Another Review of My Life as a Sperm

Here’s another advance review of my latest book which might get you thinking about someday writing your own book of life stories.

“We all have stories. But few of us can tell them like Gene Twaronite. In turn, his stories amuse, instruct, entertain, and inspire. You’ll smile, chuckle, laugh out loud, wince, and often identify with the life lessons shared in his memories and musings. Best of all, you might decide to turn on the computer and record your own stories. Now that’s fine writing!”

Suzanne Barchers, EdD; Advisor and Chair of Board of Directors for Lingokids, Madrid, Spain; author of approximately 300 books and songs for educators and children

Meanwhile, you can buy my latest absurdities here.

Advance Review of My Life as a Sperm

Just wanted to share this advance review of my new book My Life as a Sperm.
“How appropriate that Gene has chosen to group together a wonderful compendium of his off beat life events into one easy to read and entertaining volume. Whether he’s digging for bones or in pursuit of the Rolling Stones, his bi-coastal adventures are packed with wry observations and of course his own unique infectious twists of humor. It was especially enjoyable to relive the chapters from when he was foraging in our area and I’m happy to report they remain as timely and as delightfully ‘absurd’ as ever.”
Barry Fain, Publisher, Providence MediaSee more about this book here   amazon.com/mylifeasasperm/genetwaronite

How I Met Vonnegut or Goodbye Blue Monday

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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

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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

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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

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