Bonus Post: Happy turkey day!

While Thanksgiving may only be an American holiday, I’d like to point out why I’m thankful for all of my international fans.

Or, to put it in Spanish, ¡Feliz día del pavo!

My fans in the U.S. all know that today, Thursday, November 26 2021, is Thanksgiving. Outside of the U.S., not so much. So what is Thanksgiving, exactly?

As we were taught in schools for ages, it was the day that the Pilgrims invited the Indians (the word used at the time) to have a big feast of celebration. The white people were the heroes who allowed the not-white people to come to the table.

But let’s put a little reality twist on that, shall we? Thanksgiving wasn’t even made a holiday until 80 years ago in 1941, when FDR signed legislation making it the fourth Thursday in November. Ironically, this came exactly thirteen days before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, plunging the U.S. firmly into World War II.

As for the actual happenings of that original Thanksgiving… um, not so much. The Pilgrims didn’t invite anyone to the table but themselves, and they feasted on crops stolen from the natives. But the joke was really on them, because ultimately they arrived here with absolutely zero idea how to survive in their new home, especially through the winter.

A better name for the holiday should be “Colonial Invaders give thanks to the natives who, despite having their lands and property stolen, still taught those invaders how to survive.”

Fortunately, I think that a lot of parts of America have gotten away from this whole “Pilgrims and natives have dinner and everyone is happy” BS, and we’ve just focused on the holiday as a harvest festival — but the “harvest” part of it really has no meaning in areas that are not heavily involved in farming.

Modern American Thanksgiving is all about this: Stuffing our faces at get-togethers with family or friends (the better version of family), and then hunkering down for our choice of binge-watching TV, game night, or way too much (American) football on TV.

The day after, called Black Friday, is all about running out and spending way too much money on crap that we don’t really need in the deluded belief that it’s all really been marked down to bargain basement prices when it actually hasn’t.

To me, Thanksgiving is all about getting together with good friends for that big dinner, followed by good conversation and game night, and it provides the perfect opportunity for each of us to be thankful for the friends in our lives — the family we have chosen.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my many friends and followers here, including those from the U.S. but, more importantly, the surprising number of fans I have internationally. I don’t know why you’re here — enlighten me in the comments, please, and don’t be shy — but I can’t help but think that in at least a few popular places I’m doing a service by teaching people English and American culture.

Meanwhile, in others, it’s just yet another reminder that the internet has no borders — something to which the Earth itself should aspire. So even if you’re in a place where this isn’t officially a holiday, harvest or otherwise, Happy Thanksgiving!

Tomorrow begins my semi-annual vacation during which I leave you with my pre-programmed and curated collection of video countdowns to Christmas Day and then on to New Year’s, but trust me, I’ll still be here, and there might still be bonus videos or surprises.

So hang on, keep coming back, and enjoy the rest of the holiday season!

Saturday Morning Post #78: Sunday Supper, Part 1

In another short story from the 24 Exposures collection, presented in two parts, I steal from my own life — sort of. This is a highly fictionalized account of what I imagine my mother’s life was like when she decided to escape from her family back east and wind up in Los Angeles. It didn’t happen this way, really — she was both younger when she came here and it happened at a later date — but, you know. Artistic license. I think this is the only period piece in the collection, although all of the stories were written in 2000-2001.

Sunday dinners should have been happy, festive occasions, but were not. Especially not in the 50s, when Sean was getting older before his time, lungs clotted with years of anthracite dust, when Margaret was getting drunk more often than she should and turning into a shrill harridan that belonged in a James Joyce short story, and when most of their seven kids hated each other but pretended to be a loyal family.

Donal had not yet moved to the head of the table, but sat to the right of his older brother, Little Sean, or just Junior, who sat at Sean’s right hand. Margaret was at the foot. At her right hand sat twelve year-old Jimmy (aka Seamus), who was the family’s reminder from god of their own unworthiness.

He was born with Down’s Syndrome when Margaret was 44, a condition she blamed until the day she died on “that damn Jew nurse who didn’t know what she was doing when she stuck that needle in him right after he was born.” No amount of science or lecturing in genetics would convince her otherwise. After all, to admit that Jimmy’s condition was caused by her age and her drinking would be to admit to… unpleasant truths.

There were no unpleasant truths at this table, only unpleasant subtext. Junior constantly harassed Donal, the only one of them who’d gone to college. Even now, when Junior was thirty and Donal was in his late twenties and should have just said, “Cut the shit, asshole,” the sniping and bickering went on.

And, the sisters. What a collection. Four women who truly despised each other but pretended to be best friends. There was Brigid, the oldest, married but always attending these dinners alone. Donal had guessed that she was prone to mother’s condition, but his sister blamed her weight gain and spidery facial capillaries on “my glandular problem.”

Next to her was Mary, the nun, who claimed to be the youngest but was, in fact, two years older than the next sister. She used her status as the only religious in the family as self-defense and self-justification. Her habit was her shield.

She also constantly whined, privately, to Donal about how Mother Superior was always confiscating their money, and they had never taken a vow of poverty, only chastity, and could he perhaps lend her ten dollars until…? And he always lent her the money, mostly because she was so seemingly guileless in her entreaties, but mostly because that was what family was supposed to do for each other.

Otherwise, if anyone ever mailed her money at the convent, they would stick it in a separate envelope inside marked “Family Photos.” For some reason, this kept ol’ Mama Supreme from dipping her claws in and taking the cash.

Then, there was Anne. Just turned twenty-one, she was the other rebel in the family, besides Donal, although Donal’s rebellion was a deep, dark secret that only Anne knew.

Anne’s, secret though, was quite out in the open. Of all of them, Donal loved and admired her the most, so the rest hated and resented her the most. When it was the fashion for girls to wear their hair up, she let hers trail down her back in a curly auburn spill that would have made Veronica Lake jealous.

When women were supposed to be quiet slaves to men, she’d let her boyfriends know that she wasn’t going to take any crap, and in private with Donal, she could curse like a sailor and drink like a Jesuit — not out of the sad necessity of many of her family members, but out of the need to say, “Fuck the world. I’m as good as any of you.”

She’d already been married, at eighteen, to some Polish boy from Forty Fort — a beautiful but brutish man who was probably more her attempt to escape early than her true romance. Married, and annulled, because he beat her once too often, which was once, and she just wouldn’t put up with that from anyone.

Mary had once told Donal, in strictest confidence, that she had heard Anne tell Sean, when he slapped her for some minor infraction at sixteen, that if he ever did that again, she would kick him so hard where it counted “that he’d be gagging on his man thing.” Donal had always wondered if it was just Mary’s dramatic side playing at trash the sister, but also never doubted it was true.

It was just so much like Anne.

Finally, there was Lucy, the youngest sister, and the most stoic. In a couple of years, her biggest claim to fame would be an uncanny resemblance to Jackie Kennedy. Meantime, she was the shy, quiet eighteen-year-old sitting to Mary’s left, across from Anne, staring at her plate, occasionally looking up to flash an incredible smile that seemed reserved only for people she already knew. In public, she rarely smiled and rarely looked up. Donal knew in his heart she was a jewel, and that she would never know it, because she was next to last, forgotten.

There had been six other children, but times being what they were, they had not survived. Thirteen times, Margaret had done the squat of life and spat out a baby. Six times, they had died. Most of them made it a week or a month or two. One of them had made it to age twelve, but had died in his sleep one night, victim of a genetic condition the doctors had predicted would get him at either seven or twelve or twenty-one.

His name was Peter, next in line above Anne, and her closest friend until that fateful night when she woke up at three a.m. in the bed all of them shared and realized that her brother next to her was stone cold dead.

She would claim later, whenever she told the story, that she found him that way and calmly told Mom and Dad. Actually, she had completely freaked out and ran screaming through the house because she had lost the one person she loved, and was left alone with the others, who were family only because of biology, not affinity.

It was a house full of death, she always thought after that night. Babies dying suddenly, a brother going cold in her bed. Death a regular visitor, and then those goddamn Sunday services her mother dragged them all to, in which sad and silent people paid homage to a dying god. This wasn’t how life was supposed to be. Life was supposed to be fun. We were not supposed to crucify ourselves every day. But the rest of them did, in one way or another.

Anne especially dreaded going into Margaret’s bedroom (separate from Sean’s since Jimmy’s birth) where the religious statues were absolutely morbid. Margaret had a bizarre fascination for the Infant of Prague, a tiny crowned white and blond baby Jesus who showed up in Czechoslovakia one day, or so the story went. That, and the bust of Jesus, crown of thorns jammed on his head, dripping blood lovingly painted down his face.

This was god? This was the noble thing toward which they were supposed to aspire? No, thank you. Anne had had enough of martyrdom when George slapped her around that first and only time. He had seemed the perfect man, a big, dumb blond with shoulders to die for, an incredible face and not much to say. But here he was giving her thirty-nine lashes. Different church, same story. To hell with it.

And her family had been absorbed. Mary, the nun. Brigid, with her bizarre fascination with every alleged appearance by the Virgin Mary. Lucy, the quiet sufferer who dumped tons of self-loathing on everyone. At least Anne could take gleeful advantage of Lucy’s every revelation, playing her for the stupid patsy she really was.

And — Margaret. Mother. Hypocrite, Anne would have called her, had she gone beyond the eighth grade and learned such big words. But, not knowing such big words, she only knew that this woman would ignore any sin committed by any man in a Roman collar, while digging incessantly into any imagined sin performed by her own children.

A bitch-and-a-half for six days, and madam pious on the seventh. Anne hated her for that. Not that there was any love lost between her and the rest of them. Except Donal, because he seemed to understand. Dad was useless, a small, gray man with a benign smile and a nasty cough — off to the mines before dawn, return after sunset, way too often with a rat having eaten its way into his metal lunch box.

“Hi, kids!” he’d rasp. And thence to bed, church and Sunday dinner the only time they ever saw him for more than a few minutes.

Which was why the idea of moving away — far away — had gotten so attractive of late. And why, at this last dinner of the year, she had news to drop on them like the bomb on Hiroshima, and not only did she not give a damn what they thought, she relished the idea of seeing utterly horrified faces at this table, mouths agape and eyes wide above the roast beef and mashed potatoes.

So, when seconds came around and Junior paid ass-kissing lip service to thanking Jesus (not his four sisters) for the meal again and Sean, Sr. coughed and Margaret poured herself another glass of wine and Mary made the sign of the cross while Brigid stared at Margaret’s glass and Donal stared at Anne and Junior scratched his crotch and Lucy stared at her plate and Jimmy muttered out incomprehensible sounds that only Margaret, Donal, and Anne bothered to decipher, her news became even sweeter, and more devastating and more impending, and she grabbed another slab of red meat, threw it on her plate, and tossed out to the world, “I’m moving to Hollywood.”

A brief moment of silence, in which Sean snorts, Donal nods imperceptibly, Brigid considers grabbing the wine, Lucy does nothing, Jimmy stuffs food into his mouth and Mary tries to appear outraged, because no one has offered her the money to move to Hollywood. Then Molly takes a goodly hit off her goblet, red lipstick smearing the Woolworth’s cheap class “crystal,” before she blearily focuses on that troublesome daughter and says, “The hell you are.”

Let the games begin.

“I’ve saved up enough to fly to California, and I’m going,” Anne continues.

“Why?” Molly shoots back.

“What the hell is here?”

“Watch your mouth.”

“You just said it.”

“I’m your mother.”

“So?”

In his mind, Donal racks up 15-Love. Anne’s serve.

“Don’t talk like that.”

“I’m flying out in two weeks,” Anne continues.

“So you’re made of money. Flying first class?” Molly shoots back.

“Of course not.”

Oh, bad self-defense, Donal calculates. 15 all.

“Why would you want to go there?” Molly demands. “Nothing but queers and hookers.”

Jimmy snorts around his food. “Hoo-ers,” he echoes, inadvertently giving a synonym for a word he doesn’t know.

“Better than coal miners and nuns,” Anne responds, pulling an ace in Donal’s estimation.

“Coal mining gave you everything you have, missy,” Molly spat.

“Except the bruises from George,” Anne smirked, popping a hunk of meat into her mouth.

“He was a nice boy,” Molly countered.

“Until the first time he got as plastered as you do,” Anne replied, sending Brigid and Lucy into deep self-denial while Sean suddenly found his cutlery very interesting, and Junior remembered all the words to his rosary.

“So nothing I do is good enough for you, is that it?”

“Yeah, it isn’t.”

“After all your father has done, slaving in the mines just so you could have shoes to wear to school. And me. Should we talk about me for a minute? Thirteen children I bring into this world, only to have them all turn on me. It’s terrible.”

“Not me, ma,” Junior moaned.

“I love you,” Mary spoke.

“I — not me,” Lucy offered.

Brigid grabbed the wine and poured.

“Hollywood is full of faggots,” Junior suddenly opined, eyes glued on Donal, who ignored him.

“At least they’re not wife beaters,” Anne replied.

“George may have gone to a different church, but he was a good Catholic boy. You think you’ll find that in California?” Molly spoke slowly, knuckles white around the stem of her glass.

“Of course not,” Anne answered, standing. “Why the hell do you think I’m going there?”

“Language!” Molly warned.

“Oh, bullshit,” Anne answered. “I hope I find some nice Jewboy to marry. Some rich doctor, and I may even damn well convert. “

“Don’t shout, please. No shouting,” Sean, Sr., finally spoke, voice heavy with phlegm.

“This whole goddamn town is choking us,” Anne added, stepping from the table.

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain!” Mary spewed, smug expression of righteousness aimed at Molly.

“God, god, goddamn,” Anne aimed back at her. “You wouldn’t know god if he bit you on your fat pimply ass.”

Lucy suppressed a giggle and Donal hid his smile behind his hand. God, if only he had the balls his favorite sister did. Then he could do things. But, instead, he watched in silence.

“You are not going to California,” Molly finally proclaimed.

“The hell I’m not,” Anne ended the conversation with a toss of her hair and a stomp out of the room. The momentary silence was deafening, until Molly finally demanded the wine bottle back, and Mary quickly grabbed it from Brigid and poured, over-filling the glass and staining the tablecloth. Molly took a deep swig of the red, then stared at Sean.

“She’s your daughter,” she said. “Do something.”

But Sean just shrugged and Junior shook his head and above them, on the second floor, a door slammed, and the rest of Sunday dinner — like so many of them — was consumed in silence.

* * *
“So what do you know how to do, honey?” Shirley eyed Anne over the dark bags under her eyes, flame red locks drizzling from her hair-net, the filter of her lit but neglected Chesterfield spinning idly between her lips as she spoke.

“This,” Anne answered, gesturing at the long chrome counter at Van de Kamp’s. “I worked a few places back home, coal miners for breakfast. These suits will be easy.”

“So you say now,” Shirley sneered, hiding her instant liking for this girl. “We get some real weirdoes in here.”

“Good,” Anne answered. “Keeps it interesting.”

“You union?”

“There’s a union for this?”

“Honey, in LA there’s a union for everything. Mostly good for leeching dues from you, then telling you when you can’t work because some honcho in a three piece gets a wild hair up his ass. The bright side is, we get paid more here than places that aren’t unionized. I take it you ain’t union?”

“No. I just moved here.”

“Ninety days, you get in. Hours are four to noon, and a half shift Saturday or Sunday, your choice. Personally, I recommend any time but Sunday afternoon. Those churchy bastards are really lousy tippers. When can you start?”

“I got it?”

“You want it, you got it. So, when?”

Anne glanced at her watch. “Now?”

Shirley laughed with a racking wheeze and smiled for the first time. “Kid, I like you. You’ll light a fire under some of the lazy keisters around here. Tomorrow morning?”

“Sure. What do I have to do?”

“Show up. Three-thirty, let’s say. I’ll let Miss Liberty know. She’s the night supervisor.”

“Miss Liberty?”

“That’s her real name, and believe me it ain’t ‘cause this broad has ever carried a torch. Don’t worry. I come on at four, so you only have to put up with her for half an hour. Oh, we’ll get you a uniform. They deduct twenty cents a week for that until it’s paid for, but it’s completely tax-deductible. For the moment. Bastards. And that’s about it. See you tomorrow morning, then?”

“See you then.” Anne said.

“Unless I win the Irish Sweepstakes tonight,” Shirley laughed back.

Anne stepped through the heavy glass door and onto Wilshire Boulevard, which seemed to glow in the winter light of a late mid-morning. They called it the Miracle Mile, and right now she could see why. She pulled the list out of her purse; a dozen restaurants within walking distance of the bus-stop at La Brea, and Van de Kamp’s had been the first she went into. She considered the rest of the names briefly, then crumpled the paper, dropped it in a nearby trash-can, and walked back to the bus-stop.

Why check anywhere else? This had been easy, Shirley looked like fun and it was union. Anne wasn’t exactly sure what that part would involve, but it sounded great, and her father was a union man, close to retiring on disability now, and the union was taking care of the family, so it must be something good.

Her father. He was the only thing she really missed about home. That and the river, the Susquehanna, crossing under the two bridges that connected Kingston and Wilkes-Barre. It was a small town, but the view of the Market Street Bridge as you crossed up and over, passing the huge and elaborate 19th Century Courthouse, made it seem almost cosmopolitan, a mini New York City plonked into the despoiled greenery of Eastern Pennsylvania. The river was beautiful, at least when it wasn’t turning on the town and overflowing its banks. A lot of things were like that.

For the moment, L.A. was beautiful. Above her, a blue glass windmill spun in the still air, the long windows giving diners a view of passers-by on Wilshire, and vice versa. And there were plenty of people here, dumped out of offices, bustling back and forth. Men in sharp suits and fedoras, crewcuts and wide ties, the cuffs of their pants just so and sharply pressed, stepping in and out of office buildings, carrying briefcases and all of them in intent conversation, with plans, ideas, goals, and dreams.

Dreams that were happening above and around them in quiet offices where the miracle of air-conditioning had banished the outside world and fluorescent light made the rooms glow with hope. The tide of men was counter-washed by a flood of women in matching skirts and jackets, perfectly accessorized, purses clutched purposefully under their arms, a profusion of hats as they tottered along on three-inch heels, guided missiles aimed for the May Company that towered above Wilshire, all five stories of it.

Anne glanced down at her shoes; simple black flats she’d worn since High School. And her purse — brown, plain; she wondered if Shirley had noticed the mismatch, or if she’d care.

And then Anne saw the window at the May Company, a line of mannequins in the latest from New York and Paris and Dallas, all of them looking like Audrey Hepburn, staring aloofly at some point far above everyone’s heads, perfectly accessorized and coiffed and immune to it all. They wouldn’t have cared if their purses and shoes didn’t match, but all of their accessories did.

“A hat,” Anne thought. “I need a hat.” That and so much more, since she had come to town with so little. But she wouldn’t be working until tomorrow, and was sure she wouldn’t be paid for two weeks at least, so would have to set her dreams aside.

Except… this was the Miracle Mile and miracle times, and the businessmen who came in for breakfast on the way to hopeful prosperous days were optimistic and friendly and generous. Anne had started on a Thursday, and took Shirley’s advice regarding Sunday and, by Monday afternoon had made enough in wages and tips to cover half a month’s rent, pay the twenty cent a day round-trip bus fare and see three movies, with money left over. Breakfast was free, and she could manage lunch and dinner cheaply and every day was sunny.

Maybe this had been the place to come and the time to do it, after all.

* * *

Accentuate the positive

While I was trying to find an image file on my computer that was going to be the basis for an article about something my grandfather invented, I instead ran across a bit of video I shot nearly 14 years ago. (Never found what I was originally looking for, though.)

To give it some context, I shot the video on a camera that I’d just bought around that time as an early Christmas present to myself. The reason for that was because a gig that had started out as a “two day only” temp assignment in the middle of the previous July had turned into a full-time job that lasted over a decade by the end of that October. I shot the video over the course of a work day that was also the day of our office holiday party, my first with the company.

That camera stopped being compatible with my operating system a couple of updates ago, but that’s okay. My phone shoots higher resolution video anyway.

It was strangely nostalgic to see all of my former coworkers again, though. In fact, out of everybody in the video, only two of them made it with me all the way to the end, when the company self-destructed. Ironically, I still work with one of them now, for a completely different company.

But that’s not what this story is about. It also brought up the feels because that particular office — the first of four which the company occupied during my time with it — was long since converted into a Target Express, a sort of mini-version of the bigger stores. I visited it once, and bought a DVD about twenty feet from where my desk had been.

But, the point of the story: In this video, I was interviewing coworkers and narrating and I was once again reminded of how much I hate the sound of my own voice when I hear it coming from anywhere that isn’t inside my own head.

This is not at all uncommon. In fact, when I googled it, I only had to type “Why do people hate” before it auto-filled with the rest of the question — “the sound of their own voices.” Basically, when you talk, the sound you hear isn’t coming through the air. It’s coming directly through the bones in your ear, so the voice you hear is probably deeper and richer.

In my case it’s even weirder than that. The voice I hear in my head lacks two things that are very obvious when I listen to it recorded. One: I’m a lot more nasally than I think I am. Two: I actually have a noticeable accent, although I really can’t place it. I won’t count one other bit as three, though, because it’s true of everyone — the voice outside my head is probably half an octave higher than the one in my head.

The other noticeable thing, to me at least, though, is that despite being gay I absolutely do not have “gay voice.” And yes, that’s a thing. And despite being Californian, I do not have surfer dude voice or Valley guy voice either. I also exhibit none of the vowel shifts that are apparently part of the “California accent,” whatever that is.

Another complication is that, since the entertainment industry is centered here, the standard accent of film and TV is also pretty much how Californians, particularly of the southern variety, talk.

But, to me, the non-California accent I apparently have is really baffling. Well, at least the part about not being able to place it. I was born and raised in Southern California and so was my father. However, his parents came from Kansas (although his mother was born in Oklahoma) and my mother was from Northeastern Pennsylvania with parents from upstate New York.

As a kid before I started going to school, I spent a lot more time with my mom. Meanwhile, my dad’s accent was clearly influenced by his parents despite his growing up here.

The best way to describe my mom’s accent is Noo Yawk Lite. That is, while a lot of it was flat, there were certain words and vowels that just came out east-coasty. For example, a common household pet was a “dawg.” You dried your dishes or yourself with a “tahl.” The day after Friday was “Sirday” — which I think is unique to where my mom came from. Then again, apparently, the whole state has a ton of different dialects.

I talked to her sister, my aunt, recently — the last surviving sibling — and what most struck me about it is that she sounded exactly like Carrie Fisher toward the end of her life, after her voice had taken on the character and raspiness of a lifetime of overindulgence. It was the Carrie Fisher of the talk show circuit, not the Carrie of Star Wars.

Meanwhile, the Kansas side contributed a very flat, plain, and tight-lipped manner of speech, and I certainly heard this quite often from my dad’s mom, since we visited her more often than my mom’s mom, who lived ten times farther away. And although my dad’s grandfather was German, I don’t think he had a lot of influence because great-grandpa died just before my dad turned 22, and my dad’s own father sort of abandoned the family when my dad was 12. (Long story. Don’t ask.)

And none of any of this explains the way I talk. Or tawk. Oddly enough, when I’m not speaking English, I’m pretty adept at doing a Mexican Spanish accent (casi pero no completamente en el estilo chilango), although that’s probably not all that weird when you consider that the major (but not only) Spanish influence in Southern California is, in fact, from the country that most of California used to be part of.

On the other hand, when I speak German, it’s in total Hamburg Deutsch despite my German ancestors being Alsatian, mainly because my German teacher was from that very northern town. And, to be honest, I never met any of my German ancestors because they all died long before I was born — Sie sind alle gestorben bevor ich geboren werde.

To complicate things, when I’ve listened to recordings of myself speaking either Spanish or German, the most notable thing is that I am not nasally or half an octave higher at all. Or, in other words, my voice only sucks in my native language. Funny how that works, isn’t it? And the weirdest part, I suppose, is that none of that nasal thing happens in my head, even though, technically, nasal voice happens entirely in one’s head due to that whole sinus thing.

So, back to the beginning. When I speak my native language I hate the way I sound, but when I speak a foreign language, I don’t hate the way I sound. Then again, that’s also true when I’m performing onstage and playing a character. I just forget to play a character in real life, but maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a book by Dr. Morton Cooper, first published in 1985, called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life, which posits exactly this premise. Ironically, though, he specifically mentions the flaws in voices — like Howard Cosell’s nasality and Barbara Walters nasality, hoarseness, and lisp — as their strongest points. Although his references are dated, I guess he has a point, stating that, “These personalities have all managed to project voice images that are— however unattractive and displeasing to the ears— distinctive and lucrative.”

Then… maybe I should change nothing? Hell, if Gilbert Gottfried (NSFest of W) can get away with talking the way he does, maybe I’m onto something. And maybe it’s not so much a matter of changing my voice as it is changing my feelings about it.

And that’s really the takeaway here — surprise, this was the lesson all along. There are certain things we can’t really change about ourselves, like our height, our hair, eye, or skin color, our looks, or our voices. (Okay, we can change hair, eye, or skin color through dye, contact lenses, or tanning, but those are only temporary and, in some cases, really obvious.) But we are stuck with our height, looks, and mostly our voices, unless we want to go to the expense of physically altering the first two, or learning how to alter the latter.

Or… we can just learn to accept ourselves as we are, flaws and all, and realize that we do not have to be some perfect ideal media version of a human in order for someone to love us.

And the part I intentionally left out of this up to now is this: Plenty of people have told me that I have a sexy voice. I may not agree with them at all, but if they think so, then that’s good enough for me. I mean, I got to be the Pokémon they chose before they threw their ball at me, right? And, in the end, that’s the only part that counts.

So… stop judging yourself for the flaws you think you see. Instead, listen to the flaws that people who love you clearly do not see.

Momentous Monday: Relativity

Almost 470 years ago, in 1553, a man named John Lyly (or Lilly, Lylie, or Lylly) was born in Kent, England, the grandson of a Swedish immigrant. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, he was kind of a big deal in his day. He was an author and playwright of some renown, and while he failed in his attempt to be appointed the Queens Master of the Revels, he did serve in Parliament as well as served Queen Elizabeth I for many years.

Around two hundred and eighty years after that, somewhere in Massachusetts, a child was born. He grew up to become a man, and he moved west. It was the era of Manifest Destiny in America, a dark time in our history. That child was John Lyly’s seventh great-grandson.

At least we weren’t using the term “Great White Hope.” Yet. To be honest, we should have used the term “Great White Death.” But, among the death there was still hope, and that child born in Massachusetts who grew up to be a man put his ideals into action.

Along with a great wave of German immigrants to America, all of whom despised slavery, this man went west, crossed the Missouri river and landed in Kansas. For me, the movie How the West Was Won is a family documentary.

When he arrived in Kansas, he helped found the town of Burlington, was one of two attorneys in the town (and also one of two blacksmiths, the other of whom was the other attorney), mayor of the town at one point, and a proud member of the Republican Party.

Yeah… quite the opposite of my politics now, or so you’d think. Except that, before the Civil War and up until FDR, the Republicans were the liberal party in America, and the Democrats were regressive.

That child who grew up to be a great man moved west in order to help bring Kansas into the union as a free (i.e., non-slave) state. And that child, who grew up to be a great man, was my great-great-grandfather, Silas Fearl.

Since he was Lily’s seventh great-grandson, that makes me Lily’s eleventh. (It doesn’t seem to add up, but don’t forget that I have to add in the two generations between me and Silas., plus myself.)

Fast-forward to nearly two-hundred years after Silas was born, and the evolution of the internet, and I am in touch with people who share my ancestry with him. It makes us very distant relatives, to be sure, but it means that we have a very definite connection, some by blood and some by marriage.

And this is the reason for this post. One of those third or fourth cousins, via Silas Fearl by blood, posted some pictures of her kids, and when I looked at them the thing that most struck me was this. “Wow. This person and I have an ancestor in common.” And, in fact, looking at these faces, I could see certain elements of my own face, of my dad’s, and of my grandpa’s, and of the great uncles I managed to meet, and of the people in a family portrait taken when my father’s father was an infant.

Even so many steps apart on the branches of humanity’s family tree, I could see some of me and my immediate family in them… and across the distance of never having met and Facebook, my first reaction was an enormous empathy. “This is a bit of me, and I want to protect it from everything bad forever.”

And, in a lot of ways, I have to suspect that this is just an illusion, an effect created by the empirical proof I have seen that means “You and I are related to each other.” That, and the evolutionary and biological forces that make us most protective of those who share our DNA.

Except that… I’ve felt this same way toward people who are absolutely not related, but I’ve still seen myself in them… and this is when I realize the harm that intellect can do to our species.

Intellect relies on so-called facts that it has been told. So, “Hey, you and this person are related” is a fact that ropes emotions into relating to the news. So… subject, object, emotion, bond.

In reality, anybody whose picture I see online is related, it’s just not as straightforward as “You and this person have the same great-great-grandfather.” I can trace part of my ancestry back to King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine — The Lion in Winter is, for me, another unintended family documentary.

By that connection, I’m related to most of the population of England and the eastern US. Now, go back through them to another common ancestor, Charlemagne, and I’m related to most western Europeans and Americans — if you expand the definition of “America” to include all countries on both continents, north and south.

And, if you go back far enough to the last point in humanity’s evolutionary history at which the family tree’s branches split, then you could honestly say that everybody you have ever met is related to you and shares your DNA and your blood to some degree.

You should be able to recognize your features in them no matter their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religion. You should be able to see their humanity, and yours, in their faces.

And, go back far enough then we are related to all animal life on this planet. Go back a little farther, and we are related to all life not only on this planet, but in the universe. Go back far enough and follow the laws of physics, and all of us, everyone, everywhere, were once the exact same bit of incredibly condensed matter.

The universe is the mother of us all, and all divisions are illusionary.

I’m reminded of some old Beatles lyrics at the moment. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” (And I had to look that up. It’s from I Am the Walrus and not Come Together.) Anyway, that’s a pretty good summation of my realization.

Once we put human history on a cosmic scale, our differences and squabbles become absolutely meaningless. All of us were born from the stars. All of us are in this together. Let’s act like it…

Image: The author’s great-grandparents and their four sons, including the author’s paternal grandfather.

Momentous Monday: I’m not really who I think I am

 
The surname Bastian is the 11,616th most common in the world — meaning it’s not all that high on the list — and is most common in Germany, which should be a no-brainer, since it is in fact a German name.
 

Thirty-five percent of Bastians reside in Germany, and the name has been documented in 86 other countries. Surprisingly, it is more popular in Indonesia (21% of Bastians) than in the U.S. (19% of Bastians.)

And yet, a few years back, I had a little existential shock when I found out that I was not a Bastian at all. It all happened because I’d started doing genealogy years ago and lucked out a long time after that when somebody researching the German village my ancestors came from saw a query I’d posted about my great-grandfather, so he sent me all the info.

But, because of that, I don’t know what the family name is really supposed to be because Bastian only goes back to my great-great-great grandmother, Barbara Bastian, who was born in 1801. But… that was her maiden name, and her husband’s name wasn’t recorded, so her sons Peter and Titus assumed the name Bastian. (I’m descended from Titus.)

I have the info on her Bastian ancestors going back four more generations to the 1670s, but no idea who my great-great-great-grandfather in that slot really was. The genealogist said that it could either have been a passing soldier who didn’t stick around (common at the time) or that the husband wasn’t Catholic and the family apparently was, so his info wasn’t recorded in the church records and/or the marriage (if it happened) was never recognized.

Of course, there’s a possibility that Barbara was actually the father, since there is precedent for it being a man’s name and it just got flipped at some point. After all, Marian is still a very common German name for boys. But I’m not counting on that.

So the Bastian line I know of goes: Johannes Georg Bastian and Ursula Rieger begat Johannes Lorenz Bastian; he and Catharina Melchior begat Johannes Georg Bastian; he and Anna Barbara Riger begat Matthias Bastian; he and Dorothea Bittman begat Barbara Bastian; she and some dude begat Titus Bastian; he and Catharina Seiser begat Gustav Bastian; he and Mary Fearl begat Theodore James Bastian; and he and Neva Belle Jones begat my father, who knocked up my mother and begat me.

That’s ten generations, but the last six of them aren’t really Bastians at all.

If any of those surnames sound familiar and you have family in or ancestors from Gaggenau-Michelbach in Baden, Germany, by all means say hello in the comments — we probably are related. That was another thing the genealogist told me — that there were only about nine families in the village, which was isolated, so yes, there were a lot of cousins getting married.

And before you roll your eyes over incest, cousins marrying was the norm throughout most of human history, because those were the only people a lot of people knew but who were distant enough genetically to safely marry but close enough in distance to actually meet. Also, second cousins and beyond were much more common.

I am fortunate, though, in that German obsession to detail and the Catholic penchant for keeping meticulous records combined to preserve this history so that a researcher could find it centuries later.

I’m less fortunate on my mom’s side of the family, which is all Irish, because we have the same genealogical problem that a lot of European Jews do: an attempted genocide intervened to wipe out most of the records.

In my case, it happened over a century earlier, and in a much more passive-aggressive way as England basically did nothing about a potato blight that created a potato famine that decimated the population. So… not an active genocide, I… guess…?

But they also went in and stamped down Irish culture, forcing everyone to speak English and almost killing off Gaelic, and paying no regard to any records.

So… while I can trace that one line through my father back ten generations (and another line on his side that lucks out and hits England back thirty or so), on my mother’s side, the farthest I can get back is… four generations through every branch. It all stops in the mid-19th century, which is also about the same time that most of them arrive in the U.S.

In fact, up each branch, the trail ends with no information on the parents of each one who was the first immigrant to come here. The pattern is “Born in Ireland, died in America, parents unknown.”

It’s kind of ironic, then, that I know more about my English and Welsh ancestry through just one of my father’s 7th great grandparents than I do through my mother, especially considering that genetically I am 50% Irish.

Oh, by the way, not accounting for pedigree collapse, a person has 512 7th great grandparents. That makes sense, since it’s two to the eighth power (don’t forget to add your parents to the seven), then doubled because you have two ancestors per slot per generation.

And, to put the degree of DNA in perspective — 50% from my mom, directly and, while the percentage that came from my dad is the same, the bit that came from that ancestor of his is about 0.39%.

Or, in other words, out of the 30,000 genes in my genome, about 117 came from that ancestor — only to mix ‘n match with the 117-ish other genes that came from every other person swimming in the gene pool that eventually became me at that point in the timeline.

In case you’re wondering, it wouldn’t take anything nearly as big as a swimming pool. In fact, a one liter bottle would hold all of the quarter gram of human eggs and approximately 800 ccs of semen contributed by all of those 7th great grandparents, with room to spare.

But you’re going to need a two liter if you want to go to the next generation, and a gallon jug to hold the ingredients for the one after that. At that point, just forget it, because you’re just going to be exponentially adding gallon jugs from that point on.

Ah. Isn’t genealogy wonderful? Speaking of which, I’ve finally signed up to get my DNA tested with FamilyTreeDNA.  I chose them because my half-brother’s girlfriend had gifted him the service previously –she’s the other one in the family really into genealogy. 

But since he and I share a father, and hence the Bastian name, I found it odd that his test showed absolutely no German heritage. I’ve been a little nervous about getting mine tested, because if I show up German for days, then there’s a bit of an issue somewhere. If I don’t, though, it may just lead to figuring out where that non-Bastian great-great-great-grandfather came from.

I will definitely keep you all posted on that one. Oh — and Schöne Grüße to my many German readers! 

Image by Calips, used unaltered via (CC) BY-SA 3.0.

Sunday Nibble #56: Town and country

I really consider myself a city dweller through and through, and enjoy the liveliness and bustle and sheer scale of large urban areas. I was born in Los Angeles — East Hollywood, actually — and grew up in what I guess would be considered an exurb of the city rather than a suburb.

But the exurb I grew up in happened to be pretty well-developed even at the time. It was, however, about as far as you could get from Hollywood and Downtown L.A., seeing as how our city limits shared its western border with L.A. County proper. Cross that line and you’d wind up in Ventura County.

It was a major bedroom community for the rest of the city outside of the San Fernando Valley, though, and for most of my life growing up, my dad worked right next to Century City. In fact, his office building at 10000 Santa Monica Boulevard abutted the border between Beverly Hills and L.A.

They were on the Beverly Hills side, but my dad could walk a block and wind up in Century City, which was a development actually designed and built by the architectural firm he worked for.

It opened in the mid-60s, but really felt like the city of the future and definitely stood in for just that in a lot of TV and movies shot in the 60s and 70s.

Now, from when I was around about nine years old or so, my dad started taking me to the movies, either in Century City or Hollywood, and once I hit my teens, it was a big treat to catch the bus by my middle school once we were dismissed and ride it all the way down Ventura Boulevard to Hollywood and Highland to meet my dad and go see a movie.

To this day, Hollywood and Highland is the “landing point,” if you will, for public transit from the Valley into the City. It’s the first Metro Red Line Station on the other side of the hill — or the last one if you have a city POV.

At the time, it was about an hour and a half bus ride — actually, it still is — even though it could theoretically be about twenty minutes by car outside of rush hour. Then again, the old 83 bus didn’t take the freeway, and it made stops. But it got me there.

So dad and I would go to Grauman’s Chinese, or the Egyptian, or the El Capitan, or sometimes he’d drive me to another part of town, like Century City, and we’d see a movie together, and it was awesome.

It’s a big part of why I made the stupid decision to try to become a film director only to realize too late, in film school, that my talents weren’t geared toward directing, but rather writing. I would have been an English Major, Spanish or History minor otherwise, I suppose. Or any mix of the three.

But the combination of films we went to and all those trips on public transit through urban corridors also gave me a major interest in Science Fiction, and I whiled away a lot of those bus trips imagining that I was actually on some sort of futuristic monorail or, if I got really creative, that we were on an interstellar craft.

Yeah, I was a total nerd. Still am.

But… besides movie night with dad, there was one other thing in my childhood and teen years that I loved more than anything else, and it belies me being a city boy. That is, a couple of times a year, usually around Easter and Thanksgiving, and sometimes in the summer, mom and dad and I would travel up north about 350 miles to visit my dad’s mother and stepfather on their farm in Atascadero.

Oh, my parents and grandparents always called it The Apple Orchard, but it was a farm as far as I was concerned. But first some backstory.

My dad’s mother was actually born in Oklahoma but wound up in Kansas, where she met her husband, who worked for the railroad, which connected Topeka, Kansas, to Victorville, California. Important later.

She always lied about her birthplace, though, saying that she’d been born in Missouri and had traveled to Kansas when she was three with her family by covered wagon.

Cute story, but… I eventually found official documentation that told me she was born in Oklahoma, and by the time she was three, they had cars and shit, so she didn’t make any trip in a covered wagon.

What she did do that was amazing — and she never bragged about this — was manage to be a single parent raising two boys after her husband basically abandoned the family when the kids were 15 (my uncle) and 12 (my dad). And she was working as either a hotel maid or waitress at the time.

Oh yeah… the other little detail is that my uncle was born way sooner than nine months after my grandmother and grandfather got married, and he was born in… Victorville, which is also where they got married.

So what it seems like, since she was 18 and he was 19 at the time, is that grandpa knocked up grandma, it became a scandal back home, abortion was out of the question, so they fled west. Interestingly enough, though, all of grandpa’s immediate family followed, and they all wound up in Los Angeles.

Grandma’s family, not so much.

But back to the single mother raising two sons. Said sons went off to war and grandmother married her second husband, and from that point on seemed to realize the value of investing in real estate.

So I know that she variously owned homes in Burbank, then Pacoima, and then a house in Atascadero proper and then, ultimately, The Apple Orchard (cough — farm) further up in Atascadero, which was fourteen acres abutting a creek and with its own well.

The two of them built their own house on the property despite being in their 60s by that time, and the only thing they didn’t do on their own was dig the basement and pour the foundations.

Oh… one other thing to mention is that to me, Neva and her second husband Sam were always my grandparents, even though he was really my step granddad. Meanwhile, to my much older half siblings, who had known my biological grandfather, Sam was just “Sam.”

I never met my actual grandfather because he was a resident of the mental hospital in Camarillo for more than half his life and you had to be eighteen to visit. He died when I was thirteen.

But back to city boy/country boy… to me as a kid, The Apple Orchard was magic for a ton of reasons. First off, it was its own little enclave at the end of a long dirt road, with this simple house that was always brightly lit and smelt of the wood stove.

It had a basement with all of my grandpa’s audio equipment — and he was quite the audiophile — but also, there was a slope behind the house that led to the rest of the property. The first chunk was my grandfather’s iris garden — although “garden” really isn’t a big enough word for what he had going.

He was actually pretty well-known as an iris breeder and pioneer in creating new types, so this part of the place was basically a huge experiment in action.

At the bottom of the slope was the poultry pen, with ducks and chickens and roosters, and the Evil Fucking Goose. I call it the EFG because it would spread its wings and hiss at everyone, plus the bastard nipped me more than once. Best revenge was the Easter Dinner when that fucker was the greasy main course. No regrets.

Beyond here, though, there were several storage buildings full of amazing artifacts from my grandparents’ lives, and then just more wilderness.

Meanwhile… on the upper half across from the house, this was where the sheep and pigs lived, and I totally loved going over there to hang out with them. Pigs are very smart and affectionate and, actually, so are sheep.

Walk into a group of them and show some respect, and they’ll just smile and “Baaa” at you for days. Plus rubbing their wool with your hands is one of the best moisturizers ever. (Look it up, it’s called lanolin.)

On top of all that, a bunch of peacocks lived in the trees in front, and the neighbors in the house beyond that had horses, and yes, I spent plenty of time at their fence just talking to and petting those beautiful animals.

So combine all of that with waking up in the mornings to the smell of wood fire and bacon, then walking outside into frequently cool crisp air to just listen and realize that what you were hearing was almost total silence, only broken by the occasional caterwaul of a peacock, baaa of a sheep, distant burbling of the creek, or wing snap of a flock of birds taking flight, and it was another kind of paradise.

Oddly enough, this world fed into my Science Fiction thing as well, so that in addition to one of my themes in writing it being, “Wow, what great things can we bring in the future?” another one is always, “Okay, so what if we fuck it up and have to go back to living in simpler times?”

Of course, in my modern life, since I’ve finally landed a position that is 100% remote work and which may only necessitate occasional travel, I really might be able to live anywhere I want to. The only drawback is that it would be more of an effort to visit IRL friends I care about but, then again, there’s always Zoom, and if I move to some place more like my grandparents’ farm, then I may become the incentive to be the one visited instead of having to do it the other way around.

Who knows? The decade is young and the plague isn’t over, but anything can happen. And, as far as I’m concerned, I’m happy with either city or country. All I need to bring along are my brain and my senses.

Well, and the computer and internet, too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving however you celebrate it, although the following explains why you should not do it in person. Meanwhile, tomorrow marks the beginning of a special treat — my annual Christmas Countdown featuring a different one of my favorite holiday-themed music videos every day.

This will — or should — be a holiday season unlike any most of us have known during our lifetimes. I can only imagine that the holidays of 1918 and maybe even 1919 were just as disarrayed as now, and for the same reasons.

But I also wonder — what about all the holiday seasons during WW I and WW II, in particular, when all of the fathers, uncles, and other males in the extended family might not have been around to celebrate?

And yet, it is very important this year that we do what Americans used to prove themselves very good at: Sacrificing in the here and now for the long-term benefit of everyone. Rationing was one of the central features of WW II, after all, with people giving up or cutting down on certain things so that they could go to the war effort.

Of course, people back then showed the same warts we do now, and when word spread of something scheduled to be rationed, guess what happened? Yep. Same thing as happened to TP and hand sanitizer back in March. People stormed the stores and hoarded it.

So greed and selfishness are not modern inventions.

In order to make the system work, everyone — adults and children alike — got a ration book with coupons allowing them only so much of certain commodities at a time. But some of the limits were severe. For example, people were allowed three gallons of gasoline a week at a time when cars got really crappy mileage.

To be fair, though, not a lot of people owned cars at the time, so that might be like the modern equivalent of “You can only recharge your electric car to 25% once a week.”

Rationing didn’t just include commodities like fuel and food. It also covered clothing and manufactured goods, like cars, bicycles, and typewriters. Why? Simple. All of the raw materials required to make those things were also necessary to make aircraft, ships, weapons, bullets, and uniforms for the troops — and this at a time just after Japan had wrecked part of the U.S. fleet when they attacked Pearl Harbor.

One of the strangest things rationed was women’s nylons, and I’ve heard stories from my grandmothers about how, back in those days, they would actually use eyebrow pencil or something like that to draw fake seams down the back of their calves so it would look like they were wearing nylons.

So… why nylon? Simple. That’s what they made parachutes out of.

Ironically, once the war was over, all that stuff came screaming back into the economy as War Surplus, and stores selling that stuff are still around to this day.

The place where I live was built just after wartime rationing finally ended, sugar being rationed up until 1947. But one of the selling points of the place is that all of the kitchens have stainless steel countertops, and that stainless steel came right back from all of the aircraft factories in Van Nuys that no longer needed it.

Other fun fact: All of the peepholes in our front doors were made out of repurposed bomber gunsights with the hairline cross-sights removed.

The point of all this is that people had to make huge lifestyle adjustments — in the case of World War II, for over five years. And that’s just in America. People in Europe and the USSR had a lot more adjusting to do, and a lot more sacrifices to make.

So, as we come into this holiday season even as COVID-19 numbers in terms of new cases are outpacing by far the ones that sent us into lockdown way back in March, we have to remember not to do now what wrecked our brief success in the spring.

That is, once we hit Memorial Day, people in general got lazy and selfish, and started going out without taking precautions and acting like the crisis was over. And with every major holiday and event, numbers spiked and new hotspots sprang up — Independence Day, Labor Day, and every unmasked mass gathering, whether at a presidential rally or BLM protest — although the latter group were far more likely to wear masks.

What this means is that this holiday season is a time when Americans need to sacrifice again, and do what our grandparents and great-grandparents did during World War II in order to win. Give up those things that you think you really need right now, do with less, and take the time for focus on yourself, recalibrate, and recharge.

You can easily do without seeing family from another part of the state or out of state in person this year. You can do without getting together for that big dinner and whatnot. And you can easily have a family Zoomsgiving with everyone safe in their own homes, but still hanging out.

The best part: during Thanksgiving, Zoom has waived the 40-minute time-limit on meetings via unpaid accounts, so knock yourselves out — but with virtual gatherings only, please.

And the same will be true of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s Eve. Stay safer apart. Period.

All that said, and as a preview of what’s to come here from now until Christmas, here are two Thanksgiving-themed music videos that could not be more different. Or maybe not. The first is a very traditional seeming musical tribute to the holiday until you read between the lines — because it just may be that what at first appears to be a huge feast being set out for a family gathering is really just a meal for one. (Oops. Spoilers…)

The Second is William S. Burroughs, and his ever apt, insightful, and true to this day Thanksgiving Prayer. Enjoy!

Image source, Bart Everson, (CC) BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Across the multiverse

It can be daunting, sometimes, to think about the precarious pathways that led to each of our lives, and then led to the lives we have led. In my case, answering a want ad in Variety two years out of college led to an office job that changed everything — not because of the job, but because of the people I met, and connections that led directly to me pursuing a career as a playwright with some success and also to working in television and eventually doing improv.

But I never would have wound up there if my parents hadn’t met and married, and that only happened because my mother had one bad first marriage that led to her moving across the country and winding up working as a waitress in a restaurant across from the office where my father, who was also ending his bad first marriage, worked. He wound up there because he had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study architecture and so was a structural engineer for one of the more prestigious firms in Los Angeles. In another case of amazing coincidence, I wound up working about a block from where his office and her restaurant had been when I went into the TV biz twenty-ish years after he worked there.

So my father wound up doing the G.I. Bill thing because he was a veteran and that happened because there had been a war. But he was only in America to fight on our side because his grandfather had come here in the first place, and my father’s own father and mother wound up in California. That happened because my grandfather worked for the railroads. I also think it was because my grandmother got knocked up with my dad’s older brother at about eighteen and before they married, but that’s beside the point. Or maybe not.

If my mother had stayed where she’d been born, she never would have met my father. If my great grandfather had never left Germany, than one of my ancestors may have died on the wrong side of WW II. And if that had happened and my mother came to Los Angeles anyway, there’s no telling whom she might have met and married. It could have been a big power player in Hollywood. It could have been a dishwasher in the restaurant. The unanswered question, really, is whether who I am came only from her egg or from dad’s sperm, or whether I would have never existed had the two never met. Impossible to say.

What’s really fascinating are the long-term effects of random choices. I do improv now because of one particular actor I met about six years ago. I met him because he was involved with a play of mine that was produced in 2014. That play happened because an actor who had done a reading of it when I first wrote it, twenty years previously, remembered it when he was at a point to play the lead and bring it to a company. That reading happened because it was set up by a woman who produced my second full-length play — and who is still one of my best friends — and that happened because of all the attention received by my first produced full-length play, which happened because of a woman I met at that first office job out of college I mentioned before. She was in a writing group, heard I was interested in being a writer and invited me to join. Ta-da… a link in a damn long chain of consequence happened.

And that third play, about William S. Burroughs, only happened because I somehow heard about his works when I was probably in middle school, and only because the title “Naked Lunch” made a bunch of twelve-year-olds giggle. But reading that book when I was about fourteen, and realizing it was about so much more, and then discovering the rest of his works along with Vonnegut and Joyce and Robert Anton Wilson and so many others set my sails for being a writer, and out of all of them, Burroughs had the most fascinating life story, as well as the personal struggle I most related to, since he was a gay man, after all.

And, I suppose, I can attribute my interest in the salacious and interesting to the fact that my mother had such an aversion to them. She could watch people on cable TV get their heads blown off for days, but show one tit or one ass — or god forbid a dick — and she would lose it. It was good-old Catholic body shame, and I never understood it, mainly since I’ve been a naturist since, like, forever. Of course, the extent of my exposure to that church was to be baptized as a preemie “just in case,” and then not a lot else beyond the scary crucifix that always hung in my bedroom and the scarier icons and statues I’d see when we visited my mom’s mom.

Ironically, I’ve actually come to relate to Catholicism, although not so much as a religion, but more as a cultural touchstone and anchor for my Irish roots. Yeah, we bog-cutters love the ceremony, but piss on the bullshit, so that’s probably why it works. Give me the theater, spare me the crap. Sing all you want, you middle-aged men in dresses, but touch the kids, and we will end you.

But I do digress… because if we’re going to go down the Irish rabbit hole, that is an entirely different path by which I could have not wound up here today. At any point, one of my direct ancestors on my mother’s side could have taken vows, and then boom. No more descendants to lead to me.

Or any of my grandparents or parents or I could have walked in front of a speeding bus before their descendants were born or before I had my first play produced, and game over. History changed. I could have signed up with a temp agency on a different day and never wound up having met my best friend.

Then again… I have no idea who I would be if any of these different paths had been taken at any point in history all the way back to the beginning. It’s really daunting to consider how many ancestors actually had to come together to lead to the genetic knot that is you or me. But you and I exist as who we are. Rather than worry about how easily that could not have happened, I suppose, the better approach is to just revel in the miracle that it did. Here we are. It happened because other things happened. And thinking too hard about why those other things happened might actually be a bad thing to do.

Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.

Sunday nibble #31: Two ladies, two bitches (Part 1 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is the first.

Dazé and Shadow

I’ll tackle that choice of title right off, because it is absolutely literal. Today is August 23, and that happened to be the day that I picked — because it was closest to the likely one — for the birthday of two of my late, great dogs: Dazé and Shadow. So yes, in the absolute definition of the word, bitches, but they were my bitches.

Okay, in reality, I was theirs, but that’s why I’m including them here. The bulk of the article is in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women in America finally being given the right to vote — and it is shameful as hell that it took 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the Amendment that fixed this major defect.

August was also the birth month of one of the women on this list. I don’t know when the second one was born, but I do know that the third was not born in August.

But I include those two dogs of mine as an example of how nurturing and protective feminine energy as opposed to masculine. In fact, it’s why I will only ever adopt female dogs.

Oh, I’ve known male dogs. I’ve lived with more than a few, interacted with many, and ultimately they are for the most part… well, go search for YouTube videos of “Stupid Things Frat Boys Do,” and you’ll get the idea.

Male dogs are energetic, and goofy, and they’ll hump your leg when you let your guard down, but they clearly don’t really have as much going on upstairs as their distaff counterparts.

I’ve written about it before, but Dazé always ruled the roost, no matter how many other dogs were around and how much bigger they were than her, and she did it without ever showing aggression. She was totally devoted to me, but never submissive. It always felt like an equal partnership.

Shadow could not have been more different in the sense that, while she was totally devoted as well, she was also completely submissive and dependent. Dazé saw it as her job to take care of me. Shadow saw me as the one who was supposed to take care of her.

But it was a pair of valuable lessons that led to a really amazing relationship with dog #3 (not born in August), Sheeba. Dazé taught me what a dog could do for me. Shadow taught me what I could do for a dog.

I guess that Sheeba must have been up on her Hegel, because with her it was a combination of both; a wonderful give and take in which we took care of each other. Dazé never needed my help and Shadow could never give me hers. With Sheeba, it truly was a two-way street.

That’s probably a big part of the reason that she was the only dog whose loss did not immediately inspire me to go out and rescue another, and it’s going on four months now. Sure, current events in the year of several plagues have also had an impact, but I’ve done surprisingly well without. At least for now.

But, to get to the important part: Here are three women who have had an enormous impact on my life.

Gloria

Okay, most people knew her by that name. I knew her as Mom, She taught me some of my most important skills: never put up with anyone’s shit, always question authority when they seem wrong, and cooking and baking are true and enjoyable art forms.

Keep in mind that my mother died when I was fairly young, after a long mystery illness that only seemed to be made worse by medical treatments from male doctors (only) who would never even for a second take seriously my mother’s attempts to tell them how the symptoms changed depending on what part of her cycle she was in.

“Oh, that’s all in your head,” these men who never had periods would tell her in that mansplaining tone. Looking back, I think the whole thing started with a bout of acid reflux that led to hyperventilation that happened (coincidence?) on my 13th birthday.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Mom was brought up with huge amounts of Catholic guilt and body shame, so wasn’t exactly that in touch with things. Looking back, to be honest, I’ve had the sudden “feel like you can’t breathe because your windpipe suddenly shut” thing a few times in my life, but I very quickly learned the cure for it: Hold your breath.

And yeah, I’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t there for her but, then again — I was 13. I was in school, like I was supposed to be. So it was just the next door neighbor there to rush her to the ER, toss her into the hands of the un-empathetic male doctors, and I think over the next few years they managed to medicate her to death.

Since her family all lived on the east coast, I really lost contact with them for a long time, since I didn’t have their phone numbers, or the wherewithal to fly or drive out there, and my dad certainly wasn’t doing it. But when I reconnected to my cousins and surviving aunts not that long ago via social media, one thing became immediately clear.

They were all like her, so they were all like me, at least in all the good ways: Stubborn, opinionated, feisty, creative, and feckin’ clever Irish-Americans.

This was partly what drove her to the west in the first place, because she had a bird’s eye view of her own mother’s hypocrisy when it came to religion. The Catholic Church ruled all! Except… only the church that the Irish people went to. The Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians may have gone to Catholic churches as well, but they were filthy immigrants.

And it was perfectly fine if my mother invited her best friend Beverly to come to Grandma’s church on Sunday, but god forbid that my mother would even be allowed to go to Beverly’s church, because they were some weird, unacceptable Armenian Orthodox cult!

But the real biggie — and the one that actually wound up having the greatest impact on my own life, although I didn’t know it until long after she’d died — was that her first marriage not only sent her fleeing to the west, but it had everything to do with her relationship to me.

Long story short, she’d married her (Polish Catholic) high school boyfriend, George, at 18. She got knocked up (though not right away), he got drunk and violent a lot, and in her eighth month he gave her what we quaintly term “A Catholic abortion.”

That is, he pushed her down a flight of stairs and she miscarried, and there went the woman who might have been my older sister.

She had the marriage annulled (the good Catholic way!) then headed west, to shock her mother by marrying a much older and divorced (gasp!) man with three adult kids who was maybe Protestant (what?) but definitely not Catholic (clutch the Rosary!).

They married, she got knocked up while they lived in a tiny Hollywood apartment, moved to their suburban home when she was about five months in — and then wound up delivering me two months prematurely back in Hollywood and, apparently, she freaked the hell out.

In all honesty, why wouldn’t she? She’d already lost one child in the 8th month, and here I was, popped out in the 7th month and not completely baked, so they had to stick me into an incubator. Somehow, it worked, I survived, and I’m still here and, oddly enough, I also managed to be the tallest member of my family on both sides and among three generations, at least.

Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that part, either. Apparently, all of my grandparents barely grazed five feet. I topped six, and I only have one nephew who came close.

Anyway, the result of my mom’s life experience up to my birth was that she was ridiculously protective of me. Fearing losing me like she had her daughter, I would never say that she was clingy and suffocating. Rather, she did what she could to keep me close to home.

Good or bad? I don’t know. She certainly kept me from being over-adventurous, something that didn’t change until after her death — but I’ve always wondered: If she hadn’t done that, would I still be alive now, or would I have died in some stupid incident before I turned sixteen?

On the other hand, if she had lived on to a normal age, and if she were still around today (entirely possible), would our relationship be loving, or would she have long since driven me absolutely nuts? I have no idea. What I do have is one childhood incident that, to me, demonstrated her absolute devotion to keeping me safe.

I was in the 3rd grade, meaning that I was about 8 years old, and was out sick for a day. The procedure at the time was for returning kids to turn in a note from a parent at the office excusing the absence — basically, “This is Jon’s (parent.) He was out sick yesterday, but is feeling well enough to return today. Signed (parent.)”

Welp, up to this particular day, my father was always the one who wrote and signed the notes. He was also an architect, so he could writer block letters like a goddamn laser printer, and his signature was in perfect cursive.

Mom? Well… she was born left-handed and went to Catholic school, so what do you think? Yep. They basically tied her left hand to a chair, forced her to learn to write with her non-dominant hand and so, as an adult, her handwriting was even worse than mine at, oh, I don’t know… eight years old?

You see where this is going, right?

Dad forgot to write the note that day, so Mom did, and I took it in. An hour or two into class, I got summoned to the principal’s office (his name was George Linnert, btw, a total dick, and he is probably long since dead by now) to be accused of forging the note.

I tried to tell him that my mom wrote it, and if he just called her, she would tell him.

Nope. He was being a total dick, so he told me to write down, “I did not write this note.” And then he refused to believe me and threatened suspension, plus calling my parents in to tell them what an evil, evil boy I was.

Guess what happened when I told my parents about it that evening?

Yep. Mom went ballistic, and the next morning she did something so freaking amazing that I still remember every moment of it. I was going to walk to school, but she said, “No. I’m driving you.”

Okay, cool. Except that… while Mom has her license, she also absolutely hates to drive and never does it, and is nervous as hell. Sure, it’s not all that far to the school — maybe a mile at most — but I think she wanted to make a point.

So we hope into the Ford, she very, very cautiously backs out of the driveway, then takes the back streets to the school, leads me up the steps by my hand and into the principal’s office, very politely tells me that she’s here for a meeting with Mr. Linnert…

…and then the second we walk in the door, she proceeds to rip him not a second, or a third, but maybe even up to a fourth asshole and all I can do is just stand there in awe of this woman, this powerhouse, my mother, taking the piss out of an authority figure that, up until this moment, all of us had feared like the grim reaper.

I don’t even remember what exactly she said, except that it involved questioning his intelligence, asking if he got off on intimidating little boys, and whether he actually knew how telephones worked?

End result? She marched his ass to my classroom, we all entered, and he groveled and apologized in front of the teacher, my, my mom, and the entire class.

It was goddamn glorious. But I guess that’s why she was named Gloria in the first place.

R.I.P., Mom.

%d bloggers like this: