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.

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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SPRINGTIME IN FRESNO: THE TOLERABLE SEASON

(Text and photos by OldGuyMike.)

Fresno should post signs on all roads entering its county limits stating, “WARNING: LIVING IN OR JUST TRAVELING THROUGH FRESNO POSES SERIOUS HEALTH RISKS. Fresno air is chock-full of particulate matter from trucks, cars, fireplaces, farms being tilled, pesticides, herbicides, and other agriculture chemicals, including heavy metals, and can pose serious health risks including cancer, asthma, valley fever, emphysema, and other lung and heart problems. Enter at your own risk. Pregnant women are advised to stay out.”

In Fresno, spring isn’t the cruelest season. It is just the only tolerable season. During summer it is too hot to breathe and too dusty to want to. The only escape from the misery is to travel west until one runs into the Pacific Ocean where one can smell the salt water, feel the gentle sea breeze, and swim in the cool Pacific waters. The coastal escape is about two and half hours away, and coastal housing is expensive.

Where to be during a Fresno summer.

Where to be during a Fresno summer.

Also, eventually one must return, and the return can be painful, perhaps more painful than having spent the time in Fresno. If one doesn’t know of a pleasure, one doesn’t miss the pleasure when it is gone. Only junkies miss heroin when it is gone. People who have never experienced it will never miss it. If you are trying to escape a Fresno summer, remember it could lead to an addiction and the inevitable withdrawal when returning from an apparent paradise to the purgatory named Fresno.

Where else to be during a Fresno summer.

Where else to be during a Fresno summer.

Fall in Fresno is similar to summer but cooler. However, there is a danger in fall. Because of the coolness, the air is easier to breathe but just as dangerous. It is just a tastier poison and there are fewer escape destinations. Some travel to Yosemite or the nearby foothills and view the color change of tree leaves but soon realize Fresno fall colors can’t compete with New Hampshire or Canada. The Canadian fall is prettier and the people are nicer. Spending the money traveling to the North East may very well be worth the extra cash. If you are desperate, buy a book with nice pictures and save several thousands dollars.

Fall near Fresno but with cleaner air.

Fall near Fresno but with cleaner air.

Winter isn’t particularly nice in Fresno. It is cold, and the Tule Fog frequently sneaks in to provide drivers with zero visibility. This isn’t San Francisco fog that makes things romantic and artistic looking. No, it’s more like a blinding cold steam rising from the ground. Every year cars run into each other because drivers refuse to admit they can’t see past their hood ornaments and drive 70 miles per hour down the freeway. Also, the fog holds pollution in a similar way a sponge holds water. It is often painful to take a breath.

Of course, there are winter places nearby which are enjoyable. Again, they are two or three hours away and require some cost. And again, returning to Fresno is painful. Many escape the Fresno winter by trekking to either nearby mountains, which usually are blanketed in snow, or a desert such as Death Valley or the Mohave. The starkness of deserts is fascinating and beautiful so long as it isn’t summer when the heat will kill you. Literally, heat stroke can be a killer. The snow-covered mountains are a more popular escape. Sierra Summit attracts snowboarders and skiers, and nearby snow parks are great for tobogganers and budding bobsledders.

Mojave in winter.

Mojave in winter.

Winter near Fresno.

Snow near Fresno.

However, I have been to the snow and feel obligated to warn you, the white stuff called snow is wet, cold, and generally not pleasant. And since I don’t like stuff that is cold, wet, and generally uncomfortable I usually venture to the desert. If God had wanted us to frolic in the white, cold, and wet, he would have made us furrier than we are. This would make us all appear to be walking Chia Pets and probably be too warm for most summers. It would also save on clothing costs, but would be hard on the fashion industry. Also, it would solve the abominable snowman question.

But as an Old Guy, I digress. Turning 65 gave me the right to digress. It is actually a requirement of Old Guys.

Even without added digressions, we have one season left: spring, Fresno’s only survivable season. It is the only season not requiring going someplace else to enjoy yourself. It could be that compared to all other Fresno seasons spring seems better, or it could be in the spring Fresno is better. I don’t know which is true, but everything Fresno is better in the spring.

Close up on the spring Blossom Trail.

Close up on the spring Blossom Trail.

That white stuff is blossoms, not snow.

That white stuff is blossoms, not snow.

The nut trees explode in pink, white, and lavender flowers. The nearby rivers and lakes begin to fill with water, and the weather moderates. Gone are the winds, cold, and fog of winter. The sauna-like heat of summer is still in the future.

This is a grape bud.

This is a grape bud.

There are only grapes in this field.

There are only grapes in this field.

In spring the grape fields begin to bloom, and the marijuana fields planted between the lines of grapes begin to be hidden by the growing grapes and are no longer visible. I am told by those in the know even Fresno pot is better in the spring.