How I Met Vonnegut or Goodbye Blue Monday

vonnegut

It was November 1990, back when I lived in Providence. A short, offhand blurb on page four of the local paper for which I wrote quietly announced that Kurt Vonnegut would be in town to address Brown University students at Alumnae Hall. “Check to see if any tickets remain,” said the article. Say what?!?

In exactly twenty-fours, one of the major writers of the twentieth century and my all-time hero was scheduled to appear at my very door. My chances of getting a ticket now were about as slim as finding a rent-controlled apartment in Trump Tower. Nonetheless, I ran like a bad rumor over to Brown—only to be told that all 600 tickets had been handed out a week ago, two tickets per Brown ID. It was shaping up to be blue Monday, indeed.

“Why don’t you just go over there and tell them you write for a local newspaper?” asked my wife in a cheery, optimistic voice. “There’s your ticket.”

Raising my head slowly out of a bowl of soggy corn flakes in which I was trying to drown myself, I looked at her and laughed. “Yeah, right. With hundreds of bigwig journalists there, from George Wills and Mark Patinkin to Hunter Thompson and, who knows, maybe Tom Wolfe, do you really think they’re going to let me in there? Don’t be absurd.”

“Got any better ideas?” asked Josie, in her gentle tone of why-did-I-marry-this-jerk sarcasm.

I did not. So I called the Brown News Bureau and introduced myself. “Hello, my name is Gene Twaronite and I write for The East Side Monthly. I’ve been assigned to write an article on the Vonnegut lecture. I was wondering if …”

“Who did you say you are?” asked the young woman. “Isn’t that the paper that runs all those disgusting sex ads?”

“No, that’s the other paper,” I reassured her. “We only run ads for poodles and politicians.”

“A press conference has been scheduled for three,” she said. “Just show your press card at the door. There will also be a section reserved for the media at tonight’s lecture.”

“I don’t have a press card. My publisher says they’re too expensive.”

“Are you sure you’re a writer?” she asked, like I was something from the bottom of a dumpster.

After a short enumeration of my writing credits and the promise that I would throw myself off the Point Street Bridge if I didn’t get to see Vonnegut, she reluctantly agreed to meet me later at the door. I will remember her kindness always.

Shortly before three, I was allowed to enter and ushered into the inner sanctum—a small side room of the Maddock Alumni Center. Furtively I looked around, still expecting someone to challenge my credentials. But the expected horde of media hounds had so far failed to materialize. There wasn’t even a podium or microphone in sight. Just a few dozen folding chairs set in front of an overstuffed pink chair in a corner near the window.

Journalists started trickling into the room, though none of them were from the NY Times or Newsweek. There were eighteen of us in all, many from student newspapers. Tom Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.

Expecting to get no closer than 500 feet, I had brought with me a 300 mm telephoto lens for my camera, which I hoped would also certify me as a bona fide journalist. I had also equipped myself with a crisp new first edition of Vonnegut’s latest novel Hocus Pocus. One never knows.

Suddenly, he appeared. Wearing a dark grey suit, tie, and V-neck sweater, he strode gracefully into the room like a wise, beloved professor and quietly took his seat. Then, as if addressing old friends, he began to talk in a soft, reassuring voice.

“I’ll be speaking six times this year, speaking in some strange places … though this isn’t one of them.”

Then he launched into his opening remarks about the deplorable state of the country today and how “we are miserably led.” As he warmed to his subject, the pace and intensity of his words picked up. He described the choice of Dan Quayle for vice-president as “a terrible insult to the American people.” Sitting back and crossing his legs, he reminded me of a less flamboyant Mark Twain. His hollow, slightly vacant eyes—eyes that had seen too much yet never enough of this crazy world—stared back at us with a mixture of mirth and madness, inviting us to join the party. “Life is fooling around.”

With the precise timing of a good comic, he fired off one extravagant remark after another, occasionally interspersing them with common sense observations revealing the intense humanism that fueled his cynicism.

“I can understand people wanting to be doctors or lawyers or teachers. But people who want to be managers, well … something is wrong with them.”

“Government’s a TV show.”

“The ideal government is an extended family.”

“I took my junior civics course in grade school very seriously.”

Asked by Providence Journal-Bulletin reporter Bob Kerr if “there is anyone you find particularly hopeful,” Vonnegut replied without hesitation. “Yes, the American people.”

Swallowing hard, I finally summoned the courage to ask my own question. “In your novel Galapagos, you raised the point that our brains may be too big for our own good. Do you …?”

He cut me off, delighted to be given this tangent, and went on to compare our brains to the ridiculously over-sized antlers of the extinct Irish elk. “Nature may have made a mistake.”

For a few more minutes, Vonnegut bantered with the media. He came to lecture, he told us, usually at the invitation of students, not faculty. He doubted if anyone from the English Department would be in attendance that night. To hear him tell it, he was a virtual nobody in the academic world. (This despite the fact that a seminar on his works was held by the Modern Language Association at its annual international convention back in 1975, where he was compared to such world class authors as Nabokov, Swift, and Twain. It was not the first or the last of such seminars)

Lost in sad reverie over one of his parting comments that “there were a lot of swell writers in the world who just weren’t ever going to be noticed,” I was caught by surprise when suddenly the author bolted out of his chair and began heading for the door. I remembered the book in my knapsack and lunged to intercept him.

He was almost home free, but I nabbed him just in time. “Mr. Vonnegut,” I asked in a timid voice. “This may seem tacky, but …would you mind signing my book?”

“Not at all,” he replied, staring at me with those wild, wonderful eyes of his. Then on the endpaper he made his famous scribble, complete with a certain orifice that some people mistake for a star.

That evening, having been told that press seats would be limited, I arrived at Alumnae Hall forty-five minutes early. I needn’t have worried. The first three rows on the left had been reserved for me and my fellow journalists. Being the first one there, I sat down in my privileged seat as the hall quickly filled to capacity and overflowed to the balcony and much of the floor.

Actually, the best seats in the house were reserved for the creative writing class. And sitting among the students, as if to nullify the author’s earlier prediction, were some unmistakably professorial types.

I was especially interested in hearing what Vonnegut had to say about how to be a writer. This time, there was a podium and even a blackboard. Right on time, he stepped up to the microphone and began to address the crowd with the same unpretentious grace as that afternoon.

He introduced himself as having been born of the last generation of novelists “whose brains were marinated in books.” He then told us that, if as some people claim, rock ‘n’ roll can cause suicides, he did not want anyone to read his latest book.

Commenting on the Voyager Spacecraft’s trip past the Outer Planets, the author displayed his scientific bias, proclaiming this “the most beautiful thing humans have ever done. Just think of it—we made that thing!”

For a while, he read animatedly from a prepared speech, which emphasized the darker side of his worldview. “We are swamped with bad news,” he reminded us, then ran through a checklist of his most deeply felt social and environmental issues, as if making sure we all knew he wasn’t just some flaky novelist.

He even slipped in a quick lesson on transcendental meditation, describing this state as like “scuba diving in warm bouillon.” Then he compared it to reading—“the meditative state of Western Society.”

Finally, he got around to the topic I’d been waiting for, though I really didn’t expect he’d have much to say. In his diverse collection of essays and stories, Wampeters, Foma & Grandfalloons, he wrote that “you can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. (This from an avowed atheist.)

He told us there are two main ways to support yourself as a writer: inherit money, or marry a rich person.

He then gave us one of his cardinal rules of revision—throw away the first three pages of any manuscript. It’s just needless introductory clutter.

Stepping to the blackboard, he began to draw graphs illustrating the curvature of various kinds of stories. He was always trying to bring much-needed science to English departments.

At the end of his lecture, commenting on the changing nature of student questions these days, he recalled that back when he was a young man on campus, when the world seemed to be in flames and Europe and Asia were on the verge of being swallowed up by Hitler, the burning question was: “Does penis size really matter?”

Whereas now the question he is asked most frequently is: “Do you use a word processor?” I detected a note of sadness in his voice.

So it goes.

(Author’s Note: An earlier version of this piece first appeared in East Side Monthly, Providence, RI.)

Guns, Spears, and Dolls

Vintage_1950s_Bild_Lilli_2014-03-31_08-27six shootersspear-152248_960_720

 

 

 

 

 

Growing up—still an ongoing process—I don’t recall anyone ever telling me how or when to play or whether I was playing too much. My parents encouraged me to read and to get good grades, of course, but I was a nerdy kid who would have done so anyway. Play was just something I did, as natural as breathing or falling on my face.

One time, I played with a shovel and dug for hours in the bare soil behind the shed. As the hole got deeper and my head vanished beneath the surface, I became a paleontologist searching for dinosaur bones. Why not? They could be down there, I thought, waiting for me to discover them. All I had to do was dig. Maybe I would reach the other end of the world. Just imagine—a tunnel through the earth.

Then I found it. It was a birdlike skull and backbone of some strange creature. It had to be a dinosaur. The fact that it didn’t appear to be fossilized and came out of the earth so readily didn’t matter. Part of the game, you see, was to believe. For a few minutes, I reveled in the joy of discovery.

Suddenly a stern voice intruded. “What are you doing?” my dad asked. “And why are you holding that chicken bone?”

Gone was my dream of a new dinosaur or reaching China. Shaking his head, he helped me climb out of the hole. It was not the first time his son had done something stupid. Then he pointed to the hole. “Now get it filled before supper!”

It was a long afternoon. Filling the hole was nowhere near as much fun as digging it. It did teach me a lesson, though. Finding dinosaur bones in your backyard is not that easy.

I remember something else as well. The fact that I had dug a deep and potentially dangerous hole that I could have fallen into didn’t seem to bother my dad. He didn’t stick around to help or watch over me. You dug it, you fill it.

It does seem that since the 1950’s, the period when I at least started to grow up, kids have far less time for unsupervised play, especially outdoors. Increasingly they are protected from dangers, real or imagined, and prodded to take on more organized activities or to study harder. They certainly wouldn’t be allowed to dig a deep hole in the backyard.

“When does a kid ever get to sit in the yard with a stick anymore?”  asked George Carlin. Speaking of sticks, Jonathan Winters was known to improvise with any object handed to him. On the Late Show, Jack Paar once gave Winters a stick and off he went, pretending to be everything from a fisherman to a lion tamer. Which brings me to my own stick adventures.

One day, after my third grade geography class, I couldn’t wait to get home so I could reenact the lesson. It was about a remote native tribe in Brazil, New Guinea, or somewhere, and how they fashioned spears, bows, and arrows out of branches in the jungle to kill the animals they ate or to protect themselves from other tribes. It was a glorious time to be a kid. You didn’t run home after school to watch TV. Many families still didn’t have one, and both the television sets and program selections were dismal. So you ended up creating your own entertainment from whatever popped into your head.

I gathered my gang of friends. There were two or three of us boys, accompanied by the minister’s daughters who lived across the street. Since it was my idea, I got to set the stage, followed by the inevitable squabbling over who gets to play what. We were already into costume. Shorts and no shirts for boys, shorts and blouses for girls. We fashioned our weapons out of whatever sticks we could find. One girl made a bow, with some featherless arrows that never went anywhere. Most of us simply made spears. I had a ready-made one, the shaft of a toy wooden golf club, from which I had removed the head. Sharpening our lethal weapons, we set off into our neighborhood jungle.

After terrorizing some neighbors’ dogs and killing scores of imaginary beasts and tribal foes, we were about to set off into the next yard when a towering, fearsome giant appeared, blocking our path. Scared out of our wits, we froze in our tracks. Actually, it was my buddy Mike’s dad, who at six foot three did seem like a giant to us. Proud of his physique, he was shirtless as usual. With muscled arms folded across his hairy chest, he glowered with menace.

“What the heck are you guys doing? Do you want to kill someone?” At that point, he grabbed my little golf spear and pointed at its well-sharpened tip. “Look at that. You could put someone’s eye out with that.” Then he broke it across his knee, and did likewise with the other weapons. Game over.

He had no right to do that, I thought. But I was not about to argue with him. Had to admit, it was not the wisest thing for us to be doing, and he was just redirecting our play into safer channels.

Most of the time, however, there was little playtime supervision. I adored kindergarten. I remember sprawling out on the floor and playing with blocks with my pal Steve, building tall structures perpetually in danger of falling on our heads. Besides the traditional-sized blocks, there were also these polished timbers, sort of like 2 x 6’s, with which we made long tunnels snaking across the room. Then we would crawl through them, exploring the dark passages we had made. Our teacher, bless her heart, pretty much left us alone. I can’t imagine a kindergarten teacher today ever allowing students to engage in such hazardous construction.

In the same kindergarten room, there was also a full-size dollhouse that you could walk through and play, well, whatever. There were never any boys in there besides me. It wasn’t that boys weren’t allowed. But I was intrigued. A whole house where you could go inside and play. I can’t remember exactly what we played, but I do recall the girls and I had some lovely parties.

It was simple curiosity on my part. I wanted to know what exactly you did in a dollhouse and if it might be fun.

It was the same when I briefly took up playing with dolls. I watched girls as they cuddled and cared for their dolls. Could I be missing something? I had to find out.

So for a while, I had my own baby doll, doing all the things you’re supposed to do. I never tried breast-feeding, however. There were limits. I still saw myself as a boy trying out something new.

No one ever told me I couldn’t, except for my Uncle Johnnie, who took me fishing once and warned me against the dangers of playing with dolls. The fact that none of the other boys in the neighborhood played with dolls didn’t bother me. However, my friend Tommy’s dad—a real he-man kind of guy—sternly informed me that my dolls and I were no longer welcome in his backyard. Guess he didn’t want me infecting his sons.

The interesting thing about this episode is my discovery that there were other kinds of dolls besides infant ones. Once, playing dolls with my two girl cousins, I noticed one of the dolls had a decidedly different look about it. She had a shapely figure, with breasts! She wore high heels and a tight-fitting dress, and underneath it was a bra and girdle. Playing with this doll made me all warm and weird inside. From that day foreword, my doll-playing days were over. I had discovered sex.

As a young kid growing up in a strict Catholic family, I could only imagine sex, of course. There was only one kind of play that was forbidden to me, and that was to play with myself. You’d burn in hell if you touched yourself down there. And to play with other kids in that way was unthinkable.

But kids always find a way. They play doctor, for instance. I remember getting my first doctor set at Christmas. My first patients were the minister’s daughters across the street. I put on my stethoscope and called the first girl into my office. Her name was Barbara. She was in my class, and every day I walked her home from school. We had a thing for each other, but there was never anything physical. We were too shy to even hold hands. But that day, she did something unexpected. She took off her blouse, baring her naked chest for examination. I took one look and nearly fainted. Then, sputtering an excuse, I grabbed my doctor set and ran home. It took me many years before I could look at a girl’s bare chest again.

When not playing dolls or doctor, I played with toy guns. Six-guns, derringers, rifles, shotguns—I loved them all, especially my tommy gun. You pulled back its bolt and it made a high decibel rat-tat-tat that was music to my ears and drove everyone crazy. I’d run from room to room, firing off my gun and mowing down imaginary enemies until some relative would yell, “Get outta here, you’re driving me crazy!”

Growing up on westerns and war movies, guns were always part of my childhood. Later, there were BB and pellet guns, with which I shot starlings and other unfortunate creatures. For a brief time, I even played with real guns, plinking at tin cans in the woods, until I outgrew them.

All through my teens, I loved to take long solitary hikes, imagining myself a mountain man. I would pack a knapsack and strap on a fearsome-looking hunting knife, trekking down my suburban street as if setting off for the wilderness. In those days, while you weren’t allowed to walk down the street with a real gun on your hip, no one gave a second thought to a kid packing a Bowie knife in plain view.

Numerous studies have pointed to the importance of play in childhood. Kids will always play, though in new and different ways. In the future, they won’t need sticks or toy guns anymore, when they can just touch the screen on a computer and make whatever 3D-printed object they desire. They won’t need dolls, when they can act out their fantasies with realistic robots of any age or sex. They won’t need an imagination when they can step into a virtual reality holodeck and set the controls for whatever place and time period they wish to visit. It’s a good thing those things weren’t around when I was growing up. I never would have come out.

Meanwhile, I feel a sudden urge to go out and play, maybe dig a big hole. Too bad I live in an apartment.

 

The Big Questions

Auguste_Rodin-The_Thinker-Legion_of_Honor-Lincoln_Park-San_FranciscoIs the universe infinite, or do you come to a big wall with a sign that reads “End of the Road?” What is the nature of time, and can you get overtime? Is there life after death, and whatever happened to this one? What is truth, and how do I get some?

These are the questions I love to ask, which explains why I don’t get invited to a lot of cocktail parties. I mean, you can’t go up to someone you’ve just met and blurt out, “Why do we exist?” Social etiquette requires that you at least lead up to such questions with “So how do you like this weather?” or “What have you done with your face?” (OK, this last one may not be appropriate, but aren’t you dying to know?)

Being a geek, I especially enjoy the big science questions. What is consciousness, for example, and how do I know that I have it? Yes, I have this brain and all those neurons and stuff, but how does that translate into an awareness that someone is staring at my breasts or unzipped fly?

Or what makes us human? We know that other animals also use tools, language, and recognize themselves in mirrors. We share 99% of the same genome as a chimpanzee. So what makes us so special? Personally, I think it’s our ability to use credit.

Is there more than one universe? Just when I think I’ve got a handle on how vast our universe is, some physicists propose that we might actually live in a multiverse. There could be all kinds of universes—here, there, everywhere—constantly popping into being through something called “eternal chaotic inflation,” which sounds like a perpetual string of gas attacks. There could be zillions of different universes. Maybe there’s one where I have an exact twin, only he’s rich and famous, with six-pack abs, and can recite all the words to the song “Louie Louie.” Or there’s one where you can always get what you want.

Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by questions about existence. I wake up and look in the mirror and see this face staring back at me, like some freak of nature. An assemblage of genes, bones, and tissues, I know that I am the unique result of a union between egg and sperm and millions of years of evolution. My thoughts identify with this thing in the mirror. Yet all of a sudden it seems odd to me that I should be here at all. What a twisted series of events it had to be that brought forth a ridiculous creature like me.

The animal books I read as a kid didn’t help. I’m not talking about Peter Rabbit or Winnie-the-Pooh. I’m talking about actual animals. Certain pictures terrified me. I remember a photo of a stuffed fruit bat that scared me silly. It seemed to leer back at me from the page. The more books I read, the worse it got. Pangolins, platypuses, star-nosed moles, giraffes, okapis, giant isopods, aye ayes, blob fish, naked mole rats, narwhals, and rhinoceri—they all seemed too bizarre to be real. How could such creatures possibly exist in the same world I inhabit? Nature must be insane.

Indeed, why should I or anything exist at all? To not exist sounds much easier. It certainly takes less energy. Some days, merely existing is all I can manage.

Some say there’s a reason for existence. We’re here to praise God, Allah, or Whatever. We’re here because a divine force willed the universe into being. We’re here because of the Big Bang. We’re here out of pure luck that matter and anti-matter didn’t cancel each other out at the beginning of time. We’re here because the economy needs more consumers.

Of course, it could be all an illusion. How do you really know you exist? Maybe we’re all just part of a story endlessly played out in some computer game. Though it may seem real to you, you may be nothing more than a made up character. René Descartes famously declared, “I think, therefore I am.” But just because you think you exist doesn’t necessarily make it so.

And what’s so great about existing? True, there are many advantages. Existence can be rather nice, if you can afford it. But you also have to go out and kill something to eat, get a job, reproduce, fight traffic jams, and pay taxes, unless you’re a rhino, in which case someone will take your horns instead.

The worst part is, it all comes to an end. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a mushroom, redwood tree, sea slug, gorilla, or frazzled commuter, the result is always the same. One day you’re here, the next day you’re not. There is no escape clause and no returns allowed. Even stars and galaxies die in the course of their vast cosmic lifetimes.

At least your atoms will still be around. Who knows where they might end up someday— perhaps in a whale or an eagle, or some wholly new life form. Wouldn’t that be something? No matter how useless your life may seem at times, it’s nice to know your atoms will serve a constructive purpose in the future.

Our universe itself may die one day. I imagine it would be pretty exciting to watch, though hard to get a good seat.

For now, though, I must bid you all goodnight and go to bed. Existence is exhausting.

 

All in the Family

gorilla-1050384_960_720

                             Uncle Fred

“Unlock the family story in your DNA,” proclaims an ancestry website. Sounds harmless enough, so why does that fill me with dread?

Sure, I could discover there’s royalty in my Lithuanian DNA—perhaps a duke or a duchess—or a brave knight who fell at the Battle of … wherever. More likely, however, I’ll find some distant cousin who died face down on the bar floor after winning a Krupnikas-drinking contest. Perhaps a serial goat rapist or ax murderer, or some nutcase beheaded for questioning the birth certificate of King Mindaugas, the first (and only) crowned king of Lithuania.

Besides, thanks to modern science, I already know plenty about my DNA. Oh, the stories it could tell.

For one thing, I share almost 99 percent of my DNA with chimps and bonobos, and over 98 percent with gorillas. Though most of these relatives still live in Africa, I did meet one of them a few years back at the Bronx Zoo in New York. I was strolling through their Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit, when all of a sudden there he was—a full grown, male western lowland gorilla.

He was leaning against a tree stump, gazing off into space with a forlorn expression. Stepping closer to the glass separating us—which protects them from our human respiratory diseases—I paused to look into his face. He looked back at me in a way I will never forget. For one profound moment, there was some sort of connection between us. In that great face, I saw not a gorilla, but a personable presence, someone I could relate to. I have no idea what went on in his mind. Perhaps it was: “Why aren’t you in here instead of me?”

I’ve never been able to look at a gorilla in captivity since. Don’t think I could handle seeing one of my relatives locked up that way, despite all the arguments for conservation and education made by zoos. Supposedly, we humans are more advanced, with our superior big brains and all. The way things are going lately, though, sometimes I feel it is our species that should be locked up.

Met another African relative—though not in the flesh—back in 2007. She, or what was left of her, was on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Lucy her name was. That’s what the scientists who found her fossilized bones named them, after the then popular Beatle song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. She lived over 3 million years ago, in what is now called Ethiopia. Though belonging to a different genus—Australopithecus—she was a fellow hominid. Next to her precious bones, the museum showed a life size model of what she might have looked like. She was much shorter than me—only three-and-a-half feet tall—with a pelvis that was all female. Her face was only a reconstructed one, but again I had that strange feeling of connectedness across the eons, that she and I were still part of the same family tree. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but she reminded me a little of my great Aunt Lavinia. Her eyes seemed to say: “We are all African.” For that is indeed where our human line branched off from other animals. Together with gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees, we share much of the same DNA, along with the same common ancestor.

Turns out I have oodles of relatives, all over the planet. Many of them are fellow primates. Though not as close as African apes, my orangutan relations over in Borneo and Sumatra share almost 97 percent of my DNA. Not far behind are monkeys, at 93 percent. Whether I’m looking into an orangutan’s face or a monkey’s, it’s hard not to see the resemblance, though some of them might take this as an insult.

There’s even a fish, known as the zebra fish or zebra danio, with whom I share 85 percent of my DNA. A popular aquarium fish as well as research subject, this little freshwater minnow’s ancestors originated on the Indian Subcontinent. Dogs, by comparison, share only 84%, which just goes to show that you can’t always tell who your relatives are just by looking at them.

And next time you read about some new medical discovery involving some poor laboratory mice sacrificed for the good of humankind, ponder this: they share 90 percent of our DNA, which of course is why we use them in the first place, and why E.B. White’s classic children’s book Stuart Little still tugs at our heart strings.

Admittedly, some of my relatives are farther removed. For example, I share only about 60 percent of my DNA with a banana, and try as I might, I just can’t see any resemblance there. With roundworms, it’s only 21 percent, though I suspect some families share a much larger percentage.

Within our own species, there’s only a tiny difference in DNA among all humans on earth—about 0.1 percent. Regardless of race or national origin, we are far more alike than not.

Of course, even though we may share significant percentages of our genetic material, key differences remain in how our genes are sequenced, which does explain why most members of my family gallery don’t look like mice or fish (except for Uncle Vinnie). We don’t even know what many of our genes do. Within the human genome, we still possess many genes inherited from our evolutionary past that are not used because they no longer serve any useful purpose. So it’s important not to read too much into the fact that we share some of our genes with a banana.

But the mere fact that these mutually inherited genes are there reveals a more important truth. We are all related— humans, apes, mice, fish, bananas, roundworms, bacteria—all life on earth. It’s right there in the fingerprints of our DNA.

According to a study published in the journal Nature, evolutionary geneticists have traced this material back 3.8 billion years to what is called LUCA (last universal common ancestor). This remote ancestor may have resembled the strange organisms that still exist on earth within hot volcanic vents found deep under the oceans. Talk about long distant relatives. But from that ancient trunk would eventually spread the branches of our tree of life. It’s all in the family.

©Gene Twaronite 2016

Aging Awkwardly

DSCN0535In a few days, I’ll be 68—a little closer to staring off into space while drooling uncontrollably (actually, I’m already doing that), a little closer to that final scattering of my molecules into places unknown, which does sound kind of fun.

According to figures compiled in 2011 by OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), U.S. citizens have an average life expectancy of 78.7 years. I could move to Slovenia, where it’s 80.1 years, but I doubt it’d be worth it.

So, with any luck, I should be around for at least another 10.7 years as long as I don’t do something stupid, like wingsuit flying or free soloing. I’ve also got good genes, since both my parents lived into their 90’s. So stick it, OECD!

I’m still left with the fact, however, that I’ve used up a good two thirds of my life or more. Not sure if Einstein would have agreed, but time does move faster relative to the amount you have left, the closer you get to that big black hole that awaits all of us.

Forget that Robert Browning claptrap: “Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be.” While all signs indicate that I am certainly not growing younger, damned if I’ll sit back and wait for decrepitude to overtake me. Acquiescence is just not my thing. As for the supposedly greater wisdom that comes with age, I’d much prefer the libido and strength of my twenties.

We are bombarded with advice on how to accept our limitations and age gracefully. A recent CNN article (“The secrets to aging gracefully”) says I shouldn’t hide behind makeup (which I don’t, though on some guys it looks great) and that I should ditch the spa (never tried one, unless having egg on my face counts as a facial). People who age gracefully, it says, “exude confidence.” All I can manage is a little false hope before breakfast. They are also “up on the latest trends,” which means my Led Zeppelin t-shirts are out. As far as not being afraid to embrace my grays, how about silver?

Another article says that to live longer I should get plenty of sleep (check), avoid too much stress (check), and that I should not consume more than two alcoholic drinks per day (OK, forget that one). And, oh yes, aim to have sex at least once a week (actually I added that one, which does sound like a good idea).

When it comes to aging, I think the pundits have it all wrong. “Gracefully” sounds too accepting, like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers dancing off into the sunset. No one’s ever compared me to Fred (Ginger maybe, but not Fred). I’ll just muddle along like always, making up the dance as I go along, tripping over my feet as I forget where I’m going. One thing I do know. I’m going to age as awkwardly as I’ve lived, lurching this way or that, higgledy-piggledy.

So I’ve come up with a few tips of my own. Make some noise every once in a while, just to let people know you’re not dead yet. For me, it’s cranking up some AC/DC or Stones (no soft rock allowed!). Let the neighbors know you’re there, though preferably not after nine p.m.

Do something silly—not stupid—every day. Silliness requires that you step outside of yourself and do something that makes no sense at all. Do it because it makes you laugh. Do it because it makes those around you think you’re nuts, which is part of the idea. It’s a kind of creative defiance that turns the world around a little, if only for a moment. And it doesn’t cost anything, unless you get fined for drawing a silly face on your tax return.

Part of being human is making an occasional ass of yourself, but try not to make a career out of it. I don’t care how respectable and careful you are. At some point in your life, you’re going to be an ass. I’m sure Pope Francis is a cool, upstanding guy, but even he must look back on some of his early days and say, “Boy, what an ass I was!” And look at St. Augustine. He got to have all that fun being an ass, then confessed it all and became famous. So it’s OK to be an ass once in a while, but eventually you have to own up to it and take responsibility.

And since everyone is an ass sometimes, try not to be too critical. Your turn will come soon.

Some final tips. If you do a lot of drinking, it’s best that you not keep guns around the house. And if you can no longer laugh at yourself or face another day, do like an old dog and go off quietly to die in the woods. Don’t blow your brains out in the kitchen. Have some sympathy for the cleaning crew.                                                                                                                                                     ©Gene Twaronite 2016

Native Earthling

DSCN0535I was a native, once. It was back in 1980 when I still lived in my home city of Manchester, Connecticut, and all the time before that from the moment of my birth. But on the day in June when I moved elsewhere I could no longer call myself a native. Automatically I became a newcomer, outsider, alien—doomed to spend the rest of my life staring blankly at “NATIVE” license plates and bumper stickers.

You only get one shot at being a native. Move away from your birthplace for any substantial amount of time and you are no longer one of the chosen. It matters not if you live in a new place for fifty years, even for the rest of your life. The only way to reclaim your inheritance is to go back home and say you made a mistake. And if your town is now underwater—drowned by a dam for the good that is always presumed greater—you are out of luck.

Natives often speak of their heritage with a sense of accomplishment, as if they had something to do with it. I was born here, says the native. I chose to remain … while you did not.

Well, pardon me for living, but just because you accidentally happened to be born in Scarsdale, London, or on the Mayflower doesn’t make you any better than someone born in Somalia, Bangladesh, or Haiti. Staying put is easy, especially if your native home isn’t currently being blown to smithereens or sinking below the waves of rising seas. Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

I don’t care how royal, pure, or blue your blood is, or how your ancestors first cleared this land of native “savages” to make way for civilized white folks, at some point your genetic line had to come from somewhere else. This is what our species has always done, spreading outward from our evolutionary and cultural cradles to occupy all inhabitable spaces on the planet. We humans are always on the move.

There is danger, however, in too much movement. People who do not (or cannot due to forces beyond their control) remain in one place for a time miss out on one of life’s grand experiences—a sense of being part of a place, of sharing in its daily rhythms, of knowing that home is much more than comfortable surroundings.

So where does that leave me, a non-native son who has squandered his inheritance? I could try to go back to the life of my late father, a true native of our home city. Ironically, he had to briefly relinquish his claim during his last few years at an out-of-state assisted living center, though his remains have now returned to their ancestral soil. By choosing to stay there all his life, he knew and felt things about that “City of Village Charm” that I will never know.

But there are also many things that my father never got the chance to experience. The world beckons with possibilities. While some of us choose to be natives of one place, others like me cannot help but see each place as merely one aspect or extension of a larger home. Though I may dwell in and derive meaning from a particular location for a time, it can never be my full address. I am of this world as well as in it, a fact more real to me than the temporary happenstance of where I reside. My love for this native home transcends the love I feel for any one place, region or country. I get a lump in my throat whenever I see its portrait in space—a blue-white haven of hope amid the black emptiness of space—planet number three, home. Home to life. Home to mountains, deserts and seas, great empty spaces and great crowded spaces. Home to more wonderful things, creatures, and peoples than I will ever know.

I think I will stay here awhile. After all, I was born and raised here. No E.T. am I. Call me a native earthling.                                                                                                                                                                            ©Gene Twaronite 2015

My Life as a Sperm

DSCN0535In their ongoing memory wars, memoirists seek to go ever deeper into their pasts, uncovering astonishing details about their first years of life. One writer recalls the intimate conversation she had, at two months old, with her mother and the family priest about whether the soul can enter heaven with heavily soiled diapers or if God prefers prosciutto or pepperoni pizza.

Not to be outdone, some writers claim to be able to recall their fetal memories as early as 30 weeks after conception. The severely limited social environment of the fetus, coupled with its lack of a comprehensive vocabulary, does pose challenges for the creative writer. Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of partying going on, and your conversation with the outside world largely consists of kicking. One writer insists, however, that he first decided to become a rock ‘n’ roll drummer when he became habituated to his drunken dad’s late night pounding on the front door.

I must confess that I remember little from my earliest years, aside from bratty episodes when I would scream and cry in the department store to make my poor Aunt Mary buy me a toy elephant, or the way I could put on my “ain’t I lovable” act and con my dear grandmother out of almost anything. As for my fetus days, forget it—they’re a complete blank. But oddly enough, I do possess vivid recollections of my interior life just before conception.

True, there’s not enough stuff to fill a book. The whole thing lasted only a few days—just after I entered my mother’s womb—but oh what days they were! Looking back now, I have to say it was the most challenging time of my life, full of danger, excitement, and emotional triumphs.

I remember being a lonely guy at the time, despite the fact that I was surrounded by over 250 million other sperm. I dreamed of finding just the right egg to spend my life with, an egg who would understand me and not make fun of the fact that I was 175,000 times smaller than she was. I was determined to find her.

Up through the deep dark caverns I traveled, with only my raw courage to guide me. It was a perilous journey that few of us would survive. During the first few minutes, I had watched in horror as millions of my comrades died in writhing agony in the acid bath of the vaginal canal. Tony and Eddie—such great kidders—who were always good for a laugh. And who can forget George, who was always tripping on his own tail, or my best bud Frank? Damn, how I miss him! Then came that awful cervical mucus—like swimming in sewage—where many of the poorer swimmers drowned. So many good men died that day, and for what? The same reason I was there, still alive and swimming toward my dream. I was young and strong and knew that she was up there waiting for me.

My tail ached as I swam and jostled for position. On and on we swam, up through the cervix and uterus, in a grim marathon where only the strongest would survive. At that point, I was swimming on pure DNA. Though few of us who had started the race remained, I knew I could do it. As we got closer to the infamous fallopian tunnels, I could see some poor saps taking the wrong tube. Hate to admit it, but I was not sad to see them go. A few less competitors to get in my way.

Just as I was about to enter the tunnel, I felt her presence for the first time. It was if she were sending me a signal to guide me to her. I started swimming like an Olympic sperm.

Now the real trick in these marathons is to pace yourself. You don’t want to burn out too soon, and I still had one big obstacle to overcome.

So I purposely let some of the other sperm get ahead. Actually, I had paid them all off beforehand to pass the torch to me. The idea was for them to arrive at my beloved before I did and start breaking down her resistance with their enzymes. She was very sweet, but had developed a real wall around her.

Suddenly, there she was—the egg of my heart. The guys had done their job, and by the way that she looked at me I knew she felt the same about me. She was ready. In no time, I was in.

For a few blissful days, we traveled together down the fallopian tube. After about a week, the honeymoon was over and it was time to get attached in our new apartment. I wish I could remember more. I’m sure there were some very good times.

My Interview with Terry Gross

DSCN0535I can say with considerable certainty that I will never be interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air, unless perhaps I publish a string of blockbuster slasher/romance novels or become the first human male to give birth to a gorilla. Still, a man can dream. Here’s how it might go.

Terry: Today I am interviewing author Gene Twaronite, as part of our new series on writers you’ve never heard of. Hi, is this Gene? I’ll be doing the interview with you today.

Me: Yes, this is Gene. Wow, I can’t believe it’s really you! I’m so excited to be on your program. I’m a huge fan. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fantasized about ….

Terry: Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, shall we? Gene, could you tell us how you feel about the fact that you are currently ranked the nine millionth most popular author on Amazon, just behind Arthur Slobnick, who wrote a book of Christmas verse for his dog?

Me: Writing isn’t all about fame and money, Terry—is it OK if I call you that? It’s about expressing yourself, and sharing your words with others. It doesn’t matter how many books you sell or who’s heard of you. The important thing is that you’ve created something unique in the world. To quote a poem by Shel Silverstein: “Put something silly in the world that ain’t been there before.” And by the way, my rank this morning is actually 8,997,332, but who’s counting?

Terry: I’ve always loved that poem and yes, your stuff is pretty silly. So you don’t care that no one has heard of you and you make only a two-figure income? And please call me Ms. Gross.

Me: Sorry, Terry, I mean Ms. Gross. Well, sure, I wouldn’t mind selling a lot more books or receiving some literary acclaim. But it’s really about living an authentic life and putting your work out there. Long after I’m gone, my books will live on, bringing enjoyment to new generations of readers.

Terry: Gene, now don’t take this the wrong way, but it’s unlikely your books will live on if no one buys and reads them. They’ll just fade away in the cloud. You’ll be one more of the tens of millions of writers who aspired to fame and lost. Fifty years from now, no one will have heard of you. There will be no trace of your ever being here.

Me: Gee, Ms. Gross, you really know how to hurt a guy. Yet you say it in such an upbeat, caring voice.

Terry: Sorry, Gene—reality sucks. You and all the other authors out there need to hear the truth. You’re never going to be number one on Amazon. Stop living in a dream world. Maybe there are other things you could do.

Me: Excuse me, Ms. Gross, but when are you going to ask me about my books?

Terry: OK, we still have oodles of time to fill and as long as I’ve got you here, let me ask you about your first novel The Family That Wasn’t. Your main character John Boggle has this crazy hyphenated name: Bazukas-O’Reilly-Geronimo-Giovanni-Li Choy-Echeverria. Weren’t you worried about offending people with hyphenated names? It sounds like you’re making fun of them. Do you ever get complaints from them?

Me: Actually, I was trying to show why this family I had invented was so crazy that they insisted on keeping all those names. I wasn’t trying to make fun of anyone but these fictional characters. No one’s ever complained, but thanks to your question they probably will now.

Terry: Your sequel My Vacation in Hell must have been really tough to write. You show John Boggle being sexually abused by his fake Uncle Vinnie. The experiences you describe are so vivid. Tell me, were you ever sexually abused?

Me: You know, that’s the first thing my wife asked when she first read it. It’s as if she thought I couldn’t write such realistic scenes without actually having had the experience, and she’s my biggest fan. But no, to the best of my knowledge, I was never abused.

Terry: Still, you must have felt something as you wrote those disturbing sex scenes. I know that, as a writer, you have to project yourself into the life of your characters, to feel what they feel. Now you don’t have to answer this if it makes you uncomfortable in any way, but were you sexually aroused while writing them?

Me: OK, in the first place, it is perfectly possible to write about sex without getting physical. Second, I do find your question offensive. Is that something you ask all your guests? Did you ask Hillary or Bill O’Reilly about their sexual life?

Terry: Well, it does sometimes help to keep the conversation going. Sorry if I offended you, and no, I didn’t ask them that, but maybe I should have. Can just see the look on old Bill’s face. Well, I see our time is about up. Our guest was author Gene Twaronite. I really enjoyed talking to you, Gene. Could you tell us a little about your next book? Oops, sorry—out of time. Best of luck to you. Bye.

The Unillustrated Man

DSCN0535Call me a freak. Not a hippie freak, eco-freak, or Jesus freak, just a plain old freak. You see, I don’t have a tattoo. Yesterday I saw a geezer (i.e., someone older than I) downtown—he had to be at least 97—with a big red heart on his neck and the word “Alice,” which I thought was kind of sweet until I noticed just above it a raised hand holding a dagger. Some guys never get over their divorces.

A recent Harris poll found that 21% of U.S. adults now have a tattoo, and among the younger crowd it’s almost twice that. It won’t be long before Pope Francis has one—I suspect he secretly does—and there’ll be no unadorned skin left on the planet. Freaks like me will be eyed suspiciously. Why doesn’t that man have a tattoo? Is he trying to make a statement? It’s un-American, I tell you!

It’s not that I don’t think tattoos are cool. I am fascinated by the diverse and creative ways we set ourselves apart from the herd. When I see some young dude with green-streaked purple hair wearing barbed wire around his neck, twenty pounds of nose, ear, lip, and throat jewelry, and his skin adorned with the full complement of body art, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. How difficult it must be these days to achieve that perfect rebellious, insolent, don’t-give-a-damn look. It’s all about making a statement.

When I was a kid, the only tattoos I remember were those on the arms of my two ex-navy uncles. The rule was, if you were in the navy, jail, a carnival, or a gang you got one. But then, during the 60’s, tattoos really took off in this country as part of a cultural reaction to the values of the white, straight, middle class. Pretty soon, tattoos weren’t just for stoned out rock musicians or starving artists. Middleclass and upper class folks started sporting them. The rest is history. The prevailing culture simply swallowed up the protest symbol. Tattoos are now just something to do. When you see a tattooed politician, stock broker or brain surgeon riding to work on his Harley, you know the tattoo has lost any shock impact it once possessed.

It won’t be long before the tattoo gestapos find me. They’ll haul me into some back alley tattoo parlor and force me to undergo body art, and probably some piercing, too.
So I’ve decided to be proactive. Rather than allowing them to put some tacky tattoo of Mickey Mouse, Miley Cyrus, or worse on my arm, I’ll have a design all worked out. That way, when they come crashing through the front door I’ll have something to show them. They might go easier on me, knowing that I’ve put a little thought into it.

Being a poet, I thought I could have one of my little poems inserted under my skin in tasteful script, on a part of my body normally exposed. I don’t mind sharing my poems, but having to take my shirt off to let someone read a poem is too great a price to ask of my art. Of course, there’s always the risk of would-be poetry critics coming up to me and provoking a scene. It doesn’t rhyme. How it can it be poetry? He obviously took that line straight out of Frost.

Perhaps I could reproduce some famous paintings for my body art. I can see one arm sporting Monet’s Les Quatre Arbres (Poplars), while the other features Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. On my neck (my legs are too hairy) I could have Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. That would get some attention. I do worry, however, that the aging canvas upon which they are painted would sag and fade with time, requiring extensive restoration.

I need a bold statement, something that will really stand out. Since I live in Arizona, why not get a brand burned into my flesh. It needs to be simple and concise, something that tells who I am—maybe a little heart with the words “Irreverent Infidel” or “In Silliness We Trust.” For once in my life, I might actually get ahead of the curve. These days, it’s all about branding.

I invite you to join me on Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/TwaroniteZone?ref=hl

Impolite Conversations

Gene Twaronite's The Absurd LifeIt seems that whenever we set out on a family visit, my wife takes me aside and reminds me about not discussing certain topics. “What good does it do?” she’ll say. “You can’t change people’s opinions. You’ll just get all hot under the collar. Just relax and be sociable.”

“So what should I talk about?”

“You know! No politics, religion, environment or health stuff.”

“Can I at least talk about philosophy or economics?”

“Hell no. You start talking about the meaning of life and the nature of good and evil, and people get uncomfortable. And you know where any talk about economics will lead. It’s capitalism versus socialism, the 1% and the 99%. You want to start a war?”

The only things left are sports and TV, and even those can lead to trouble. “What’s with their left baseman? He’s got dreads down to his knees. And their catcher’s wearing a prayer shawl and a yarmulke. What are you, some kind of bigot? Speaking of bigots, did you see the Donald last night? Man, what a buffoon! Hey, don’t knock Donald. He makes a lot of sense. I don’t see you making billions of dollars.”

You can always talk about the weather. “Say, wasn’t that some storm last night? My house is underwater, and they say all of Florida will be soon. Well, at least it put out the wildfires. Do you think all these things have anything to do with …? Don’t say it! Say what? You were going to bring up climate change, weren’t you? Actually, I was going to say that it might signal the apocalypse, as revealed in Revelations.”

Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but wasn’t there a time when we could simply talk about things without risking the total meltdown of civilization? Today, there is no real desire to listen and consider anyone’s opinion but one’s own. We launch our talking points like missiles, hoping to score points. “Oh, that was a good one. She got you there.” Instead of trying to digest what people say, we’re too busy thinking about our next clever retort. We ask questions only to embarrass or put off guard anyone who dares to challenge our cherished beliefs. We push our opponents’ buttons and laugh as they get flustered.

Have to admit, I’m not always a polite conversationalist. I grow impatient with small talk. I want to suck the marrow out of you, to know what it is you think and feel down to your bones. As far as I’m concerned, the only topics worth talking about are those which inspire, ignite, or anger us, which may explain why I don’t receive a lot of dinner invitations.

I miss some of the family dinner discussions we had growing up. Not that they were always civil. I do recall a lot of yelling, but no hitting, biting, or scratching. There would be something in the news about some politician, labor strike, or cultural fad, and we were off. The conversation might veer toward diets, as for instance the time my younger sister became a vegetarian. I remember pummeling her with questions. “What’s the matter with meat? Eating meat is natural. What are those canines for, if not to tear flesh? You have to kill something. How is killing a carrot more ethical than killing a cow?” There was much laughter around the dinner table, at my poor sister’s expense. As I look back on it, though, beneath the sarcastic veneer, there was a desire to know and understand her reasons. She must have got through to me. It was not long before I, too, became a vegetarian.

Our family was fortunate to have an official discussion referee. Whenever things got too hot in the dining room, my mother, holding a plate of steaming pot roast, would enter and give us all that look. In a grim voice, she would say, “Nutilk!”—the Lithuanian word for “shut up.” Then she would smile and tell us to eat.

In her quiet, no nonsense way, my mother was telling us that we were still a family and to put away our differences. For her, la famiglia always came first. She saw the dangers of a divided house. Our country is not a family, of course, but as citizens we do, or should, all share a common allegiance to our nation—a nation of many voices, voices that have become increasingly shrill and unyielding. There comes a time when we need to stop shouting at each other and listen for a change. Sit down and break bread. Raise a glass of wine as you toast your differences. And remember to laugh. In the immortal words of both Lincoln and Jesus, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I invite you to join me on Facebook  https://www.facebook.com/TwaroniteZone?ref=hl