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Go On

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

On December 31, 1985, I gathered with one of my best friends, his then-girlfriend and her older sister at the girls’ house to ring in the New Year.  In my 22 years of life at the time, I had never been so glad to see a single year fade away as 1985.  Just about everything had gone wrong for me.  I was placed on academic probation in college because of my dismal grades for the fall 1984 semester; then got suspended for the fall 1985 term because I still couldn’t get it right.  That prevented me from becoming a full member of a fraternity I so desperately wanted to join.  In April my parents and I had to put our German shepherd, Joshua, to sleep.  That fall I had my first sexual experience, which proved embarrassing and depressing.  In October I fell into a police trap and was arrested for drunk driving.  (My blood alcohol level ultimately proved I wasn’t legally intoxicated.)  By Christmas, I was an emotional and psychological wreck.  I’d come as close to committing suicide as I ever had that year.  But, as New Year’s rolled around, I’d settled down my troubled mind and realized my life could continue.

I realized 1985 was the worst single year of my brief existence and hoped I’d never see another one like it.  For more than three decades that pretty much held true.  For the longest time almost anything related to 1985 made me tremble with anxiety.  Nineteen ninety-five turned out to be almost as bad; instilling a phobia in me about years ending in the number 5.  Ironically, though, 2005 was a pretty good one for me, and last year was okay.

Then came 2016.

People all around me are waiting for this year to die, like a pack of hyenas loitering near a dying zebra.  Aside from a raucous political campaign – with a finale that seems to have set back more than two centuries worth of progress – we’re wondering why this year has taken so many great public figures and left us with clowns like the Kardashians.  I could care less.  This year has also taken my father and my dog and is slowly taking my mother.

Over these last six months, I’ve experienced emotional pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.  I’ve never endured this kind of agony.  It’s dropped me into an endless abyss of despair.  Early in November, strange red spots began appearing all over my body.  It brought with it chronic itching sensations.  I wondered if small pox had been reintroduced into society and I was one of its unwitting earliest victims.  The rashes and the itching would come and go, like million-dollar windfalls to an oil company executive.

It all shoved me back to the spring of 1985 and the odd little sores that sprung up on either side of my midsection.  They were painful pustules of fluid that I tried to eliminate with calamine lotion, ice cubes and prayer.  They finally vanished, and only afterwards did someone tell me what they were: shingles.  I had to look up that one in a medical reference.  For us cretins aged 40 and over, WebMD was a fool’s dream.  But I knew that’s what I had, and its cause was just as apparent – personal stress.  My poor academic performance, Joshua’s death, thinking my failure to join that stupid fraternity was a reflection of my failure as a human being – all of it had piled onto me.

In November of 1995 – about a week after my birthday – I woke up early one Saturday morning, stepped into the front room of my apartment and repeatedly banged my fists against the sliding glass door.  I was aware of it, but I felt I was compelled to do it.  As I lay back onto my bed, my hands already aching from pounding on the glass, I asked why I had done something so bizarre at that hour of the morning.  Then, almost as quickly, I answered myself.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was experiencing serious financial problems at the time and I was having even more problems at work.  My father had just experienced a major health scare.  One of my best friends was sick with HIV and had been hospitalize with a severe case of bronchitis, and I’d just had a heated telephonic argument with another guy I thought was a close friend over…some stupid shit I can’t recall after all these years.  So, after weeks of dealing with that soap-opera-esque drama, my mind cracked.  Stress of any kind wreaks havoc on one’s mind and body.  It’s several steps up from a bad day at the office.  This is why U.S. presidents always look light-years older when they leave office.

So, as I smothered my body with cocoa butter lotion and anti-itch cream, I harkened back to 1985 and thought, ‘Goddamn!  History repeats itself too conveniently.’  The death of another dog and more subconscious trauma.  This time, though, events have been more critical than not being able to join a fucking fraternity or falling into a drunk driving trap.

But something else has changed.  While my body reacted in such a volatile manner, my soul has been able to handle it better.  I’m older and wiser now, and with that, comes the understanding that life is filled with such awful and unpredictable events.  Yes, I’ve fallen into fits of depression.  But I’m not suicidal.  I don’t want to harm myself in any way.  In fact, I want to heal and keep going.  I didn’t kill myself in 1985 or in 1995 or in any other stressful period since then.  I really just want to keep going.

I keep a list of story ideas; a Word document amidst my electronic collection of cerebral curiosities.  When I peruse that list, I realize I may not be able to bring all of those ideas to life.  But, if I didn’t try, why should I even bother with it?  Why bother even with getting up every morning?

Something has kept me alive all these years.  Something has kept me going.  Earlier this month I noticed a cluster of irises had bloomed unexpectedly in the back yard.  My father had planted them a while back.  With Texas weather being so schizophrenic, warmer-than-usual temperatures must have confused the flowers, and they jutted their blossoms upward into the swirling air.  I had to gather a few before temperatures cooled, which they did.  They languished on the kitchen counter for the next couple of weeks, longer than usual.  And I realized their presence is coyly symbolic.  My father was telling me that, despite the heartache of this past year, life continues, and things will get better.

I still miss my father and my dog, but I care for my mother as best I can, even as her memory keeps her thoughts muddled from one day to the next.  And I continue writing because that’s who I am and what I love to do.  I can’t change what happened years ago, but it brought me to where I am now.  I couldn’t alter the events of this past year.  But it’ll all carry me into the following years.

Happy New Year’s 2017 to all of you, my followers, and to all of my fellow bloggers!

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

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Echoes on Carpet

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“Goodnight, little boy.  I love –”  I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room.  He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears.  Wolfgang was gone.

I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years.  I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes.  I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.

I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows.  Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat.  I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.

I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.

I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels.  It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it.  The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.

In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had.  The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining.  I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.

For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents.  But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me.  Some of the hotel staff came to like him.  The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room.  There mere sound of his voice frightened her.  But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.

That little thing can make that much noise?!

Yes, he can!

One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth.  Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency.  Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark.  Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.

A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet.  He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell.  I laughed.

I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone.  It’s the same with my father.  Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind.  It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.

Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them.  It’s such a weird feeling.  How could this happen?  Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together?  Talk about timing!

Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house.  It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years.  In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him.  I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever.  It was gone before day’s end.

At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines.  “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father.  Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic.  I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.

But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious.  There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca.  A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories.  Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper.  It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy.  I was about 5 when I wrote that.  And he kept it!  As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible.  But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.

And yes, it also made me sad.  But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine.  It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.

Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there.  It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless.  After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.

At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father.  I try not to get emotional in public.  Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together.  But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised.  It must have been the margarita swirls.  I was already on my second one.

Pete knows how I feel.  He lost his own father 12 years ago.  Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos.  “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone.  I didn’t understand.  All of Pete’s grandparents were dead.  What was he trying to – aw shit!  I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.

I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV.  His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth.  I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him.  His mother had lived to age 97.  Why couldn’t he?  What is the proper time of year to die?  It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days.  Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy.  As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S.  Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?

A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time.  I’d feel the pressure change in the house.  But it wasn’t a frightening sensation.  I knew my father was nearby.  He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs.  If I did anything right, I feel it was that.  I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.

There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone.  And the house is otherwise quiet.  I’ve never felt pain like this before.  But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed.  My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead.  I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.

 

*Name changed.

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Family Valued

My parents and me during a celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary in June 1984.

My parents and me during a celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary in June 1984.

“Goddamn Obama!” My father never minces words when it comes to elected officials, celebrities, professional athletes, religious leaders and other miscreants. After reviewing the monthly social security payments for him and my mother, he estimated they would be short up to $600 in 2016. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama hasn’t ensured social security recipients would see annual increases. No fan of George W. Bush, my father continued his anti-Obama rant. “He’s more concerned with those goddamn Syrian refugees than with old people who’ve worked all their lives!”

He continued, pointing out that, combined, he and my mother had put a century’s worth of their lives into the work force. For years my father dealt with a stingy boss at a printing company where he stood on concrete floors for hours; his feet and knees now paying the price. My mother labored in the insurance industry, beginning at a time when pregnancy was considered a terminal offense and women had to put up with sexual harassment the same way they put up with a runny nose.

I reassured my father that, no matter what, I’ll be there for him and my mother. It’s become especially critical as their health falters – something to be expected in the ninth decade of life. A few years ago I had joined some friends at a dinner party, when the subject of aging parents arose. I mentioned my mother’s declining memory.

“Have you thought of putting her in a home?” one young woman asked.

“She has a home,” I replied. “It’s the one she’s in now.”

She then proceeded to lecture me on the benefits of assisted care facilities, as if I was an ignorant farm boy and she was an omniscient philosopher who’d come down from her golden thrown atop the Himalayas.

I quickly shut her up. “That’s so bleeding-heart liberal of you,” I said. “We don’t do that in my family.”

The idea of putting my mother in a “home” is akin to abandoning my aging dog in a Wal-Mart parking lot should he get sick. If I won’t dump my beloved canine into a strange environment where he’d surely perish, do you think I’d do the same to the woman who almost died giving birth to me?

The other day I spent time with a long-time friend, Pete*. His birthday was recent, and I’d promised to treat him to one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, Ojeda’s. He had also sent me a free pass to his gym; a tiny joint in East Dallas, near where he lives. So we agreed to visit the gym first and then head to the restaurant for an early dinner. He just happened to have the day off from his job as a customer service agent for a major insurance outfit. But he’s never idle. Both his widowed mother and one of her sisters live with him in a huge house he bought through an auction a few years ago. His younger sister – who lives with her husband and toddler daughter in the house where she and Pete grew up – drops by daily to help, as does an old family friend who cleans the place. Between his mother and his aunt, Pete often finds himself running on fumes. His aunt, who’s in her 90s, has dementia and spends her time in bed watching the Catholic channel on TV.

“She’s gone,” he told me the other day, as we stood in the front room of the house. He said it with the same degree of ordinariness as if he’d told me rain had fallen that morning. “She’s completely gone.” I’d met and spoken with her before, but Pete assured me she probably wouldn’t recognize me.

I caught a glimpse of her, quietly peeking in through the open door of her bedroom. She faced the large-screen TV; surrounded by a gallery of religious relics.

Pete’s mother ambles around on crunchy knees with a walker. An orthopedic surgeon had told them both years ago that knee-replacement surgery wouldn’t be viable at her age. His mother took it in stride, but Pete became irate with the doctor; bringing up such new-age remedies as shark cartilage.

Our visits to the gym and the restaurant provided a much-needed respite from our respective daily grinds. The gym is an old-fashioned place where solid-iron weights outnumber the handful of machine weights; the paint is peeling; the water fountain trembles with every usage; and men can walk around shirtless without offending suburban soccer moms. The restaurant, Ojeda’s, is practically a Dallas landmark. Family-owned, it looks like one of those quaint hole-in-the-wall eateries you won’t see listed in travel brochures. I like it because they serve gigantic swirls and monster homemade pralines. Pete likes it because they use real cheese – his one true test of a Mexican restaurant’s authenticity. As usual, I ate too much. But virtually floating out of the restaurant, instead of walking, I still felt good. Right now that’s one of life’s simple pleasures.

Neither Pete nor I get out of the house much. “You’re my only real friend,” he told me at the restaurant. Almost everyone else he called a friend had pretty much disappeared.

I thought about my own collection of friends. I never was an outgoing type of person. I’m too much of a loner; the kind people wonder about when they learn of mass shootings. It’s not intentional on my part. Ironically, Pete had once expressed concern that I was becoming too much of a “recluse.”

“I’m a writer,” I reminded him. “We’re loners and reclusive by nature.”

Pete and I have something else in common: our fathers grew up together in East Dallas. They’d attended the same grade school and the same high school. When Pete’s paternal grandmother had become too frail to care for herself, she’d moved in with one of her other children. As my paternal grandmother aged, two of my aunts periodically hired independent caretakers; young Mexican women fluent in Spanish. But my father and his siblings often spent time with their mother. They didn’t just hand her off to those young women, before going about their own lives. Growing up, my father told me, almost every family on their street had an elderly relative living with them.

The aforementioned little gal who talked of “homes” couldn’t understand such dedication to family. She recounted stories of digging water wells in Africa for the Peace Corps.

“Ten million years after humans began walking upright, and African still can’t dig its own water wells?” I queried.

That really pissed her off! I didn’t care. For folks like Pete and I, there is no other “home” for our loved ones, outside the places where they already live. When we returned to his home after the gym, he told me it was alright to park in the neighbor’s driveway. A few years ago, when Pete staged a Memorial Day cookout, I’d met the neighbor; a quiet elderly gentleman who lived alone in a house as big as Pete’s. But, Pete told me, the man’s children had recently placed him in one of those “homes;” their answer to his frequent falls and other health concerns.

“How could they do that to him?” Pete lamented.

I didn’t have an answer. Even after returning home that evening, I struggled to comprehend how some people could hold such disregard for their relatives. What goes wrong in a family to create that kind of animosity? Well…I suppose a number of things. My dog, Wolfgang, was the only one who expressed unmitigated excitement at my return the other night. After I’d left, my father told me, my mother had developed yet another excruciating headache, and he had become sick to his stomach. They were fine by the time I arrived.

It seems, though, every time I leave the house for an extended period – just to get away and relax – something goes wrong. On the day after Thanksgiving I joined some friends for a post-holiday lunch. It’s something of a tradition among them. Someone offers to host the gathering, and everyone else brings food, beverages and / or money to pay for it. This time the location was clear on the south end of Dallas, in the Oak Cliff area. Cold rain was falling. But I made it and had a great time. When I arrived home, my father lay in bed, shivering uncontrollably. All the happiness from that day evaporated, as I settled in; tired and wanting to lay down for a short while. But I didn’t because a sense of guilt overcame me. I couldn’t just relax, while my father trembled in a near-catatonic state. I’m not that heartless. The trembling – whatever its cause – finally subsided.

Two days before Christmas another close friend invited me to lunch; just to hang out and commiserate about life’s antics. The day was bright and cool, and I had a great time. A simple, good meal and a mixed drink can do wonders for the soul! But, when I returned home, both my parents were sick. My father was actually angry. They’d lay down for a nap, whereupon my mother experienced another severe headache – a life-long scourge for her. That somehow induced an argument between them. As before, the happiness I felt from a pleasant afternoon got wiped out in a second.

Goddamnit, I yelled deep inside. Why the fuck can’t I leave the house for a little while and NOT come home to a medical drama?! As always, Wolfgang was the only one who seemed genuinely excited to see me. I looked at him, as I do every time something like this occurs, and whisper a secret wish into his dark eyes: “I want to grab you, jump in the truck and go. Just go somewhere. Anywhere! Just get away from here.” But I always sigh and realize I can’t do that. Not me. Someone else very well could.

For decades archaeologists have argued over what drove the Mayan Empire to collapse: drought or internal warfare. Perhaps both. What caused the Roman Empire to collapse? It grew too big, some theorize. Perhaps it did. But have scientists ever considered another more personal dilemma: the collapse of the family unit? Whether a community is a titanic empire, or a small band of hunter-gatherers, one thing has always been certain throughout human history – the family. Without a solid family structure, no society can function properly. Here in the U.S. social and religious conservatives have wildly pointed to abortion and gay marriage as the biggest threats to the family unit. And, in their narrow minds, I’m sure they believe that. But the greatest threats to any family usually come from within: alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, infidelity. If threats come from outside, they’re often society itself: unemployment, underemployment, lack of medical care, poor schools, wage inequality. These latter elements are what could bring down the modern American state, if those noble elected officials aren’t careful.

I recently perused through some family photo albums; not looking for anything in particular. I’ve finally reached that point in life where the concept of family takes on an entirely different meaning. I really can’t explain it. But, when you reach that time, you just know it. It felt good to look at those old pictures. Yes, it was nostalgic. Like with the pains of old age, that’s to be expected.

Later the other night, as my parents readied for bed, my mother ambled out of their bedroom and asked who all lives here. “Is it just the three of us?”

“The four of us,” I corrected, gesturing to Wolfgang.

“Oh, yeah!” she exclaimed, adding that she didn’t understand why she kept forgetting that simple fact. She reached down to scratch Wolfgang’s downy ears and bade him goodnight.

After she returned to her bedroom, I merely looked at Wolfgang. He cocked his head in the same way I shrug my shoulders. What can we do? This is it. This is our world. Our family. That’s what we value. Little else matters.

 

*Name changed.

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It Came from the Cup

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This could only happen in the 21st century. In 2009, Jennifer Schreiner and her partner, Angela Bauer, decided they wanted a child. Either adoption wasn’t good enough or artificial insemination through a medical facility was too expensive and cumbersome; perhaps both. Regardless, the Kansas couple selected the next available option: they placed a Craigslist ad. Yes, the same site that has become renowned for furniture scams and serial killers suddenly became the poor people’s avenue to familial concoctions. Trailer park trash has moved online. Again, only in the 21st century!

And, as fate would have it, Schreiner and Bauer got a response. William Marotta thought he had the right stuff for the job and contacted the duo. After some semblance of background checks and medical screening, Schreiner and Bauer decided he was “The One.” They offered him the going rate for off-road sperm donation: fifty bucks a pop. But, perhaps out of some degree of compassion, Marotta declined. Among the variety of legal documentation Marotta signed was one absolving him of any legal or financial obligation. In other words, once he fired the gun, he wasn’t culpable for whatever happened to the bullets. Schreiner got pregnant and gave birth to a girl later that same year. Then, things got messy – at least from a litigious standpoint.

In 2012, Schreiner and Bauer sought financial support for the child from the state of Kansas. As required by state law, they provided Marotta’s name and other personal information. At first, Marotta denied he had anything to do with Schreiner and Bauer, other than polite conversation. But he conceded the child was his, after the state forced him to undergo a paternity test. What’s happened over the last three years is the stuff of bad daytime dramas.

The Kansas Department for Children and Families filed suit against Marotta in October of 2012 seeking $6,000 in state aid provided to Schreiner and Bauer. In January of 2014, a Kansas judge ordered Marotta to pay the $6,000; declaring the initial contractual arrangement wasn’t legal because the insemination occurred outside a license medical facility. (I don’t want to know the details.) Marotta has appealed, and the case returned to court last month. His reasoning? “I’m the sperm donor; not the father.”

Amidst this legal carnage, of course, is the hapless child who didn’t ask to be born, much less born into the arms of stupid and arrogant adults. Marotta’s statement that he’s merely the “sperm donor” feeds into the misandric sentiments of the feminist left that views men as nothing more than just that: sperm donors. The legal claims of Schreiner and Bauer is also typical of feminist ideology. To them, men have no role in the lives of children until financial support is needed. Then, suddenly, it becomes his child. It’s a twisted, hypocritical philosophy.

Things can get weird with sperm banks. Last year an Ohio woman, Jennifer Cramblett, sued an Illinois facility she’d visited, when she gave birth to a daughter who was half-Black. Cramblett had selected donor No. 380, a White, blond, blue-eyed man. Someone at the bank apparently misread it as No. 330, which was a Black man. Now Cramblett is stuck with a biracial child, instead of a pure White one. I imagine she was traumatized when the baby came out with kinky locks of hair and dark brown eyes. I mean, what neo-Nazi lesbian chick would want that in her house?

That particular case reminds me of the infamous Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank,” which was founded in California in 1980 by millionaire Robert Graham. Its purpose was simple and direct: produce children with superior IQs. Nobel recipients and other geniuses were ideal donors. One if its most infamous benefactors was William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor radio who became better known for his curious theories of race and contemporary eugenics. Shockley believed people with IQs under 100 should be sterilized and asserted that those of Native American and African extraction occupy the lowest rung of the human food chain. In reality, Shockley was one of only 3 Nobel laureates known to have donated sperm to the RGC, but the facility’s reputation was as damaged as Shockley’s. It quietly closed in 1999 with its founder dead and its records sealed. Graham’s self-styled “genius factory” had produced at least 200 children. Its goal of creating a better future didn’t turn out so great. Think “Logan’s Run.”

I have no respect for people who patronize sperm banks; whether they’re making a deposit or a withdrawal. The men obviously think their sperm cells are akin to gold bullion; priceless and treasured like nothing else. The women surely believe they are perfect enough to raise children without a father. I never had children – outside of dogs – but I know that women and men each offer different things to children. We have our own unique ways of raising kids. Neither way is superior to the other. To say men have no role in bringing up children is like saying women have no role in business or politics. Eliminating half the human race from one endeavor because you don’t think they can do anything right isn’t practical; it’s just plain bigotry.

I know full well there are plenty of single parents who’ve done an extraordinary job of raising their children; whether natural-born or adopted. But I’m certain many of them don’t have an unmitigated and pathological hate for the opposite sex. It doesn’t help, of course, that there are men who screw like rabbits on Viagra. A close friend of mine was never close to his own father and knew the man had sired other children. I once offered to help him play a cruel joke on his father; meet him for beers and pretend I was one of his many offspring. My friend was tempted to go through with it; he despised the man enough for abandoning him and his mother at a vulnerable point in their lives.

Watching my father conduct extensive genealogical research on both sides of his family for more than a quarter century has brought me closer to him and other relatives than most anything else. It made me comprehend the importance of culture and heritage, and the critical roles they play in each generation. A long-time acquaintance of mine was adopted in the late 1960s. Because of his features, he’s always believed he may be of either Native American or Mediterranean descent. I had to stop and think about that. How would it feel not to know your true family? Where do I come from?

The children born of sperm bank machinations eventually get old enough to ask those same questions. It’s only natural. And it’s unfair to dismiss their curiosity. But their situation is already causing heartache. It’s also bringing doubt about the practice of sperm – and egg cell – donations.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Kirk Maxey was a champion sperm donor and – by his own estimate – fathered some 400 children. Years later he apparently developed a conscious. It began in 2007, when two of his daughters found him through the Donor Sibling Registry, an outfit that is answering the call for help. Meeting his previously-unknown offspring conjured up a startling realization: his kids could possibly (an unknowingly) encounter one of their half-siblings; start dating; fall in love; get married; and…produce children. If you hear banjos playing, you know where this could lead. Maxey is now calling for stricter regulation of sperm and egg banks.

Children aren’t commodities to be bought and sold. Creating perfect offspring is not just a nightmarish scenario from low-grade horror movies. It’s been tried in the past – long before Robert Graham’s ill-fated attempts. Decades ago sperm bank weren’t thinking of the children they were bringing into this world; they were thinking only of some well-manicured society they wanted to create for themselves. They didn’t consider the powerfully natural bonds children have with their parents; an ancient human sentiment that can’t be subjugated to test tubes and cryogenic machines.

We’re all worth something. More than $6,000 and a quirky dream. People have tried, but you can’t put a price on humanity.

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When Family Christmas Photos Go Bad

Family Christmas photographs are a grand tradition that stretches back almost to the invention of photography. Christmas is all about family, whether the family is comprised of blood relatives or close friends who provide that irreplaceable sensation of family. A few of my friends mailed me their usual Christmas cards bearing portraits of their own beautiful families.

Some folks like to get creative with their holiday photographs. Often they’re cute and even funny. Other times, though, you have to wonder how many spirits these people had beforehand, or if local child protective services has a case file on them. Herein are a few examples of people who should’ve just left the camera the hell alone.

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What’s It Like?

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My father sat on a riding lawnmower; an interesting thing considering we’d never had one. But, as he traveled across a vast field of bright green grass, he came upon some people standing beneath a large tree; an oak, he thought. Getting closer to them, he realized they were some relatives: his parents, his oldest sister, his older brother and another sister. They all had one thing in common – they were deceased. He could see his parents clearly, especially his father who died in 1969. He could make out the face of his older sister. His brother looked to be in the shadows, and the other sister was cloaked in a black veil. But he knew it was them.

“Do you want to come with us?” his mother asked him.

My father turned to the expanse of grass and nodded his head no. “I can’t,” he told her. “I have to finish mowing.”

Then, he woke up. It was late 2004, and he abruptly snapped out of a depressive funk. He’d lost his second-oldest sister and his older brother within a five-month period that year. Our family was still reeling from that. But, when he recounted the episode to me, he wondered aloud if his time was coming sooner than expected.

“No,” I told him. “They were testing you. They wanted to see if you were ready to give up. But you obviously have a lot of things left to do in this world.” He’d always liked gardening, I reminded him; a trait he’d gotten from his mother. The large field of grass was just a metaphor for life.

What’s it like, I wonder, to be dead? How do people navigate in the afterlife? I’ve always been fascinated with that; what happens to people when they die. Unlike some people, I don’t pretend to know what exactly will happen to me once I expire. But, unlike others, I don’t believe this is it; our life here on Earth is all we get. I’m not so arrogant as to express a firm knowledge of such things. I just have my own beliefs.

When my father’s oldest sister died in February of 1998, we had a simple ceremony in a chapel at the cemetery and then watched her be interred in a place near her father. That’s how she wanted it: just throw her body into a box, drop her into the ground and go on with our lives. Nothing fancy; no drawn-out church mass; no miles-long funeral procession; and no rosary. When I told a close friend about it, he expressed shock that we didn’t have a rosary; a pre-funeral Catholic affair akin to a Protestant wake.

“I hate to tell you this,” he said matter-of-factly, almost ominously, “but your aunt’s chances of getting into Heaven are slim.”

If we’d been sitting face-to-face, I would have smacked him. “Who the fuck do you think you are?!” I screamed into the phone. I unleashed a slew of other invectives, before slamming down the receiver.

This came from a guy who was raised devoutly Catholic, like me, but who – at some point in his early 20s – detoured into voodoo. He had renounced the latter and returned to his Christian roots. Yet, his self-righteous proclamation about my aunt’s spiritual survival was more than an insult; it was an abomination.

Several years ago, while attending a Catholic parochial school, an antiquitous nun (I knew of no other kind) abruptly informed me and some other students that animals have no soul. They just die, she said, and that was it. I was horrified. Did that mean I would never see my beloved dog, a German shepherd named Joshua? I cried deep inside. How could that be? Why would God be so cruel as to deny we animal lovers the company of our pets in the afterlife?

Fortunately, I’ve long since recovered from the perversions of Roman Catholicism and Christianity in general. It’s one reason why I divorced myself from that mess – a sin unto itself. Religion makes people say and do stupid shit.

Theology or not, I’ve never really been afraid of the unknown. I’m not a Goth-like critter who looks for ingenious new ways to kill himself – well, not anymore. My fascination with death started when I was young; perhaps, because I really did think of killing myself. The relentless bullying I experienced in school and the loneliness of being an only child made me contemplate suicide when I should have been thinking about sports or games.

Now, as an adult, I still think about death, but not so much dying. I consider it the afterlife, or more appropriately, the after-this-life. It’s another level the human soul attains; a world superior to this one. I’m not eager to get there! I’m just curious about it. I tell people I have so many books I hope I get to read them all before I die. But then, maybe my after-this-life activities will include reading. And playing with dogs!

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Happy Thanksgiving 2014!

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“Great Spirit and all unseen, this day we pray and ask You for guidance,

humbly we ask You to help us and fellow men to have recourse to peaceful

ways of life, because of uncontrolled deceitfulness by humankind. Help

us all to love, not hate one another.

 

We ask you to be seen in an image of Love and Peace. Let us be seen in

beauty, the colors of the rainbow. We respect our Mother, the planet,

with our loving care, for from Her breast we receive our nourishment.

 

Let us not listen to the voices of the two-hearted, the destroyers of mind,

the haters and self-made leaders, whose lusts for power and wealth will

lead us into confusion and darkness.

 

Seek visions always of world beauty, not violence nor battlefields.

 

It is our duty to pray always for harmony between man and earth, so that

the earth will bloom once more. Let us show our emblem of love and goodwill

for all life and land.

 

Pray for the House of Glass, for within it are minds clear and pure as ice

and mountain streams. Pray for the great leaders of nations in the House of

Mica who in their own quiet ways help the earth in balance.

 

We pray the Great Spirit that one day our Mother Earth will be purified

into a healthy peaceful one. Let us sing for strength of wisdom with all

nations for the good of all people. Our hope is not yet lost, purification

must be to restore the health of our Mother Earth for lasting peace and

happiness.”

Techqua Ikachi – Hopi Prayer for Peace

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