a lot of the movie was hilarious. Even some moments that didn't sit quite right with me still had me laughing. The problem is, the movie simultaneously lampoons homophobia and homosexuality, leading to a mixed, although still largely positive response from me.

Third, some of the jokes don't work quite as well as some of the jokes in Borat. Bruno certainly has it's share of stunningly funny moments (the "special guest" who screams Bruno's name at the end of his TV pilot episode is notably hysterical), but walks across the finish line in a few gags. Let's compare two similar gags from Borat and Bruno: the recurring chicken gag from Borat and the recurring dildo-bike gag from Bruno. The jokes are similar, with both featuring an outlandish accessory appearing unexpectedly in shots throughout the films. However, in my opinion, the chicken gag is much funnier. Here's why: it makes less sense. Hear me out on this.

While the dildo-bike's mere existence is much more ridiculous than the chicken's, once we establish that the chicken and dildo-bike do exist and do belong to their respective film protagonists, the chicken becomes funnier. Once we establish Bruno owns a dildo-bike, we assume he makes use of it. It is not a one-time use item. It makes some level of sense for him to drag it around with him, if he truly enjoys it so much, even though it is ungainly and awkward. The chicken makes no sense. Why is it in a suitcase? Is it food? If it's food, why hasn't he eaten it yet? If it's a pet, why is it lugged around like an item? What has the chicken been doing while it was off-screen? Has it been fed? There are so many unanswered questions about the chicken, while the dildo-bike leaves very few questions beyond, "did he remember to wash that thing before dragging it onto the street?" Both gags are funny, the chicken is better comedy.

Both films are brilliant in some aspects. Sacha Baron Cohen is totally willing to put himself in literal physical danger for comedy, and it shows in both films. There's a real genius to the way he conducts his interviews and leads his marks into the punchlines he's concocted. He becomes his characters totally, not even breaking scene while drunk or being whipped by a belt. All of this holds true in Bruno, so don't let my critiques turn you away from this daring and very funny film. But don't expect to walk away as satisfied as you did from Borat, if you liked Borat. Let's call it an admirable silver medal, which, hey, is a step up from the bronze Bruno held on the TV show.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Tales From The Lebowskis - Great Jaja Adventures, Vol. 4

Towards the end of his life, John "Great Jaja" Lebowski was a man who enjoyed routine. "Enjoyed" actually may not be the right word. It wasn't so much that he enjoyed the routine, it's more that he became agitated when things deviated from his routine at all. The older he got (and he lived into his mid-90's), the more crotchety and obstinate he became. The thing is, he was already crotchety and obstinate as a younger man. So yeah, he liked things a certain way. This story, "The Best Damn Soup" tells of a time when Great Jaja learned to change his ways ever so slightly.

Great Jaja lived on his own up until almost the very end. He was constantly attended by his daughter, Pat Lebowski and his daughter-in-law Mary Lebowski nee Jerboa (my grandmother Nonnie) as well as other relatives and descendants, but he did live in his own house and prepare many of his own meals. He tended towards the same fare, over and over. He was particularly fond of Port wine, Chicken in a Biskit crackers, eggs, and oatmeal (these items were not usually eaten in combination). Something he had enjoyed at various points throughout his life was raw littleneck clams. I'm not a seafood fan in general, so maybe sucking raw clam out of the shell doesn't seem as gross to others as it does to me, but it seemed pretty gross to me. The smell in particular I always found borderline nauseating.

For a period of time in his later years, Great Jaja rediscovered littleneck clams and took to eating them a lot. A lot a lot. Like 2 dozen a day a lot. He would have my grandmother drive him down to Super Stop & Shop located 3 small towns away from his home every day to get another 2 dozen clams. He usually couldn't wait for her to finish her other errands and would begin eating them in the car. I know, because I was frequently along for these trips during the summer, because my sister Meghan and I would spend the days at Nonnie and Jaja's house when school was out. On one notable trip, Great Jaja decided he had to pee while Meghan and I were waiting with him in the car while Nonnie bought his clams. He opened the car door, I assumed it was to get out of the car and walk into the supermarket and find a bathroom. I was wrong. He sort of leaned towards the open door and peed onto the parking lot. My sister and I remained silent and thankful that the front row of seats shielded his escapade from our view.

Anyway, Great Jaja's diet became more and more clam-based. My grandmother, mother, and aunts being nurses, they were concerned that 2 dozen clams a day, supplemented by wine, crackers, eggs, and oatmeal was not really a nutritionally balanced diet. So they decided to add some nutrients by buying Ensure drinks for Great Jaja. Lest the images in that link confuse an upcoming detail, at that time, Ensure came in cans, not little plastic bottles. Anyway, they bought him a pack of Ensure and left it in his fridge for him to discover. When they returned a few days later and checked the fridge, the cans were gone. It was a success! He had expanded his diet to include the nutritious shakes!

So my aunt, Patty "Pappy" Lebowski (the one who was in the Springfield Bus Terminal with Great Jaja) asked him about it. "Jaj," she asked, "you liked those Ensure shakes we bought you?" This confused Great Jaja. "Shakes? What the hell you talkin' about goddammit?"

"Ensure shakes, the shakes we put in the fridge!"

"God damn it, I don't know what shakes, what god damn shakes?"

"Jaj, the cans in your fridge. They weren't there before Sunday, now they're gone, so I know you're drinking them!"

"Cans? The hell, you mean the soup?"

Yes, readers, soup. You see, somehow my great-grandfather had confused Ensure shakes, which come in flavors such as chocolate and strawberry and are stored in refrigerators to be consumed cold with cans of soup. You know, soup. The liquid meal served hot in flavors such as chicken noodle, tomato, or clam chowder. Not only had he made this error in perception, he went whole f-ing hog with it. He had been taking a can at a time, and putting it in a pot to boil. Although, perhaps that's not a specific enough description. You're probably picturing this old man pouring chocolate nutrition shake into a pot and cooking it. This is not accurate. He was placing the entire sealed can into the pot and adding water around the can, then boiling it. Somehow this never exploded in his face. I wished him no harm, but by the laws of physics you'd think it should have exploded.

Once the can had reached a sufficient temperature, he would open the can (how he did this without burning his hands off escapes me), pour it into a bowl, and bring it to his table. Once comfortably seated, he would then season his ice-cream flavored hot meal with salt and pepper. Then, he would eat it. And not just eat it. He LOVED it. I'm ready to gag picturing it, but he couldn't get enough. He demanded more be provided, and continued doing this until he had to spend his last few weeks in assisted living.

"Soup!?" Pappy replied, "Jaj, that's not soup!"

"The hell it's not! Best damn soup I ever tasted. Gonna put Campbell's right out of business!"

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Tales From The Lebowskis - Bad Influences

Up to this point, I've left myself out of the Lebowski stories that have appeared on this blog. Today, that changes. Today, I would like to share with you a story from my early childhood, a story that my father Steven Thirty wishes would just vanish from history. This story was actually kept from me until I was about 20 years old, despite the fact that I was a key player. I had no memory of it, because I was about 1 or 2 years old at the time. I had just entered that lovely phase of childhood during which a young child, his or her brain seeking to learn as much language as possible, will repeat anything you say to him or her. In this case, him. Duh.

Also, I should warn you that this Lebowski tale contains language that some may consider shocking or offensive. If you are easily offended, I recommend you read a different blog, or better yet, leave the internet and never come back, because the internet is not a safe place for the gentle-minded.

Stephen "Hulka" Lebowski has been a wonderful uncle since day one. He was always looking out for me, making sure I knew about cool things like his muscle cars or The Doors. Seriously, after the usual childhood basic words (mama, dada, kitty, doggie, etc.) Hulka made it a point to teach me that he drove a "Fouh-Fouh-Two!" and the lead singer of The Doors was "Jim Moh-son!" Mixed in with these important facts were also an astonishing number of harmless-ish, entertaining lies but those will be saved for another time. Because between the truths and the lies, there rests forbidden knowledge.

One day, Hulka, who at this point was still living with his parents, Mary and David Lebowski (Nonnie and Jaja), had a couple of friends over. Notable amongst these young men was John Tygers, one of Hulka's best friends. Eric Zealand may or may not have been present for this. Anyway, Hulka and his buddies were watching a movie together in Hulka's room. Not just any movie, an adult movie. The film was one of the movies from the adult film series The Devil in Miss Jones. I think it MAY have been the 4th installment, The Final Outrage, but I am not certain. I sadly have not seen these films, and so cannot tell you.

There was a line in this film that Hulka, John, and company found absolutely uproarious. At some point an African-American character with a gravelly voice describes to the titular Miss Jones, possibly whilst in Hell, that "... you got a jizz-a-mighty dick, HANGIN' out yo' butt!" What this line actually physically describes is difficult to determine. What makes a dick jizz-a-mighty? Why would it just be hanging out of Miss Jones' butt and not doing something? These are questions I do not know the answer to, and certainly did not know the answers to at age 1 or 2.

This did not stop Hulka and John from continuing my education though. Because when his beloved nephew wandered down the hall from the living room to see Uncle Hulka, Hulka and John saw opportunity. An opportunity to take what was already a hilarious porno line and make it even funnier. By getting the 2-year-old to repeat it. And so, Hulka and John Tygers started teaching me the line. "Remus, say: you got a jizz-a-mighty dick, HANGIN' out yo' butt!" And what else could I do? These was my beloved uncle and his good friend. They usually steered me right. And I had no clue what the words meant anyway.

"You ga jiiiiiiimadig, HAAAAAAAn oucha bud!"

The laughter was immense. This was comedic gold. "You ga jiiiiiiiiimadig, HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAn oucha bud!!" Even more laughter. This line was a keeper. I was going to use this all the time to make the grown-ups laugh. And use it I did. But nobody else got it. Nobody else even understood what I was saying. It was the idle talk of a toddler. And so parents, grandparents, strangers, all were treated to the best of The Devil in Miss Jones without knowing it. For several weeks. But then something happened.

My family was visiting at Nonnie and Jaja's, as was a frequent occurence. John Tygers was also there at the same time, visiting Hulka. And we were all in the living room. And upon seeing my uncle and John together, I did what I would naturally do: use their favorite line to get a reaction. "You ga jiiiiiiiiiiimadig, HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAn oucha bud!" And they laughed. And John repeated it back to me: "You got a jiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiizz-a-mighty dick, HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAngin' out yo' butt!" And it was grand fun. Except this time, my father was there.

His gaze turned to something between ice and stone. "What did you just say?"

"Uhhh, Steve, I uhh..."

"What did you just say, John?"

"Steve, it's just, it's just a line from a movie, it's not a big deal."

"You taught my son, my 2-year-old son, a line from a porno?"

Needless to say, I wasn't really allowed to hang out with Uncle Hulka and John alone much after that point, at least not until I was a little older.

Now, I would like to end with a request/challenge. As established earlier, I have never actually seen the film the line is from. I don't feel like watching a seven-film series just to find the line. If any of you readers can find me either a copy of the film (the correct film, not just any film in the series) or even better, the clip in question, I will come up with a good prize for you. This prize will include a special write-up on the blog, and probably something else good too (what it will be depends on who wins). So start searching, my beloved perverts! Find me this porn!