Father knows best
Ever think of an invention and then learn someone already has the patent? That’s how I feel about the opportunity I missed with my best-selling book.
Somebody beat me to it. Someone with the same idea I had. Someone who also had a journalism background, an odd sense of humor, and a father who comes up with one a minute. The book, “Sh*t My Dad Says,” rocketed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List after writer Justin Halpern started jotting down off-the-wall things his father said. Sad thing is, I’ve been keeping a file on my dad for years.
The similarities between our dads is rather uncanny, though Halpern’s old man swears more (in English, anyway). He also is more crude than my dear old dad. Both are blunt and honest to a fault, and almost always politically incorrect.
My father is older but better looking. He looks like a handsome version of Leslie Nielsen, and his personality is a bit like Archie Bunker with a little Tony Soprano thrown in for good measure. Both dads tell it like it is. The end result is almost always funny, and the laughs are usually unintended.
A quote from Halpern’s book: "The worst thing you can be is a liar. Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is liar. Nazi one, liar two."
Pretty funny, and much like Papa Ferrazza, he gives his words of wisdom, then recaps in case you missed the point.
My father’s parents came to America from Italy and he was one of six kids. Alberto Luigi grew up in Providence, R.I., where he still lives today, with some rather unusual ideas. He sometimes will use the wrong word, like calling a marathon a telethon. It’s part of his charm.
“Hello?” he said, answering the phone and sounding out of breath.
“Hi, Dad, it’s me,” I said.
“Oh, hi, Kris,” he gasped. “Just a minute, let me catch my breath. I feel like I just ran a telethon.”
I don’t even bother to correct him. I just jot it down and laugh later with my siblings.
The other day, he said his back was bothering him and he thought he might need to see a Cleopatra. I suggested a chiropractor might be more practical. You get the idea.
Last summer we had ants in our house, and I complained to my father that I had ant traps in every corner my kitchen.
“Here’s what you do,” he started.
It usually is at that point I grab a pen and the nearest piece of paper, even if it is a napkin, envelope or chewing gum wrapper.
“Uh huh,” I say, phone balanced between my ear and shoulder while I get ready to write. “I’m ready. Lay it on me.”
“You’re writing this down?” he asked. I froze. How did he know? Of course he knew. He was a detective.
“Um, of course I’m writing it down,” I said, laughing nervously. “I want to remember how to get rid of these ants.”
Unfazed, he continued.
"OK, so here’s what you do,” he said and proceeded to tell me that apparently if you put a little bit of jelly outside the home, near the foundation, ants will fall into formation and march straight out of the house. I found this hard to believe, but I was scribbling furiously and trying not to laugh.
“I’m not [bleeping] you,” he said. “Put a little grape jelly out there.”
It was hard to disguise my amusement and skepticism.
“So, grape jelly, huh?” I said. “Does it have to be grape?”
He sensed I was toying with him, I could tell. But he continued.
“Yeah, grape. Grape jelly. Actually, they didn’t specify it had to be grape, but grape is the best. I mean, I like grape jelly. Why wouldn’t the ants like it too? On second thought, pick whatever kind of jelly you want. Raspberry preserves also would be delicious. Just make sure it’s seedless.”
At this point, my handwriting gets too shaky to read because I’m cracking up at his unintentional humor. Or is it intentional? Maybe the old man is crazy like a fox.
Halpern writes that as a kid, he was afraid of his gruff father. He jokingly describes him as being "like Socrates, but angrier, and with worse hair." I feel exactly the same way about my dad, only he has better hair. And I wasn’t afraid of him. But other kids were.
My best friend from childhood recently was reminiscing about growing up, and she revealed she always had been frightened of my dad.
"Really?” I said. I laughed with surprise.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “He seemed kind of, um, grouchy all the time.”
“What’s your point?” I snapped. Chip off the old block.
Of course I can say and think whatever I want to when it comes to dear old Dad, but other people are not granted that luxury. I always had a real appreciation for my father’s honesty. That is a rare thing to find in this world. Let’s face it, people almost never say what they truly are thinking. But old-school guys like my father have no filter, and the result is refreshing, I think.
Halpern calls his father “the least passive-aggressive person on the planet,” and my dad is the same way. You certainly never had to wonder where you stood. The same is true today. That generation didn’t coddle or pussy-foot around their children the way we do now. I remember going through a phase when I was a kid where I would make everything I said sound like a question.
“So then...we went over to the lake…” I would say, and my voice would go up at the end of each phrase, almost like a Valley Girl. I must have been 12 or 13. “And then...these boys showed up...”
My father couldn’t tolerate it.
“Are you asking me, or are you telling me,” he would interrupt. “Because I can’t follow what you are saying. Everything sounds like a question. Why do you do that?”
I stopped mid-story to consider his point. He was right. Why WAS I doing that? How annoying. And I tried to make myself stop because it really was irritating.
Children of parents like mine grow up to be not easily offended, I believe, and quick to laugh at themselves. At least this is what I tell myself. Dad insists he is doing it to help us “improve,” whether it is an apple pie that had too much cinnamon or a boyfriend who seemed a bit too quiet. (Of course they were quiet. They all were afraid of him.)
When we finally had my daughter Elizabeth, Dad was smitten but then quickly became annoyed.
“You’d think they were the first people to ever have a baby,” he’d say of my husband and me. He quickly tired of our adorable anecdotes and the ballet photos and handprint turkeys we sent in the mail from Elizabetta, as he calls her.
I’m not offended by that. It makes me laugh. And it’s true. I can’t deny it, so why try?
He recently complained to me that another of his grandchildren never has much to say when he calls her on the telephone.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. She’s cute and everything, but she gets on the phone she just breathes. And when she does talk, it’s mostly baby talk,” he said. “I can barely understand her.”
I pointed out she is not even 2 years old.
“Oh, is that all she is? I was thinking she was older than that,” he said. “Never mind, then. I take it all back.”
Years ago when I would complain that Elizabeth wasn’t talking yet, he’d warn, “You wait. Enjoy it while it lasts. We said the same thing about you, and you haven’t stopped since.”
Halpern’s dad had a different take on mute babies.
“The baby will talk when he talks, relax. It ain't like he knows the cure for cancer and just ain't spitting it out.” Good stuff.
I’m so jealous. Halpern took all of the crazy things that came out of his dad’s mouth and started to use them as his Facebook status updates. Then he set up a Twitter account and soon he had 1,000 followers, then 10,000, then 100,000, and the rest is history. He started fielding calls from reporters, literary agents and TV producers, and now 1.3 million people follow him on Twitter.
A writer and newspaper columnist, Halpern worked from home and his father heckled him for it, asking how it could be a real job to sit at a computer in his pajamas and make up stuff. My father has made the same observation many times about me.
Heck, Halpern’s dog is even named Angus, just like my collie.
So how did he manage to hit the jackpot with his Twitter feed, books and even a TV show, while I’m stuck at home, still listening to MY dad lecture me on my bad habits, which range from occasional nail biting to continuous gum chewing.
“You can’t even chew gum in Singapore, you know,” he said. “You can’t. Not allowed. No way. Do you think you’re going to go to Singapore and chew gum?“ No, Dad, I’m not planning to go to Singapore and if I do, I’ll leave my Trident at home,” I say, cracking my gum into the phone receiver.
“You bet your [expletive deleted] you will,” he said. “No gum in Singapore. No sir. Because they cane people for chewing gum. Those poor bastards. Think about it. Why do you think you never see any gum on the streets in Singapore? Because they don’t allow it. Their streets are immaculate.”
I have no idea how my father, who never has left the United States except for one short Caribbean cruise years ago, could be so familiar with the daily life of the common Singapore resident, but apparently he is an expert.
Lately he’s been obsessed with his own funeral, and at 84, he has it all planned and pre-paid. Yes, indeed, he selected his own casket, burial plot and ceremony, and for some reason he likes to discuss the whole thing with me on a monthly basis.
“There will be no wake,” he said. “Zero. No visiting hours.”
“OK,” I say.
“I know what happens during the wake. I’ve been to enough of these things,” he continued. “People come by the casket and they look at you and they say, ‘Look at that poor bastard,’ and they act sad for a little while, and then before you know it, the grief wears off and two minutes later they’re off making jokes and talking to people and enjoying themselves. Meanwhile, all the while, I’m laying there, stiff as a board, on display. I don’t think so. No way. No. Way.”
He will be present at the funeral, however, and has a loophole.
“The casket will be closed, but I’m going to have a little peephole like the ones they have in hotel room doors. You know the ones? That’s what I’m going to have, with the fisheye lens, so I can see who is doing what,” he said. “So you’d better be on your best behavior.”
Guess I’ll leave the chewing gum at home on that sad day.
And the beat goes on.
Kris Ferrazza is a former reporter, assistant editor, copy editor and columnist with the Courier newspapers. She lives in Waldoboro and thinks she deserves a cut of Halpern’s royalties.