Uncle Upset

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My Uncle Burt is a character. He’s now in his late 80s but he acts half his age and moves like he’s 67.

I guess he’s always been hyper. The man’s nickname was Sudden in his family of origin. He was a restless, impulsive, disruptive child. I’m sure he had Attention Deficit Disorder before it was named or acquired its extra Hyperactivity. He was born too soon for medication. His family and teachers just had to put up with him.

He isn’t my real uncle. Burt’s older brother Brad was my dad’s best friend growing up. Dad and Brad enlisted together. Dad came back from the war but Brad didn’t. So our family just acquired Burt and kept him.

He’s been around all my life.

I have had other, real uncles, but I never took to them like Burt. My mother’s brothers were cold fish. They were accountants. They were into numbers and not people. My father’s brother was a jolly old cheek-biter. Uncle Leon meant it lovingly, but it hurt. And his hugs were too frequent. I avoided Uncle Leon.

Uncle Burt has always treated me like a person. He knew things and he didn’t mind sharing his knowledge. I learned everything I know about astronomy and geology from him.

He’s always looked and moved funny. He’s about six and a half feet tall and thin. He has hundreds of benign fat tumors on his arms and legs. They’re called lipomas and they’re unsightly but not a problem unless they develop in a place that interferes with joint movement. In that case I understand dozens can be removed with a simple in-office procedure. But Uncle Burt’s have never bothered him, so he has retained them all.

Sometimes people notice the bumps. Sometimes kids talk about them. Uncle Burt is still a big wall climber, so he’s often outside, against rock, clad in spandex. “Look at that man’s muscles, Daddy! Don’t they look weird?” I don’t climb (tender neck, careful fingernails), but sometimes I belay Uncle Burt, so I’ve heard.

He isn’t fazed. He’s always been odd. He’s used to notice and even mockery. He just turns a deaf ear on it.

Uncle Burt is accomplished at ignoring annoyance around him. The man can be alone in a crowded room. Except sometimes, lately, he gets agitated by child noise. It’s the only sign of age I see in him.

I live in Berkeley. Between the mild weather and the old university (originally agricultural), this city has just about every plant on earth and most urban critters. Our fellow residents are animals who are on the property full-time. We’re more occasional as inhabitants. We’re people, so we assert our superiority of course, but we try to be respectful of the animals.

Sure I have favorites. I like the skunks. They never spray me (only dogs are stubborn enough to get a face full). There’s a litter of kits once or twice a year around our place, and I enjoy watching the little ones grow and learn to grub and wrestle. I’m not as fond of the raccoons (aggressive), the squirrels (malicious), or the opossums (ugly), but I co-exist with all of them.

Recently I witnessed a varmint scene that reminded me of Uncle Burt and my nephews. Two skunk kits started wrestling and playing on the dirt next to the boardwalk that leads to our door (as far as I can tell, the under-boardwalk area is like a timeshare, generally occupied by skunks and/or opossums). Well there were the little skunks, tumbling around and roughing up one another’s lovely fur, when from under the boardwalk waddled a big old opossum. At first he reminded me of Mr. Magoo, looking near-sighted and slow. But then I laughed out loud. That opossum was channeling Uncle Burt! I could almost hear opossum-mumbles: “Damn kids! Always making noise! Grrrr. A fella just can’t catch a nap around here!”

Uncle Burt is staying with us right now. He has a broken ankle and he’s supposed to be immobile for like six weeks. Any other octogenarian with a broken bone would have a story involving words like osteoporosis or osteopenia, but not Uncle Burt. He fell off his roof. He was strengthening the chimney brace when some shingles dislodged and took him with them.

We’re trying to entertain him. He can’t stand, so ping pong is out (just as well, because it’s hard to find an opponent for him – he’s very good at the game and a merciless gloater). He can play cards and he’s a bit of a bad winner at that too, but it’s fascinating to watch him at it, even if we never win. The man has astounding card sense; he earned fun money at college playing hearts and bridge.

The other day he caught me vaping some pot. It isn’t like I was hiding it from him, but marijuana has been illegal all my life, and I got in the habit of (1) discretion and (2) not indulging in it with people of other generations.

I was enjoying a few deep hits on the sun porch when Uncle Burt limped by on his way to the toilet.

“What the hell?” he asked. “Are you vaping?”

“Come on, Unc. You know I indulge. And it’s almost legal now.”

“Oh I have nothing against cannabis. I respect and appreciate the herb. It’s the vaping that’s bad.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Listen, young’n. You’re buying from the white market now. Haven’t I taught you not to trust it? Sure there are only like 21 chemicals in vapor, compared to 389 in most pot smoke, but have you considered human adaptation? After all, people have been inhaling smoke since we harnessed fire. And not just campfire smoke. Our ancestors tried inhaling anything that would burn. It took centuries for them to zero in on tobacco and cannabis.

“And I’m not arguing that smoking is benign. ‘Course not. Shit: you’re drawing in ash and all sorts of particles, carbon monoxide and other bad gases. But we’ve all gotten up after a night of heavy smoking. First thing we do is cough up a bunch of shit. That’s your bronchial ciliae throwing out the garbage. See: our species has had enough time, evolutionarily, to develop adaptations to combat the bad effects of smoking.

“Not so with vaping. Whole new insults to the system, and no time to adapt. You could say vaping is the polyunsaturated oil of recreational inhaling. Our bodies try to contend with the consequences, but we need more time.”

I know I was staring at Uncle Burt then, and I think my mouth must have been agape. I’d never thought…

I put down the vape pen. I helped Uncle Burt back to the couch after he did his bathroom business. Then I rolled a joint and shared it with him. It was the first time we smoked together.

Afterwards I got to chuckling. I was alone then. I didn’t want to mock Uncle Burt. But I remembered that he makes up facts. You can trust Burt completely about galaxies and sun positions and types of rock. He’s done a fair amount of reading about the Masai, and he picked up some arcane philosophy with all of his Gurdjieff/Ouspensky study. But other than those subjects, the man’s an accomplished bullshitter.

Even so. I like to smoke. Maybe I’ll stop trying to switch to vape.

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