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Monday, 25 August
Strange Quark, Spinning Down

When I was growing up, I frequently spent a month or so in LA with my grandmother Emmy (now deceased) and my grandfather Vanaisa. Vanaisa is Estonian for grandfather--technically, it means "old father"--which I thought was pretty cool; it's pronounced with four syllables: vah-nah-EE-sah. He and my grandmother fled Estonia when it was being annexed by the Soviets during WWII, and after what sounded like a fairly harrowing trip, finally landed in the States in the mid '50s, first moving to Chicago and then to Encino. So I'd go down in July or August and hang out and get the shit spoiled out of me by them; they'd dote on me, take me shopping, or out to fine dining--well, their version of it, anyway. For them, nothing was quite as chi-chi as an elegant evening out at the Sizzler. God knows why, but for a long time as a kid, I was totally convinced that the Sizzler was the shit. Sizzler and Benihana, the latter of which introduced me to some of my very favorite barely Asian food.

Even I knew as a kid that Vanaisa was kind of a whackjob; but I found it really entertaining. He certainly wasn't dangerous or anything, he was just, well, nuts. He would do "magic" tricks for me: he'd hide one of my superhero guys behind some cushions, and then have me go pour him a ginger ale, and when I got back, it would have "magically" disappeared; he'd swear he had no idea where it went. Days later, I'd find it somewhere weird, like at the bottom of the pool or in my pillowcase.

One of Vanaisa's vices was gambling, or rather, it would have been had my grandmother not put a stop to that. He used to go to the track and bet the ponies, but after a while my grandmother basically told him she'd beat him stupid if he didn't cut it out, so he just stopped. Sort of. What he'd do is get the racing form every day, make his picks, and then listen to the radio broadcast of the races, tracking his winnings. Soon enough, he had enlisted me as competition, and so, feeling very worldly, I would sit down with him and pick my horses. Of course I totally ignored the odds in favor of which horse had the coolest name, but sometimes I got lucky and beat him, and he'd stare at me in mock horror. "YOU TAKE MONEY FROM MY POCKET! Now I cannot eat."

His obsession with gambling took other hilariously weird, ticlike forms, such as his obsession with LA's ubiquitous giant bank clock/thermometers. He'd spy one in the distance while driving, and would holler, "HOW HOT DO YOU THINK IT IS? HOW HOT?" I'd crane my damn neck around trying to see it, but he was already plowing ahead with his spiel. "I think it is 70 degrees!" So you were fucked if you wanted to pick 70 degrees; sorry, too slow. "Uh . . . I'll say 72." He would invariably laugh derisively no matter what you said. "72! You are crazy. It is 70 DEGREES! I bet you FIFTEEN CENTS!" Why fifteen cents had this talismanic hold over him, I'll never know, but every one of his random shoutout bets involved this sum. "I bet you FIFTEEN CENTS! HOW HOT?!" The bastard was right more often than not, too, because, duh, he'd look at the fucking sign before howling out his bet proposal. Not being very smart, I didn't catch on to this little bit of obviousness for a long time.

Probably also keyed into his love for gambling was his adoration of Wheel of Fortune. I'd watch with them and enjoy their fractured attempts to play along: "I say it is 'FOR WHO THE BELLS TOLL!' " I'd turn to him and explain that the only letter on the board was an "R", and that it was only a three word phrase. "You never know," he would say cryptically. Then he would go on to mock the actual players. "He is buying a vowel! I can't believe how stupid this guy is." He said that approximately 100% of the time when a contestant bought a vowel, because he was also spectacularly cheap; this might explain all those mighty fifteen-cent wagers. To him, buying a vowel was the equivalent of getting the undercarriage coating on your new car.

His rabid frugality led to the occasional amusing shopping experience (though utterly humiliating for me at the time), as he would go nuts looking for bargains. Once he took me to some outdoorsy store looking for some lawn chairs he had spied advertised for five or ten bucks. We drove like forty minutes to the place, only to have the sales clerk tell him they were out of those, but would we like to look at these? Total bait-and-switch, even a dummy like me could see that, and I waited for Vanaisa to get pissed and start raving. He stared for a minute at the clerk, and then broke into a grin. "That's very smart! You tricked me!" The clerk assumed a posture of familiar retail misery, and mentally tallied the various awful aspects of his job while Vanaisa continued. "I drove very far to get here, and you have only these!" He dismissively waved his hand over the offending chairs, as if they were broken geegaws crafted by retards and maniacs. "That is a good racket!" And we left, he chuttering all the while about how good they had jobbed him. It was like he was appreciative for the sudden insight into capitalistic malfeasance, and a wholly wasted afternoon wasn't too much trouble for the lesson.

Anyway. He's probably close to being on his way out now--my folks are taking care of him--and it's okay, honest, he's been in a bad way for a little while. He's still nuts, of course; I believe he's decided that ORANGES are POISON! And he won't drink tap water, but then again, he did spend a lot of years in LA, so this perhaps isn't the looniest thing I ever heard: at least when I was there, LA tap water tasted like something unpleasant had fucked in the pipes. He's taken to squirreling away bizarre, cramped notes on little pieces of paper that he won't let my folks see--tiny notes against the conspiracy that has surely come to make him eat oranges, drink tap water, and buy vowels, surely. I wonder what they say, and I suppose that when he does go, we'll all find out.

I bet they are, to put it mildly, interesting. I bet you fifteen cents.

Summary | Skot | 25 Aug, 2003 |

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Comments

I'm sorry that your Vanaisa is not doing well, but it sounds like he enjoyed his life, and he probably had at least some part in making you the fucked up individual you are today.

Comment number: 003536   Posted by: KOTWF on August 26, 2003 05:54 AM from IP: 65.194.133.140

My grandfather owned a bar. I basically grew up in this bar. I learned a heap lot about the bar "business" (etc.etc.). The bar paid for my college education. I owe everything I am to my grandfather and the bar (and that is all I will say about that)

Comment number: 003537   Posted by: heather on August 26, 2003 07:23 AM from IP: 63.227.131.126

Wow you have a cool grandfather! Mine was Portuguese and had some pretty interesting quirks, too. I miss him.

Comment number: 003538   Posted by: Stacey on August 26, 2003 11:14 AM from IP: 129.106.21.180

I saw the same duck today in Lake Union. I named him izzlequack. Just thought you should know.

Comment number: 003539   Posted by: aflac on August 26, 2003 04:38 PM from IP: 63.231.24.97

Wow, my grandparents came over from Estonia during WWII as well. For a minute there, I thought they might have a little in common.

Mine are definitely crazy, but in the 'we have to go back to Estonia next week for a dentist's appointment', or 'we have been living in this country for 50 years but will still only associate with people from the mother land' kind of crazy.

Comment number: 003540   Posted by: derek on August 26, 2003 05:43 PM from IP: 130.203.164.223

My Grampy was just plain scary!!! When he died we found "Mein Kampf" and SS-shit all over the house .... I guess HE should have Emigrated to Estonia

Comment number: 003541   Posted by: Anna on August 28, 2003 03:53 AM from IP: 212.136.78.25

Sorry to hear about your grandfather. My father took to having bizarre ideas and did all sorts of notes at the end too. He couldn't remember how to do simple math at the end. He was going to figure it out again and we couldn't see the paper until he was ready. It was pretty eerie to find all sorts of slips with addition and subtraction problems a 9- year-old could do.

His brain was checking out before his body was ready to go, or so the dr, the shrink, and the radiologist told me.

Old Estonians must be like the Old Finns in my family - you kinda hve to run 'em over with a tank before they're ready to go.

Comment number: 003542   Posted by: pops on August 31, 2003 08:58 AM from IP: 12.212.102.163

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