Momentous Monday: Relativity

A reminder that, while we can test our DNA or trace our family trees, we still all come from in the same place.

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. (Woodrow Wilson was a major racist, by the way.)

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.

Recalling my favorite holidays, part two

The second part of my favorite holidays, which are a bit more adult-oriented.

Another bonus post during my Christmas Countdown, here’s the second half of my fondest holiday memories.

Over the meadow and through the woods…

Come to think of it, this isn’t all that inaccurate a description of regular trips to my paternal grandmother’s place, even if all those meadows and woods happened to be next to the freeway.

She lived in a semi-rural area just north of San Luis Obispo, which is a pretty thriving college town. She and her second husband (but the only grandfather I had ever known) owned fourteen acres which they had retired to in their early 60s, at which time they built a house on it, doing everything themselves except digging the basement and pouring the foundations.

Of course, they did cheat a little bit. They did build the modest front house themselves, which was essentially the kitchen, pantry living and dining rooms, and my grandparents’ bedroom, but the back half was a double-wide trailer that was actually so-well integrated that you really couldn’t tell.

This had a huge salon that I don’t remember anyone ever using — it was always freezing back there — and it had two bedrooms, one bathroom, and access to the amazing basement/root cellar. The basement was my grandpa’s media room, basically, with the most amazing sound system I’d ever heard.

Thanksgiving trips up there were always special, because it meant that my aunt and uncle often came, frequently with their already adult kids and, eventually, their grandkids who, even though they were my second cousins, were actually my age.

These fests also frequently involved half-sister and her kids, same situation. My oldest nephew, second cousin, and I were all born within eight months of each other, with the other two about a month apart.

So once the nephews, cousins, and I got old enough to get into mischief, we certainly did, and we ran all over those fourteen acres, basically being city boys let loose in the country. Not that we were destructive or malicious. It was just that we could see and do things here that didn’t exist at home.

There were farm animals and poultry, a rushing creek that defined the border of the property, my grandfather’s huge field of Irises, outbuildings full of mysterious antiques to explore, and plenty of trails and hills. The neighbors immediately in front had a horse in their yard we loved to visit with.

Of course, after we’d gotten a little older, maybe around 12 or 13, we discovered the box of grandpa’s nudie mags in a shed. They were mostly old Playboys with an occasional Playgirl stuck in there, or one or two that were nastier — Penthouse, Hustler, and worse.

I actually think that they, like the boxes of rock ‘n roll records he would let us ransack, were the rejects from his bulk-buying trips at swap meets and antique fairs. He had a habit of buying things by lots, then weeding out the few treasures and leaving the rest for friends and family.

Out of all these Thanksgiving trips, though, my favorite has to be the one that was my last. I was fifteen, and I remember it being more subdued. I think that my parents and I arrived on Thursday afternoon with everyone else scheduled to arrive the next day.

But that evening, my oldest second cousin’s mother dropped him off to spend the night. We had last seen each other when we were 12 and, needless to say, now that we were both 15, we looked a lot more grown-up.

I don’t want to name him so I’ll use the pseudonym “Three,” because his father and grandfather also had the same name.

We wound up one of the bedrooms in the trailer part of the house — separate twin beds — at which point I learned that he’d really kind of morphed into a bad boy. He smoked, and did so constantly after we’d gotten into our beds before lights out, despite me warning him that was a bad idea — well, smoking and doing it in bed both are.

Um, smoking in bed, not “doing it” in bed.

I refused his offers to take a puff, but we did proceed to entertain each other with our increasingly lewd arsenal of dirty jokes, something that every 15-year-old boy comes equipped with. He also eventually got into recounting some of his sexual exploits with his girlfriend.

At the time, I had nothing to say because I was a closeted gay virgin. It was also all I could do to ignore the fact that he was pretty ripped, and try not to get too aroused about his stories, like the time his girlfriend rode him under a poncho in the rain in the stands at a high school football game.

Well, so he said. Who knows? But he was only my second cousin. Not that it matters if you can’t make babies. Just sayin’.

The next day, his two younger brothers came over, as did an older man they only referred to as Brady, and his grandson, who was also around the same age as Three and I, with the last name Brady.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that this (older) Brady had actually been married to my grandmother’s youngest sister.

Or, in other words, this mystery Brady kid (whose first name I still don’t remember) was actually, surprise, another second cousin and I never knew it because no one bothered to tell me.

The five of us wound up wandering around way down on the bottom end of our (great)grandparents’ place that chilly November morning. Three brought the weed and Brady brought the pellet rifle, so we spent the time getting stoned and shooting at trees.

Yes, I did inhale this time. And yes, we never shot at anything living.

Later that afternoon, Three and I drove down the private road, half a mile up the service road, across the highway and creek, and arrived at a barn. Well, I drove. I was old enough to have my learner’s permit and while, technically, I think I was supposed to have only driven with a licensed adult driver in the car, my parents let me go, because we were kind of in the middle of nowhere, aka farm country where a kid drive a tractor as soon as he could figure out how to put on his own pants, so what the hell did a car matter, right?

Damn — different world.

In the barn, Three and his band were basically having a jam session/rehearsal, and they had a keyboard but no keyboardist, which was awesome because… guess what I played?

I also met his girlfriend who, to be honest, turned out to be kind of… I hate to use the word, but slutty. She tried to get all over me, was drinking beer and tried to force it on me, and all the while Three was there but didn’t seem to be bothered.

It was, to say the least, very awkward.

At least we got some good jam time in, and she couldn’t really molest me while I was playing. We returned back to my grandma’s place, had the family feast, and then Three and his brothers and Brady and grandson left, and I was stuck with just my parents, aunt and uncle, and grandparents for the rest of the weekend.

Still, not bad — my grandparents could tell stories like nobody else, and that alone was worth it.

It was the last time I ever saw Three and his brothers except for a brief moment at grandma’s funeral, although Three and I didn’t speak. It was a few years after he’d been convicted in a gang rape on a beach not far from San Luis Obispo and he’d spent a few years in prison, so he was kind of the black sheep.

I really wanted to talk to him, but it was obvious that he’d only come out of respect to grandma, I could sense the entire crowd tensing up in anger. He hustled his ass out of there as fast as he could, and I got the feeling that I would have been as hated if I’d actually tried to show a single ounce of compassion to him.

What really hurt, honestly, is that it felt like I really couldn’t, because all I  wanted to do was ask him what had happened on that beach, how he got talked into it, and how I might have been able to talk him out of it. That’s it. You know. Family shit.

But I also do count that Thanksgiving long before the funeral as my final transition from childhood naivete to eyes-open adulthood, though.

New Year in WeHo

I lived in West Hollywood as a baby gay for seven years, and for part of those years I was gloriously single, I had a group of friends I’d met online who would get together regularly to hit the clubs.

We had one New Year’s Eve tradition, though. We would gather in a group, and we all sort of had designated fallbacks. That is, if neither one of us had hooked up by midnight, then we were going home together and fucking. It was that simple.

Likewise, if one of us met someone, the other was on their own, no hard feelings — as long as the lucky one let it be known. Of course, when the group did cull itself that way, the rest of us knew each other well enough to just re-arrange the designated fallback combos. Since we tended to start with an even number, we’d wind up with an even number as well, so everyone wound up happy.

When the midnight kiss came, we all knew with whom we were going home, whether it was part of that original group or someone else, and it made for very smooth sailing into the New Year.

Recalling my favorite holidays, part one

Bonus: Memories of my favorite Holidays, part one.

Bonus feature during my Christmas Countdown, here are my favorite holiday memories growing up, part one.

I was originally going to make this about Christmas, but then realized that I really don’t have enough Christmas memories to make up a full article for the simple reason that for most of my adult life, I haven’t really celebrated it. I don’t see the point in decorating, and I certainly don’t see the point in everyone going into a consumer frenzy over each other. I do enjoy using Christmas Eve as the opportunity to get together with old friends, though.

That consumer frenzy part is what I most remember from my childhood Christmases, really, and being an only child from a somewhat well-off middle class family, there was many a Christmas morning that I’d be buried in presents, a few of which were exactly what I had asked for in my letter to Santa, but a lot of which always felt like “Mom saw it at the toy store and threw it in the cart” because she had a some kind of “gift quota” to hit with me.

Some of those presents were awesome, and I don’t remember getting clothing ever, even not as I approached adulthood. But the ultimate lesson there is that they were just stuff, a lot of it probably meant to keep me busy and out of the way (q.v. “only child”) while Mom tried to do housework, and all of it has long since vanished into the past.

I can’t think of a single childhood Christmas present that I still have, but that’s okay. The point is that watching this holiday buried under the weight of materialism really put me off traditional celebrations of Christmas.

Want to make me happy for the day and beyond? Here’s a hint. Don’t give me stuff. Give me your time and company and conversation because those are more valuable and lasting than any material thing.

With that said, here are my favorite holiday celebrations so far.

The Spelling Christmases

These happened for the years that I worked at Spelling Television on several shows. They would always take place at some amazing venue, and would include the entire cast, crew, everyone SOs and family, and a lot of invited celebrity guests.

Okay, they always included a lavish dinner and extravagant gift, but I can only remember two of this. One was a mountain bike with Melrose Place branding on it and the other was a 7th Heaven lunchbox.

The back tire on that bike went flat almost immediately and I didn’t have a lot of incentive to get it fixed, so I left it behind when I moved. As for the lunch box, I still have it, sealed in the original plastic. I think there’s a thermos inside, too.

But the great part about it was getting to hang out not only with my immediate co-workers, but to spend time with the crew from up at the studio that only some of us occasionally got to spend a couple of hours every six weeks with in a strictly working capacity. This included the cast as well, and for the most part they treated us as peers and made us feel like real people. The only ones who seemed aloof were execs from the production company and studio, but this may be because they never interacted with the crew directly.

Well, except for me. I was on the phone arguing a writer’s case with Standards and Practices (the network censors) all the damn time. That was part of my job.

The Cesar Christmases

I had the most of these of any company Christmas party — 10, in fact — but three of them stand out; The first one, the one at exactly the half-way point, and the last.

The first was an elaborate party and feast that we had in our offices and spent all day setting up for. I had only been there for five months at the time, only about two of those after having been promoted from temp to full-time staff. So it was a great opportunity to really get to bond with my coworkers, and a lot of those people are still friends to this day.

Not long before, when I was working for Warner Bros. and making really good money, I’d bought a video cam that used DV tape — that is, digital video — because I could finally afford it. This was in the days when cell phone cameras were still potato quality, but not long before smart phones came along and even the earliest cameras out-performed anything this one could do.

But I spent the day of set-up and night of the party shooting endless footage, including interviewing my co-workers, just getting artsy random shots, and so on. I cut it together into a pretty extensive video and posted it to YouTube.

Unfortunately, at some point that video got deleted due to copyright issues. Meanwhile, the edited copy I had on my hard drive had gone out of sync anyway and the original editing files that basically told the software which shots to take from what files and put where were gone, so there was no easy way to reconstruct it.

On top of that, with my next computer change, the camera was no longer modern enough to be compatible, so I couldn’t even load footage from it. I’m sure that I can get a DV cassette to USB adaptor and load everything onto my computer again.

One video from the year after that with a lot of the same people lives on though, and comes from an office trip to the L.A. County Fair — an experience I’m glad I had once for free and will never repeat. Here it is in all of its 240p glory: Deep Fried Everything.

The halfway party with Cesar was after I’d worked there for five years. It was held in the parking lot at our second office space — after Cesar’s company had split form the Dog Whisperer production company — which meant that it was enclosed within four walls but open to the sky.

That year, I decided to write a couple of Dog Whisperer-themed Christmas Carol parodies, so asked my boss, the CEO, for a budget, which he gave me. I repurposed the lyrics to two songs, hired six actors to come to the party and sing them, and they did.

It was one of those times when taking a chance changed my life for the better.

Cesar was blown away and asked our CEO, “Who did this?” he pointed me out, and by our next work day, I was suddenly removed from the world of product manager and promoted to Head Writer (or ghost writer or content creator or whatever), which is what I did for the rest of my time there.

The last party was very bittersweet, because it happened about three months after I’d been laid off and changed to freelance — and this after a lot of other people had been laid off or quit in anticipation. The company was dying. It was obvious that this was our last gasp.

I hadn’t even been invited, but had gone by the office the afternoon of the party, more to hang out with my friends working there than anything else. The CEO asked me if I was going and I told him that I hadn’t been invited, to which he replied, “Of course you’re invited,” so I went.

It was at a very fancy Korean BBQ in, of course, Koreatown, and was the last chance to hang out with the gang. Of course, of the current gang, only two of them had been at the original Christmas party and had taken the entire ride with me.

Oddly enough, one of them, who had been the old company’s first employee, was responsible for getting me my current job about a year ago — and he had gotten the position that allowed him to hire me from… the former CEO, so it’s kind of like a small remnant of that whole time remains.

Halloween in WeHo

Then we come to what are known as the Gay High Holy Days — Halloween week, which is an even bigger deal in West Hollywood (and other gayborhoods) than even Pride week.

Again, I lived in WeHo for seven years, and I was a half-block walk north of Santa Monica Boulevard in the heart of Boys’ Town, which is the East End of the city. This meant that I didn’t have to worry about parking and could just stroll down the street and into the thick of it with no problems.

Of course, Halloween, like Pride, started to become really commercialized, especially after corporations discovered the shocking truth: “Gays and lesbians have money!” That, and the early 90s were also when straight people started to turn out in droves.

They did this for two reasons. One was to be supportive allies. The other was that it was safer than the straight celebrations in Hollywood.

But here’s a bit of advice to so-called allies: If you’re going to invade gay spaces en masse while bringing your opposite-sex partners/spouses and showing PDAs or, worse, bringing your kids to events that are supposed to be queer-safe spaces, then you’re not being an ally.

So, please — no more fag-groping bachelorette parties at gay bars, no more Nuna baby strollers rolling your infant crotch fruit past the S&M tent at Pride.

The Halloweens I experienced before this, though? Fantastic. And, actually, the last one I did pre-COVID was also pretty awesome, because I was able to take public transit from home into WeHo, then meet up with a friend who lives in the city and venture out with a group to stroll the streets.

We didn’t go into any clubs or bars because we didn’t feel like paying an arm and a leg for the cover and then another limb per drink, but that was okay. It was enough to wander the streets. Oh, and taunting the hell out of the Westboro Baptist Church morons face-to-face was worth the price of admission.

All that, and I got to crash in WeHo and take the bus and subway home in the morning. Maybe, someday, after this damn virus, I can do it again.

To be continued…

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. (Woodrow Wilson was a major racist, by the way.)

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

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