06 April 2010
My father-in-law is not a physically intimidating man. He is thin and fit, does Yoga and swims in the ocean whenever possible. It is his mind, however, that you have to fear. He's a smart DC lawyer with a ravenous appetite for newspapers and political debate. I knew all of this before I ever met him. I knew that he hung around with guys like Ralph Nader. I knew he worked with Teamsters. I knew a phone call from him could have someone trembling in minutes.
So I was thinking about all of this as my wife (then girlfriend) and I drove to his house so I could meet him for the first time. It was a beautiful afternoon and I was assured I had nothing to worry about. We met and pleasantries were exchanged. Things were, however, a bit chaotic. It's not what I was used to. If my parents are having people over for a meal they start planning a few weeks in advance. The table is set at the crack of dawn. Refreshments are stocked to the rafters. Double the amount of food necessary is made and served in appropriate vessels.
My father-in-law, on the other hand, is a seat of the pants kind of guy. So when we arrived for our fajita lunch in the back yard nothing was ready. My wife sprung to action and began mixing salsa and peeling avocados. This gave me one of my first misconceptions about my wife: That she likes to cook. She says she does.
But she made it happen that afternoon. I helped with peeling things and doing some dishes. To my horror I realized the switch for the garbage disposal was installed in front of the sink at crotch level. All I had to do was lean forward and the machine would spring to life and rip one of my hands off. Meanwhile, her father was peppering me with questions about politics and newspapers. I had given up journalism at the time and was tending bar. This did not dissuade him from asking me a few hundred questions in rapid fire succession that were all designed to answer the only question that really mattered to him: Are you a Democrat or not?
My wife's youngest brother, Michael, proved to be wise beyond his 13 years. He saw I was sweating it out - I'm not sure if it was the politics or the fear of a crotch-induced garbage disposal accident that was making me sweat. Either way, he motioned to the TV in the corner of the living room where a Nintendo Gamecube beckoned like a life raft on a stormy sea. I slipped out of the kitchen and sat down on the floor.
He fired up Madden 2002, a game I had never played and was sure to fail. He picked the Redskins. I picked the Ravens. His father played some Greatful Dead and I threw up a little bit in my mouth but said nothing.
The game was on. While we played Michael told me he liked to compare his dad to the Eugene Levy character from "American Pie."
"Keep it real homies," Michael said, and I laughed like an idiot. Tension was being released. Somewhere in the house my wife was chopping fajita vegetables while her father was happily burning boneless, skinless chicken breasts on the grill outside. We kept playing. Madden is a tough game to pick up and play but I managed to get by. It's a perfect game to bond over with a future brother-in-law because there's no gun violence or foul language, just the accepted violence of football and the horrible color commentary.
My father-in-law and I have grown close in the years since that first meeting. We talk politics and cook together. He's a great guy. But I will always be thankful for the rescue efforts of my man Michael and the mindless distraction of video games when faced with an awkward situation.
I won the game and refused to ever play him again to maintain my spotless record.
We went outside in time to see my father-in-law cleaning lawn chairs with an old bottle of 409 and some paper towels.
"He's keeping it real," Michael said.
He sure was.
By Victor Paul Alvarez