Tribute must be paid

This is going to be a little different than my other entries because this is more personal than educational, but I think it’s worth sharing. I found out from a former co-worker today that our boss died suddenly yesterday evening. He’d been out riding his bicycle, a favorite pastime, and then was found by paramedics, unconscious and on the ground next to the bike, with no heartbeat. They took him to the hospital, managed to get his heart started briefly, but then it stopped and he was gone.

The reason he was no longer our boss was because the company fell apart piece by piece due to forces outside of our department, but we had all promised each other that we’d have a reunion one day, then it kept getting put off, and now it will never happen with all of us.

His name was Dave R., and beyond being just a boss, he was a friend and a mentor to all of us, as well as a fierce protector. If anyone outside of our group, the Digital Team, tried to mess with us, he would have none of it, and was always there to go to bat for us. He supported us without question, and if somebody needed time off for personal reasons or just needed to telecommute for a while, he would okay it without question.

He was a huge fan of Seth Grodin and gifted us several of his books. We even once did a sort of book club thing with Linchpin, reading a chapter on our own and then meeting to discuss it. He also organized a work-day field trip for all of us to the L.A. County Museum of Art to see the Stanley Kubrick exhibit, which was amazing — and he paid for all of our tickets and bought us lunch.

I had been with that company for over a decade, but I can truly say that the best years were the last ones, once Dave came aboard. He provided leadership and direction in the midst of an organization that could often be chaotic, with ever-changing goals — this is what happens when the company is owned by a celebrity who likes to come up with ideas but then forgets to follow through. He never got stern with any of us on his team. He reserved that for putting the other execs in their places when they tried to overstep.

He’d had a long career, a lot of it involved in corporate training and education, and used to regale us with stories of his days at the ice cream company Baskin-Robbins, or working with the toy company Mattel. He was an avid fan of Disneyland and collected memorabilia from there. He didn’t have a lot of decorations in his office, but there was a huge framed print behind his desk, maybe 3 by 5 feet, of a hand-drawn map of Disneyland in Anaheim in its early days after it opened in 1955.

He liked to listen to music on his computer while he worked, and his tastes were very eclectic, ranging from jazz classics of yesteryear to modern indie bands. He also had a thing for coffee, buying imported beans from around the world, then roasting and grinding them himself. It was an office tradition that every day around 3 p.m. he would use a French press to make a pot of some exotic caffeinated brew, and then bring out the carafe, for our department only. Generally, it would be gone in a minute as people jockeyed to get their cup. I often felt sorry for our video editor, Peter, who worked in an office converted into an editing bay, often with headphones on, because he would frequently miss out on coffee time whenever I forgot to remind him because I didn’t notice myself that the pot was out.

He was a physically slight man, average height, very slim, and although his hair was completely white, it had style, standing straight up. If they’d ever made a Fido Dido movie, he would have been the person to cast.

And all of that, gone, in an instant. At least he was doing something he loved at the time. He survived a heart attack not long after my own adventure with heart failure, but seemed to have bounced back and was doing well, so in that regard it’s a grim reminder to me. But where it gets really personal and where it hits home is that he’s the second inspirational friend that I’ve lost in two months.

Her name was Cynthia S., and she was a neighbor who lived in a bungalow on the other side of the garden apartment complex where I live. I met her while walking my dog because she often sat out on her front porch, and had a smile and a friendly word for everyone, and treats for all of the dogs. She became a gathering point for neighbors and this was how a lot of us actually got to meet each other. This might not seem unusual if you’re from a smaller town, but there’s a running gag in Los Angeles: The only time neighbors in L.A. ever meet each other is right after a big earthquake.

I stopped to chat with her many a time, and that’s how we became friends. I always felt comfortable sharing things with her, and she did likewise. I’d often told her that she would have been perfect for doing voiceover, and if she’d been cast in a film or play it would have been as the archetypal Earth mother. She was one of the few people that my dog Sheeba ever decided to trust, and had the extremely rare “top of head” privileges. That is, she could pet my dog’s head without her trying to duck or move away. She was also one of two people I ever trusted to take care of Sheeba when I was away, and it was via one of the times that Sheeba stayed with Cynthia while I was out of town for the weekend that I learned the awful truth: My dog likes cats.

Shocking, I know, right?

And then, not long before Halloween last year, I was walking Sheeba past Cynthia’s place and she was on the porch, but did not seem to be in her usual ebullient mood. I stopped to talk, although something seemed off, and then she finally said the three words that no human being with a heart or soul ever wants to hear from another person they care about.

“I have cancer.”

She had just been diagnosed but didn’t have a prognosis yet, but it was like the world fell out from under my feet. To be honest, over the years I’d known her, she had begun to feel like the mother I hadn’t had long enough because my own mother died when I was way too young. It was like being stabbed in the heart by some dark malicious demon who hated any hint of goodness or light in the world. It was, honestly, devastating to me.

And then my walks with Sheeba became more difficult because I would still pass by her porch twice a day, but she was on it less often. And then came the days when I’d walk by and there’d be some hospice van parked out front, maybe an RN sitting on the porch filling out forms, Sometime after that revelation and the end, I did run into her one more time, but the buoyant energy was gone, the spark had left her eyes, and she had lost so much weight that it was frightening.

A week before Christmas last year, I was walking my dog past her place and ran into one of the many neighbors I’d met only because of Cynthia, and she smiled and waved at me and said, “Did you hear?” And I hadn’t heard, but those three words told me all that I needed to know. On December 18, 2018, Cynthia passed away at home, and the Bitch Demon Hellhound called Cancer claimed another good and gentle soul.

I’m not a religious person at all. I don’t believe in an afterlife. But if one did exist, I’d like to think that Cynthia is sitting on a rocking chair next to the rainbow bridge, greeting all of the arriving dogs and looking out for them until their humans arrive.

And typing that made me cry like a baby.

Here’s the point, though. At the end of the day — or the end of your life — what matters isn’t what you’ve done, what you own, what you’ve said, or created, or any of that. What matters are the people you have loved and the people who have loved you. What we can so easily lose sight of is the simple but nasty fact that any of us or any of them could be gone in an instant. Strangely enough, this truth is hidden in the climax of Avengers: Infinity War, when a finger snap kills half of all living things. In case you didn’t know, the character doing the snapping, Thanos, has a name derived from the Greek word for death.

Anyway… I needed to make sure that I memorialized these two amazing people, but also wanted to remind all of my readers of this: There is no guarantee that any of us will ever see tomorrow, so take the time today to remind someone you care about that you love them, because in 24 hours they might not be around for you to say it, or you might not be here to say it yourself.

No longer mourn for me when I am dead

Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell

Give warning to the world that I am fled

From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:

Nay, if you read this line, remember not

The hand that writ it, for I love you so,

That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,

If thinking on me then should make you woe.

O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,

When I perhaps compounded am with clay,

Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;

But let your love e’en with my life decay;

   Lest the wise world should look int’ your moan,

   And mock you with me after I am gone.

— Shakespeare, Sonnet 71

Going back up the family tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laissez le bon temps rouler

While I’m an atheist, I find religious symbolism to be useful in the right context. As Fat Tuesday brings us into Lent, here are some lessons even the most secular of people can use. Plus… free beads!

Although I’m only nominally Catholic by accident of birth and an atheist by nature, I have learned to appreciate the symbolic value of some religious rituals, and since today is Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which leads into Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, which means we’re supposed to give up something from now until Easter… I’d like to honor my mother’s side of the family by giving something up, but it ain’t gonna be something simple, like coffee or candy or meat.

No, it’s going to be something harder. For Lent, I am going to give up judgement of others… which means giving up impatience, lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of seeing other people as fellow humans, even if I find their politics to be utterly disgusting to me. Lent, whether you’re religious or not, is all about sacrifice for the greater good — giving up a key part of your person in order to rediscover your connection to humanity.

And, as what is basically a pagan celebration of the imminent return of spring is warped into serving a patriarchal mind-control system, I’m doing my part to take it back. For Lent, I am giving up hate. I am giving up fear. I am giving up the idea that people who are different than me are scary. In fact, people who are different than me just remind me of the fact of how similar all people are to me — white, black, Asian, indigenous, mixed; gay, straight, bisexual, asexual (but especially bisexual, yay, us!); cis and trans; tall, short, cute, ugly, old, young… whatever.

Remember this: By definition, all life on this planet is related because all of us are descended from the same primordial ooze. But, beyond that, every single one of us is made up of atoms that were first created in a star that lived and died and blew up long before our own sun was born. Every single living thing here is literally a bit of star stuff twisted around a simple organic molecule born in a turgid puddle of water that emerged billions of years ago after this lump of rock solidified in a rather boring corner of space.

And our time here is but a mere eye-blink in terms of what the cosmos has experienced. We might as well do whatever the hell we can to make our fellow creatures feel more happy and welcome every second we’re here, and if it means giving up shit that makes us feel comfortable for forty days in order to make at least one other person feel more welcome, then have at it.

So, for Lent this year, atheist me is going to give up all attitudes that make anyone else ever feel less than… and embrace everything I can do to make my fellow humans and other beings feel like they are a valid part of this little wet lump of mud spinning through the void we have found ourselves on.

How hard is that to do, eh?