What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.

Deoxyribonucleic Acid and You

The great thing about me, about you, and all of us, is that we are made up of the combined heredity of a myriad of people; but moreso, we are made up of two – our moms and dads. Every one of us is a not-so-symmetrical blend of our parents’ DNA. You can see it when you meet the child of someone you have known for years, or for that matter, meeting that friend’s parents, and you will either say that one closely resembles the other, or that they are very different. People have been telling me my whole life – bringing me much distress during my teenage years – that I look very much like my dad. I continued rebuking everyone who pointed out the similarities until I saw it for myself in the mirror one day. It was some facial expression or mannerism, or a combination of many things, but there he was, my dad, looking right back at me. It comes and goes, but deep down I’ve always known.

So it was settled: I had become my father. Naturally, I take after my mom, too. I have her sense of humor and her tastes for music, art, and politics. I share my dad’s love for sardines. Go figure. My brother also has a curious blend of our parents. He got the good hair and the lean, muscular build. I got the brains. Seems fair. It’s all a roll of the dice, unless you subscribe to the principles of eugenics, where children can be customized and engineered, a model for humanity based not on natural selection, but on individual preference. This is a frightening prospect, leaving nothing to chance, manufacturing human beings for a potentially nefarious purpose. This might inspire someone to create a “master race” of superhumans. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth just thinking about it.

Fortunately, or not, depending on your perspective, we must leave it up to fate. From my perspective, being childless, I don’t have to imagine how it could go wrong. I would like to have seen what kind of child my wife and I could have had together. I’m sure it frightens young couples to think about the possibility of seeing manifest the worst aspects of their respective families – perhaps some alcoholism or drug addiction, or mental illness, or a tendency toward violence. Some things may be difficult to avoid. It is believed that personality and inclination are developed through experience. My cousin who has identical twins might disagree. But much of who we are was not packaged with us at birth. For instance, I am much more skeptical now than when I was younger. And I appreciate flavors I used to find disgusting as a child (wasabi, for instance).

When you look through old photos, you can see resemblances. You will see it more and more as time goes on, because in the 21st century, everyone has been photographed at least once in their lifetime. My great-grandparents might not have even owned a camera. A hundred years ago, having a portrait made was a big expense, and not everyone could afford it. If you have pictures of certain family members when they were young, consider those priceless. Nowadays, everyone has a camera in their pocket, and those pictures proliferate the internet. Therefore, as we get older, more photos will be available with better quality, and future generations will be able to see likenesses with greater resolution and clarity than ever before.

We are not carbon copies of either of our parents, but instead a unique blend of them both. Actually, it does go far beyond our parents. I have my paternal grandfather’s nose, and my brother has our maternal great-grandfather’s build. That photo album will reveal more as you go further back in time. But there are more segments of our past beyond the outward appearance. You might have your grandmother’s laugh, or you might have your dad’s sense of humor.

For some reason, I have to say, I have a good ear for music. I am a singer, and I play several instruments. A few people in my dad’s side of the family are musically inclined. It’s really a small percentage. I could say it runs in my family, but there’s no hard evidence to prove it. On the other hand, I’ve met artistic couples whose children show no interest or talent in the arts. I’m grateful for my talents, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But I do wish I were more naturally organized. What little focus I have, I have had to work to achieve it. Being organized definitely does not come naturally to me, even if it is featured among some in my family.

There are a lot of traits we can credit one or both parents for. Most of my features I get from my dad – everything from hair follicles to body shape to culinary inventiveness. Sometimes it seems I am a carbon copy of him. That’s not so bad. He and I are not likely to agree on politics, and he is probably disappointed that I couldn’t give him grandchildren (I think he’s moved on to my brother). But I suspect he also stays up late on his computer, perhaps rambling about some idea that was keeping him awake. It wouldn’t surprise me. After all, I really am my father.

Morphology

Words are important. Context is even more so. Words can have multiple meanings in the same sentence, like “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.” In this case, “ducks” is a verb, but because it follows “hunts”, we first assume it is the object of the hunt, the animal. The sentence would be better understood by inserting another word and adding a comma, “The man who hunts animals, ducks out on weekends.”

But sometimes a word starts to take on a new meaning, and it becomes less ambiguous. The original meaning is morphed. This is why we call every facial tissue a Kleenex, using a specific brand name. Or why people often say “literally” to describe something with emphasis, when in fact, they are misusing the word. Saying “I literally died laughing,” is a completely inaccurate statement unless you were resuscitated after laughing so hard that your heart stopped.

I studied language and linguistics, so I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to choosing the right word. I am by no means as rigid about language as so many lawyers, but I believe it’s important to be accurate. For example, people often say, “whatever” when they can’t think of the right word or when they’re simply being lazy. I heard two people coming out of a store talking about where they would go next. One woman in the group said, “we’ll go to Bed, Bath, and whatever,” as if “whatever” was easier to say than “Beyond.” My wife and I joke about this, and whenever we need to go shopping, I say, “we need some ‘whatever’.”

Laziness might be less to blame for the emergence of textspeak. The need to be succinct because of the cost of mobile data usage, and the 140 character limit of Twitter, not to mention our lower attention spans, have all contributed to abandoning of proper grammar and spelling. “You’re” is now “UR”, and “that’s hilarious” or “very funny” are now “LOL”. This is probably the beginning of persistent changes to language as we have known it, and indeed English has changed dramatically over the past 200 years. New words have entered our lexicon, and older, lesser-used, words have become extinct. Some have taken on new meaning. Case in point, we don’t use “gay” to mean happy anymore.

Some things are slow to change. A mobile intensive care unit (MICU) may still be referred to as an ambulance, even though it doesn’t resemble that antiquated vehicle much. Also, we have abandoned the word “pianoforte” for the modern “piano”, and the list continues. Things change, and sometimes change is pretty fast. As people live longer they will no doubt witness more changes in their lifetime. The late grandmother of one of my friends reportedly remembered arriving in California in a covered wagon as a little girl, and she lived long enough to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. A lot of radical changes happened in the meantime, as you might imagine.

I expect many things will change in my lifetime. I have already witnessed dramatic changes to the English language, and I am split. On one hand, I lament the disappearance of the language I grew up with, but on the other, it is not good to remain in the past. I think I will always insist on proper 20th century American English when I communicate here or in business. I dare not elevate my language when texting or on Twitter. There’s no room, and there is no call for it. I say “lol”. But I say “you are” or “you’re” as opposed to “UR”. That’s just my brain’s unwillingness to cut off pathways to the memorized portions of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s hard to let go. Kind of like trying to breathe while submerged.

Change will happen whether we like it or not. Just like people don’t ride around by horse-and-buggy, some things aren’t meant to stick around. That said, I say “toodle-oo”, as the old folks say. (God, I’m glad that’s no longer a thing.)

What Day is it?

It’s Thursday. But it feels like Friday. We’ve all said something like this at one time or another. Working through the weekend, going on holiday, being housebound for a few days with the flu; there are many causes for being a little disoriented in terms of our tendency to mark the passage of time by artificial means. What is a day, anyway? In a basic sense, a day is just the amount of time needed between sunsets. The sun drops below the horizon – day over. Simple, right?

Real time – cosmic time – is not constrained by hours, minutes, years, and weekdays. When the Apollo astronauts were careening through space toward the moon, they had no sense of day or night. Looking out the window might have told them it was night, because the sky is black in space. They probably weren’t thinking about what day of the week it was. I don’t know. But did it matter that it was a Wednesday? It strikes me as odd that we assign characteristics, almost personification, to any day of the week.

A few weeks ago I took half a day off. It was a Wednesday. I chose that day pretty much arbitrarily, but I felt it might make the week pass quicker. It didn’t. A watched pot and all that. Besides not seeming to enhance the perception of the passage of time, it actually screwed me up, because I spent that morning doing things I usually do on Saturdays: making breakfast, sleeping in a bit. Not every Saturday is like this. Sometimes I am traveling, and sometimes I’m writing or working on other projects. In any case, when I showed up for my bill-paying gig, it felt strange. And that continued through the rest of the week.

Humans like patterns. Actually, a lot of organisms get off on patterns. Bees make their hive in a geometric pattern. Geese fly in a V formation. I’ve heard that squirrels bury acorns using some sort of arithmetic algorithm. Clearly, nature loves a certain amount of order and symmetry. Even quartz forms in a geometric pattern, according to the properties of crystalline formations.

It stands to reason that we humans would at some point in our development seek to establish boundaries and controls over groupings of the number of sunsets. The study of the motion of the stars and planets helped the Maya establish an early – and quite accurate – calendar thousands of years ago. Knowing how the earth revolves around the sun, or at least how the seasons change and recycle, was surely vital to agriculture. And, presto, you have civilization. No more chasing herds of caribou or wildebeests. Now people could plant crops and know about when to expect them to be ready for harvest.

So it seems it very important to assign a name to this day and another name to the next one, and so on. I’m not a farmer, but I do a lot of gardening. It’s very important to know when to plant. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Monday or a Tuesday to the seeds and the compost. But it is a lot more likely I will be available on a Saturday. In Texas, late February is a pretty good time to plant seeds directly in the garden, as we have done this year.

Giant Zinnias

With a shift in the earth’s climate, time itself is shifting. Spring arrives in February now. When I was a kid, we might see icy patches in the streets as late as March. But now, seasons are harder to predict. Next year, we might have another snowstorm. Who knows.

I wear a wristwatch. I mean an actual timepiece, not an Apple Watch or similar device. This watch was an anniversary gift from about 2001. It is a Wenger Swiss “kinetic” watch, meaning it is purely mechanical and winds itself. So, as I wear it and move around all day, the watch will continue to keep time, even when I lay it on my bedside table for a day or two. after three days it tends to stop. The strange thing is that it runs a little fast. I mean, a little. Over the course of a week, it may run one or two minutes ahead. No big deal; but, ironically, I synchronize it with my phone. C’est la guerre.

If I didn’t go to the office, if I didn’t live around people, I might easily lose track of what day it was. It would hardly matter, as I said. I wonder when days of the week ever began to matter. Early people, people for whom belief in supernatural beings controlling all aspects of our lives was the only sensible explanation for things, probably needed to mark the time, naming the days. The Old English root for Tuesday, Tiwesdæg, is translated as “Tiw’s Day”, named for the Norse god of war. The name stuck, even as the Vikings abandoned the old gods.

One way I like to mark the passage of time is by watching the trees on my property grow taller and taller. For trees, the basic unit of time is a season. Like the second hand on a watch, each season passes quickly compared to the lifespan of a liveoak or a cedar elm. The Treaty Oak in Austin, Texas is estimated to be 500 years old, definitely a mature specimen. The pair of live oaks in my front yard were about ten years old when the house was built. Now they are about 23 years old each, but decidedly adolescent as trees go. Assuming someone will be here to take care of the property in the next centuries, they will outlive everyone reading this blog.

Time appears to be relative to the observer, as Einstein proposed. Whether he was right or wrong, you must admit that time is part of our being. Each of us has our own internal clock, our heartbeat, our own rhythm. Some of us are content to sit peacefully and take it all in, while others can’t sit still for a minute. Every morning, I take a moment to look at the flowers we planted a few months ago. They tower over the walkway from the front door to the driveway, leaves and petals reaching to the sun, insatiable in their cravings. Time is not on their side, because by November they will have faded, having lost their lustre and radiance. For them, a lifetime is in the space between spring and fall, in Texas, a full nine months. They do all they can in that short time. It’s amazing, too.

Dogs and Climate Change

Dogs don’t believe in global warming. Of course they don’t, because they don’t give a shit. So why should we? About 27,000 years ago, domestic breeds of dogs began to emerge from ancient ancestors of modern wolves. It is thought that “gentler” wolves that were better adapted to human activity and were able to acclimate themselves to us were eventually domesticated and bred into the many breeds we know today. It’s hard to believe, but Pomeranians and Rottweilers have the same genome, and they are genetically more similar than the between six and 11 distinct giraffe species. I mean, I look at a giraffe and I think, “giraffe”. It’s a little hard to accept that a chihuahua can’t be a different species from a mastiff, but okay.

I have to admit to my anxiety over hearing increasingly grim news about how humans may be “the asteroid, not the dinosaurs” in the assertion that we are not just looking at – but may be part of the problem in the Sixth Mass Extinction in earth’s long history, according to the Daily Beast. Well, this isn’t such a new idea. Apparently, Charles Darwin entertained such an idea in The Origin of Species back in the 19th century. Yet this is just as hotly debated as it ever was, and Americans seem to be polarized over this issue. But to me, it’s a simple question of whether humans could possibly have ever made lasting changes to our environment. The argument against this position maintains that there are many factors, and man is not solely responsible for the apparent change in earth’s climate, if it is indeed changing. To wit: many scientists agree that the earth’s average temperature is rising, as are sea levels. Ice caps are shrinking, and habitats are dwindling. Opponents have argued that there is not sufficient data to prove any of this. I call bullshit, but we can agree to disagree, at least until the next ice age. Apparently, some are willing to hold their breath instead of listening to reason, and they will not be convinced.

But here’s something interesting: dogs. Dogs would not exist if not for human intervention. The same may be said for cattle, pigs, cats, and chickens. Sure, there are wild varieties of each of these animals. But my docile, domestic Siamese cat in no way resembles his erstwhile wild cousins. I saw one of them, while mountain biking one October day. Ahead on the trail I saw a large cat, probably a bobcat. It was hunched over something it had captured, perhaps a rabbit. I slowed, and when it saw me, it picked up its prey and ran off into the forest. My cat would hardly be able to catch a bunny. His instincts might lead him to kill it, perhaps even try to eat it. But I doubt it. What’s the difference between my kitty and that wild predator I encountered? Human intervention. Anyone who thinks humans have not made dramatic changes to our planet has perhaps not been paying attention.

With this knowledge, you might think the human race would start paying closer attention to our impact on this planet. It behooves us to take better care of our environment. Is it going to prevent extinction? Probably not. But we should start taking more responsibility for our actions. We were taught that in kindergarten. Tell the truth, clean up after yourself, and share with others. Later in my life, a teacher and pastor taught me about stewardship. He said we are called to be good stewards over everything we’ve been given: our health, our minds and bodies, our relationships, our finances, and our environment. It was a surprising message coming from the church. But I appreciated it. I took it to heart, and I try to live by this philosophy. It’s a concept I’ve heard from others: we were not given this world by our parents; instead, we are borrowing it from our children, or something to that effect.

I was reading an article about the Observer Effect. The principle can best be described as one’s inability to precisely measure something without changing the conditions. For example, let’s say I want to know the temperature of a cup of coffee. The coffee in the cup may be 50ºC, near scalding. So I dip a thermometer into the piping hot liquid, but the thermometer is not already the same temperature as the coffee; thus, the coffee loses heat, and we can’t know what the temperature was before I started my test. In the real world, this would hardly be noticeable. But there are many examples where observing a system changed the results. I bring this up because it’s important to realize that small changes make big differences down the line. You can really see this if you’ve ever tried shooting baskets from the free-throw line. You can have almost the same posture and movement each time you shoot, but the results can vary dramatically. Humans have been making small changes for tens of thousands of years. Actually, there have been huge changes, like the extinction of North American prehistoric horses, or massive deforestation. Humans have been altering this planet’s trajectory, ecologically speaking, all along. And the earth may not be able to recover quickly enough. It wasn’t too long ago that the city of London was shrouded in pollution from coal fires. Factories around the world continue to spew God-knows-what from huge smokestacks. And rivers and oceans are choked with medical waste and toxic runoff.

So, I recycle a lot of household waste. Otherwise, I like to compost things that are suitable. The rest is garbage. We produce a lot of trash. I think I’ve posted about this before, but at least I delivered a speech about it recently. I tend to get a little preachy with this subject, but we all have our passions, I suppose. Is it too much to ask that I should be able to breathe clean air and drink safe water? I don’t take these things for granted, because there are places like Beijing and Flint.

Hopefully, we will not be on the extinction list. I wish we could say that about other organisms. But we can do something, small though it may be. We’re already making positive changes, and perhaps the planet will recover this time.

So the next time someone says we’re not responsible for climate change, ask him if he believes in dog.

The Good Old Days?

I am not an old man. That being said, the 1990’s were a long time ago – not in grand, geological terms, nor to most “boomers”, but the flow of time continues with no hint of slowing, and we who are left to suffer under its tyranny are forced to watch the suffering of those who were caught under the wheels of this temporal juggernaut. Then again, 25 years ago isn’t such a very long time now, is it?

The other day, I was listening to streaming music – unavailable in the old days – when Mariah Carey’s “Emotions” began to play. A great song – not her very best, but a good one, nonetheless. I decided to look up the song to get some details, and there it was: release date, August 13, 1991. 25 years ago. Now this song has been around a long time, but I wouldn’t have considered it an “oldie”. But back when I was in high school, we listened to “classic rock” from the 60’s – less than 20 years earlier. Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. I think it’s funny, or strange, that I perceive the late 60’s as such a long time ago, but more time has passed from the advent of the web (not the internet – that has been around a lot longer than people realize) to the present day than from Nixon’s inauguration to my high school graduation. Yes, when I graduated from high school, it had only been 16 years since Richard Nixon was sworn in as the 37th President of the US. The first website was launched more than 25 years ago.

A lot of us can remember the world before websites and mobile phones. We can remember having to use pay phones and going to the library to look things up, because even if you had a computer in your home back then, it probably wasn’t connected to other computers. That was kind of normal back then. I wonder what the world will be like 25 years from now. Will we have RFID’s implanted in our bodies? Will self-driving cars be a thing, or will that plan fizzle like Beta-Max and New Coke? Nowadays, the things I miss are strange to think about. Like going to a record store, or being unreachable by phone. There was a time when no one could text you. It just wasn’t an option. When you wanted to be out of reach, all you had to do was leave your house and go to the movies. Oh, that will probably disappear soon, too.

Now, people get upset with me if I don’t respond in a timely fashion. What’s “timely”? Well, some of my acquaintances get miffed if they have to wait more than a few minutes for me to respond to a text message. And these are people my age or older! Don’t they remember the “good old days?”

The 90’s were a long time ago. An entire generation exists with no memory of that decade. My niece is about to graduate from high school, and she was born in 1998. She only knows a world where the web was well-established, and most people had mobile devices. Her generation has never used a pay phone or had to reference an almanac. It might sound like I’m complaining, but in reality, I’m looking ahead with optimism, and a little concern. No one can predict what will come next. Could anyone have predicted reality television, or better yet, the obsolescence of that medium? It looks like the new wave of our culture will be to elect personalities rather than candidates. Fame will be instant – the term “viral” is already part of our lexicon.

Do I miss the 90’s? No. Nor do I miss any other time before. I miss long lost friends. I miss those who are gone. I miss cool rainy days in the heat of summer. If I could go to any other time in history, I would hesitate to go because I rather like it here. It can be scary at times, and aging is a bitch. But looking forward provides a better vantage point; that’s why I love road trips. I like to see what’s just over the horizon. I look forward to seeing the future. But forgive me if you find me listening to some “oldies” on Spotify. It’s not nostalgia; I just like the sound.

Things are getting better all the time. This medium allows me to publish, when in the past I would have to find someone to print it and distribute it. And I would have no idea if it reached anyone. In the 90’s you had to rewind your VHS tapes or be charged a fee when you returned them. Now, we have streaming, on-demand video. Oh, I missed SNL. No problem, it’s on Hulu. That’s some righteous shit! Really, things are better now. Yes, there’s still a lot of sexual harassment in the workplace. People are still being denied basic human rights all over the world, even here. And there is exploitation and discrimination the same as before. But anyone can serve in the military now. Anyone can get married now. And anyone can have a voice, instantly, globally.

What do I look forward to for the next 25 years? Everyone pays their fair share in taxes. No corporate golden parachutes. An end to predatory banking. Real campaign finance reform. Affordable higher education. And equal wages. Just to name a few. These are the good new days. Is it perfect? Hell no. But the world will change. It always has, and nothing seems to have ever gotten in the way of change. Just be prepared and embrace it. But don’t forget how we got here.

The Enemy Family

Sometimes I hate people.

I recently submitted DNA samples in a project to discover our human ancestry. There are several organizations out there that will, for a fee, analyze one’s DNA and provide the customer with information about his or her genetic past. The results will allow me to see into the distant past and possibly discover where my family came from and how we got here. Many people have paid for this analysis to be performed on their cheek swab material. Evidently, enough genetic material may be collected by scrubbing the inside of your mouth for 45 seconds to give scientists a detailed picture of what you’re made of. As it turns out, genetic researchers, along with historians and anthropologists and archaeologists, have traced human migration patterns to a precise spot in East Africa. Over a few hundred thousand years, Homo Sapiens moved from there to all points on the globe to where we find ourselves now.

It is clear to me that my ancestors came from Europe. One path will undoubtedly trace back to England, then further, to Central Europe and beyond. Another path will connect with the Iberian Peninsula, then to North Africa. Perhaps. But recent discoveries have identified a significant amount of Neanderthal DNA mixed in with some of us, the ones who descended from early Europeans. It will therefore come as no surprise to find 3-4% Homo Neanderthalensis in my sample, which is about average for people of European descent. It is much lower with Asians, and practically nonexistent among Africans.

Neanderthals have had a pretty negative reputation since first appearing in popular culture. They’re seen as ogre-like cave-dwellers with low intelligence and a knuckle-dragging posture. But a lot more is being learned about them and how it is they vanished. Well, they didn’t disappear entirely, it turns out. They are us (some of us, anyway.)

I don’t know anything about early humans, but I like to think part of who I am, my psyche, my physical attributes, I can trace back to those Neanderthal roots. Nevermind that I have a natural talent for music. I don’t know where that comes from, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily an inherited trait, but many members of my family have similar talents.

I was raised a certain way, and my family is not prone to violence or aberrant behavior (although there have been a few alcoholics). As a man, I am, however, fiercely protective, especially where my wife is concerned. When she feels threatened by someone, my instincts start working through my primitive components, and I become angry. No one causes my wife more harm more than her family.

My wife’s siblings are all very protective of her, especially her brothers, about whom I should refrain from drawing ancestral conclusions, but there are a lot of people who would be quite surprised to find that they have sub-Saharan African genetic roots. But the main problem we have with our families is not with siblings, but with in-laws. It is for this reason that I am a proponent of arranged marriages. Who better to pick your mate than the people who know you better than you know yourself? But I digress.

These in-laws, ex-in-laws, as it were, of my wife’s siblings, are not bad people, but they are hurtful and cruel. It is their upbringing, I suppose. Just as most people would find beating their children repugnant, they see it as part of life, a necessary affliction. Their parents abused them, therefore abuse begets abuse. But say anything disparaging about their family, no matter how horrible growing up was for them, and you will find yourself ostracized if not assaulted both physically and verbally.

It is enough for me to beckon my Neanderthal 3% and smite these people with the efficiency and thoroughness of the berserker. I feel a little like Bruce Banner, struggling to hold back this juggernaut within me. In reality I have nothing of substance to administer as a rebuke to the injury brought upon my family. And I consciously know that violence is not an answer. But there is rage, Neanderthal notwithstanding, inside me knowing how my wife is being punished for no reason.

People like to think that, above all else, family is the most important thing. Family trumps everything. Well, kind of. The Civil War rent families beyond reconciliation. Brothers fought brothers. The entire country was ripped apart. Family is not the strongest bond, it appears. It is my opinion that one’s family is made up of the people who care most for us, those who will stand by us, who will be with us no matter what we’re going through. These “relatives” of my wife are not family. They will not come to our aid if we are in need. They will not comfort, they will not defend us. They are the enemy.

I know how to treat enemies.

My Neanderthal ancestors probably had similar problems with in-laws. But their solution was probably a lot more gruesome. My solution is to cut them off entirely. Not so easy for my wife. And the struggle persists. But we do have family. Real family. Our friends who have always stood with us, who would travel halfway around the world just to see us. That’s family. Anthropologists like to remind us we are all one big family of humanity. Well, they haven’t met everyone, have they?