Vanna-Worship, Nuts--It's All in the Family

Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot in two weeks.

I am in Sequim, Wash., visiting my parents. From their room on the other side of the house I hear my dad comment, "She's changed her hair." They're watching "Wheel of Fortune."

Their house is on a nicely wooded lot, which was even more nicely wooded before they put in a veritable superhighway of a concrete driveway. The beautiful view of Sequim Bay is likewise compromised by a large satellite dish they've installed. "Look at this, 280 channels!" my dad declares, clicking away while I stared out at the garish metal dish rending the scenery.

I'm still dimly amazed that we live in a time when people just like my parents, like me, who can't even grasp how a toaster works, are enabled by a few ounces of hand-held electronics to link up with this vast network of information beamed from outer space. OUTER SPACE! My parents are receiving information from OUTER SPACE! I'd always suspected as much.

More often than not when I poke my head into their room, they are using all this wondrous technology to watch real-life cop shows about multiple murderers, carjackers, pornographers and crackheads. I take this as a sign that they're homesick for O.C. During a brief call home to a friend during this visit, I was told about the crowded dance card of county shootings taking place in my absence.

My parents, who moved here six years ago, are still newcomers. I don't know if there is a chronological line dividing newcomers from old-timers, but there's certainly an aesthetic one: The old-timers are the ones who don't like it when the bulldozers break ground for a new K mart.

Unlike Seattle, which has become a yuppie-and-younger enclave, the Olympic Peninsula where Sequim (pronounced Squim) is located is a retirement haven. Sequim, by the way, is the name given this place by the Indians. I think that when the writing was on the wall that the white man was taking over, the Indians got their revenge by slapping a silly name on every bit of land up here.

"Ha ha, I just named this place Walla Walla. Top that!"

"OK . . . Sequim!"

Anyway, now the Indians are stuck selling fireworks--one of the better stands is titled "Ill Eagle Fireworks"--and their old hunting ground is overrun with retirees waiting for the new K mart or death, pardon the redundancy.

There are a lot of people spending their golden years here, so many that in my more morbid and less PC moments I've imagined myself in the midst of a horror movie, where instead of zombies it's the elderly who get a little weird and start gumming people to death.

I tend to retreat into black humor after visiting my great-aunt in a nursing home up here. There is an air of resignation that hovers over the place. I like to think I'd rebel by any means extant if faced with spending my final days amid the home's hospital smells, lumpy tapioca and bedpans. But I don't doubt that all the people in there felt the same way once, including my great-aunt, who now just seems peeved with God for not coming to take her away already.

I think we'd know a lot less about life and the many ways of living it if it weren't for our relatives. There's that old adage about being able to choose our friends but not our families. Most of my friends tend to be people who think a bit as I do, laugh at the same things and have interests that aren't entirely dissimilar from mine.

I've got a lot of family living on the Peninsula these days, and others who converge there. So it is with my brother that I have found myself out on a fishing boat up here, lurching around, ashen, while pulling up a succession of mean-tempered and pretty much inedible mudsharks. A cousin even got me out to a shooting range the other day. Since I typically shun guns and such places, I expected rednecked yahoos to abound there. Instead, they were nice, humorous, helpful folks who were none too judgmental of the novice in their midst.

There is a palpable, if somewhat guilty pleasure in disintegrating flying clay targets, though in less than an hour my cousin and I spent $114 on shot shells and targets, which makes Disneyland seem like a real bargain, even if you can't take a shotgun there.

Probably the relative I feel I have the most in common with is my Uncle Bob. He's considered the family nut, and I lack the energy to contest him for the title. At 69, he has the same boundless enthusiasm he's always brought to his hairball passions and pursuits.

He called up the other day incensed at the flooded Mississippi, raging, "Why can't they just pump the damn water to where they're having a drought?!" He's irked that this nation simply doesn't know how to dream big any more.

Once, he decided he needed to collect a one-inch square cube of every metal known to man. He didn't care if it was precious, molten or radioactive, he wanted it, and ran the rest of us ragged in his quest. Then he'd need a particular nail clipper, or everything Frank Sinatra had ever done.

Now, he's calling up with a zillion questions about buying a camcorder, about which I know sequat. He keeps putting off buying one, he says, because he's worried that a superior technology will supplant it. I suggest: "Why not just put if off until you die, Bob? I understand you get to see your whole life pass before your eyes then."

My parents seem rather more content to let Vanna White's life pass before their eyes. Once in a while my mom undertakes an oil painting, but the only hobby my dad--my stepdad if we're being technical here--enjoys is smoking. He'd have two hobbies if you could count coughing as one.

This isn't much the stuff of humor, but we've tried the serious, pleading, heart-to-heart stuff to no avail. His own heart put him in the hospital, and he didn't heed that either. The smoke he inhales hurts me more than his second-hand smoke ever could. It's a pretty helpless feeling to be so unable to impart to someone you love that you'd rather he not kill himself.

Given the choice, I'd probably avoid all this--the metal cubes, lumpy tapioca, gnashing sharks and the way my dad drives through the wooded wonderland here with the windows rolled up, air conditioner blasting and eternal cigarette in his hand. But it's family, and it's life.

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