Tim (right) simultaneously gralphs his brothers Dave (left) and Paul (middle) Erskine
Eagle-eyed viewers of the Emissary Movie might spy a motif. A common hand gesture used by Jim, Mark, and Andy. This gesture has a long history in the Erskine clan. We call it the gralph.
I was first introduced to the gralph over 20 years go, meeting my then-boyfriend Tim's family. I was nervous about what Tim's five siblings might think of me. I overheard brothers Dave and Paul mutter a question to Tim.
Have you shown her the gralph yet?
Given the urgency and intensity of their words, I could tell that whatever this gralph was, it was an important turning point in our relationship for me to witness it. I worried. I urged Tim to explain. There was a lot of side-eying of other family members on Tim's part and some increased tension in the room.
And then, with great ceremony and some obvious trepidation, Tim and his family urged me to sit and watch a video. I felt like I was being tested.
Tim had put a lot of effort into producing this film. I could tell the family was watching my reaction. They all seemed to express the same worry. Would Tim's girlfriend still want to date him after watching this?
Tim had titled his work The History of the Gralph. The movie starts with two cave men, played by brothers Tim and Dave, wrapped in blankets, growling their way through the woods, arguing.
"Now on, I lead, you follow," one grumbles. They argue over who is to lead the way.
(In a side note, Tim's son Jeremy always heard his as "Naaan, I lead, you follow." He thought one of the cavemen was being addressed as Naaan. Thereafter, one of the cave men has always been known as Naaan the Caveman. Thus, to our best approximation, Naaan the Caveman is the inventor of the gralph.)
Paul, Tim, and Dave Erskine (left to right) exchange a three-way gralph
In Tim's film, these cave men accidentally stumble on the power of the gralph as a powerful shaming gesture for the first time in human history. The film then documents its evolution to modern day college courses. Gralphing 101 then empowers a student to finally shame his loser of a roommate. I'd love to release this work some day.
Tim had even fashioned an educational gralph T shirt breaking down the four parts of a gralph:
It's amazing this 30-plus-year-old shirt has stood the test of time as well as it has. Technically a gralph is divided into four parts, which you can memorize with the helpful acronym DDAA: Deploy, Display, Antagonize, Administer. Tim admits he forgot the first D in this graphic.
I gathered that this video was a test. The fact that I didn't break up with Tim after watching it meant I passed the test. Over the years in every family gathering I have seen many gralphs. New children born into the family are initiated with their first baby gralph. Variations such as the flying pancake gralph, the cartwheel gralph, and the soul-sucker gralph have evolved.
Gralph etymology: Tim claims that his math teacher was a Mr Ralph Rolph. Ralph Rolph had such a delicious name, especially in the context of his asking his students to make a graph, Tim could not resist using the elements of these words to form The Gralph.
Do Tim and I gralph each other? Sometimes. Not often. You don't want to diffuse the power of the gralph by overusing it.
Sometimes Tim will just text this image to his family or friends. They all know what this means:
Gralph fingers text, art by Tim Erskine
And yes, you will see a few gralphs in the Emissary movie.
Gralphs have worked their way into my sci fi trilogy. The following short excerpts do not contain any spoilers:
Chapter 8, book 1: The Emissary and the Time Bomb from Outer Space
Jim’s forefinger and middle finger twitched. Normally he would use these fingers to gralph Andy with a stiff jab in the clavicle and Andy would gralph him right back, with each of them making the customary wounded sounds.
The gralph, a childhood hand gesture the brothers had invented to shame one another, had evolved into such a standard greeting that Mark had adopted it. Mark’s wife was starting to complain. Mark, Jim and Andy now usually gralphed each other as a form of greeting, even while agreeing that, technically, overuse of the gralph violated the gralpher’s code. The gralpher’s code required understanding that a gralph was to be used sparingly and judiciously. If everyone went around gralphing, each gralph’s individual shaming power would get diluted. Right now though, Andy looked like he didn’t need any more shaming, even if it was only ritualistic and affectionate shaming.
Chapter 14, book 1: The Emissary and the Time Bomb from Outer Space
Jim landed a gralph on Mark’s clavicle. It stung a bit, but it worked to silence him.
Mark shook himself. The shaming gesture that Andy, Jim, and Mark had created in middle school was only an invention, but the use of it over so many years had strengthened its impact. He worked to ignore the sense of being hit by a blowdart.
A gralph was simple to execute. The gralpher would first capture the attention of the gralphee by lifting two fingers skyward like a benediction. Unlike a benediction, the gralpher would smash these two fingers down into the clavicle of the gralphee. The gralphee was obliged to act stunned, and often was in fact stunned, dependably giving up a satisfying yelp.
The idea for the gralph had stemmed from their mutual admiration for the Vulcan nerve pinch from Star Trek, except the gralph was less disabling and featured a strong element of rebuke. The term gralph was inspired by their improbably-named algebra teacher, a Mr. Ralph Rolph. No teenage boy could resist repeating such a delicious string of syllables endlessly, especially in conjunction with Mr. Rolph’s instruction for students to make a graph.
Following an initial flurry of experimental gralphing, they quickly added the convention that overusing the gralph sapped the gesture of its power. Thus the gralph stood in reserve for special shaming moments. Despite its judicious use, plenty of shaming moments over the years allowed them to document an expanding inventory of embellished gralphs featuring additional motions and vocalizations, adding nuance. These included the flying pancake gralph, the cartwheel gralph, and the soul-sucker gralph.
The gralph Jim bestowed on him just then had been a classic gralph. Its lack of adornment provided further evidence of Jim’s impatience to move on to another topic. He assumed Jim’s topic would require him to do something he didn’t want to do.
Chapter 31, book 1: The Emissary and the Time Bomb from Outer Space
Andy exploded again with laughter. He started up a round of his best comic expressions, turning his fedora hat around backwards, which somehow amplified how ridiculous he looked. That had them cracking up all over again.
Eventually, exhausted, their laughter subsided to brief, muted bursts. Jim mock-punched Andy, who looked more relaxed than he had seen him in a long time. Gralphs were exchanged all around.
The last time Jim’s abs hurt this bad was after trying to out-crunch Mark at the Fish Creek Y. That had been a bad idea.
Chapter 8, book 2: The Emissary and the Clue in the Cheese Curds
“Hey, Andy,” Jim snatched his snorkeling mask from Koyper and pushed it toward his brother. “Go get it!”
Andy recoiled. “Why me?” He was holding his stomach in certain a way, as if the wave action wasn’t agreeing with him.
“You’re better insulated than me.” He pinched a generous sample of Andy’s belly to illustrate his point.
“Get out of there.” Andy pushed his hand away from his midsection.
“Look at me,” he waved his arms at his own relatively bony frame. “I might freeze to death in there.”
“But,” Andy waved the snorkel mask in his face. “This is your gear. I’m not sure it will fit me.”
“Oh, come on, Andy. You’ve always wanted to go snorkeling.”
Koyper broke in unexpectedly. “I think Jim should go.”
“What?” Jim startled.
Koyper gazed steadily at him, his eyes lit with amusement.
“Traitor!” Jim sputtered.
“If something happens, I want Andy around. He’s funnier than you.”
“Oh, fine,” Jim snapped. He began peeling off his shirt. “I’m sure this water is at least sixty degrees.” He slipped off his sandals and carefully tucked his eyeglasses inside of one of them.
Andy relaxed back in his seat wearing such an ostentatious smirk that Jim couldn’t resist leaning over to give Andy’s clavicle a stiff two-fingered gralph.
Andy’s yelp helped lessen the sting of Koyper’s dig.
Chapter 26, book 2: The Emissary and the Clue in the Cheese Curds
Something lightly hit the back of Jim head. “Hey!” Feeling around, he located inch-long segment of sticky core lodged in his hair, and recognized it as part of the remains of an apple not unlike the one that he was devouring. A quick glance at the rearview mirror revealed Andy doing a bad impression of someone minding their own business, pretending fascination with something beyond his car window, casually twirling the remainder of the apple core.
Jim suppressed the urge to laugh. Andy’s comical expressions sprung from natural acting talent.
Without looking, Jim stabbed a two-fingered gralph in the direction of the backseat. A yelping response gratified him. Andy observed the strict code of gralphers with good form. The gralphed person was obliged to respond with an audible signal of distress.
Koyper burst into laughter, gripping the back of his seat to lever himself around to point at Andy. “That was good one!”
A new buoyancy rippled through the trio.
Chapter 30, book 3: The Emissary and Mindful Approaches to Everything Possibly Exploding
Andy gave Jim a narrowed-eyed look. “I ought to gralph you for coming to my rescue so late.” He paused for a moment to dab some more at his face with his icepack. “Then again, you did save us all, so maybe I should give you a break.”
Koyper’s forehead furrowed. “What is gralph?”
Jim laughed. “You don’t want to know. But I promise to teach you later. If your aliens really are the hilarious practical jokers that you say they are, the gralph will spread to the far reaches of the galaxy whether we like it or not.”