1. Despite What His Mother Thinks, My Nephew Is Probably Not Fluent in Finnish.
My nephew Teddy is just twenty months old and he’s already talking up a storm. I hope that doesn’t sound too braggy. I don’t want to overstate his abilities. He’s able to pronounce a variety of impressive and many-syllabled words, but he rarely does it in any specific order, and certainly not in ways most of us would recognize as language.
His father is content with letting him figure it out at his own pace. But his mother, either out of impatience or an overestimation of her child’s talents, listens to the random vowels trickling from Teddy’s mouth and hears something very different than the rest of us.
“He did it again,” she announced to the room during Thanksgiving. She was sitting on the living room floor with Teddy, and because I happened to be the nearest adult family member, she waved me over to confirm her findings. “He just said something else in perfect Finnish.”
I knelt next to my nephew and leaned in close. When he spoke again, I was fully prepared to be amazed. But I wasn’t. To my ears, it sounded like more baby gibberish.
“Aieeouiiieee,” he garbled.
“Aiti,” she said, repeating what she thought she just heard. She looked to me hopefully. “It’s Finnish for mother. Did you hear that? He was looking right at me and he said aiti, clear as a bell.”
I smiled and tried to look enthused. “Yeah, I guess, probably.” I may not know much about parenting, but I know enough not to challenge a mother who thinks her son has done something spectacular.
He continued talking, and she continued translating his Finnish for the rest of us. In the next few minutes, he apparently asked for a cookie, reminded us that a kitten says meow, and remarked that I have a nose, all in the flawless, consonant-heavy poetry of his Mother Tongue.
My sister-in-law, as should come as no surprise, is Finnish. She’s not just Finnish, she’s proudly Finnish. She would’ve gotten married in her family’s sauna if my brother had consented. (Yes, her family has a sauna, and I have been in it. In fact, the sauna is where I met her father for the first time, while he was wearing nothing but a thin sheen of sweat and a big Finnish smile.) Before her son was born, she lobbied to name him Ano, which (if she’s to be believed) is a common name in Finland. My brother rejected the name almost immediately, on the grounds that he would be teased mercilessly by his peers. It isn’t a long journey from “Ano” to “Anus.”
Not that my opinion had any weight, but I argued for Ano. Scatological jokes aside, I enjoyed the linguistic possibilities. “Ano” easily turns into “ain’t no,” which leads to gut-busting comedic wordplay like “Ano Spitznagels ’round here.”
Believe me, I would never, ever grow tired of saying that.
They eventually settled on Teddy, which couldn’t be a less Finnish name. But my sister-in-law hasn’t given up on forging a connection between her son and his Finnish roots. His room is covered in Finnish children’s books with titles like Pupu Tupuna and Finn Family Moomintroll. His babysitters are all of Finnish descent, and from what I understand, she pays them a little extra if they speak only Finnish when they’re with him. And during Christmas, they even took him to see the Finnish Santa, Joulupukki. Sadly, I wasn’t around to witness Teddy’s introduction to Finnish-style holiday mythology, but my brother was kind enough to text me the details.
“Yes,” he wrote. “Old drunk 7 foot tall Santa covered in animal skins spouting Finnish to children is exactly as frightening as it sounds.”
After Thanksgiving dinner, Teddy settled in to watch Bambi, his favorite movie (or at least until he gets a little older and I introduce him to the Russ Meyer oeuvre). Within moments, his mother informed us that Teddy just said hirvi, which I can only guess is Finnish for orphaned doe with eyes big as dinner plates. I smiled and nodded, but I was starting to think she might be crazy. Has anybody who actually speaks Finnish verified this kid’s ability? Because honestly, I think a newborn from Finland, fresh out of the womb, probably has a better grasp of the language than Teddy does. He strikes me as being Finnish in much the same way that Mickey Rooney in Breakfast At Tiffany’s was Japanese.
“Did you hear that?” She asked excitedly. “He just said kissa. That means kitty. He wants his kitty, and he asked for it in Finnish!”
I could swear I just saw Teddy roll his eyes.
2. Despite What His Father Thinks, My Nephew Couldn’t Care Less About Baseball.
There is no doubt in my brother’s mind that his son loves baseball. And to prove it, he’s purchased enough baseball supplies to support a minor league franchise. Catcher’s mitts, aluminum bats, commemorative jerseys from the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers; if my brother thinks it’ll reinforce Teddy’s interest in sports, it added to his toy armoire. My nephew has more access to baseball paraphernalia than vegetables.
It doesn’t always work out the way he’s planned. Even when my brother manages to lure Teddy outside, determined to show off his skills on the ballfield, it usually ends badly. Teddy’s idea of “ba-ba” – his baby-talk shorthand for baseball (or could it be a Finnish?) – involves smacking the lawn with a bat, followed immediately by chasing butterflies and leaping into the nearest bed of flowers. My brother has tried – oh god, how he’s tried – to teach his son the rules, but Teddy could care less. Throw a ball in his general direction and he won’t take a swing at it. He’ll do a handstand and start improvising songs about bunnies.
But I’ll give credit where credit is due. The kid does have a powerful arm. He can pitch a fastball right down the middle with so much velocity it could split an atom. And he’s accurate, too. Point to a spot in the middle distance and he’ll hit it every time. (And thanks to his dad’s coaching, the strike zone is usually in the general vicinity of my testicles.) But I don’t know if this means he has an enthusiasm for baseball or just throwing in general. Sure, he likes throwing balls, but he also likes throwing toys, coffee cups, TV remotes, and if they sit still long enough, small dogs.
It’s really just my brother who loves baseball, and I think he knows that. But he keeps the charade alive because it allows him to indulge in his boyhood fantasies again. When I visited during the holidays, he dragged me out to the back yard almost every afternoon to play Wiffle Ball. “It’s for Teddy,” he promised. But soon enough, Teddy would spot an oddly-shaped stick and he’d be long gone. And then it’d just the two of us left on the makeshift ballfield.
Without fail, as soon as his son stops watching, my brother switched into hyper-competitive mode. I’ve always thought that the entire point of Wiffle Ball – baseball’s shortbus-riding cousin – was to make it easy for the batter to get a hit. That’s why the balls are big as melons and the bats are the size of a turkey leg. But he’d pitch at me like he thought there were talent scouts peering over the fence, looking to draft him into a professional Wiffle League.
“C’mon,” I yelled back at him. “Stop putting so much stink on it! Let me hit one of these fucking things!”
“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He said with a sneer. “You are goin’ down, bitch!”
He meant it literally. It wasn’t enough for me to take a swing and miss. He wanted to cause physical trauma. It was like one of those carnival booths where you buy three balls for a quarter and try to hit a clown doll. Except unlike a clown doll, I’m not filled with sand. I’m made of flesh and blood and skin that bruises very easily, especially when it’s been repeatedly pounded by a hollow plastic ball.
I know how embarrassing that sounds. A Wiffle Ball is probably the least dangerous object ever invented, second only to pillows. But in my brother’s hands, after he’s calculated the wind resistance and perfect trajectory, a Wiffle Ball comes at you like shrapnel. And it does pretty similar damage. After awhile, I stopped “playing” in any conventional sense. I was just swinging in self-defense.
I finally gave up and limped towards the house, and my brother became irate. “You’re a pussy,” he yelled at me. “Come on, just a few more innings! We’re just getting warmed up!”
Somewhere inside, Teddy was hurling Lego pieces at the wall, squealing with delight every time they left a decorative welt. Outside, his dad was doing something very similar, although judging from his cursing, the garage proved a less-than-satisfactory replacement for my soft, fleshy abdomen.
Like father, like son.
3. Some Awkward Conversations Just Need a Drum Roll.
When you’re spending a solid week with your family, some unintentional comedy is inevitable. But what you recognize as spit-take-worthy hilarity doesn’t always translate to your more humor-deprived relatives, no matter how much you stare back at them with slack-jawed disbelief.
Sometimes life needs to take a cue from the Borscht Belt. Here’s an example, based on an actual conversation I had with my mother over Thanksgiving:
MOM: “Do you remember your cousin Mandy who died? She had a hole in her heart.”
ME: “Really? I didn’t know that. Is that what killed her?”
MOM: “No, she choked on some Pad Thai.”
See how much better than works? Without the percussive payoff, it’s just confusing and a little disturbing. But thanks to a gag-identifying drum roll, it becomes a goofy exchange that could’ve come straight from the shtick playbook of Shecky Greene.
4. There is Such a Thing as Too Many Pictures of Naked Babies.
My brother and sister-in-law, like all new parents, are a little obsessive about their offspring. The French call it “idée fixe.” I call it creepy. Yes, Teddy is adorable. But sometimes I’d like to turn my head and look at something that isn’t him. A book, a TV show, another adult with a college education, somebody who doesn’t speak Pig Finnish. I’m not picky. But to his parents, a moment spent without Teddy in their immediate sightline is a precious moment wasted. They want to see him everywhere, like they’re wandering through the mirror maze in the final scene of The Lady from Shanghai, except with less noir futility and more cheek-pinching adorableness.
I’m not saying they’re completely in the wrong. If I had a kid as slap-yourself-in-the-face-he’s-so-goddamn-cute as Teddy, I’d probably make his mug a recurring motif in my home decorating scheme too. I’d hang framed portraits of him everywhere, in staggering numbers, so that guests would be instantly unsettled, eventually admitting that “it feels like the eyes are following me.” I’d blow up my favorite photo of him to poster size, adorning it with inspiring slogans like “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength”, and then wallpaper the living room with it. My home would become its own sovereign nation, a mini-fascist state which my son or daughter would rule as Imperial Leader.
But I also like to think I’d show a little restraint. I wouldn’t, for instance, hang pictures of him in a room where I might have reason to touch my genitals.
Wait, let me back up.
My brother and his wife have a weird fixation with their son’s naked ass.
It wasn’t always this way. It started when they hired a professional photographer to do a family portrait. The results have become the stuff of Spitznagel mythology. Take three reasonably attractive human beings, dress them in white linen, put them on a beach and shoot them in black-and-white, and you’re gonna end up with photos with aesthetics somewhere between a Calvin Klein billboard and what Born-Again Christians imagine heaven looks like.
For every photo featuring the happy couple, there are also an abundance of solo shots of Teddy, usually flashing his naked buns for the camera. Now, I have nothing against infant nudity – as long as it’s tasteful and doesn’t draw too much attention to the scrotum – but I can’t help but wonder, at what point during a family photo shoot does a photographer think it’s appropriate to say, “Hey, I have an idea, how about the baby loses the pants?”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no prude. I don’t have a problem with nudie pics of my nephew. I just wish there weren’t so many of them. Sometimes I look around their house and I could swear Pete Townshend lives there. But my main problem is with placement. If I’m going to get an eyeful of Teddy’s heinie, I’d like it to be in a suitable environment. A kitchen, say. Or a living room. Even a guest bedroom would be fine. But I don’t, under any circumstances, want to see au naturel baby portraits in the bathroom, and certainly not mounted directly over a toilet.
Do you understand why this might be disconcerting? Say I’m taking a refreshing afternoon whiz, and as I’m want to do during such an activity, I’m holding my junk. Not fondling it or anything, but I’ve found that an accurate aim requires a purposeful grip. So I’m taking care of business and I look up, cock still in hand, and realize – oh sweet gentle Jesus – I’m staring at a picture of my nephew’s pasty-white fanny.
And that’s just not right, not on any level. I’ve got a pretty strict “no open zipper” policy when it comes to my family. If I can see them, whether they’re standing right in front of me or in representational form – and that includes photos, oil paintings, bronze busts and police sketches – then my barn door stays closed. Eric Junior ain’t coming out for a game of peek-a-boo, if you catch my drift. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel.
5. Vegetarians Are Incapable of Cooking Meat.
My brother recently gave up on vegetarianism.
I can’t stress enough just how shocking this news was to the rest of the Spitznagel family. My brother has been abstaining from meat for well over a decade, and he was never what you might call a casual vegetarian. He was militant. Every time you put a plate of food in front of him, he’d start barking, “What the hell is in this?” He was convinced that the moment he turned his back or wasn’t paying attention, somebody would try to slip him some meat. We’d take him to restaurants that served only vegetarian fare, and he’d still study every spoonful.
“Is that bacon?” He’d ask, poking at something in his split pea soup that looked suspiciously unmushy. “It looks like bacon to me. Goddammit, I knew these bastards would try to pull a fast one on me!”
To be fair, his paranoia wasn’t completely unjustified, at least not while our grandmother was alive. A German matriarch isn’t about to let one of her boys waste away because he’s not getting the essential nutrition of animal flesh, even if it means putting a pork chop in a blender and trying to convince him it’s hummus.
Although he already had more dietary restrictions than somebody with Celiac Disease, he eventually decided to further torture his digestive tract by converting to veganism. As I understand it, veganism involves taking everything delicious in the world and replacing it with beets or sunflower seeds. After just a month of denying himself… well, everything, he developed that healthy glow one usually finds only in frontmen for Manchester rock bands.
But despite (or perhaps because of) his hunger pangs, he always had enough energy for a little righteous moral indignation. He knew more gruesome details about inhumane farming practices than anybody who didn’t actually work on a farm should ever want or need to know, and he was more than happy to share these “fun facts” with you during dinner.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, my brother announced to the family that his ten-year run of eating food that looks like cat litter and wearing “Meat Is Murder” t-shirts to formal affairs was coming to an end. He was becoming a carnivore. His reasons could be summed up with just three simple words:
Animals are assholes.
He had this epiphany shortly after his first child was born. When Teddy showed up and became the center of attention, their dogs – two spoiled pugs named Papageno and Papagena – didn’t adjust well to the demotion. They treated Teddy not like a pack leader or somebody with higher social standing, but as the competition. If they thought he was getting too much love, they’d head-butt him out of the way. If Teddy was holding a piece of food – even a carrot, which the Papas crave about as much as premium cigars – they’d leap and snap like gators at a Cajun’s leg. My brother, who once held his beloved Papas above reproach, suddenly understood that they had an ugly side. And from there, it was a short journey to realizing that all animals, if given the chance, had the potential to be jerks. They’re not the innocent and huggable creatures that PETA brochures and Disney movies had led him to believe.
“Once you figure out that animals are assholes,” he told me, “you really don’t feel so guilty about eating them anymore.”
I’m not sure if I agree with his “it’s okay to eat assholes” theory (if you follow it through to its logical conclusion, all roads lead to cannibalism), but I kinda like the new carnivorous version of my brother. He’s stopped dragging us to The Soy Hut or whatever that god-awful raw food restaurant was that he liked so much. He now takes me and the family on a tour of LA’s reddest of red meat eateries. Just watching him order a steak is a surreal experience. He doesn’t want it raw; he wants it bloody. And he’ll pay extra if they let him come back to the kitchen and snap the cow’s neck.
This was an especially exciting development for Thanksgiving. Too many holiday meals have been ruined with tofurkey – which, I don’t care what the vegetarian elite keeps insisting, tastes nothing like turkey and just barely qualifies as edible. It belongs in the same basic food group as SPAM. It’s not dinner, it’s a war ration. And what’s more, tofurkey is an affront to everything Thanksgiving represents. It’s an insult not just to the Pilgrims, but to the Native Americans they would eventually slaughter. Ethnic genocide is bad enough, but when it happens after an unsatisfying meal of organic and non-genetically engineered soybeans, nobody wins.
So I was thrilled that we’d finally be able to celebrate Thanksgiving in style. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but when I gather around a table with my family to give thanks for all the blessings of the past year, I want to know that the brown mass on my plate used to have a pulse. I want to be able to point to a hole and go, “Yep, that’s where its head used to be. Whaddaya say we eat this bitch?” And to make matters even more appetizing, my brother wouldn’t be lecturing me about the unsanitary conditions of commercial turkey farms and the minutiae of how they’re slaughtered. If anything, we’d be stabbing at each other’s hands with forks, locked in an epic battle for our fair share of the tryptophan-laced flesh.
There was just one small problem. Our mother.
Not long after my brother joined the culinary dark side, my mother followed his lead, mostly out of convenience. It was just easier to cook for him if she was also a vegetarian, and my dad and I didn’t care one way or the other. (We thought, perhaps naively, that it was “just a phase.”) She was never as militant in her beliefs, but over the years she lost her taste for meat and never looked back. When my brother switched teams, she was disappointed (“Have you talked to your doctor about this?”) but begrudgingly supportive. And while she didn’t want to partake in our meat orgy, she offered to cook a real turkey for our Thanksgiving feast.
And that’s how we learned an important life lesson, one that can mean the difference between a festive holiday season and a family argument that’s somewhere between a street brawl and a basement cock-fight. It’s really pretty simple. If you don’t regularly eat a certain type of food, don’t attempt to cook it for your loved ones. You wouldn’t ask an Aborigine to drive a car, or an Eskimo to fix your air conditioning, or a Southern Baptist to write a novel about the real world. By that same logic, you should never, ever, ever ask a vegetarian to cook a turkey and expect it to be in any way juicy or succulent.
If you believe nothing else I’ve told you today, believe this: a turkey that’s been cooked by a woman who hasn’t eaten meat in over a decade is going taste like cardboard after the flavor has been boiled out of it.