"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 30, 2016

Who Am I? The Search For Ancestry, Identity, And Personal Meaning

We all want to know where we come from, who are our ancestors, whether we are descended from princes or madmen, and if there might be some trace of nobility or respect. Most of us are disappointed when we discover that our family history has neither high birth nor romance but just plain folk - farmers, woodsmen, peasants, and serfs who never rose much beyond their station.

Yet there are enough stories of strange genealogical finds that we continue to pursue our histories. There might well be a bit of lineage traced back to the First Families of Virginia or the Mayflower. A document buried in the vault of an Anglican Church on the Northern Neck might show a definite, although remote relationship to King Carter and from him back to England and the finest registries of London and Wiltshire.  The purity of this ancestry might be diluted by interbreeding with the wives of tenant farmers or slaves, but there could be no denying the legitimacy of its origins. Most importantly, family history would not be featureless or without importance.

Image result for painting wife of lewis burwell

Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the taverns of Elizabethan England can claim a more significant lineage than those who were born, lived, and died in the mud of the West Country. Ancestral links to the Boar’s Head Tavern are worth something.  Forbears at least consorted with the likes of Falstaff and Prince Hal.

Image result for images boars head tavern shakespeare

Tracing ancestry in Old Europe is no pastime.  A Frenchman who can pursue his family history back to the Third Crusade or even the First is worth more than any contemporary of wealth and importance in the Third Republic.  An Englishman whose forbears were counts and courtiers of Henry II or King John have more standing than those with bloodlines of minor viscounts or third cousins of doubtful royalty.

Aristocratic, noble, and royal Italians, Germans, Spanish, Serbs, and Poles all intermarried and created a pan-European elite. Claims to this lineage are not simply tracings on an elaborate family tree but essential to social status and privilege. Despite the French Revolution, the beheading of the King, and the execution of thousands of aristocrats, the aristocracy is alive and well.  Not every noble went to the guillotine, and although many of the best families were dismembered, enough survived to continue the aristocratic line.  Despite marriages to commoners and the loss of land, wealth, and property, those with a storied ancestral past still rely on it for social legitimacy and status.

On the contrary, it is of little consequence whether an American can trace his roots to the Mayflower, to John Smith, John Adams, George Washington, the Duke of Norfolk, or Lord Fairfax. America is fast becoming a classless society where family roots have less and less pertinence; where the social prestige of the Main Line, Beacon Hill, and Park Avenue has all but disappeared. There are a few clubs - The Society of the Cincinnati, the Cosmos Club, and a dozen more like them in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York - which safeguard an Old World gentility ; but in our diverse, pluralistic, and competitive society, they are increasingly irrelevant.  One is more hard-pressed than ever to find a socially prominent niche.

For most people fame and popular currency are enough.  Few ask about the social and family origins of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, or Mark Zuckerberg. They are the new classless Americans with no ascribed, historical value; only that derived from their current worth.  They have only one perspective - forward - and in that they are quintessentially American.

Yet, genealogy will not die; and although many inquirers are simply interested in completing the family tree, just as many are looking for a legitimacy which can only come from bloodlines.   An ordinary daughter of mixed-nationality parents, an indistinct member of the upper middle class, laboring successfully if not uniquely, will always be, inevitably, undistinguished unless she can find a link to an illustrious past.

This search for social legitimacy, however, cannot explain the genealogy phenomenon.  Too few Americans have any hope of finding a link to anyone of significance in American history let alone the Mayflower or the First Families of Virginia to be motivated by social status.  It has to do more with a sense of personal worth and legitimacy in a contemporary world which confers little of it.

It  is difficult to be satisfied with the cards one is dealt.  Few of us are satisfied with the looks, intelligence, physical abilities, or talent programmed in our DNA. The past can afford much more; and in a society where few have a traceable connection to an illustrious history, all the more reason to go prospecting.  If one has been born poor, of questionable legitimacy, and of little social, economic, or financial value to the community, where does self-worth come from?  If not from ancestral history nor contemporary success, nor any civic  recognition, then from where?  No one can live without some pride of identity.

Yet when all is said and done, and when we are  forced to  reflect on a life led, such attributive values should matter little.  We all die alone, said the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Yet like Ivan, until we are faced with the eternity of death, we insist on fabricating meaning.  In the final accounting who we were counts for nothing; who we are, everything.

Genealogy now means very little, especially in America.  There are no rewards to proving a noble ancestry in a populist democracy.  Not so in the days of kings and courtiers, it was deadly serious.  How many wives did Henry VIII have to marry and dispatch to assure a male heir? The drama is still played out in Europe where the grandchildren of old, titled families fight over wills, primogeniture, and the right of legitimate descendants; but it is if only glancing relevance in America today.  If we can uncover some royal or aristocratic bits  in our past, all well and good.  If we can claim some purchase on past talent, intelligence, initiative, or enterprise, the history is even more valuable.

Few of us are content with what we are, regardless of the hand dealt; and creating identities above and beyond that which God, Nature, or Chance have bestowed is normal, natural, and human. Which is why America is so unique.  Few are satisfied with what is but with what could be and what might have been.  Tradable personal worth is our currency,

The coming virtual world in which each individual will be able to explore his own personal dimensions will drastically devalue this currency.  A world defined by individual fantasy, imagined relationships, and invented personae has no meaning for anyone other than the dreamer.

Until then we will have to be satisfied with ancestry and image - making the best out of bad hands and bad genes, trumping up our credentials, and looking good.

Recipes–Black Beans With Bacon And Cilantro, Guatemalan-Style

There are many Central American black bean recipes, but this one is simple and delicious.  The combination of bacon, onion, and cilantro is unbeatable.

Either cilantro seeds or fresh leaves will do fine.  I have always made with the fresh leaves, but last night tried with seeds, and there is very little difference. Both have pungent-sweet high flavor.
I prefer using dried beans, but you can substitute canned beans (1 can).  Be careful not to overcook, for the cooked beans can become overly soft quickly.

Black Beans with Bacon and Cilantro
* 1 cup dried black beans soaked overnight
* 1 lg. onion coarsely chopped
* 5 lg. cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
* 2 tbsp. pounded coriander seeds or 1 lg. handful fresh coriander leaves
* 1/4 pkg. hickory-smoked bacon
* 4 Tbsp. olive oil
- Drain the beans

- Add all the above ingredients with enough water to cover with about 3” above

- Simmer for approximately 4 hours or until beans are tender

- Raise heat to reduce liquid to a semi-thick consistency

- Taste, and add salt and ground pepper.

- Serve in soup bowls garnished with fresh cilantro (optional)  

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Life As A Side Show–Without Freaks, Innuendo, And Untruths Life Would Be Very Tedious Indeed

Few of Donald Trump’s supporters really care whether he is telling the truth or even whether his entire campaign and presidency are ones of confabulation.  They cheer his vaudevillian trickery and love every minute of being suckered rubes.  Who wants the way things really are while inside big tent there are trapezes, magicians who saw women in half, lion-tamers, clowns, and rings of fire.

Why listen to half-truths when no-truths are far more exciting.  Bearded ladies, babies with two heads, midgets, conjoined goats; armless, legless dwarfs, deformed giants, and cats with fish gills are worth triple the price of admission.  The freak show is fires, crashes, horrible deformities and disease, misfortune, and God’s irony all rolled up into one.   Life without it would be intolerable.

Image result for images bearded lady circus

Every city has its own toned-down version of the weird and unexplainable – its hermits, its morbidly obese; its dumb, clueless, and ugly; and its flashers.  They are nothing, however, compared to those imaginary deformed, those ordinary neighbors transformed by gossip, innuendo, rumor, and one unfortunate miscue into fantastical freaks.  Emma Sandstrom’s suicide which had only been rumored had become a ghoulish affair where she had hanged herself with lamp cord in the basement or turned a mottled reddish blue from asphyxiation in her gas range or cut her wrists in the bathtub which she had filled with bubbles and lavender scent or eaten rat poison, and consumed with thirst was found head first in the toilet bowl.

The ‘truth’ never came out.   None of the suspicions had any real merit or foundation.  She could have died peacefully in her bed or felled by a stroke; but the rumors of suicide persisted because of her eccentric behavior.  No one in New Brighton ever dressed in funereal veils and Victorian shoes when shopping downtown or drove like she did  around the block three times before pulling the car into the driveway.

Her bedroom lights were often on at 3am, shouts and cries could be heard after dinner coming from the basement well, and no one ever came to visit. 

Put all together her untimely death at age 45 could only add up to suicide, a combination of a deranged mind, a wayward husband, and a ne’er-do-well son. 

The obituary in the New Brighton Examiner provided no clues.
Emma Sandstrom, beloved wife of Herbert R. Sandstrom, Chief Accountant and Deputy Financial Officer of New Brighton Savings and Loan, mother of Bertrand S. Sandstrom, and daughter of Mrs. and Mrs. Per Carlson of Bayonne, New Jersey, died yesterday peaceful at home. Flowers and condolences may be sent to Pederson Funeral Home in New Brighton.
Poor Mr. Barnes, Headmaster of the Lefferts School where most of the well-to-do children of the West End attended, was rumored to have a dog’s jaw.  The story was that he had been badly wounded in the war by a mortar shell that had torn off the lower half of his face; and quick-thinking field medical officers had fitted him with the jaw of a German Shepherd guard dog which miraculously was not rejected by the immune system of the Headmaster.

Nonsense of course, but no one in New Brighton who attended school functions or met the Headmaster at social functions in Farmington and West Hartford could ever look at him without thinking of his dog’s jaw.   Had anyone looked at his ancestral photographs, they would have seen that  the under-slung, weak jaw had persisted through over five generations.

The residents of New Brighton, no different from those in any other town,  imagined the most unlikely paramours.  There was no way that the local haberdasher could possibly fallen for the X-Ray technician at the clinic, but the many innocent but tell-tale signs were too much to ignore.  Too much idle time together, too many shared rides, standing too close in the elevator – it all had to mean something.

A guest at any dinner party on Lincoln Street would have heard the most improbable stories of doctors gone bad, lawyers covering up malfeasance, questionable sexuality, terminal disease, unreliable war record, and premature dismissal from service. 
None of this is surprising, for life on the straight-and-narrow, especially one of fact, truth, and objectivity would be very tedious indeed.

In The Devil – Ivan’s Nightmare Dostoevsky’s Devil says as much:
For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course ... but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.
Image result for the devil brothers karamazov

Logic is not our strong suit nor ever has been.  The irony of history is that each generation tries to get purchase on the truth, but is proven wrong by each successive one.  Every individual is convinced that what he sees is the absolute truth, and yet both scientists and poets know that this is impossible.  Eyewitness testimony is routinely discredited, and artists like Browning, Kurosawa, and Durrell (The Ring and the Book; Rashomon; The Alexandria Quartet) all write of multiple perceptions of the same event.

The rigorous, disciplined, airtight logic of Aristotle, Plato, Kant or any of the Fathers of the Early Church is far beyond most of us; and before we get very far in trying to apply reason to matters of life, death, suffering, or the existence of God, our minds wander.  Taking stories at face value is so much easier.

The history of the Early Church is a good example.  While Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, Clement, and Aquinas parsed every line of the New Testament to extract an explanation of Scripture, those attending the first home-church services were concerned only with miracles, mystery, ritual, ceremony, and liturgy.   We may have hard-headed intellectuals in our midst, but we choose to ignore them at every turn.

Americans are especially given to the third race of the Trifecta – image.  Not only are our perceptions already distorted by an inability to see what is right there in front of us; and not only are we unable to make sense out of observable pattern or rationally assess risk and probability, we are children of fantasy.  We prefer to believe Hollywood, Las Vegas, reality and daytime television than Harvard scholars. 

The recent election (2016) is particularly noteworthy because one candidate – Donald Trump – exemplifies if not embodies this fantastical side of American culture.  He plays fast and loose with the ‘truth’, inventing as he goes, raising speculation to the level of fact, positioning everything within his own vaudevillian circus tent.  He is one of us; and yet there are many critics who still don’t get it.  They demand facts, issue papers, detailed programs, thoughtful analysis; and fear that the Republic has been turned on its head by a buffoon.

Trump supporters on the other hand dismiss these critics out of hand.  They are neither stupid nor ignorant, but joyfully riding a political circus train where the distorted, the absurd, the eccentric, and the ridiculous are the only reality.  Finally a candidate and the American populace have come together as one.

We pretend to make sense, but we are happiest reading People and E! We want gossip, innuendo, and suggestion.  Once the truth is out, we stop reading. 

All this is for the good.  The purposeful, determined, committed, and devout have far less fun than the rest of us.  Progressives are perhaps the least happy of all because not only do they have a belief in progress – the world can indeed be a better place if only we try harder – but a conviction that the world is tangle of problems.  There is no room nor no time to be devil-may-care.

So, stop worrying about the truth, the facts, issues, or insoluble problems.  They are only relative, made-up, or at best transitory concerns which will be of no consequence in 100 years.   Vegas and Hollywood are no accidents.  They are us.