A Very Dad Interview

Maggie interviews her dad about James Bond, Sky Masterson, & other film characters he admires.

It’s unusual for me to call home and ask to speak to my dad. Whenever I do call, it’s usually to ask my mom a question or tell my sister a story, but never to speak to my dad. We just don’t have a relationship like that, where we talk. This is my fault.

I was a moody bitch of a teenager (my mom would argue I’m now a moody bitch of a woman), and I wanted nothing to do with my dad. I wasn’t consciously aware of this and never verbally said it (even to myself), but my body language, the way I cringed and pulled away when he tried to hug me or mumbled under my breath responses to the questions he’d ask me (“How was your day?” “Fine.”) were enough of an indication, and it hurt him badly. Frustrated and upset, he would tell my mom about my behavior, and my mom would, in turn, yell at me for being so disrespectful to my father, which would make me even more angry with him. And I don’t know why I treated my dad this way.

In Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory, he writes that following certain “thematic designs through one’s life should be…the true purpose of autobiography.” If I were to do this, I’d find one of the greatest thematic designs in my life to be my dad’s left hand.

I briefly mentioned in the first newsletter that my dad’s left hand is now permanently balled into a fist with the index and thumb fingers extended into an “L” due to a childhood illness. It kind of looks like he’s always waiting for an opportunity to hold them up to someone’s forehead and say, “Loser!”

When we were kids, my sister and I played the game Force Dad’s Hand to Stay Open. The point was to hold his hand in place, while the other tried to roll his dementor-like fingers out flat. My dad would laugh the entire time — I guess it’s good he found it funny. And my sister really thought it was only a game. She didn’t care whether or not we got dad’s hand to stay open.

I did. I used to think that if I just pulled his fingers hard enough and could manage to hold his hand open for a minute or two that the hand would become useful again. But my efforts, my applied strength, never made a difference. His fingers would immediately curl back up like those noisemakers you blow on New Year’s Eve.

My dad’s hand balled into a fist is the only sign of physical damage he’s left with. Obviously, this is a good thing. But it’s also odd, and I guess the oddness has always bothered me. How does a disease decide what to take from someone? Presumably it’s randomized, because you can’t really get more random than curling someone’s hand into a fist.

My dad was seven when he came down with the measles in 1958. At the time, while it was a dangerous disease, it was also pretty common for a child or anyone to contract it. National Institutes of Health reported that from 1950 to 1962, the US averaged 503,282 cases of the measles. The disease does come with complications, one of them being the possibility of developing encephalitis. According to the CDC, this is only seen in 1 in 1,000 cases. My dad was one of those cases.

I know this statistic is meant to stress the rarity of contracting encephalitis from the measles, but to the person actually suffering from it, it’s meaningless. It can’t be used to ward off harm or danger by saying, “Well, that won’t happen to me.”

My dad seems to be going through life trying to prove himself to everyone. He never misses an opportunity to gloat about all the things he can do with one hand. When I was having a hard time learning to drive a stick shift, he made sure to tell me about the few times he’d driven one, and how the instructor said he’d done a good job considering… I don’t know if he makes statements like this to rub your face in it, let you know how inadequate you are, or to just make himself feel as capable of doing everyday things as the next person.

I never once thought my dad had a disability. The first, and possibly only, time I heard the word associated with my dad was in high school when a therapist I was seeing thought I needed to open up about the feelings I seemed to have about his hand.

If I actually saw my dad’s hand as a disability, would that have helped me to empathize with him? While I grew up reciting the synopsis of my dad’s struggle to explain why his hand was closed, I never made an effort to learn more about him. I never even looked up encephalitis until I started writing this sentence. Someone suffering from the severe level of encephalitis my dad did would have significant brain swelling, seizures, and a difficult time breathing. Maybe our relationship would have been better if I knew all this, if I understood what he went through.

But I can’t know that and never will. I’m not proud of the way I’ve treated my dad, but our relationship’s better now. Conversations are still awkward, and writing this is difficult. I’m not exposing my dad; I’m exposing myself, and quite possibly to ridicule.

I called home to speak to my dad the other day because I felt it was only right to actually interview him about his favorite movie (journalistic integrity, you know?). Not only did I assume my dad’s favorite movie is Guys and Dolls and that his favorite character from the film is Sky Masterson because he represents a type of masculinity my dad thinks he needs to ascribe to, but I also segmented him out of the first newsletter send when I saw he’d signed up to the list. This completely undermines the courage a writer is supposed to have, particularly one who wants to make a living writing about her own life.

What was I really afraid of? I guess my dad reading my thoughts on paper, or, rather, a glowing computer screen. He’s never really read my writing before, and I wasn’t sure an essay about how I think he often feels emasculated because of the limits his hand places on him should be the first piece of my writing he reads.

But “writers are cannibals,” Nora Ephron said. “They are predators, and if you are friends with them” — or happen to have a writer for a daughter — “and if you say anything funny at dinner, or if anything good happens to you, you are in big trouble.” Basically, dad, you’re material, so I’m using you.

To make up for the sins of my first piece, this follow up newsletter is truly confessional and follows with an interview with my dad. So if you’re interested in the transcript of a conversation where my dad tries to remember the name of his favorite movie, read on!

I’m still nervous about my dad reading this piece, but I need him to know something: I’m going to just let his hand be useless, because he’s so much more than a closed fist.

A Very Dad Interview with Ken Blaha

MB: So you know I’m doing this podcast and newsletter about dad movies, right?

KB: Yeah, I think I signed up for it on Facebook.

[Sidenote: I still find it really weird that my parents decided to join Facebook this year.]

MB: Well, in our first newsletter, we wrote about the movies we grew up watching with our dads, so I chose a movie that I thought, or rather assumed, was your favorite. Now I want to do a short follow-up newsletter, where I actually interview you about your favorite movie. So what is your favorite movie?

KB: Oh boy. [Deep, belly laughter.] Which James Bond movie do I like best?

MB: [Sigh.] [Eyeroll.] So it’s a James Bond movie? Which one?

KB: Oh man. [Silence.] This is horrible! I…pff..I can’t remember the name of it.

[Sidenote: I at first thought this was a moment where I should laugh or crack a joke at my dad’s expense, but the tone of his voice conveyed the pain and frustration of dealing with these moments of forgetfulness that we all have but that seem to sting more when they’re the result of getting old, so I remained stolid. At this point in the interview, anyway.]

MB: Of your favorite movie?

KB: It’s one of the ones with Roger Moore, and he’s down in Jamaica. [Silence.] There’s, there’s a witch doctor, and it starts up in…his co-star’s Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

[I laugh. I had to. He started laughing again, too.]

[Sidenote: Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman was one of those shows we watched as a family on Sunday nights.]

MB: Jane Seymour.

KB: Yeah. She played Domino.

MB: The Bond Girl, I’m presuming?

KB: Right. And they tried to get rid of them with sharks.

MB: What? Who’s they?

KB: [Laughing.]

MB: Dad, this is supposed to be your favorite movie!

KB: Hold on. I got the book upstairs.

[Sidenote: The downstairs of our house is his Man Cave.]

MB: What book?

KB: Just hold on.

[I wait five minutes while my dad goes to get some book that apparently holds the answer to my question, “What’s your favorite movie?” During this time I pontificate on how my dad really does seem to fit the stereotypical dad mold we kind of based the concept of this podcast around.]

KB: Okay..

MB: [I cut him off.] Wait, what’s the book?

KB: Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies. I think you got it for me.

MB: I got it for you?

KB: Well, one of you did. Let me see.. [Sound of flipping pages.]

MB: Dad, I can just Google this based on the information you’ve given me.

KB: [Continues to flip through pages.] Page 26 has the villain Mr. Big played by Yaphet Kotto. That’s Y-A-P-H-E-T K-O-T-T-O. Doesn’t name the movie, though.

MB: Dad…

KB: Oh, I like Diamonds Are Forever.

[Sidenote: This one has Sean Connery, not Roger Moore.]

MB: Is that the one you were thinking of?

KB: Here it is! Live and Let Die.

[Sidenote: After reading the five user-submitted plot summaries on IMDB, it isn’t clear whether Bond is sent to New York, New Orleans, or the Caribbean. Jane Seymour also playsSolitaire not Domino. But Roger Moore is in this one.]

MB: What do you like about James Bond?

KB: I guess the gadgets and the cars. I really like the Aston Martin Bond drives in Goldfinger. And I’ve always liked spy movies.

[Sidenote: Bond did, indeed, drive an Aston Martin in Goldfinger.]

MB: Even as a kid? Would you say your taste in movies has changed since you were younger?

KB: Not really. I like spy movies and war movies.

MB: I actually said that I think Guys and Dolls is your favorite film.

KB: Yeah, it’s one of my favorites.

MB: When did you first see it?

KB: When Sacred Heart put on the play, and I did the lighting for it. This was back in the 70s.

[Sidenote: Sacred Heart is a Catholic school and parish in Newark, NJ.]

MB: So you saw the play and the movie about 20 years after it first came out?

KB: Right.

MB: What do you like about Guys and Dolls?

KB: The music and the gangsters.

MB: So who would you say your favorite character in the film is.

KB: Hm. The one Brando played.

MB: Sky Masterson? Why?

KB: He can’t sing! Like me! [Laughing.]

MB: I actually said that I thought Sky was your favorite character because he represents this form of masculinity that you might feel compelled to ascribe to. Similar to James Bond. What do you think of my observation?

KB: I guess that’s right.

[Sidenote: So much for that deep, meaningful discussion on masculinity I’ve always wanted to have with my dad.]

MB: Okay, a few more questions. You know how mom, Katie, and I are always trying to get you to watchTo Kill A Mockingbird whenever it’s on? Why do you always adamantly refuse and get up to leave the room?

KB: I don’t know. I guess I just don’t want to sit down to watch it. And I know it was a good movie, but I don’t want to watch it. I guess I don’t like the name of the movie.

MB: The name of the movie? That’s why you don’t want to watch it?

KB: I don’t know, to tell you the truth. I guess.

MB: Dad, it sounds like the type of movies you like are ones you can fall asleep in the middle of, wake up, and still know what’s going on.

KB: [Laughs.] Yeah, pretty much.

My dad then proceeds to ask me about my car, and we discuss how often I should get my oil changed.

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