IT’S ALL IN MY GENES

My wife decided to have our DNA tested. She didn’t do it to search for genetically based diseases or even for a DNA identification in case I get lost again.

I am a person who gets lost a lot. I get lost in large buildings. I get lost in parking lots. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been somewhere, I will still lose my way the next time I go there. There is a parking lot in San Diego’s Horton Plaza Shopping Center in which I am guaranteed to get lost. The structure is built so that I can see my car but I cannot get to my car. If the car is a floor beneath me, I will try to walk to that floor. I will walk to the floor below, and the car will then appear to be on the floor above me. It is the New England idiom “You can’t get there from here” made real. No matter where your car is, you can’t get there from where you are.

I’ve gotten lost in New Mexico sorghum fields, in bays, canyons, my own house at night, department stores, and shopping centers. I have a lousy sense of direction. Luckily I can read maps, because men, even those with a poor sense of direction, don’t enjoy stopping and asking for directions. I believe one of the two greatest inventions of the last century was GPS. The other was refrigerators with ice machines.

Because I always get lost (and not in an existential sense. If I was Sisyphus I probably wouldn’t be able to find the hill, and if I did, I’d lose the boulder before I got there), I decided my wife decided to have my DNA tested for two reasons. Firstly, scientists may be able to discover alleles for getting lost and losing things, and then with a CRISPR (some sort of device or method to re-arrange genes) they could re-order my genes so I never lose anything or get lost again. They would be creating a lost and found designer gene.

Secondly, she would have a way to identify me if I got lost. Suppose my life became a soap opera, I was hit over my head by a croquet mallet-wielding English terrorist (they’d be the only brand of terrorist who’d play croquet), developed amnesia, hitchhiked to Vermont, and forgot who I was. If the local Vermont trooper who found me ran my DNA against a 23 and Me data base, they would discover who I was and cheerfully return me to her.

No, she didn’t have her own DNA analyzed so she would never get lost. And she really didn’t care about what Albert Camus thought about Sisyphus’ boulder or hill in The Myth of Sisyphus. No. She did it for an existential reason, although only closer to John Paul Sartre’s reason: She wanted to discover the essence of her existence.

Because Americans don’t know who they are, we seem to love genealogy and heredity. For a relatively small sum, one can spit into a tube, send it back to the folks at 23 and Me, and learn who they are.

Since I am uncertain even whether I want to know who I am, she went first, sent in her DNA, and recently learned who she is.

For generations the belief was her maternal and paternal lineage consisted of French, Irish, British Isles, Northern European, and Cherokee stock. There were several surprises.

Even though everyone in my wife’s paternal family said they were part Cherokee, the genes disagreed. However, the surprise was that she is well over three percent Neanderthal, which puts her in the 99th percentile of people today of Neanderthal background. I, of course, am unable to resist the obvious and now refer to her as a Cave Chick.

She is a très chic Cave Chick, however, because much of her DNA comes from the part of Europe now called France as well as other parts of Northern Europe and the British Isles. A little derives from Eastern Europe, and a tincture from Sub-Saharan West Africa.

She is, except for the substitution of Neanderthal for Cherokee, pretty much who she thought she was: French, Irish, Scottish, English, and Northern European. But no Cherokee, and she seemed a little disappointed. She said for generations her family has lived a lie. Although she is a fair-skinned, green-eyed, redhead, she wanted to be something else besides simple European. Even Neanderthals came from Europe and some even had red hair.

Because of existential reasons, I really don’t want to know who I am. But she insisted, and I have learned after four and a half decades of marriage to just give in and do what she wants because she will never stop pestering me. So recently, I sent my DNA to the folks at 23 and Me.

I admit some competitiveness. I know I am Irish, Scottish, German, and Welsh. But mostly Irish. My father’s father was Irish. I know my mother’s mother was Irish. I also think my grandmother’s family were Irish Travelers because she was a card shark, she could cheat at cards very skillfully, and I had an uncle who could count cards.

Although my genes may disagree (I have not as yet received my results) I am pretty certain the gambling gene eluded me. I don’t play poker because I don’t know how to bluff.

At one time I could ride a unicycle so I must have a unicycle-riding gene.

It seems the more research is done the more important genes seem to be to behavior. For example, it was believed the “refrigerator mom” was to blame for causing autism. However, recently genes have been discovered that may be the true cause (along with genetic mutations caused by older fathers and environmental toxins). It is believed an athletic gene has been discovered. I am sure I don’t have that one either.

At one time it was believed homosexuality was caused by the way parents, particularly mothers, treated children. It is now believed to have a strong genetic component. I don’t know if there is a homophobic gene.

Some day places like 23 and Me will be able to look at your genes and plan your future. I don’t know if this is good or not, but it is better than my junior high school teacher who told my mother I should be a plumber. The Air Force told me I should be an electronics engineer. I don’t think my genes match either analysis. For one thing, I can never remember whether it’s righty tighty-lefty loosie or the other way around, and for another, I can’t draw a straight line and since I don’t know the difference between right and left, any electronics I design would be, uh, shocking.

Among other behaviors scientists tell us are determined by genes are: who we marry, musical ability, political beliefs, religious beliefs, vocal qualities, intelligence, sense of humor, alcoholism, and weight. Of course, environmental factors are in play, but even those are based more on chemical environment. Suppose you have a garden (I do) and you plant squash (I did). Whatever you do, if something grows, it’ll be squash. How good the squash turns out to be is determined by its chemical environment of soil, fertilizer, sunlight, and water. It doesn’t matter if its mother squash hugs it enough. Of course, if it is traumatized by a hailstorm its growth will be affected, but it will still be squash.

And my genes tell me it is good to eat. Or at least that’s what my wife’s genes tell her to tell me.

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POPE FRANCIS, CIRQUE DU SOLEIL, AND JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA

Only Roman Catholic Jesuit priests and their secular counterparts, lawyers, can turn the mind into a Cirque du Soleil act and by contorting reason, torturing and twisting facts, reach whatever position they desire. Because Supreme Court Justices are merely lawyers and priests on steroids, they can reach whatever conclusions they desire and explain them in the most stilted English prose possible. And they do it ex cathedra.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is an example. Although he attended Harvard Law, as an undergrad he went to Georgetown, probably the most Jesuit University in America. That probably tainted him for life. For example, he believes corporations are people. It takes someone with a Jesuit-like Catholic mind (he also attended a Catholic high school) to reach that conclusion.

In good conscience I must disclose I am Catholic, I graduated from a Catholic high school, and I am an inactive member of the California State Bar.

But here’s the biggest problem Scalia has: he must first ignore the entire common law of corporations. Corporations were invented to protect investors from losing more than their investments. For example, suppose Ford Motors built a car that exploded in rear-end crashes. If someone were hurt or killed by one of those explosions they or their family could sue Ford, but usually not sue individual stockholders.

The history of corporations includes four of my favorite food groups: alcohol, coffee, tea, and sugar. At one time, because of bad sanitation, people in London put booze in their water so they wouldn’t come down with one of the many diseases lurking in the water supply. The result was the public was slightly smashed all the time. However, the coffee and tea that used heated water had to be shipped in. This presented two problems: One, who risks the capital by making the initial purchase and paying the shipping cost? And two, who pays the shipping company if the ship sinks?

People began hanging out drinking coffee and tea all day long at the Starbucks of the day, Lloyds of London, where they got wired on caffeine. Because boiled water has fewer bacteria, the people no longer needed to be smashed all day. Like most folks loaded on caffeine (and occasionally cocaine), they thought they could solve all problems. That’s when they came up with selling stock, limiting liability to the amount invested, and buying insurance. What they had done was to create a fictitious business body that would shield the fortunes of the real humans in case the coffee and tea went down with the ship.

Corporations were treated as individuals because they protected investors, not because they voted in elections, got married, or bribed politicians.

In reality, I doubt today’s American conservatives want to treat corporations as individuals. For one thing, they would have to pay taxes on the money they make outside the country. For another, if corporations were taxed as regular folks, their tax rate could triple. I don’t think Scalia would agree to allow the government to treat corporations as poorly as it treats real live people.

Even though he is a Jesuit-educated lawyer, he would have trouble getting out of this position. He could, however, do what most Americans do when something displeases them: ignore it. We have a long history of doing this. For example, most Southerners ignore that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that the Confederate flag is to Blacks what a swastika is to Jews – anathema.

Americans can deny just about anything.

Americans can deny just about anything. 

(photo by Mike Bowler)

Today, the most famous (and probably smartest) Jesuit is, of course, Pope Francis. Mea Culpa, but I like the guy. That the Cardinals chose him shows how desperate they were. They needed someone to figure out how to substantially change the church yet make it appear not to change all that much, and find a rationale for it all. These types of things are right up a Jesuit’s alley. One of Francis’s first acts was to make marriage annulments cheap and easier to obtain. Many of my friends have told me civil divorce is expensive because it is worth it.

But Catholics who divorce and remarry are considered adulterers by the Church unless they first obtain a Church annulment, which means a real marriage never existed. There is a broad range of reasons justifying an annulment, from the youth of the partners, to adultery, to I didn’t know what I was doing. A Church annulment means to a Catholic, as one friend told me, you get your CDL (Catholic Drivers License) back, you rejoin the Church, and begin receiving Communion again. Presumably one can also begin kicking a little money back to the Church.

Francis also said he wouldn’t judge homosexuals and stated, “Who am I to judge?” A day or two later, the Vatican issued a statement saying that wasn’t what he really meant, and practicing homosexuals will probably end up going to hell. The only description I have read of hell is in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Informal and is does not sound like a fun place.

So far this has been the Popes M.O.: He says something hopeful and the Vatican replies with a statement saying the Pope didn’t mean what you thought he said. The great Catholic lay writer, Garry Wills (who has a Jesuit background) says the only way to stop this cycle is to get rid of the Priesthood (see WHY PRIESTS? A Failed Tradition, by Garry Wills, Viking Penguin, 2013). Since the only thing they are needed for is transubstantiation of the Communion Host he goes into a long argument about why consubstantiation is better than transubstantiation and why the Church really doesn’t need priests. Wills is a gifted writer and possesses a far better mind than I, but he misses one important point — most people don’t know or care what transubstantiation and consubstantiation are. They just know Communion makes them feel good.

One solution would be to give Deacons a promotion and special permission to consecrate the host and give communion (they already can perform the other sacraments). Since Deacons don’t have to take a vow of celibacy, this would also solve the married priest issues. This, in turn, would help solve the priest shortage issue, and this is a very Jesuit solution: Just call it something different, eventually it will become different.

Whenever I read Wills, I always get the feeling he would like to be a priest and run a little parish. I feel confident he would find being a Deacon just as satisfying as being a priest and he could be married. I’d bet he would jump at the possibility. Maybe Scalia would let corporations be Deacons.

AN OLD GUY’S SUMMER UNIFORM — Or, Never Wear Cargo Shorts After Labor Day

One morning my son dismissively looked at me — as many of the adult children of old guys do — and said, “You have your Old Guy summer uniform on.”

“Old Guy summer uniform?”

“Yea, you know, cargo shorts, flowered shirts, Birkenstocks.” He thought I was wearing Birkenstocks.

I was wearing Costco-stocks. I didn’t know what Birkenstocks were, so I snuck off. (Before you criticize, I have never decided if “snuck” is a real word. Sneaked sounds pretentious. But you probably understood what I meant when I wrote “I snuck off.” Therefore, in some sense it is a word. But now I have fantasies of legions of petty English teachers and persnickety copy editors plotting to forbid me to ever write in English again. But, of course, I digress.) Off I went to locate a pair of Birkenstocks.

I discovered two places where Birkenstocks can be found in Fresno. One was at a shopping center in a store catering to 14 year-old girls. The other was a Birkenstocks store in North East Fresno.

Between the ‘60s and now, a lot of hippies must have made a few bucks, because I ended up paying over $100 for a pair of sandals. In case you didn’t see that, I will break one of my cardinal rules and use all upper case letters: OVER A HUNDRED DOLLARS FOR A PAIR OF SANDALS. I won’t tell you how far over. But it is further over than the price of any sandals I have ever bought before. I once spent $20 on a pair at Costco and had a knot in my stomach for years. Things have changed.

Now, I also have bought a hat that makes me look like an anthropologist searching for the fossil beginnings of humans. It was around $100, but people told me a Tilley hat was an Old Guy requirement. And the Tilley people also say their hats float, so I needn’t fear losing my investment if I ever go on a boat.

The Old Guy who took this had his summer uniform on -- flowered shirt, cargo shorts, Birkenstocks, and Tilley hat.

The Old Guy who took this (me) had his summer uniform on — flowered shirt, cargo shorts, Birkenstocks, and Tilley hat.

Jimmy Buffet is probably the role model for Old Guy uniforms. He looks and acts like an Old Guy who has spent too much time on the beach drinking beer and (in his case successfully, I’m told) wooing younger women. But, is it possible to drink too much beer on a beach? I think not.

He’s rich. He sails, flies airplanes, used to smoke a lot of pot, can play a slightly better than mediocre guitar, and has written more than a few good songs. And he is on the road a lot. What a life.

Some people claim Mick Jagger is a good Old Guy uniform role model. I disagree because he seems to care too much about what he wears and how he looks. He is probably the guy Carly Simon was thinking of when she wrote, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” I admit I am a little jealous of him because he can jump around on a stage for hours while singing “Satisfaction” for maybe the googolplex time, and I can neither sing nor jump around on a stage.

But his body just doesn’t match his face. According to his face, he has done a lot of heavy-duty living, but his body seems to be that of a 13 year-old boy. Plus, I can’t imagine him in a flowered shirt.

Keith Richards, though, makes the cut. Just the fact he is still alive marks him as a special human being, although he looks like he’s been dead for a decade or two. His special ability, besides playing a great guitar, is that he just doesn’t seem to care about how he looks or acts. It isn’t that he is apathetic, it just seems that seconds last hours for him and he enjoys each one just for the hell of it. I don’t think he knows the Sixties are over.

Bruce Springsteen is such a great Old Guy that it is hard to believe he is just a month or two my junior. He’s 66 this September. I can imagine him in a flowered shirt and sandals, but all his clothes are probably bespoke and specially designed to look casual. However, the Boss deserves to be on the list because he is…well…The Boss, even if he is from New Jersey.

And, of course, one can never forget the great Jeff Bridges, a.k.a. “The Dude”. He is almost the archetypical Old Guy. He looks good dressed poorly and great dressed well. But he has been on the cover of AARP Magazine and ergo automatically is an Old Guy. He also has been on the Cover of Rolling Stone, which is like playing in both the World Series and the Superbowl. In the same lifetime.

My wife says because he has a long-term marriage he should be on the list. I won’t say if I agree with her. Some thoughts are better left unsaid.

He does, however, know how to tie the room together with a rug. That has to count for something.

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THE DIFFICULTIES OF MAKING A LIVING DOING NOTHING

When I retired and became a man of leisure, I  realized I was getting paid to get up in the morning. I wasn’t required to perform any other tasks. I could see a movie, read a book, write a story, ride a motorcycle, take pictures, or just sit on my butt and do nothing. I confess I can do nothing really well. In fact, I probably can do nothing better than anything else.

Doing nothing at Yosemite.

Doing nothing at Yosemite.


What I see while doing nothing at Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite.

What I see while doing nothing at Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite.

Doing nothing is harder than doing something. For example, my wife just asked me to help fix our back fence. I don’t like fixing things, especially fixing things that require the use of hammers and nails and wood.

Now, I know I can use hammers and nails and wood. I just don’t like doing it because I usually hit my thumb instead of the nail, and jamb a splinter into my finger. Both of these actions are painful, and I am adverse to pain. It also requires doing something instead of nothing. And, like I said, I like doing nothing instead of something.

I realized this when I was very young, but I also knew I’d eventually have to make a living. Making a living doing nothing is hard. I looked at the classified advertisements for work doing nothing. Somewhat ironically, I saw nothing.

I asked my father if he would support me so I could do nothing. What he replied is not printable, but basically he declined my request. I had anticipated his answer but I didn’t expect he would make me get a job right then. I. Think he did this to introduce me to life’s pain.

I was hired at 14 to stock a large walk-in refrigerator at the local liquor store with beer, wine, soft drinks, and other perishable items. I was also made to fill 10-pound bags of ice and place those bags in a freezer. The only good thing about the job was that I learned what and how much my friends’ parents drank, and business was good. Years later, when my own children were teenagers, I learned why business was good.

But I, as usual, digress.

Walk-in refrigerators are cold. I don’t like the cold because, well, it’s cold. I had no future as a stock-boy (sorry, but back then girls weren’t allowed to stock things so there were no stock-girls). Also, the job required me to do something and was classified as work. But I began to pay into Social Security so that when I was old I could do nothing.

I then thought I’d be a teacher because all I’d have to do was tell people how much I knew. But then I realized being a teacher is hard. For one thing, teachers can’t hit children anymore to control them. For another thing, I would have to learn things before I told other people things. And lastly, although I like my children well enough, I basically don’t like other peoples’ children. They usually smell of old gym socks and sweat.

A few years after graduation the Catholic high school I attended, the University of San Diego High School, claimed they were still owed several thousand dollars in tuition that my father must have forgotten to pay. Luckily, they kindly released my transcripts so I could attend college, but they had threatened to not release them. They never released my senior yearbook.

Meanwhile, I learned I could sit on the Mission Beach sea wall doing nothing for hours. Sometimes I drank coffee and sometimes I drank beer. Frequently I brought things to read. Sometimes I spoke with others and sometimes with myself. At any case, I was good at it. I mean, really good at it.

But, I still felt like Maynard G. Krebs, of the old Dobie Gillis television show, who considered work a four-letter word. “WORK?!” he’d shout and cringe while playing bongo drums whenever it was suggested he find suitable employment. Because of him, in sixth grade I bought a gray sweatshirt, a pair of bongo drums, and wrote what I believed was existential poetry. I didn’t know what existential poetry was (and still don’t) but I knew Maynard G. Krebs liked it, and everyone thought he was cool. In sixth grade that was good enough for me.

The biggest downside in doing nothing is guilt. I was raised Roman Catholic, and doing most things and doing nothing were both considered sins. One was expected to do something productive and receive an income. It was expected some of that income would be given to the Church. My parents expected me to grow up to do something productive so they wouldn’t have to support me, but they didn’t care if I gave any income to the Church.

“The Catholic Church has enough money,” my father would say. I figured that because he spent nearly four years studying to be a priest he knew what he was talking about. Those who knew him say he would have been a lousy priest.

All layers of government want me to perform useful and productive work so I can pay taxes. People who don’t pay taxes because they can’t find work get called lazy takers. People who don’t pay taxes because of sophisticated trusts and inheritance methods and hide their income offshore are called role models. The moral is be born to rich, smart parents who probably inherited their money, then dole out small amounts to charity instead of paying taxes. Those people are called philanthropists.

I decided the best way to do nothing was to get a job where I could sit and talk to myself, also referred to as thinking out loud, so I got a job as a magazine writer. Everyday I would go and speak to people and, because this was before Wikipedia and Google, occasionally I’d have to go to the library and do research. I would then talk to myself about what I learned and write that down.

We didn’t have to do much work. Once the magazine’s heating and air conditioning person, Kenny, asked if we did any real work because all we did was gab with each other and stare at typewriters. I told him that was the best part of the job.

After awhile I realized I needed more income, so I went to law school and got a job as a criminal defense lawyer. This entailed some actual work, but mostly I just argued with people called prosecutors and judges, who seemed to be the same people. It also provided a defined benefits pension plan so that now I’ve retired I can do nothing full-time. Rich people seem to hate Social Security and defined benefits pension plans because they think I’m getting something for nothing. Because they are rich, they apparently believe they deserve my Social Security and retirement money. They seem to forget I have paid into those accounts for decades, but that is a different story, and I am tired of digressing.

As I write this I am sitting at a Starbucks coffee shop speaking quietly to myself and writing things down. It’s a hard gig.