All in the Family

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                             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

Small Talk

DSCN0535I’m one of those pathetic, lonely guys who still does his banking in person. Sure, I could do everything online, but then I’d miss out on some great conversations.

Take this morning, for instance. I was making a simple deposit at my local bank, and was gazing off into space with what I hoped was a look of serious contemplation when the teller glanced up from his computer and asked me, “So how’s your day going so far?”

The question startled me with its bold directness. It seemed as if the teller were trying to engage me as a real person, not just another of thousands of customers. And he wanted to know how my day was going?

I stared dumbfounded at the young man, who seemed as eager to hear my reply as if he were in a bar waiting for the punch line to a dirty joke. After several minutes had passed, his expression turned to concern, as beads of sweat and a look of panic appeared on my face.

You see, he didn’t just ask how I am, in which case a simple “fine, thank you” would have sufficed, but asked me how my actual day was going, which seemed to indicate that he wanted details. What really threw me, however, were those troubling last two words—“so far.” This demanded some quick evaluation of how my day was progressing at this precise point in time, as measured against my general existential standard of what a good day should entail.

Franticly I considered my options. I could take the easy way out and say that it was going great so far, but then come back at him with that grim reminder from the Don Henley tune about how “in a New York minute everything can change.” Make him think about the fragility of our daily lives and that “Nothing in the world lasts/Save eternal change.” (Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de Racan). Maybe my teller would start worrying about what his day had in store for him, furtively looking behind his back and searching his car for explosives before he drove home. That would take the smile off his face.

But I think what the young man wanted was a piece of me—some little vignette in the life of the real person standing across from him. Ideally, it would involve something more interesting than the fact that I had just picked up the newspaper and had enjoyed a great walk up Fourth Avenue, except that I had stepped on some gum and been nearly stampeded by a gang of college students late for class. So I thought of some possible replies with a little more pizzazz, as for instance:

“Well, in just the past hour, I’ve researched my next book, visited two porn sites, made an appointment for a colonoscopy, decided which organs I wish to donate in case of my death, and was recruited by three separate terrorist organizations, one of which promised me an extra dozen virgins in heaven if I acted NOW.”

Or I could take a more somber tone, tearing up and shaking my head sadly. “It was going so well between us. Just this morning, we talked about having our first child and naming him George (or Georgiana if it’s a girl) after my uncle, who died from a heart attack after mistakenly taking three Viagra pills when he couldn’t remember if he had taken them or not. I was so happy. Then my wife suddenly turned to me and began to sob uncontrollably. “It’s all been a lie,” she said. “I was going to tell you, but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Then she told me the truth. She—I mean he—was a transvestite, which now that I think about it does explain why he had to have his own bathroom.

Or maybe I should keep it short. “How’s my day going so far? Well, I’ve just been to my doctor and he told me that I have exactly two months to live, not counting any unused sick days or vacation time, and demanded that I pay him at the time service was rendered, meaning right now. And you want to hear the really sad part? I was stupid enough to pay him.”

In the end, I decided to be honest. “Please tell your corporate masters that my day was going just great until I heard that you’re raising my bank fees, and that my day would be going much better if I could get a little more interest on my CD’s.”

                                                       ©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.”

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Sex Toys After 50

DSCN0535The cover headline said it all: “Best. Sex. Ever!” You might think it was an issue of Cosmo, but this was the latest AARP The Magazine. Though confused by the punctuation, I was hooked, especially by the subtitle: “Even in Your 70s—We Show You How.”

Excitedly flipping to page 56, however, I found no steamy pictures of attractive people enjoying sex or detailed instructions on exotic sexual positions. Instead, I found a frank discussion of popular questions by AARP “sexpert” Dr. Pepper Schwartz “about how to stay frisky after 50.” I did find the tip on sex toys mildly interesting, which noted that the Rabbit, the Revel Body Sonic Vibrator, and the We-Wibe “are all said to satisfy consistently.”

Well, I’m no “sexpert,” but I do consider myself a frisky kind of guy. After diligent, trial-and-error experimentation over the years, my equally frisky wife and I have found a few sexual toys of our own. You might want to give these a try.

As far as we’re concerned, forget the rabbit. For hours and hours of amusement, nothing beats a little rubber ducky in the bedroom. I’m not talking about those fancy battery-powered models—the kind that swim around in your tub and quack back at you—just a plain old yellow ducky that squeaks when you squeeze it. (This last part is particularly important. It’s amazing what a little squeak can do for your orgasms.) Just imagine all the pleasures you can bring to your partner with the loving application of a little ducky. For added enjoyment, try lubricating your ducky, or have it whisper naughty little things in your partner’s ear.

Still have that old Slinky toy lying around? Remember how it could magically move down a flight of stairs, end-over-end, and you’d run back up and let it go again all afternoon, never tiring of it? (OK, some of us are easily amused.) Well, forget the stairs. That same old Slinky can also perform tricks in the bedroom. Let it run down the gentle incline of your partner’s spine, seductively stretching and reshaping itself. You never know quite where it’ll end up.

Maybe you grew up playing with plastic dinosaurs. Maybe you still do. Well, why not bring those models into the bedroom for some Mesozoic love play? Use your little dinos as surrogate lovers to act out your most primitive fantasies. Just imagine the squeals of delight as your Tyrannosaurus gently nibbles your partner’s neck.

Maybe you played with dolls instead. Take it from us. That old Barbie and G.I. Joe can do wonders for your sex life. (Though boys usually preferred the G.I. Joe, I suspect many would have preferred the Barbie, if given a chance. How else is a boy to learn about the female anatomy? Then again, you really can’t learn much about a real female body from a Barbie.) If you tend to be shy, repressed, or lacking in imagination, dolls can be especially useful. Have Barbie and the little soldier act out new scenes and positions. Dress Barbie in a leather bra and panties and give her a whip. Have G.I. Joe, wearing his usual camouflage undies, try to fend her off, with flowers or maybe a bazooka. If you’re into kinky, dress G.I. Joe in a short pink miniskirt and Barbie as Spiderman. The possibilities are endless.

While I can’t guarantee these toys will satisfy everyone, they might help you loosen up a bit. They might even bring a little laughter to the bedroom, which is not a bad thing. Best of all, you don’t have to visit a sex shop to buy them. You probably have a few in your closet or basement. Or steal them from your kids. They shouldn’t be playing with sex toys anyway.

You can read AARP article by Dr. Pepper Schwartz here: http://www.aarp.org/home-family/sex-intimacy/info-2015/sex-questions-libido-stds-schwartz.html

 

How I Lost Miss Maine

DSCN0535For the record, I never really had Miss Maine. As relationships go, the time I actually spent with her was short. But for a brief glorious time, she liked me and I liked her. Did I mention she had been a Miss America contestant?

I’m not going to describe her to you. I can’t even remember her name. In a word, she was gorgeous, the kind of woman you can’t help but ogle as she walks across the room. But she was personable and intelligent, not at all like the doe-eyed, dumb stereotype of beauty contestants.

It was late in my senior year at college, and I was grabbing some lunch in the cafeteria when a female friend came up to me and whispered in my ear. “She’s new in our dorm,” pointing at Miss Maine, who for the purpose of this narrative I’ve now decided to call Doris. “She noticed you and wants to be introduced.” Apparently, I was not looking my usual wasted self. I shot a glance across the cafeteria and tried to look cool.

As I recall, we had a couple of dates and that was it. I graduated shortly thereafter and landed a residential teaching job at a private school in Connecticut. In addition to my teaching duties, I had a dorm full of teenage boys to look after. There was a big dinner and dance for all the students, and since faculty members were expected to attend, I decided to give Doris a call and see if she wanted to go. Amazingly enough, she said yes.

I picked her up at my alma mater, where she was now a senior, and brought her back to my school. It was early, so we went up to my room in the boys’ dormitory and had a couple of stiff drinks before dinner. During my senior year, I had taken up drinking in a big way, but now it was a full-blown avocation, especially during awkward social events as this night was turning out to be. A couple of times during the dance, we snuck back to my room for some more refreshments. I did not notice or care that she was not matching my intake.

What happened after the dance remains hazy. Suddenly we were back in my room, where after refusing my offer of a nightcap, she informed me in no uncertain terms that I was too shit-faced to drive her back to campus. Like a drill sergeant, she instructed me to climb into bed. Then she turned off the light and undressed, donning one of my shirts as a nightie. My kind of woman, I thought to myself. Just like that, I had achieved the goal I had long desired.

Alas, my night of passion was not to be. As I tried to snuggle up and put on my best night moves, she pushed me away with surprising strength. “You’re going to sleep it off for a couple of hours,” Doris insisted. There in the darkness, I dimly perceived the absurdity of my situation. Here I was—a lusty twenty-two-year-old lying next to a beautiful woman, and I was powerless to do anything about it. After making one last futile pass, I gave in to sleep. A few hours later, I was sober enough to drive her home in silence.

And what did I learn from this lesson? Nothing. I was still twenty-two and stupid. I confess there were many more such events in my life, though none so poignant as that dark, unfulfilled night. Fortunately, I am here to report that no one died as a result of my wasted youth, including me.

These days, though I still enjoy kicking back with a couple of glasses of wine after dinner, gone is my need to get hammered. Sometimes I catch myself looking back fondly on those old recreational drinking days, while at the same time wincing at the physical and emotional agonies they brought. I think of all the people done in by drinking and driving, and I am quietly thankful. There, partly out of sheer dumb luck but mostly for the grace and good sense of fellow travelers, go I. Thank you, Doris, wherever you are.

(Note: This piece marks the start of my new column “The Absurd Life.” Look for a new piece here every other Friday. If it’s not here, you can send me a polite comment to please get off my ass and write something. We writers need all the help we can get.)