Remembering Catherine

Literature has been on my mind lately. Although I’ve not read all of Charles Dickens’ oeuvre, he’s been in my consciousness what with the new movie and somewhat older book, The Man Who Invented Christmas. Those who analyze literature sometimes claim Dickens invented the modern novel. In my unprofessional opinion, however, the roots go back a bit further than Boz. Still, it’s an enviable position to hold, even if it’s just in the minds of admirers. Dickens came back to me yesterday in one of those apparently random emails from WikiTree. WikiTree is a genealogy website to which I’ve contributed from time to time. I have no famous ancestors, so WikiTree sometimes helps me borrow them. Turns out I’m 28-degrees separated from Charles Dickens.

Perhaps their algorithms are getting better, or perhaps one of their robots is reading my blog (goodness knows few actual people do!) but the connections are getting closer. I posted earlier that I’m 37-degrees separated from Bob Dylan and 43-degrees from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’m closer to Dickens than to either of these famous individuals. This is the beguiling aspect of genealogy—it shows how unexpected connections can be part of our unknown background. The maze back to Dickens is through my grandmother on the Tauberschmidt line. This is the one of the four grandparental lines for which I have the least information. Nobody in my family even knows my great-grandmother’s name. She died young and, as with women in that era, was known in census records only by her husband’s surname. I may never learn who she was.

Although the reason for women changing surnames makes sense in its historical context, it is one of the great injustices of both gender equality and history. Signs are indicating that society is finally waking up on this point: women are half of the human story. As a dabbler in fiction writing, knowing that half the story is untold is a troubling phenomenon. Reading about Dickens I learned that he left the wife of his youth for a younger woman. Although such things are common, my reaction was to wonder who Catherine Thomson Hogarth might’ve become, had women had the opportunities they’re starting to have today. She was, after all, from Edinburgh. She has biographies, but not nearly as many as her feted husband. And if my math’s correct, I’m only 29-degrees separated from her. And this may well be the more important connection; the story untold.

Fame and Fortune

I was that awkward introvert in high school. Actually, I’m still that awkward introvert now, as easily talked over in editorial board meetings as I always have been at the lunchroom table. As a consequence I’ll gladly take any help I can get on my street cred. No doubt it will have to come from others. I get rejection emails from agents saying I’m just not famous enough to merit attention, so I guess I’ll have to bask in the glory of strangers. I do have a famous brother-in-law. It also turns out that I’m also only 43-degrees separated from J. R. R. Tolkien. I’ll take it!

One of the beauties of genealogy is that we learn we’re all connected. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from any unsightly Trumps in the family tree, we are all, at some remove, related. J. R. R., as those of us in the fam like to call him, had a common great uncle who had some descendants who by marriage became connected to the obscure Tauberschmidt family, of which I’m a member. I posted some time back on my degrees of separation from Bob Dylan, but the closest near miss to fame in my background is Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot Dillinger.” Even he’s only related by marriage. Still, I can’t help but wonder if we all took our relations seriously if it might not help to understand that when we oppress anyone we’re actually violating our own family. Makes you think.

Wiki-Tree is a great place for finding connections. Unfortunately I don’t have much time for genealogy anymore. I used to spend quite a bit of time at it and now I can’t even find my paper files. Those of us on the obscure end of the human continuum have to take whatever jobs we’re offered, even if it means moving so many times that those family tree files from pre-electronic days get buried in the back of some attic crawl space in your rental. So it goes. I’m sure J. R. R. had his own rough times. At least he doesn’t have to try to get published in today’s market. I suspect that if the Inklings were to meet today they’d all be chatting about the merits of self-publishing on Amazon. In ebook form. Publishing’s not for the feint-hearted. So as I open yet another pinhead email, I think of my 43rd cousin and smile.

Subterranean Homesick Blues

When Bob Dylan was changing American music I wasn’t really in a place to notice. I was too young, living in a small town, and the member of a church suspicious of that kind of music. We didn’t listen to the radio at home, so I only really discovered who he was when I was in college. I’d heard many of his songs by then, of course, I just didn’t know the persona. So when the news broke that Dylan had been selected for a Nobel Prize in poetry he stunned me yet again. As someone who has always wondered if he’s made any contribution at all, let alone a significant one, this seemed like one of those roads a man walks down before he’s called a man. A mensch. A person who matters. I was pleased, then, to learn that I’m only 37 degrees of separation from the great man himself.

It was probably something like this desire to be significant that led me to genealogy in the first place. My wife had done significant work on her family tree, and apart from a college project in anthropology I’d done little. While at Nashotah House I began to work on it. I managed to make some connections and take many of my lineages (pedestrian, all of them) back a ways. One of the results of this was I posted some information on WikiTree. I had intended to put much more there, but since leaving academia I also seem to have misplaced anything resembling free time. The loss of summer is the hardest to bear for a man whose very pulse is divided into semesters. In any case, I received an email from WikiTree this week with the following chart, showing how I’m attached to Bob Dylan.

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-5-22-00-am

Now, I didn’t ask for this connection to fame. I received the email unsolicited, blowing in the wind, as it were. I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle all the hits that are sure to follow such a public revelation. Fame, I’m told, can be quite a burden. The one important thing this chart tells me, however, is that we’re all connected. I suspect there are some famous people much closer than 37 degrees from me. Melvin Purvis, “the man who shot John Dillinger” was married to one of my great aunt’s sisters or something like that. Some of my southern cousins even got to visit his gun-lined house. Fame, as it will, rests rather on the side of John Dillinger. And Bob Dylan. If we were to cast the net wide enough we’d see that we’re all related and therefore shouldn’t hate one another. I would say “we are family” but I think that might be a different artist’s song.

Long Distance Commute

AwkwardSilencesWhat should my next book be? This is the perpetual question of the long-distance commuter for whom electronic devices are mere distractions. If that commuter is socially awkward and believes that only books truly understand them, that is. I’m as eclectic a reader as I am a voracious one. Each book suggests, in some measure, the next one. I always have to keep an eye ahead. Then I read (present tense) a book without peer. I feel lost because what will replace that experience I’ve had for the past few days of looking up and finding myself at my destination? Of actually looking forward to getting on the bus so I can read? I’ve been doing this commute for over 400 books now, and I’m at a loss for what to read next. I blame it on Amazon.

In the publishing world we use Amazon to purchase competitor’s books. Then Jeff Bezos decides to buy the Washington Post, you know, the way people do. Since my email address is on their list I get sent a daily invitation to read the most read stories on said Post. I read a story by Alexandra Petri and I was hooked. Where could I get more? A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is the rare kind of book that makes you laugh out loud on the bus, which, at six in the morning, generates its own kind of awkward silence.  Petri makes you feel like it was actually okay to be that dorky kid who read all the time.  Like there’s a world out there that responds to your longings, somehow.  A world of possibilities.

Now here I am about to climb on the bus without Petri. I’m like a kid staring disconsolately at an empty candy wrapper. “That was so good!” you think. “I wish there was more.” Petri writes as if she’s achieved Bob Dylan’s blessing and has stayed forever young. The time of life when the future seems so full of possibilities. Hers is writing that reminds you of a time when you didn’t spend hours a day nursing hemorrhoids, sitting on a hard bus seat. That reminds you it was possible, unlike your own experience of it, to be cool as an Episcopalian in Wisconsin. That reminds you of the time when you had A Field Guide to Awkward Silences to look forward to reading. No, this book didn’t make that choice of next book any easier at all.

No Beef

IMG_1932

Burger franchises aren’t always the best option for vegetarians. When you’re traveling, however, choices can be slim. My wife and I recently pulled into a Burger King. They do have a veggie burger, although it is clear that those who prepare them seldom eat them. They must be frozen because they inevitably have that tough edge that comes from microwaving them just a little too long. Anyway, we were sitting down to have a bite, or chew, when a group of three gentlemen in the corner booth caught our attention. They were arguing, in a friendly way, over Christianity. Among the topics of conversation was the age of the earth. (Ten thousand years, at the outside.) Overhearing the conversation, I started to get nervous. I noticed the guy at the table next to them glancing curiously their way.

I glanced around. Other people having conversations about mundane things. Perhaps this is what we’re taught to do. Speak of things that have little depth. We are in a public place. We don’t discuss religion or politics here. But then I reconsidered the situation. If I were to join their discussion I’m sure we would have found little in the way of common ground, but I realized that conversations around religion do have depth. These guys, despite the media’s incessant message that religion is for non-intellectuals, were thinking deeply about topics of ultimate concern. When’s the last time I talked with a colleague about what really matters over lunch?

A blurb in a recent Christian Century mentioned Bob Dylan. It suggested that in a recent interview that he’d intimated that if he hadn’t gone into music, he would likely have studied theology. Likewise, I recalled an interview many years ago with Bruce Springsteen that suggested he might have made a good priest. Listening to the lyrics of many of the songs of these two icons will reveal that depth and public religious discourse many not be so rare as this incident in Burger King seemed to suggest. Maybe the words aren’t always direct. Maybe we speak in metaphors and with guarded asides. Maybe we speak with our actions instead of our words. Many of the most profound conversations we have, when viewed in that light, are like those of three men in a Burger King.

Life Everlasting

ThruTheWormholeThrough the Wormhole is one of those series that keeps me coming back. I’m currently working my way through the second season because it is a show that I take in small doses. The episodes require thought (and often, more importantly, time—something of which I have too little). Watching the installment “Can We Live Forever?” I was astonished by the optimism of the writers and interviewees. Among a cross-section of scientists, at least, there is the belief that we can, and will, dramatically expand human life. To biblical proportions. And that life won’t be a decrepit, declining feebleness. Instead, we can be, to quote one of the scientists, quoting Bob Dylan, “forever young.” Well, maybe not forever, but you get the picture. Of course, God came up quite a bit in this episode. Immortality is the stuff of divinity. The life-force, which much of science denies exists, is strong. No matter how weak or old, we don’t really want to give it up.

Of course, death is the price of life. We live on a finite planet with dwindling resources. If we don’t die, we run out of space for the next generation. Some have postulated that we need to colonize other worlds—just the thing that got Europeans in trouble in the first place—in order to make room. Room for us. The dominant species. No doubt, we are “programmed” to age and die. As far as we know, all animals are. Even plants. That is to say, life as we know it ends in death. If it doesn’t, can it truly be called life? I would be fascinated to live for a long while and see what we can make of this world. Not the greatest fan of technology, still, I’m impressed how far we’ve come in the brief time I’ve spent on this planet. And I do wonder where we’ll end up. In my mind, however, there always is an end. Even to this infinite universe, about the heat-death of which I’ve often read. What gives us the right to live longer than nature dictates?

It is, surely, a matter of degree. These glasses perched on my nose certainly have prolonged my life beyond what nature would dictate. The vitamin pills I swallow, the fabrics that keep me warm while wicking away perspiration, the things physicians can stop in their germy tracks. We already prolong life. Nevertheless, the century mark has always been symbolically our final goal and sign post that it’s time to hand things over. Thus it was in the beginning. The Bible makes clear that, although the antediluvians lived centuries rather than decades, this was never intended as the lot of the majority. No, we were born to die. We live through our children. The thought of eternity is scary. Especially when we think of how humans are. Those who can afford to live the longest are likely those who least deserve to do so. Do we want to live forever with the plutocrats in charge? Perhaps there’s a reason that we all take that final bow. Still, I can never listen to “Forever Young” without getting misty eyed and imagining the possibilities.

Under the Rainbow

Great irony attends the bearing down of Hurricane Isaac on Florida, disrupting the start of the Republican National Convention. Ironic not because of the damage or destruction that normally accompanies hurricanes, but because of the silence concerning divine intent. When natural disasters—does anyone remember Katrina?—have struck against “sinful” collections of people in the past, the religious right has always been swift to designate them examples of God’s wrath. Now that God’s Own Party is being inconvenienced by a hurricane this time, well, it’s just nature. I wonder what it is that so easily distinguishes divine punishment hurricanes from benign, natural ones? In a perfect world we would perhaps have a God that saw no need to create hurricanes at all. In the world we inhabit, however, we face disasters of all sorts and have the added burden of deciding which God has sent and which s/he has not.

One of the main strands of this skein of tangled thinking is the blithe unawareness that politicians often use religion insincerely. People, just like our other primate cousins, learn to respect the alpha male and acquiesce when we might get hurt. Politicians, at least for centuries, have known that few people will chase down the logic of their muddled theological declarations. We all know and experience gut-level, emotional responses to issues that matter to us. We all desire to claim the sanction of higher power—who wants to come out and admit that their opponent has some aspects of the truth and that this is purely a human matter to be decided by reason? Reason tells us that certain behaviors are not tolerated by group leaders—just ask a chimpanzee—and those in power have trouble facing up to the facts.

In one of the saddest legacies of championing nationalism is the unshakeable belief, for any nation or leader that has not embraced an atheistic approach, that God is on their side. Both Allies and Axis powers claimed divine support in both wars to end all wars. During Vietnam Bob Dylan wrote “With God on Our Side.” Politicians still hum along but they have forgotten the words. No, it does not please me that once again a hurricane threatens life and property. I’ve been told that every cloud has a silver lining, however, and I wonder if that applies even to hurricanes. If Isaac, like his biblical namesake, can change perceptions of what God requires, maybe we can see politicians without their masks and ask what it is they really want. That, I believe, would be more stunning than any divine punishment delivered via giant bags of wind.