Momentous Monday: Relativity

One hundred eighty-nine years ago, 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.

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), 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.

Fast-forward to nearly two-hundred years after his birth, 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. Tonight, 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, 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, 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.

 

A moving experience

Sometimes, it takes a nudge from outside to make basic changes. Once I’m settled in a place, I tend to not change things around a lot. Maybe it’s a reaction to my mom’s habit of rearranging all the furniture every couple of years growing up. Yeah, nothing is more disconcerting than coming home from elementary school and finding out that your dresser and bed have totally changed places and the living room looks completely different.

Honestly, I don’t know how she managed it on her own during the day, especially since the living room had that low-pile gray carpet that specialized in friction. Unless she was having the next-door neighbor come over and help, I could never figure out how she’d manage to move things like a very heavy rocking sofa, a solid oak coffee table that also weighed a ton, an entire sectional with a full-size sofa, love seat, and square bit that fit between them, and on at least one occasion (but only one) the entire dining room table (eight feet, maple, extendable to ten feet with leaves) and the hutch, which was probably pushing seven feet tall.

But she’d just suddenly get a jones to change everything, and Dad and I would get the surprise when we came home in the afternoon.

Now, it’s basic human nature to fear becoming our own parents, especially if our parents are majorly dysfunctional. Fortunately, mine weren’t, although they still had some quirks that I decided I’d rather avoid.

For my father, it was his seeming lack of strong emotions. In fact, the closest I ever saw him come to expressing them was on the way to my mother’s funeral. You know. His wife. His second wife, the woman he loved and doted on for far too short a time. She died just over three months past their 26th anniversary. Since I’m no bastard, you can do the math on the other part. And he was married to her a lot longer than he was to wife number one, who was a lot older than my mom.

And yet…  he barely showed any emotion in public or even in private throughout the whole thing. Not to the family, not to me. Oh, he’d have the occasional moment of pausing in silent anguish, but then he’d visibly stuff it down. And I tried to emulate that for too long until one day I realized, “No. This isn’t how anything works,” and if I tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve now, to me that’s a good thing, because people will always know how I feel. Granted, I’m generally an even-keel kind of person, but if I get emotional about something or someone, it’s going to show.

As for my mother, since she grew up Catholic with all of the attendant guilt, her big thing was body shame. While I was growing up, the worst kind of violence on cable TV was okay for her, and okay if I was in the room, but show one inch of skin in the bathing suit area, boom. Turn that show off. It’s filthy or, as she’d put it, “Oh, this is one of those nudie movies.”

Seriously, what adult says that?

So, yeah, I had those issues for a while until I got over them, which was a lot earlier than I got over the emotionally distant thing; mainly, as soon as locker rooms and showers were a thing after gym class, and I realized that being naked didn’t bother me and it wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

Which may have triggered some sort of “Mom isn’t always right” thing in my head? I don’t know. But combine that with this seeming idea in my parents’ head that I would grow up to be a professional, make a ton of money, marry a woman who would stay at home and take care of all that domestic shit, and the end result was that they didn’t teach me how to do any of that “girl” stuff (cough) and, anyway, other than being kind of able to cook, my domestic skills have always been… lacking.

Oh, I eventually taught myself to be a hell of a cook and baker because A) I like food, and B) It impresses the hell out of dates. But as for housekeeping beyond doing a mean load of laundry, it’s not my forte at all, and when it comes to rearranging the furniture, for years my attitude has always been “Why bother?”

Indeed, I can think of only two times I’ve rearranged the furniture since moving out on my own after college. Doing the nostalgia math on this, I’m reminded that I’ve lived in six places since the beginning, three with roommates, two without, and one most of the time with a roommate but the last few years without. I’ve only rearranged furniture twice, and only in the last two places.

In the place before this one, it was because an SO at the time got ambitious and was into furniture and design anyway, so he inspired me to completely reconfigure and redecorate the entire apartment — this was back when I could afford a two bedroom place in L.A. (Pause for raucous laughter.) But we did it up nice, with each room a different color theme, a feature wall in silver in the living room, a blue and white bathroom with an abstract brushstroke mural on the wall, a goldenrod kitchen, and so on.

For some reason, the landlords took umbrage when the city came to inspect, so I wound up having to move, not knowing that what they did was illegal. (Pro-tip: In rent controlled units in L.A., landlords cannot try to evict you for anything called out to be fixed by tenant or landlord on a city inspection. Bookmark that for yourselves.)

This brings us back to that opening sentence: “Sometimes, it takes a nudge from outside to make basic changes.” And city inspectors are about to descend on this place starting tomorrow. I haven’t repainted any rooms, but it did get me to rearrange the furniture, which turned out to be a lot less onerous than I’d thought it would be. That, and pack off a bunch of shit to storage, and to suddenly become my mother, because I did all of this rearranging on my own.

Lesson learned, and what I never got but which my mother obviously did (and she could have told me) changing the configuration of your living space changes your mind, often for the better if that change involves making things clearer and less cluttered, which was certainly the case this time.

And yeah. The physical act of moving bulky furniture all on your own really is empowering. Getting that couch from the south wall to the west wall on your own creates an enormous sense of “I did this!” And the satisfaction of untangling the inevitable gang-bang that all cables get themselves into under the desk and re-plugging them separately and neatly into both ends of their connectors is a visual and visceral symphony of delight.

In short, while I’ve tried since forever to avoid taking on this aspect of my mother’s personality, necessity (the mother of (re)invention) today made me embrace it and… goddamn. The best, simplest, and cheapest therapy is this.

If you’re feeling out of sorts or not fulfilled or somehow off in your life… rearrange your furniture. Really. Seriously. Do it. Now!

It will change your perspective in more ways than one. It did mine, and it was amazing.

How to have super powers

Welcome to a new year, and one that I’m sure is going to have plenty of 2020 vision jokes made about it, if they already didn’t overload yesterday and the night before. But here’s some 2020 foresight for you, and it’s this. The most important thing you can have in life is friends.

Hell, it’s the most quoted (if somewhat sexist) line from that most ubiquitous of Christmas Films, It’s a Wonderful Life: “No (hu)man is a failure who has friends.”

Fun fact: because the film didn’t do well on initial release no one followed up when it was time and it fell into public domain. Because of this, TV stations started airing it during the holiday season in the 1970s because they didn’t have to pay to do so, and this is what elevated it to cult status and beloved holiday tradition. Republic Pictures eventually reclaimed the copyright via the short story the film was based on and sold the exclusive rights to NBC. Republic Pictures was once owned by a guy I used to work for whom you might have heard of.

Ironically, the film that won the Best Picture Oscar the year that IAWL came out, The Best Years of Our Lives, is probably one you’ve neither heard of nor seen, but I don’t even have to wonder whether any of my readers have seen Capra’s film. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

To get back to the point, though, the story of this film is actually in keeping with the theme of the movie and this post. You see, It’s a Wonderful Life was basically abandoned by its creators/parents because they saw nothing in it. It wasn’t until it received love and support from unrelated people that it found its place, was able to spread its message, and turned into the moving classic it is today.

And for those of us who don’t have family around, either because we live far from home or we’re an only child or someone with no siblings living nearby but also with no living parents or grandparents, or we happen to have living relatives who are intolerable people for various reasons, the holidays can be difficult unless we have friends, and I’m reminded of that every year because I fall under a few of those conditions there.

My friends are my family, and to me that bond is stronger because it’s not something that was imposed on me by accident of birth. Rather, it was something I chose to make happen. Or they chose. Either way… when we make that connection and decide that somebody is worth spending time with, it is a beautiful thing.

But… here’s the big caveat, and I may be speaking mainly to the menfolk here — especially coming into this new year, we need to be really mindful of our friendships and of maintaining them and emphasizing their importance, and that means talking about them.

Women get it. I see that constantly, and I cannot appreciate that enough. Two gal pals talk, and they go right for the feels, and mention how much they love each other, and listen to each other’s problems and offer advice, and in person they aren’t afraid to show physical affection.

For men… not so much, and that works in all possible combinations. Straight dudes might think that it’s something they don’t do but that gay and bisexual men do easily, but guess what? Nope. We don’t, either. Okay, maybe gay men manage to do it with their gal pals, but with each other? Oh, hell no. Why? Because… well, hey, straight guys, do you do this with female friends without the danger of it becoming awkward and inappropriate?

Thought so… Although for both communities, the only exceptions seem to come either when you’ve been utterly friendzoned or are still good friends with an ex.

Why is this? Probably because men, no matter which way they swing, are predators, in the strictly scientific and biological sense. And, as predators, that means we hunt. And so it’s hardwired into us that we do not approach or appreciate a thing unless we want to fight it, fuck it, or kill it (aka eat it) to quote a very old and crass military saying.

Women tend to be gatherers, and they are the ones who give birth and nurse, whether or not the sperm donor is around, so they’re better at taking things in without killing them or eating them.

But… this is the 21st century, when all of those ancient biological roles should have long since been thrown out the window. The idea of men as hunters and women as gatherers really went out with the first industrial revolution. It’s just that old traditions die hard.

The tradition of men not being emotionally forthcoming, especially with each other, is the next thing that needs to die. Dudes, it is perfectly all right to tell another dude friend that you love him, and the key is to add the words “like a brother” or “platonically,” but never, ever to append to it “no homo.” And this is one of those “make the world a better place” things especially if we can get the message across to all possible iterations of man on man friendships: two straight guys, one straight and one bi, one straight and one gay, two bi guys, one bi and one gay, or two gay guys.

I’ve got plenty of straight male friends of all ages that I am very close to, and the really pleasant surprise was that once I started actually telling them how much I love and appreciate them, guess what happened? They became closer friends, often told me the same about me, and not once did it get weird. It didn’t get weird with my gay or bisexual friends either, and it was something I’d been telling my female friends and they’d been telling me since forever.

As the Greeks knew, there are many flavors of love. Coming into the new year, consider this. Why do you have friends? Because they are people you love, one way or another. Most likely, if they’re just friends, they’re platonic. But so what? That doesn’t make the emotion any less important or real. And, honestly, the love I feel for my closest friends is exactly the same strength and feeling that I’ve had with romantic partners — the sense that all is right in the world, the little butterflies seeing them or thinking about them, the ability to talk about anything endlessly and to completely lose track of time. The only difference is that the sexual attraction with the romantic partners isn’t there, but the emotional attraction absolutely is.

How do you know if you feel this way about a friend? You’d gladly help them move or go keep them company in line at the DMV. Or, the L.A. version: you’d volunteer before being asked to give them a ride to LAX during rush hour on a Friday night before a three-day weekend expecting nothing in return and think nothing of picking them up at five a.m. the following Tuesday.

That right there is the definition of true love

So take the time today to tell at least one friend that you love them, and why, then branch out and do the same with other friends.

Remember: You “love” family because you have to. You love friends because you want to.

OK, Boomer

I’m tired of the constant bitching from Baby Boomers — and even from some of my fellow Gen Xers — with which they deride Millennials as a useless, entitled, whiny generation.

For one thing, they really aren’t referring to all Millennials. Remember: the oldest members of Gen X turn forty in 2020, and the first of the Millennials will start to turn forty the year after that, so they’re not exactly kids. Even the youngest of them are generally out of college unless they’re in grad school if we go by 1996 as the cut-off year. The generation after that, often referred to as Gen Z, are currently 22 and under.

For another thing, they like to conveniently forget that the Millennials are the kids and grandkids of Baby Boomers, and the kids of Gen Xers, so if there are any flaws in upbringing, guess who caused them? Not to mention that it was mostly the Baby Boomers (and the generation before them) who created the very flawed world the Millennials (and a lot of the Gen Xers) found themselves growing up in.

So the first part, demonstrating cherry picking, means that what Baby Boomers are bitching about are not traits unique to a particular generation, but rather traits specific to people of a certain age regardless of generation.

Lazy, entitled, self-centered, and disrespectful? That’s not a description of Millennials. That’s a description in general of people in their teens and early twenties. Y’know what, Boomers? In the 1960s and 70s, your grandparents, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” were saying the same thing about you, what with your rock ‘n roll music and long hair and hippie protests. And their grandparents were saying the same thing about them in the 1920s and 30s, what with their decadent jazz and bootlegging illegal drugs and flappers and scandalous motion pictures. Those grandparents? They got to be born during the U.S. Civil War. And so on, down through all time.

There’s a famous quote, frequently misattributed to Socrates or Plato, phrased thusly:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. And it shouldn’t take anything away from the universality of this statement to learn that it was not uttered in ancient Greece, but came from a student dissertation by Kenneth John Freeman, written in 1907 at Cambridge. However, his dissertation was a summary of complaints made against young people in ancient times, so the concept expressed is accurate and ancient, even if the words are more modern. Well, relatively speaking.

One can only think that perhaps Mr. Freeman wrote his dissertation as an Edwardian Era college student because he was tired of having people born in the 1840s, right at the start of the Victorian Era, put down him and his friends. One can also hope that he wasn’t saying the same things about young people in the 1920s, but he probably was.

So, when it comes to generalities, the complaining Boomers don’t really have a leg to stand on. And I can verify, since I know a hell of a lot of Millennials and Gen Zs, that pretty much almost all of them defy every single stereotype that the old farts would throw at them.

Which brings us to the second part, and the most common complaints Baby Boomers have about Millennials. I’m not going to get into elaborating much on them here, because others have boiled it down to five things, but the key point is that Millennials only have these traits because they were taught them by the people who created the educational system they grew up in and who raised them, principally the Boomers.

Here is the bullet point version of trait and cause.

  • Millennials are entitled, and have a bit of an attitude. Thank you, helicopter parents.
  • Millennials are lazy, don’t work and won’t “pay dues.” Part one: boomer parents micromanaged them and did way too much for them; part two: growing up in a digital world has taught them to hate stupid and inefficient ways of doing things. They aren’t taking shortcuts, they’re innovating, so they get more done in better, faster ways.
  • Millennials are too casual and informal. Yeah, why is this a bad thing? Again, it was their parents who taught them to speak up and speak out, so don’t complain when they do it.
  • Millennials need constant affirmation. No, they don’t. You just treated them like they did growing up and still think that’s true.
  • Millennials don’t take work seriously. Short version: define “seriously.” Millennials would rather actually be doing work at work, even if that means not working as many hours, rather than having to punch in and out for the usual 8×5 week, but spend plenty of legitimate downtime pretending to look like they’re working.

Side note, and a great quote from the article linked above: “General Patton once said, ‘Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what needs to get done, and they’ll surprise you with their ingenuity.’” I couldn’t agree with this more, especially since I work with mostly Boomers, most of whom are cool, but one of whom has an annoying tendency to try to tell me how to do a thing rather than just tell me what needs to get done.

Especially fun when that someone doesn’t understand computers at all but tries to tell me how to do something on, well, you know… the computer. Sigh. And I’m the entitled one with the attitude? Nope. At least I’ve learned the magic defense. Start to explain the intricacies of whatever Excel formula or website navigation I need to do to do what I know how to do without help, and they nope right on out.

But there is one thing that Millennials excel at, and it’s delivering devastating comebacks to Boomers who try to criticize them. I leave you with an extensive and funny compendium of “Millennial Replies to Stupid Shit Boomers Post.” Enjoy!


Photo credit: Author’s collection; picture of his paternal grandfather’s family, with his great grandparents and the four out of six sons who lived to adulthood. Year unknown. His great-grandfather was an emigrant from Germany. His great-grandmother was descended from people who arrived here not long after the Mayflower, with a long Welsh ancestry eventually going back to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. And at every step of the way, the older generations bitched about the younger and vice versa.

Hindsight really is 20/20

There were three particular things that my parents did when I was a child that seemed random, but it wasn’t until years later that I had the sudden adult “A-ha” moment of realizing what was probably going on. By then, my parents were no longer around to ask, but I think I guessed their reasoning accurately.

The first one was me getting my Social Security card at seven years old.

Second was not long after that, and my parents decided to sell the suburban starter home they’d bought right after getting married in order to buy something fancier.

The last was a few years later, when my parents met with my dad’s uncles, none of whom I’d met before.

While these this may seem like normal family things, it wasn’t until I looked at other events that happened around the same time and had my “A-has.”

Getting social

First, the Social Security card. Before Ronald Reagan was president of the U.S., kids didn’t need SSNs. (I think the reason for the change was to prevent tax fraud via deductions for fake kids.) It was normal to only get one when you were going to start working, so the usual earliest age would be about sixteen for a high school job, although definitely by senior year, since it would be needed to apply for college and (gack!) student loans.

My paternal grandmother didn’t get hers until she was 35 — but that’s because that’s how old she was when they started issuing numbers. Did I mention that my dad was on the older side when I was born? I should, because that feeds back into the whys later on.

Anyway, one day we go to a government office and I’m clueless, so I just scrawl my signature on a form and that was that. Eventually, this fancy blue card comes in the mail with my name, signature, and nine-digit number on it, although my parents quickly lock it in their infamous “metal box” that lives in our linen closet, apparently a repository of Important Adulting Documents. (Insert ominous musical sting.)

Were they going to send me into child labor or something? Nope. This was not long after my dad’s older brother had a heart attack well before he hit his 60s. He survived, but I think it put some sort of fear into my parents. It wasn’t long after that a special “heart health” diet from my dad’s doctor became a permanent fixture on the side of our fridge — although the way my mom cooked, it was obvious that “heart health” back then meant something entirely different — lean red meat, alcohol, sugar, and sodium were apparently A-OK!

What I realized years later was that the only reason they got me an SSN was as a preventative measure in case Dad wasn’t so lucky with his heart and suddenly dropped dead. I had to have the number to get the Social Security death benefit, so they were really just looking out for me.

House for sale

As far as them deciding to try to sell the house two years later, it wasn’t until I realized this was right after my youngest half-brother from Dad’s first marriage turned eighteen. As in no more child support to pay — and Dad’s ex-wife had remarried right about the time he did, so he never paid much in alimony. He was free and could afford a bigger monthly payment.

Sadly, we never did sell that starter home and move on up to a fancy two-story house with a pool that would be worth millions now but which was, relatively speaking, ridiculously cheap then. I’ve often wondered how different my life would be if that had happened. I would have changed elementary schools, and every other school I went to.

Say “Uncle”

As for the third “A-ha…” My dad’s uncles — aka my great uncles — fascinated me as a kid for a lot of reasons. First, they were the only male relatives of that generation on my dad’s side I’d ever met. One of the four brothers died when I was two. Meanwhile, my dad’s dad had been in a mental hospital since forever and I wouldn’t have been able to meet him until I’d turned eighteen.

He died when I was thirteen, but apparently it was on the horizon for a while, so I met my great uncle Glenn first, and he fascinated me because he was the oldest human I’d ever met: seventy-six. He’d been around to see so much history I’d only read about!

I remember Glenn coming to our house a couple of times, and then we went to have dinner with great uncle Rolland. He was the last born of the four brothers (well, four out of six who made adulthood) and was a decade younger than Glenn. I liked Glenn, but Rolland scared me for some reason. He just seemed… well, he seemed to have the same mean streak that my dad’s brother, the uncle who’d had the heart attack, had. He lived somewhere way out, like Gardena or Glendora or one of those towns that’s lost in the great urban-suburban sprawl that stretches between Downtown L.A. and the top of Orange County in one direction and between L.A. and Long Beach in the other. What? L.A. County is bigger than some countries. (97, to be exact.)

This was something else that gave me pause years later — that my parents drove that far to have dinner with him. See, my parents weren’t big travelers except for very special occasions. Hell, maybe it was an emotional thing? We lived less than five miles from where my dad’s brother and wife lived — literally the third freeway off-ramp after the on-ramp — and we only made that trip a few times, too. It was the same with other friends of theirs who didn’t live too far away, but we rarely visited.

But here we were, driving forever. And if you can’t make minor in-town trips for close friends or family, then what incentive, exactly, is making you go this far? I didn’t know then because during the dinner with Rolland, I distinctly remember being sent out of the room to “play,” which, of course, even at that age I knew meant, “Oh, they’re talking ‘adult stuff.’”

The content of that adult stuff became abundantly clear years later while my dad was in the hospital for the final time, I was in the house I grew up in alone, knew the location of the infamous metal box (and of the key) and took a look inside. That’s when I found the explanation for what had been going on.

I mentioned the bit about his dad being locked up in a mental hospital, but hadn’t known the reasons for it. I’d always assumed that grandpa was basically insane. But, according to documents in the box, he had abandoned his family twice, despite being ordered back by the courts after the first time. When he walked out the second time while his kids were barely teenagers that was apparently enough for Grandma, who managed to get a non-scandalous divorce (probably the only way to do so at the time) and then got his ass locked up. Why? Well, because, in that day, no sane man would abandon his wife and kids and, honestly, admissions standards for mental hospitals were a lot less stringent. (Q.V. American Horror Story: Asylum.)

Oh, wait, we also had mental hospitals back then. And in California, even after Governor You-Know-Who. (Insert Reagan call-back here.)

Anyway… around this time, grandpa had started to show signs of dementia, and of needing to be checked out of the mental hospital and into a nursing home, and my dad filed papers with the court asking to be exempted from any familial or financial responsibilities for this action, citing the above abandonment. I’m guessing that maybe his brother did the same, but this would have meant that the ball would have landed squarely on the shoulders of grandpa’s two surviving brothers, Glenn and Rolland. (Grandma avoided any responsibility via that long-ago divorce.)

So those meetings were probably some combination of my dad justifying his position and my great-uncles trying to resist or negotiate. Ultimately, I think my dad won, and my grandpa wound up being relocated to a nursing home not far from where Rolland lived. When my grandpa died, I didn’t see my father shed a single tear, although he lost it when his mom died — ironically two years to the day before my mom, Dad’s wife, did.

And, even more impressive, my dad managed to somehow win over the mean, nasty uncle although, to be fair, a degree of blackmail or coercion might have been involved, because certain jokes my dad and heart attack Uncle made back in the day pretty much telegraphed that the entire family considered Rolland to be an alcoholic, and this was back in the days when “Hey, that was funny!”

Or, in other words, not now.

How parents change

This got longer than I’d expected, but I hope that it inspires people to get introspective and ask themselves, “Okay, why did my parents do that thing they did when they did, and what didn’t I know then?” This is mainly because as humans we go through stages with our parents that play out like this:

  1. Birth to puberty: My parents are the bestest. They know everything. I love them and trust them and I want to be one of them when I grow up and marry the other one when I grow up and yay!
  2. Puberty through college: Gah. I hate these people. They don’t know anything and they are so uncool, and could they stop going through my stuff and telling me what to do, and I’m going to put a lock on my bedroom door, and I swear if they ever catch me pleasuring myself I’m going to scream and when can I just move the hell out of here and be me!?
  3. Sometime after college and before thirty: Oh, wow. I can talk dirty with Mom and she doesn’t care? Dad actually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to life advice? They like my SO more than me? Holy crap. They’re people… shit. They’re human. Goddamn… they had to do what to… whoa.
  4. Branch split: Get married and have/adopt kids: Yay! Free babysitters who seem to love to do it! Get married/partner up but don’t have kids: Yay! People we can have holidays with who love our partners (more than they love us… whut?) And they can cook!
  5. Branch split 2: After they die and you’re young: Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Why’d that happen? What do I do now? After they die and you’re old: Console the kids (if any) about losing their grandparents; console yourselves with or without kids that your parents had good, long lives, and did what they did for reasons. In either case keep their memories.

What apparently random decisions did your parents make when you were a kid that didn’t make sense until you considered them as an adult? Tell us in the comments!

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.

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 just over 11 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.

It was strangely nostalgic to see all of my former coworkers again. 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. 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 and my mother was from Northeastern Pennsylvania. 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.

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 used to be most of California. 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.