What You Find in the Garbage

A little over 25 years ago, I saw a movie called The Fisher King, starring Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Mercedes Ruehl, and Amanda Plummer. Perhaps you’ve seen this film. In it, Bridges plays Jack Lucas, a radio talk host whose bravado and hubris come to a head when he makes an off-hand remark, as these personalities are wont to do, but his tirade inspires someone to go on a mass shooting rampage, killing many. One of those killed is the wife of Parry, played by Robin Williams.

To me, by way of the many times I have watched it – studying it, actually – the themes in Fisher King revolve around the simplicity of baser aspects of human nature, but intertwined with the unsightly, the lovely, the agonizing, and the superb qualities of the human condition. “The Fisher King” explores our callousness and compassion, our lack of mercy, and our need for redemption. It reminds us that we make alliances among most unlikely of people. Parry (Williams) is rendered destitute after the death of his wife, and leads a small army of the disenfranchised through the uncelebrated streets of Manhattan. Lucas (Bridges) also hits bottom, and finds a savior in Parry, who in turn needs saving from Lucas. Their symbiotic relationship makes each one stronger, allowing them to forgive themselves and each other.

Robin Williams at one time mentioned this was one of his best roles to perform. It’s difficult to nail that down, because he had so many great performances (Good Will Hunting, Aladdin, Good Morning Vietnam, and Dead Poets Society). But he seemed to express some real admiration for this project during a brief and somewhat disappointing interview with one Jimmy Carter (the other one). Carter asks Williams about his role and about the themes in the film, or at least a single dimension of the film, not getting too deep (it was only seven minutes in length). It is cringe-worthy, especially when Carter insists on doing a “video greeting card”.

“The Fisher King” was directed by Monty Python’s Flying Circus alum Terry Gilliam. Gilliam’s other features include Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, to name just a few. The style of Fisher King is typical of Gilliam’s other films, where we see a grittier, less sanitized world, making it look almost alien and unsuitable for human existence. Color is an important

Parry to the Recue
Parry (Williams) saves Jack (Bridges) from an attack.

part of the scenes. Red symbolizes the heart, complete with passion, agony, and love – romantic and otherwise; the Red Night, the cabaret singer played by Michael Jeter, the Chinese restaurant. The light in the Grand Central Waltz scene is both eery and magical. Figures glide in small circles, while Lydia (Plummer) sails amid the dancers, followed unbeknownst by Parry.

Dim Sum
Parry, Anne, Jack, and Lydia

The film is full of strange moments and a bit of insanity, mostly on the part of Parry, who is being pursued by his own demons, manifest in the form of the menacing Red Knight. At times, Parry seems to be in control, especially when Jack is with him. Other times, the knight chases Parry mercilessly. Eventually, Parry must face the demons from his past and attempt to make his way back from his own personal hell. Is he allowed to move on after the tragic death of his wife. Can he forgive Jack for his incendiary comments that may have led to the tragedy? Can Jack forgive himself? Redemption plays a big part in the relationship between the two men, and their relationships with Anne and Lydia, respectively. How do we count ourselves worthy for any love or kindness that comes our way? The answer to that question might be that we deserve nothing. We should never consider ourselves entitled to anything. Meanwhile, any gifts offered to us should be received with gratitude. We should not be above asking for help. And we should not debase ourselves with self-loathing, instead allowing others to come into our lives.

What I take from Fisher King mostly is that we are our own worst enemies. We beat ourselves up for offenses others would forgive. We deny ourselves joy and fulfillment. And we reject people who want to be with us, both out of longing and out of compassion and charity. At one point in the film, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl) finally tells Jack how much she loves him. You can see the pain in her expression, probably because she knows he does not love her the same way. Parry is motivated by is erstwhile unrequited love of Lydia, and as soon as he confesses his long-time obsession, here comes the Red Knight. Tragedy and heartache seem to follow immediately after finally letting down their guard, exposing their vulnerabilities. It’s a jagged pill to swallow, but baring your soul is often the most painful thing you will do. Broken ankle: sure, that hurt. Oral dry socket: hellish. Revealing your inner self, this is the riskiest move you can make.

I find myself quoting Fisher King all the time with my wife. We’ve seen it so many times, we can and do recite dialog from memory. But more significantly, we find ourselves comparing the movie’s themes to our own situations or something we have seen or heard. It is for us one of the best films we’ve ever seen. Not everyone agrees, but even though Roger Ebert in 1991 gave Fisher King a negative review, he later reconsidered the merits of the film, shortly after Williams’ death in 2014. Robin Williams was in rare form for this movie, and he is sorely missed. His on-screen lunacy brought energy to what otherwise might have been a dull movie, Jeter’s Gypsy rendition notwithstanding.

If you have never seen “The Fisher King”, give yourself permission for the indulgence. The soundtrack is a nostalgic romp, and there’s this sense of the 80’s coming to a close, complete with land line phones and video rental stores. You will probably find yourself at least humming “How About You?” and shouting “yo, Lydia!” as a result.

As the four main characters are walking to dinner, Parry picks up something from a trash heap, and Jack attempts to correct Parry’s apparent habit. A moment later, Parry presents a delicately rendered tiny chair out of a champaign bottle cage, explaining to Lydia that you would be surprised what you find in the garbage. In other words, maybe something people thought was worthless is perhaps a treasure.

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The New World

This year, Thanksgiving in the US is on Thursday, 23 November. I have always enjoyed this holiday, mainly because the day itself has escaped a lot of commercialization that other holidays in the States attract, like Christmas and July 4th. Most of the time, holidays are simply an excuse to spend money on things we either do not need or can’t afford. The Lexus December to Remember campaign, while very effective advertising, reveals a very materialistic world, where getting what you want is automatically assumed. Christmas, therefore, is all about what’s in it for us.

With companies working so hard to get our attention, advertisers have ignored Thanksgiving. Well, not entirely. But somehow, Thanksgiving has managed to stay pretty much on course as a celebration of this country’s blessings, rather than being used for marketing purposes. For many of us, we remember being taught that in 1620, “pilgrims” came from England to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to establish an American colony in the new world. These undocumented immigrants arrived and immediately ran into trouble. They were only saved by the help of the native-born people of what is now Massachusetts. A Patuxet man by the name of Tisquantum, or “Squanto”, was instrumental in assisting European settlers, really keeping them alive amid hostility by the Patuxet and Nauset people, the harsh winter, and unpreparedness of the pilgrims.

The real first Thanksgiving has been so romanticized that we could hardly recognize the reality if we were actually able to witness it. This event has been depicted so many times in film and literature that it’s nearly impossible to replace those images of the Native Americans, or Wampanoag, and the English settlers gathering at a large outdoor spread, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce. We can see women in their white bonnets and aprons, and men with tall black hats and buckled shoes; and the “Indians” in their buckskins with fringe hanging from their sleeves. These images are almost certainly false. Be that as it may, Thanksgiving has become a truly unique American holiday.

These days, Thanksgiving is celebrated in as many ways as there are families celebrating it. My personal preference has always been to serve a roast turkey with Better Homes and Gardens Harvest Stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and homemade croissants. Others might choose a picnic (in warm climates), or traveling to New York City to witness the Macy’s Parade. American Football is also a huge part of the Thanksgiving tradition. I spent one Thanksgiving playing halftime at an NFL game. But that’s a story for another time.

The main reason for the holiday, according to Abraham Lincoln, who first declared it as a national holiday in the height of the Civil War in 1863, is to set aside a day for giving thanks for what we have. In Lincoln’s time, as in times thereafter, we see trouble in our midst, as did those first European settlers; but we must pause to be grateful, to recognize that we have more than we deserve. Many people are going hungry tonight. There is great need out there, and yet we live in one of the richest nations on earth. Perhaps while we are giving thanks we could also think about giving of ourselves.

Maybe that first Thanksgiving wasn’t only about the Pilgrims being grateful for what they had relative to the loss and the suffering they had endured. For the Native people who assembled that day, they might never have known the fate of their civilization at the hands of European encroachment. For them, that event might only have represented the feelings of brotherhood, of sharing what they had so that others would not starve. Some Europeans (Thomas Hunt) did not treat them with as much love and respect. And hostile feelings persisted between some tribes and the English settlers. Tisquantum’s Patuxet village, the entire tribe, was wiped out by the plague, to which Native Americans had no immunity.

Thanksgiving is therefore a more complicated day than we usually consider. The classic* American image of the feast, as the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want” depicts, may be far removed from anything seen in modern times. Then again, most holidays are not celebrated with any historical accuracy. Christmas, for instance is an appropriated pagan winter festival, and Jesus was most likely born in April, not December. Saint Patrick would probably be abhorred if he saw what they do in his name. Yes, Thanksgiving is now what we have made it. Maybe there will be no turkey. Maybe there will be no dinner at the table. But Thanksgiving is not going to be removed from the calendar where it sits, on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s there. Why not take the day to celebrate something?

freedom-from-want_3_5

white, privileged, middle-class

Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilà! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

To Serve Man

A day before my 25th birthday, having been accepted to graduate school, my new bride and I packed up all our belongings into a smallish U-Haul trailer and left town. We had spent all our cash on securing an apartment, and we had no wiggle room for the unexpected, which was bound to happen. With no credit cards and an empty bank account, we took a leap of faith, being assured that some grant money was coming in and we had at least a place to land once we got there.

We arrived later that afternoon and checked in with the apartment manager. She confirmed that our rent was paid up for the duration of our lease – six months. Relieved, we asked for the keys. The manager informed us that we couldn’t move in yet because the apartment was not ready. It seems the carpet needed to be cleaned or something. After a longer-than-was-comfortable episode of pleading she pointed us to a few hotels in the area. We explained that we (unwisely) arrived with no money. Our best bet was the local homeless shelter, a ministry run by a local church group. Reluctantly, we made our way to the inn, as it were, for, at the very least, some sleep.

Years later I would repeat this story with the message that everyone should deign to have that experience, letting go of pride and humbling oneself. Yes, it was only for one night, but my student ID photo the following morning would capture the gravity of the situation. There we were, newlyweds, separated by floors – women on the second floor and men on the third. The accommodations were meager, as you might expect. It was a cold night, and sleeping in the car was out of the question. We were grateful, and a little terrified. The whole shelter was entirely chaotic; people were shouting and having conniptions. I was constantly worried for my wife – that concept had still not sunk in. Was she okay? Was she scared? Then came the delousing.

Many years later (actually, I think it was only 6 or 7) we attended a church in an upper-middle class area. The gentry that made up the congregation formed a shelter ministry group. Those familiar with church-going folk of this mostly white, suburban, middle class ilk will be familiar with the over-achieving endeavors to reach out to the community, or even beyond it, in keeping with several places in the Bible where Jesus tells the people that they should heal the sick and feed the hungry, visit those in prison, and so on. Basically, things people in their 20’s don’t think about, outside of hearing sermons and seeing ads for charities bringing some relief to famine-struck areas in the world. Our particular church’s mission was, in teaming up with other churches in the city, providing a hot meal on Sundays, and making sandwiches that would last until the next weekend. It was unclear just how far those sandwiches went, but the hot meal we ported down there was fully consumed by the men, women, and sometimes homeless children in the shelter by the end of the night.

My wife and I signed up, being the social realists that we are, hoping we were doing enough, inasmuch as we would be returning to our comfortable, if modest, suburban home later that night. As much as I knew it was a good thing, I often would dread it. How much I would rather have been enjoying a Sunday evening, watching TV or some equally banal activity. This was before the web was prevalent, and much before social media and streaming video arrived on the scene, if you can imagine it. Late in the year, it was already dark when we would set out, so it was kind of a drag. But the experience was so fulfilling. I think about how it must sound: schlepping hot food in minivans to an unwholesome district across town to assuage our need to be redeemed. I don’t know why most others did it. But to this day I think I made a difference. The shelter had a couple hundred “beds”, but on cold nights there were close to 300 people. One by one they came through, extremely grateful as they received some hot food and a sandwich. Some of them looked like they could be anyone. And a lot of people in the ‘burbs are one crisis away from such a fate, which is pretty damned scary.

Like I said, I used to tell people they ought to spend a night in a shelter, if only once in their lives, to understand how fortunate we are. But I’ve changed my message over the years. Those bedrolls, cots, and mats are at a premium. Taking a spot from someone who really needs it isn’t proper. If you have a place to stay, go there. I still think we could learn a lot by walking in another’s shoes, but shelters need the space. So, give money. Serve a meal. Donate time and talent. Raise awareness. There is always going to be great need among us.

Married to a Medium

My wife is, for lack of a better term, a psychic.

Unlike Allison Dubois, the main character in the long-running CBS television series “Medium“, she does not solve crimes. And she also can’t pick next week’s winning Lotto numbers. But, like Ms. Dubois, she receives signs. Some are obvious; others somewhat obscure and ambiguous. But she has learned to recognize these signs, and she’s getting more accurate about interpreting them. At first, about 25 years ago, I was very skeptical. But over time, I began to see how real this ability was.

Oh how I wish she could pick those numbers, though! But it has now dawned on me that there’s a difference to being a psychic medium and a prognosticator, which may also be a thing, it turns out. The particular and peculiar ability of my wife is that she seems to be able to “hear” from what I can only logically describe as another quantum reality – another dimension, or an alternate universe, if you will.

In physics, the principle of quantum superposition suggests that particles can be in two places at once. Many people may scoff at this notion, and certainly there are many skeptics. But we need only look back a few generations to find a time when the idea of microorganisms seemed just as mysterious and preposterous. A century before the Civil War, people still may have blamed certain maladies on witchcraft. Indeed, things we take for granted in the 21st century would definitely have been attributed to sorcery, like listening to music from a mobile device, or traveling to outer space.

I’m confident that it’s just a matter of time before we reach a greater understanding of the universe(s). Quantum physics is still a relatively new field, and scientists are making new discoveries often. Someday, I predict, we will be able to explain psychic phenomena just as confidently we can explain a thunderstorm. What used to frighten people, making them think they had angered the gods, is now a quantifiable, measureable, even predictable event.

Psychic ability, ESP, telepathy, whatever you wish to call it, could be just an acute sensitivity to energy waves or loose electrons, just as hay fever is caused by a heightened sensitivity to one or more types of pollen. When I start sneezing and my eyes water, I look up the pollen count – something invisible to the naked eye, but is indeed there – to verify what I am reacting to. Granted, subatomic particles are much, much smaller. (Check out Scale of the Universe to see how different objects and organisms compare in size.) My point is, just because something can’t be seen or detected by our modern-day instruments doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

So now I am a believer. And I trust my wife’s ability to interpret the information she receives. As for me, I can’t tell you what my reaction to ragweed means, if anything. But if it’s possible that our electrons are traveling to the other side of the universe, or to other universes, and mingling with other protons there, who knows what is possible? Perhaps there are infinite parallel dimensions, copies of our own, or ones where weird and impossible things are commonplace, like dividing by zero. Maybe there is a universe where zero doesn’t exist. Just be careful that you don’t get burned as a witch if you should stumble into that existence.

 

 

Purpose

We all arrived on this plane essentially the same: naked, cold, and outraged beyond our ability to communicate our complete displeasure with being forced from the only comfort we had ever known. Mother was at a distance of eternity compared to where we had spent the first ten months, albeit mostly deaf and blind and therefore unaware what our world even looked like. And then, suddenly, there we were. Welcome to the world; this awful, horrid, dirty, smelly, noisy world.

Since the first moment any of us drew breath, we’ve been suffering. Now of course some suffer more than others, and if you live in a part of the world where you can read this nonsense, perhaps your variety of suffering is what may be commonly adorned with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. This response usually accompanies complaints about not being able to find good help, having to park in a remote lot, or not enough foam in your latte. People like to bitch about a lot of things, and our tendency to complain is not abated by our elevation in socio-economic status. There simply is no end to our suffering.

Except, there is real suffering all around us. We would notice it if we would just look up from our smartphones and tablets. Suffering is a system default of humanity. We are born suffering, and we will live with it in some degree, and people die. Some of us are lucky. My degree of suffering – I shall refrain from using that term, because I really don’t endure much – my burden is nothing in comparison. I have tmj, chronic sinusitis, hypertension, and a few other ostensibly preventable afflictions, some, like seasonal allergies, are manageable. So, I try not to complain too much.

So what shall I do with myself? As I have mentioned previously, I am quite fortunate, and undeservedly so. I didn’t earn my genetic gifts. I had nothing to do with the fate I have. So I try to be thankful all the time. Others have not been so lucky, and I don’t know what to do for them beyond treating them the way I would expected to be treated. A few generations ago, people with afflictions and disabilities were shuffled off to asylums or worse. Autism and mental illness were viewed as something of a curse, and still are in some communities. If we are all God’s children, God should be irate with us for treating the “least of these” worse than we treat stray animals. That’s the most troubling thing about our society right now. All the wars and conflicts and arms buildups are atrocious, but the way we treat people who can’t take care of themselves is deplorable. And we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I was daydreaming when I thought about what the purpose of my existence could be. Why are we all here, I asked. What’s the reason for all of this? If God was lonely, he had his angels and all the other creatures he made who weren’t afflicted with free will. Why did he have to make us? We’re a disaster. We’ve currently got a presidential candidate who is stirring up a nationalist fervor, and radical religious groups have killed and kidnapped innocent people, destroyed ancient cities, and displaced millions in the name of God. And I’m positive God does not approve. In the meantime, there’s more suffering than ever before, mainly because there are more people now living that have ever lived on this earth. It stands to reason that if there ever was suffering, it was never to this degree.

So what are we doing here? We are born, we live, and we die; and the cycle continues. And the population increases, more people fighting for less of a stake, more hunger, more diseases. I could see no solution to this equation. Then it hit me: our purpose is simple. Not why were put on this planet. That’s still a bit of a mystery. But while we’re here we might as well do some good. And what better good can we do than to bring comfort? Our purpose can’t be simply to feed our faces and leave a mound of waste for someone else to toil to clean up. I look at the producers of society, instead of its consumers. Those who have given more than they had taken. The artists, the poets, doctors, nurses, mothers, and pastors – the good ones. Nobody’s perfect, mind you, but it’s about quality, not quantity.

The mission is to soothe, to console. We are here, all of us, to ease others’ suffering.

Who are they, those who suffer? Like I said, we will not fail to notice them if we would just look up once in awhile. This coming from someone who was obsessed with Infinity Blade II. That was addicting. Had I not been so consumed, I might have come to this conclusion years before. I gave away my Ipad, my XBox, and my video games. That was a liberating experience, even though I still have a strong desire to play Skyrim (nerd alert).

I’m not telling you this because I want to be lauded, or that I want others to do this. It was something I needed to do, because I realized it was consuming me, devouring me. I still spend hours in front of a computer, if not working to manage huge amounts of data, then to continue to write about the things I think about when I am able to capture a moment to myself. And in between all those minutes of the day that are crammed full of the ephemera of living in the 21st century, I am able to look around me and make discoveries around me. I see people, instead of looking at my phone. I notice individuals on the verge of breakdown. I see worry and fear in people’s faces. I hear trembling in a person’s voice.

How can I possible ease their suffering and pain? It’s something I have learned to do, and I am in no way an expert. But I do make an effort to not make things worse. I have often said entirely the wrong thing. I’ve laughed when I shouldn’t have. I have looked uninterested, yawning, being distracted. But I learned. And I suppose it was because I was to endure some hardship, small though it would be. It is through suffering that we become empathic. You would think this ought to be universal, but some people are complete assholes, and they have suffered much. Still others are complete jewels. Go figure.

Want to make a difference? I do. It’s kind of a passion of mine. I feel compelled to make some impact on humanity through my writing or photography. I dream of becoming a journalist, traveling and hearing people’s stories, learning about their plight or their joys. I did photograph a wedding once. It was very festive, even if a little unconventional. I loved being part of the experience. If I were a full-time wedding photographer, I would like to photograph unusual weddings, celebrations of people rather than exhibitions of wealth. Those seem to be a little sad to me. And I don’t understand why. I guess it’s because it cost so much, and the stress was about to kill the bride’s parents.

How can we ease this suffering, this first-world problem? Is it worth any effort? Perhaps. I intend to make a difference wherever I am able. Maybe it’s not in being a writer. Maybe I can make my impact just being around people and bringing them happiness. Can we spread joy even if we are not joyful? Have you ever tried to make someone laugh and not laugh yourself? The easing of suffering would therefore be reciprocal, and hat better reason would you want to spread some cheer?

Since we are all in this together, why not make the best of it? I see people who are miserable fucks. And I ask myself why they would want to be in that state. Many people feel stuck. They feel like they can’t escape their circumstances. Perhaps that is true for some. But I have seen some really cheerful people in desperate situations. What then is happiness, and how do we find it? Well, that’s a topic for another time. I’ll sign off now, but I will visit the idea of happiness, and perhaps I’ll write a book on the subject.

In the meantime, be joyful, and don’t cause any harm. The world is already a better place just by our thinking about it.

 

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?