Mid-Atlantic Ancestral Homeland

New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania. Those are the states my family and I visited recently, more or less in that order. It was a return to one of my ancestral homelands, the Mid-Atlantic region. The trip actually only involved part of my family, only one brother and one parent. My father was finally feeling nostalgic in his old age. So, he was our tour guide for much of the trip.

The last stretch involved some brief driving through Vermont and a stop at the Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Vermont was beautiful, exactly as I imagined it would be. And the Gettysburg battlefield was fascinating, similar to a tour years ago of Little Big Horn where Custer had his infamous last stand. As a side note, Custer had been on the winning side at Gettysburg and played a significant role in stopping the Confederate advance, but almost everyone remembers him solely for his later defeat and death. The guy deserves some credit. Enjoyable as it was to see some beautiful countryside and explore an important part of American history, it was the personal side of our East Coast travels that interested me the most. This was first and foremost a tour of family history.

Our first destination was New Jersey. We headed to Morristown. It was in Morris County that my father’s paternal grandparents were born. That is part of the New York Metropolitan area. Morristown itself has been a place since the colonial era that attracted the wealthy (it is still a place of money), but my family wasn’t wealthy and so they lived out in what was the surrounding countryside. Morristown was also a major center for the American Revolution, a meeting place for important figures and a headquarters for George Washington.

My paternal great grandmother is Matilda Reinthaler. Her father, Charles, escaped the Austrian Army, when he was an officer sent to Italy (I guess it was the Crimean War). His men were forced to wear heavy uniforms and, though it was hot, they weren’t allowed to unbutton to cool off. He refused to follow orders and, facing court marshall, was forced to flee, ending up in New York and then New Jersey. Matilda’s mother, Caroline Lindenmeyer, left Bavaria for unknown reasons, but probably related to the 19th century wars and revolutionary fervor.

We found their home and the one room school house she would have attended, still standing down the road. Even with new houses having been built, there was a sense of the rural clinging to the former country road. She had a more stable childhood than experienced by her husband, my paternal great grandfather, Charles Salvester Steele. His grandfather came from Pennsylvania and his mother’s family had been in New Jersey continuously since the colonial era (one line of my own mother’s family, the Hawks, also came from colonial New Jersey, but we didn’t visit that part of the southern part of the state). Charles’ mother died when he was young and, since his father couldn’t afford to raise all the children, he was sent to live with the Shakers somewhere near Rochester.

That particular Shaker village has since become part of a prison. The only way to visit the buildings my great grandfather spent time in would be get arrested for a serious crime. Later on in the trip, we visited a different Shaker village that is still standing in Hancock, Massachusetts. It was part of a complex of villages along the border of New York and Massachusetts. The Shakers were a fascinating group, highly innovative and technologically advanced, business leaders in agriculture and industry. Even the design and quality of their buildings is impressive, such as the round barn we saw which is the most practical barn I’ve seen in my life. They knew how to run an operation and they had no desire to cling to the past, like the Amish. Growing up there would have been simple, but deprivation in any form would not have been an issue. The Shakers for much of their history were successful and wealthy.

My great grandfather’s childhood was a not unusual fate for many poor kids of the time. The Shakers on a regular basis legally adopted children given to them, a practice that continued until the federal government made it illegal for groups to adopt children and thus officially doomed the abstinent Shaker communities. Once reaching adulthood, the children raised were given a choice to stay or leave. My paternal great grandfather was living at the Shaker village at a time when they were already in decline. He decided to leave and that Shaker village closed not too long later.

It seems he returned to Morristown, probably because it was the only other place he knew. He remained in contact with his family, but one gets the sense that the contact was limited. His wife was also from that area and so one might presume that is how they met, although there is no family info about this. My paternal great grandfather would have learned a trade or maybe multiple trades when with the Shakers, as they put heavy focus on practical knowledge and skills. As an adult, he probably did some farming; certainly, the Shakers were famous for their agriculture. While living in this area, he took a large wagon into nearby New York City to sell produce and it likely was produce that he had grown himself.

As part of our family pilgrimage, we headed into New York City. It’s hard to imagine what it must have looked like back then. When my paternal grandfather was younger, he would travel there sometimes, since an uncle had a grocery store in Brooklyn. My family and I only had a day in the city and so we didn’t see much, besides the standard tourist sights, although not even having enough time to visit the 9/11 memorial. The most exciting part was taking the Staten Island Ferry where could be seen the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, famous landmarks for incoming immigrants, although both from an immigrant era that came after my own immigrant ancestry.

Later on following marriage, Charles Salvester Steele worked doing professional gardening and lawn maintenance in Connecticut. He also entered into flower shows, which is where the wealthy Benjamin DeWitt Riegel met him and hired him as the estate superintendent and head groundskeeper. That is how my grandfather ended up growing up on a Long Island Sound estate where, later on, my father in his own childhood would spend his summers.

That estate was officially named Riegel Point, but my father recalls that to his family and the Riegel family it was simply known as “The Place”. It was still in Riegel ownership until recent years. About a decade ago, my father and uncle were able to get hold of Mr. Riegel’s granddaughter Lucy who is Katherine Riegel Emory’s daughter, Katherine having died weeks earlier — Lucy remembered my father from her own childhood and she referred to the estate as “The Place”, when my father mentioned it. She was a childhood playmate of my grandfather, until teenagehood when the fates of the classes diverged. My father and uncle knew her as Mrs. Riegel when they visited in the summers of their youth. In those last years of her life, they were given permission to walk the grounds of the estate one last time, not that they realized it would soon fall under new ownership.

Years of talking about the place was a major reason for this trip. My father has for a long time wanted my brothers and I to see the place of his fond childhood memories. There was no longer a way to get on the estate by invitation with new ownership, but there is a public road that is along one side of it and two public beaches adjacent to it. At low tide, we were able to walk the rocky beach directly between the estate and Long Island Sound, making possible a clear view across the vast lawns my great grandfather once maintained. My dad pointed to all that he remembered from his childhood, along with stories his own father had shared with him, such as the time as a child when my grandfather built a contraption attached to a cable secured to the top story of the barn and stretched taut to the beach upon which the two of them rode it down barely missing a wall in the process. By the way, an article stated that my great grandfather (referred to by his work title, not his name) used to gather the eggs from the chicken coops near the old barn, but according to my father it was in fact my great grandmother who did this — just wanted to set the record straight.

The Riegel Point estate is in Fairfield, Connecticut. It is another old area, inhabited long before Europeans settled there in the early colonial era. Before the Riegels bought the property, it was a gentlemen’s horse farm and at some point an onion farm. There was a village nearby that had been almost entirely burned down by the British during the American Revolution, the British having landed right around where the estate is located. As with many places on the Eastern seaboard, there is much history there.

It was nice to finally see this place I’d heard so much about all my life. The Place! I also saw the school my grandfather went to. One time walking to school, the Riegel’s chauffeur drove by on the road splashing muddy water onto my grandfather who thought it was done on purpose. My grandfather grew up with Riegel children and lived a protected life during the Great Depression, but he had an inferiority complex living on the periphery of great wealth. He spent the rest of his days being extremely class conscious and always wanting to enjoy the good life. It was even passed onto his children, including my father who likes nice things (i.e., classy cars, large houses, manicured lawns, expensive resorts, and such), not that my family is wealthy enough afford many nice things.

It would be strange growing up as the son of the help on an estate or even visiting such a place as a child. My dad recalls as a child telling a close friend back in Alexandria, Indiana (“Small Town, USA”) that he spent the summer at an estate and his friend called him a liar. Life on an estate is not an experience most of us ever have.

One thing stood out to me. There are, as I said, two public beaches on either side of the estate. They are fairly nice beaches for the area and when we first arrived many local people lounged around on the sand and played in the water as people do. However, directly on the waterfront of the estate, there is almost nothing other than rocks. This is because the Riegel family had built a seawall that caused erosion of the sand and disallowed the beach to naturally rebuild itself. This is a great example of the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. In trying to protect their private property, they destroyed the beach along their property, while on either side are two popular public beaches with lots of sand forming popular beaches.

After my grandfather graduated college, Mr. Riegel offered him a job as night superintendent at one of his mills in order to get trained. His job was to manage the factory during the night shift. It was the Trion factory in Georgia and my grandfather was one of the fair-haired boys that Mr. Riegel sent down from New York. It was at Trion that my grandfather met his first wife and my grandmother, Billie Jean Nye, who was working as a school teacher employed by the company in the company town. You can see pictures of the mill town at this article, including a picture of the hotel where lived the unmarried employees like my grandparents, the place where they first met, and a picture of the school where I assume my grandmother would have taught.

He had felt socially obligated to accept that job. Mr. Riegel, after all, was not only his father’s boss but also the owner of the house his father lived in. It would have been an offense to decline an offer of such a good job, at a time not long after the Great Depression when the economy was getting back on its feet. Still, my grandfather hated the job, as it was his responsibility to pick the workers for the week out of a crowd of men desperate for a job, deciding who would get work and who wouldn’t. During the Great Depression, my grandfather had lived a protected existence on the estate. Before working at Trion, he probably had never seen much extreme poverty and unemployment. Also, that company town would have still been recovering from recent conflict. In 1934, a year or two before my grandfather arrived, the town had been the site of labor conflict and violence:

“1934 marked the 3rd closing of the plant for any length of time. Throughout the South unions were making a strong push to organize factories and mills. “Flying Squadrons” of union activists were sent into mill communities to gain support. The large group of employees working in Trion was high on their list. Led by a group of people from the Rome Foundry, along with some local people, a mob literally tried to take over the mill. Trion’s Chief of Police, Mr. Hix, was killed attempting to protect the mill. Others that had come on to work that day were beaten or roughed up. Eventually the National Guard was called in. The mill remained closed for approximately six weeks.”

It was the kind of clash of the classes that happened in places like that. In controlling employment, the company had total power over people’s lives. It was the largest employer in the area and still there were more people looking for work than there were jobs available. As an interesting side note, this was all going on in the last years of Mr. Riegel’s life. He had contracted some disease, maybe polio, and was kept alive with an iron lung. In 1941, back on the estate, a storm had hit and the power went out. The iron lung was run on electricity and apparently they had no backup generator. My great grandfather was sent for and he tried to hook up the iron lung to the engine of a Model A truck, but it was too late. Mr. Riegel had suffocated to death. Along with the ending of his life, it was the ending of an era.

Anyway, in those remaining years of Mr. Riegel’s life, my grandfather didn’t last long at Trion. He realized there weren’t many respectable ways he could quit without offending Mr. Riegel. He could join the military or he could become a minister. He chose the latter and took his wife with him to Indiana. But Mr. Riegel was still immensely disappointed, having given this son of the help such a rare opportunity to move up in the world.

I could imagine the sense of expectation and conflict. While at Trion, my grandfather managed the mill during the evening shift. Some new advanced machinery had been installed and, along with another guy, my grandfather had to learn how to operate it and keep it running non-stop. The problem is no one had been sent to show how it all worked and something went wrong, destroying the equipment. My grandfather was horrified about the incident, but after an investigation no one was blamed. Mr. Riegel had put immense trust and responsibility onto my grandfather’s shoulders, and he obviously looked to him with great promise. After all of that, it must have seemed ungrateful for my grandfather to quit.

Even so, the training my grandfather received didn’t entirely go to waste. There was a tomato canning factory in Geneva, Indiana where the family (including my father as a young child) lived for a time. It operated seasonally after the tomato harvest and my grandfather, while not doing his ministerial duties, worked there as a temporary factory manager.

My father without realizing it followed in his footsteps when he later became a factory manager, a family tradition that began with with the Riegels. Then my father also fell into the same pattern when he refused career advancement in order to look for other work, initially having considered the ministerial option as well until he decided to become a professor in order to preach at students instead. Like his own father, he found stressful the cutthroat world of business and the harsh reality of controlling the fate of workers, in personally determining who would be hired and fired. My family apparently doesn’t have the right kind of personality traits to be part of the wealthy business elite.

Later on, my great grandmother died on the estate in 1954, when my father was twelve years old. A few years later, the Riegel family asked my great grandfather to leave the property. He was around eighty years old and had spent half of his life working and residing on the estate. It was his home and, from the way my father talks about it, I get the sense that he was heartbroken. Mr. Riegel had promised that he would always be taken care of, but Mr. Riegel died in 1941 and had never wrote anything down. His word-of-mouth promise apparently meant nothing to the heirs of Mr. Riegel or maybe it never came up. Whatever the case, my great grandfather wasn’t given any retirement package or even a place to live. He  was just told to immediately leave the home he had known and loved for so long.

As a comparison, on the other side of the road was the estate of Harold Gray, the comic strip artist of Little Orphan Annie. My great grandparents were good friends with some of long term help at that other estate, only a few minutes walk away. When Gray’s long term help retired, he bought them an expensive house. My great grandfather was probably expecting something similar, as the Riegels were surely even wealthier. Instead, he was forced to move in with his son and died shortly later.

That part of my family has always felt distant to me. This trip was the first time, since I was a baby, that I’ve visited this part of the country. There are still some of the extended family living around there, but we’ve had a hard time contacting them. My father hasn’t seen his extended family on that side since he was a kid. Yet that part of the country is so key, both to my family history and to American history.

As I mentioned, one line of my mother’s family (originating with Sampson Hawk) came from colonial New Jersey. Like my father’s family, they were likely of Germanic ancestry. The difference was that they early on headed for the frontier, whereas the New Jersey lines of my father’s family didn’t venture far. The German-American Riegel family were also from New Jersey, along with Pennsylvania where Mr. Riegel was born. My own surname has an early Pennsylvanian background, although I don’t know the ancestral source of it.

Like the Midwest, the mid-Atlantic region was ethnic American (i.e., non-WASP) territory. Specifically, it was one of the areas where German-Americans were the majority. But none of this comes up much in official histories and collective memory, as cultural amnesia is almost complete. My father has a vague memory of his grandparents having some kind of accent, whatever it was. They weren’t that far from the immigrant experience and they lived in a place where the immigrant experience should have been close to the surface. Even so, my father doesn’t recall anyone ever discussing such things. The oppressive world war era had stigmatized and erased so much of the former ethno-cultural diversity. That makes me sad, as it is a loss of part of the ancestral history that shaped my family.

Visiting New Jersey, in particular, gave me a glimpse of the world that once existed there. I have more of a sense of the place. But family history came to life even moreso in our visit to Connecticut. My father doesn’t get too excited about genealogy, maybe having to do with particular disconnections over the generations. Talking about the estate, though, allowed me to see another side of him. The estate was something personally real and important to my father’s life, one of the fondest connections he has to his family history. And for me, the stories I’ve heard for years suddenly had physical locations that I can now see in my mind’s eye.

To Give Voice

I wish to continue my thoughts from Outpost of Humanity. I didn’t explicitly state the inspiration of that post. It formed out of my response to a comment at another post, The Stories We Tell.

That comment was odd. The person who wrote it mixed praise with criticism, a backhanded slap. Looking at it again, I still don’t get the point of it. I already responded to it with several thorough comments. But I wanted to emphasize a central point that brings it back to where my mind is at the moment.

I’ve been in a process of rethinking my life, both in terms of how I spend my time and how I view the world. I wonder about what useful role I can play or simply what is of genuine value to me. I don’t mind criticisms, as I’m perfectly capable of criticizing myself. And I can promise you that my self-criticisms will be far more scathing than anything offered by anyone else.

The funny thing is that this particular critic was attacking me based on my previous admissions about depression, as if that disqualified my opinion as having any validity. I’m fairly open about my personal problems and some people see this as a weakness, a chink in the armor. They don’t understand that I’ve never thought of honesty as a weakness; if anything, a strength. I don’t hide who I am.

I find it telling that this particular critic was writing under a pseudonym. It’s easy to attack others hidden behind a computer screen and anonymity. I’ve had trolls threaten me, even my family, telling me that they knew where I lived. My response was to tell them to come right on over and I’ll invite them in to chat over beer or coffee. That tends to make trolls go away, the threat of meeting in person.

We live in a dysfunctional society. To live in such a society is to be part of that dysfunction. Depression and other mental conditions might not be common in some other societies, but it is common in this one, effecting even the successful and the supposedly well-adjusted. There are many things that make me abnormal. Depression, however, is not one of them. If you’re looking for a reason to dismiss me, look elsewhere and be more thoughtful about it.

In my response to this particular critic, I pointed out that many of the most influential people throughout history were seen as problematic by the defenders of the status quo. They were called malcontents, rabblerousers, troublemakers, blasphemers, and worse. The personal character, lifestyle, etc were often targeted. These people were deemed a threat to society and treated accordingly, victimized in numerous ways: ridiculed, fired, fined, ostracized, banished, imprisoned, tortured, attacked by mobs, and sometimes killed.

This is true for religious prophets such as Jesus to political revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine. I might note that both of these men, when they attracted the attention of the powerful, lacked worldly success or even employment. Each of them spent time wandering homeless and ended their lives as poor bachelors with few loyal friends remaining. They were hated and despised, and for that very reason they also inspired. Yet upon their deaths, they were forgotten by society until later generations resurrected their deeds and brought them back into public memory.

There is another aspect to this. Consider either of these figures. If Jesus had remained a carpenter or found some other kind of respectable work, if he had been successful in his career and was a good citizen, if he had married and raised a family, would that have been a better use of his life? If Paine had continued his father’s trade as corsetmaker, if his first wife and child hadn’t died and his second marriage hadn’t ended, if he hadn’t lost his civil servant job for the sake of a petition to the government, if he hadn’t become a privateer that paid for his educating himself (mainly buying books to read), if he hadn’t known poverty and desperation before meeting Benjamin Franklin, would he have been a better person and the world a better place?

Let me focus on Paine. He lived a rough life. By the standards of his society, his life kept ending up in failure. He found himself in middle age with no prospects or hope, his only merits having been his intelligence and self-education. He had no way of proving his worth to others. Like Jesus, he had given up the trade he was taught when younger. And now he had nothing. When Franklin first saw him, he was probably dirty and smelly, likely with rotten teeth. He was a poor nobody. That didn’t stop Franklin, also of a working class background, from seeing the potential in Paine. Following Franklin’s advice, he headed to America where he was carried ashore sick and close to death.

It was precisely Paine’s rough life that gave him insight and perspective. He saw the world for what it was. And with his own understanding, he sensed other possibilities. But why should anyone have listened to him? He came to the American colonies, upon Franklin’s invitation. He found employment at a printing press where he began his serious writing career. All he knew to do was write what was in him to write. He had no college degree or anything else to demonstrate his opinion was any more meaningful than anyone else’s. If anything, his uncouth ways, bad attitude and drinking habits led people to dismiss him. Yet most of those who dismissed him are now forgotten to history.

Paine was not well-adjusted to the society he found himself in. He knew that as well as anyone else. But why should he shut up simply because some others found him disagreeable? He had the audacity to suggest that maybe the problem was in society and not to be blamed on the victims of society. In a perfect world, his life would have turned out better. Becoming a pamphleteer and then revolutionary wasn’t his first choice of professions nor his second, third and forth choice.

No one knows for certain what their life will become. And no one knows how they will be remembered later on or even if they will be remembered at all. We each have potential within us and most of that potential will remain hidden. We don’t know what we’re capable of, until the conditions bring out what before we didn’t realize existed within us. Everyone is trying the best that they can, in the situation they find themselves. There are probably millions of people in the world right now with talents equal to or greater than that of Thomas Paine, but few of them will ever get the opportunity to develop their potential even slightly. Paine was lucky to find someone like Benjamin Franklin who helped him out of a tough spot for, otherwise, Paine would likely have died forgotten like so many others.

We are products of our environments, the results of luck, good or bad. Life is crap shoot. None of us chooses how and where we were born and under what circumstances. We are all forced to take life as it comes. Our place and time either amplifies or mutes our possibilities, opens or closes doors, clears or blocks our path. An individual of average intelligence and ability might do great things because of her situation, as her particular set of potentials happen to be what was precisely needed in that context to take advantage of it or solve a problem. But an individual of immense intelligence and ability might do nothing at all, no matter how hard they try, if she happened to be born in unfortunate conditions such as having been a peasant in a feudal society or a housewife in early 20th century America.

Sometimes it is the failures of society, the least well-adjusted who have the most understanding. They are those who have struggled the most and have seen the underbelly of society. This often gives probing insight and unique perspective. This is because those low in society tend to give more thought to those above than the other way around. Privilege and comfort can lead to thoughtlessness and complacency, none of which is conducive to depth of understanding. It was the lowly position of the likes of Jesus and Paine that allowed them to so powerfully criticize the social order. The clearest vantage point is from the bottom.

Even so, none of us can escape the limitations of where we find ourselves, no matter how clearly we see those limitations. Jesus was an axial age prophet. He was one of many teachers, philosophers, and leaders who arose over a period of centuries. It was a point of transition and transformation. That is what those axial age prophets gave voice to. Still, for all their insight and vision, none of them could foresee the long term consequences of the new social world that was coming into being. And none of them could know what part they might or might not play beyond their own lifetime.

Consider Jesus again. Assuming he actually existed, he was just some guy wandering about and preaching, no different than thousands of others doing the same in the area, thousands of others claiming to speak for God, to be divine saviors, or even to be godmen. Even his name, Jesus, and appellation, Christ, were common at the time—and so he quite likely wasn’t even the only Jesus Christ in the first century. There was nothing that made him stand out from the crowd, not his telling parables nor his miracles/magic-tricks. Then he was crucified, no more special than a common criminal.

Upon his death, his prophecies didn’t come true and people almost two thousand years later are still waiting. There is no evidence that Jesus ever intended to start a religious movement, much less found a new religion. It wasn’t Jesus but later generations of Christians who built up his reputation. In his lifetime, he was almost entirely unknown, the Romans apparently not noticing his existence as he was never recorded in any official records and not written about even by the most famous Jewish historian of the time. The stories about him weren’t put down on paper until generations after his supposed death.

So, why do so many people care about and feel inspired by a poor homeless guy in the ancient world who liked to tell stories while hanging out with the trash of Roman society such as prostitutes, unemployed fishermen, the sickly, etc? According to both Jewish and Roman social norms, Jesus was an utter failure and a clear example of how not to live one’s life. As such, what did he accomplish that makes him so important? He did one thing and did it well, and the other axial age prophets did the same thing. What he was able to do was simply express a new vision and, by doing this, helped people understand the significance of the changes in society and worldview. No matter how simple, it was powerful. The axial age prophets helped transform all of civilization.

Those changes followed after the collapse of the late bronze age civilizations. There was a thousand years of social chaos and reordering before stability began to fully set in again. The axial age prophets heralded in the new age. But at any given moment in that transition, during any particular generation, the larger view would have been impossible to see, as we can with the benefit of historical and archaeological hindsight. Even today, we still don’t know the full consequences of those changes. Those like Paine were struggling with the new order continually evolving. From the end of bicameralism to the rise of modernity, individuality has been taking hold and taking different forms.

It makes one wonder how far that individualism can be pushed before finally breaking. The bicameral societies, some argue, were the victims of their own success. They developed into such immense and complicated civilizations that bicameralism could no longer operate and maintain social order. What if we are now coming to the point where we too will become the victims of our own success? Who are the prophets of our age standing outside the system? Will many people alive right now listen to them or will they only be taken seriously later on by future generations, after the changes have already occurred? Will the prophets of the present be dismissed and ignored as were the prophets of the past?

I would point out that most prophets likely never think of themselves as prophets. They are simply people living their lives. Finding themselves amidst greater events, they try to make sense of it all. And in doing so, they give voice to what so many others are feeling. The prophets of our age are at this very moment unknown, to be found as homeless beggars, low-level workers, college dropouts, and in so many other places. One is unlikely to come across them among the successful and well-adjusted. Some, God forbid!, might be suffering from depression. Oh the horror!

The prophets of the present probably wouldn’t even recognize themselves as such. Only a crazy person or religious nut would think of themselves as a prophet these days (or even during the era of Paine’s lifetime). Having spent their lives being told they are worthless, their main struggle could be in taking themselves seriously and in sensing their own potential. Most people who have something worthy to say never get the chance to be heard, amidst all the noise. The fact of the matter is none of us can ultimately judge the value of our own understandings. History, as always, will be the judge. All that we can do is speak our truth as best we can.

Anyway, a prophet in this sense isn’t necessarily an individual who says something unique and original, but someone who simply speaks what others are afraid to say or don’t know how to articulate. Playing this role of giving voice might be more an act of moral courage than of visionary genius. Speaking truth to power shouldn’t be underestimated, even when the powerful pretend they don’t hear.

I make no grand claims of myself. Nor do I expect to be praised for my efforts. All I seek to do is give voice to what matters most, to give voice to the otherwise voiceless. I do this for no other reason than I feel compelled to do so. It is what is in me to do. If some others see me as an opinionated fool or a self-righteous malcontent, then so be it. I’d like to think that what I express has meaning and value, but I can’t be my own judge. Either my words stand on their own merit or they don’t.

The truths that need to be spoken are greater than any of us. But each of us has hold of some small part. I wish others well in seeking their own truth and giving voice to it. This is no easy task, but worth the effort. Truth-speaking shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Condescension and Mockery

As someone fully capable of harsh criticism with an edge of condescension or mockery, let me explain my personal view. There are rules of etiquette for such things. It’s best if you can somehow include yourself through self-deprecation and self-criticism or even, if you can pull it off with sincerity, a bit of humility. Admittedly, that can be a difficult thing to achieve, but a good balance to aspire toward.

This is why, for example, I like to criticize liberals and the liberal class. I am an unrepentant liberal, was raised in a pansy new agey liberal church, and have spent most of my life in a stereotypical small liberal college town. I’ve earned the right and maybe have an obligation to criticize liberals. I know the problems, failures, and weaknesses of liberalism through intimate personal experience and direct observation.

There is always a note of self-criticism in my criticism of my ideological tribe, liberals. And there is a familiarity and love in even my mockery. These are my people. My criticisms are barbed in a way only possible toward those one knows well, but the barb goes both ways and cuts me as well.

Another tactic is to broaden one’s scope. Be more general in your criticisms. So, if you’re an American, make a general criticism of Americans. Just make sure to clarify you’re making a generalization, something that should always be kept in mind since criticisms easily lead to generalizations. If you’re in a particular bad mood or feeling cynical, to be on the safe side you can include the entire human race in your criticisms—and that way it automatically pertains to you as well.

Sometimes there are harsh criticisms that need to be made, even though it is directed toward a group one doesn’t identify with. This is more tricky. It increases the likelihood of projection, scapegoating, and generally being an asshole spouting clueless opinions. Still, it can be done effectively, if taken with care.

Here is a good rule to go by. You should only make sweeping criticisms about categories people choose to belong to. People are free to identify with ideologies, religions, social movements, etc. What you should be more careful about is criticizing vast demographics of people based on traits they have little or no control over: gender, race, ethnicity, intelligence, place of birth, and other similar things.

This is what makes racism and misogyny so offensive. It is also what is so irritating about dismissing Sanders supporters as Bernie Bros or Trump supporters as white dudes (or worse still as white trash), The fact of the matter is that there is a large population of white men, especially those who are poor, who don’t vote at all—many who are demoralized by the system or even disenfranchised because of mass incarceration. It’s easy to forget that most of the poor, the homeless, welfare recipients, prisoners, and ex-cons are white.

Whites in general and white men in particular are not a homogeneous demographic. Among the white working class vote, the majority still supports Democrats and have done so for decades. The smugness of the liberal class might be changing that, though—not a promising direction for the Democratic Party. If as a Hillary Clinton supporter you are critical because so many lower income whites (I might add not just white men but also lower income minorities and women) have supported Sanders (or else Trump) instead of Clinton, where were your criticisms when that same demographic showed great support for Clinton the white woman over Obama the black man?

If you’re going to try to criticize others for perceived privilege, make sure you’re not doing so from a position of privilege. Besides being condescending, it is hypocritical and unhelpful and plain uncaring.

I have no problem with righteousness. Play that righteousness to the hilt and take it seriously on a moral level. Just make sure you’re being righteous for the right reasons. Be honest with yourself in being honest with others. We need more harsh criticism that is also honest criticism. If you feel genuinely condescending or whatever, express it fully. It’s only when we bring it to the light that we can see it for what it is. Express it and take responsibility for it—own it!

Even if it turns out you’re being an asshole, there is no shame in that. We are all assholes from time to time. In that case, just apologize and readjust your attitude.

Let me give some personal examples of what I’d consider inappropriate for being condescending and mocking in targeting particular groups.

As a white man, it would feel wrong to get haughty and self-righteous in relation to the experience of those I can’t begin to understand, specifically that of minorities and women. Or as an American, to think I know what it’s like to live in another society, no matter race or gender. Then again, I feel the same way about other groups I’m closer to in terms of social experience and identity.

My mother’s family came out of a poor white background, but I didn’t grow up around that social world. Even though I’m white and relatively poor, I don’t live in a poor white community and my immediate family is not of the poor white demographic. I can’t speak for or stand above in judgment toward poor whites in poor white communities. My ignorance and unfamiliarity is too great.

As another example, I did spend much of my younger life in the Deep South (the Carolinas, North and South). I was friends with and dated working class whites, including those who could be labeled as redneck or hillbilly. I still don’t think that gives me the full familiarity and understanding to put myself in a position of full judgment, much less condescension and mockery. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that, in the way I’m comfortable more directly and harshly criticizing my fellow liberals and Midwesterners.

There is a difference that matters. It is too easy and unfair to be demeaning and dismissive toward those you don’t really understand. We should always guard against that trap of closed-minded and prejudiced thinking. Condescension and mockery is often hidden in outward humor, but that can make it all the more hurtful. Our words need to be taken seriously. If we are to be critical in whatever form, we should choose our words carefully and consciously. In picking a worthy target, it’s best to err on the side of speaking truth to power, not kicking the weak while their down.

On the White Trash Heap

The below passage caught my attention. It’s written by Nancy Isenberg, from White Trash. The book is a nice read, if you have some curiosity about poor whites. They make for an intriguing historical study. There are centuries of opinions written about them, a favorite topic of discussion for the upper class folk ever perplexed by this alien world of whiteness, often not far away.

Ah, poor whites! Those crackers, dirt poor and the filth to prove it, toothless and ignorant, the lowest of low in the American social hierarchy. They have been looked upon as worse than blacks and Indians. They had the audacity to not fit into the racial order and their whiteness was often questioned.

Blacks always were supposed to be poor and Indians are meant to be in the backcountry. But these white trash have been impoverished by sheer laziness, because of their moral failures and lowly nature, a poverty passed on as their rightful inheritance. And they lived in crappy shacks in rural bumfuck nowhere (or else in ramshackle trailer parks at the edge of town) because that is what they liked, proof that they were barely above being animals.

These pathetic losers, refuse on the trash heap of civilization. Heck, are they even really Americans like the rest of us? It’s as though they live in their own world, purposely cutting themselves off from respectable society and glorying in their backwards ways. They are a step beyond the status of redneck, closer to the category of hillbilly, but really they are in a class of their own. White trash.

We know this because those are the descriptions offered by more well off whites of the past when they traveled among the lower sort. It’s been well documented by astute observers for longer than this land has been its own country.

And ya know what makes these poor whites the worst? They are my people. Ha! It’s probably why I have such a bad attitude.

My mother’s family didn’t come from a respectable background. They were of the Hoosier persuasion, back when to be called a Hoosier was an insult. They were poor whites from Kentuckiana (the limestone region of Kentucky and Indiana). My great grandfather was born a squatter, quite literally. He began his life in an abandoned building that was part of an old abandoned village, at the outskirts of a small border town in a rural county of southern Indiana. It was typical Hoosier territory.

My people were among those first on frontier. They killed and died fighting Indians, when they weren’t fighting each other. There probably was even a bit of mixing with the native folk, not to mention some hanky panky with those of a darker shade (hence the term “Hoosieroon”). Always rumors in poor white rural families that their blood might have more than one color running through it. There is a challenge in determining exact ancestry, many genealogical lines of descent seem to emerge out of the backwoods, as if they had always been there, their natural habitat.

By the time my mother was born, the extended family was finally escaping the fate of dirt poverty. But not all the family escaped. From hearing about some of the family I’ve never met, I suspect there are those who others might look upon as ‘white trash’. Even in her childhood, my mother spoke with that Hoosier dialect that told everyone around her that she was poor white, no matter the fact her father had a factory job. Her father was an alcoholic and on the abusive side, the towering patriarch of his own home. He was born poor and had little education, but to his mind at least he escaped poverty and maybe more importantly wasn’t black.

My mother had two brothers and plenty of cousins about her, the infamous clannishness that poor whites are known for. She still has pride in her voice in telling how she could hold her own in a fight or in a race with the boys. And, of course, she spent her childhood barefoot, as only the poor did back then.

Do you know who else was a poor white Hoosier? Abraham Lincoln.

Abe’s family were small farmers and manual laborers, as was mine. And, like my family, they drifted along as the frontier spread west, from Kentucky where he was born to Indiana where he spent his childhood. His father never understood his love of books and would sometimes burn them. In some of those books, he read about the American founders and it inspired that dirty little backwoods boy to dream of becoming president. But still he was Hoosier through and through. He could scrap with the best of them and he gained some notoriety for his fighting skills, with the strength to pick up a full grown man and toss him.

He also had the grim fatalism of his poor white heritage. He never expected life to end well for him. To rise up out of one’s class was asking for trouble. It isn’t what white trash is suppose do. But along with grim fatalism, he had grim determination to do what he had set his mind to do.

In 1817, when little Hoosier Abe was about eight years old, over in Virginia Thomas Jefferson brought one of his granddaughters to some nearby property he owned where they met a family of low class scrub dwellers. She was shocked by what she perceived as their shamelessness and lack of deference. She would have been even more shocked if someone told her that in her lifetime a dirty little heathen, just like one of those barely clothed children, would hold the same high office as her well-honored grandfather. A few decades later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president, although he was preceded in 1829 by another president of poor white origins, Andrew Jackson.

That is always the failure of white trash. They don’t know their place. They have their own values and their own sense of pride, no matter what anyone else thinks of them. It might seem the arrogance of brute ignorance, but it’s well earned. They think of themselves as plain Americans, as they identify themselves on census records. Their continued existence despite the odds being against them is their only needed justification.

George Washington, that great aristocratic leader, had a vision for America. He dreamed of a disinterested aristocracy ruling with paternalistic concern. When the poor whites rebelled, he did what any stern father would do and put them back in their place. The problem is they wouldn’t stay in their place, even all these centuries later. Still, they remain useful as scapegoats and so maybe we should keep them around, to occasionally trot them out on the public stage as a lesson for us all.

* * *

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
pp. 114-116

The distance between town and backwoods was measured in more than miles. It had an evolutionary character, forming what some at the time recognized as an impassable gulf between the classes. The educated routinely wrote in disbelief that such people shared their country. In 1817, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia Randolph wrote to her younger sister about a trip with their grandfather to the Natural Bridge, a property that Jefferson owned ninety miles west of Monticello. Here, she said, she encountered members of that “half civiliz’d race who lived beyond the ridge.” The children she met were barely covered by their scanty shifts and shirts, while one man strutted around before them with his “hairy breast exposed.” In this large, unruly family, she noted with disapproval, there were no more than “two or three pairs of shoes.” She was especially surprised by the crude familiarity of their speech. Oblivious to social forms, they conversed with the ex-president as though he was some lost family member. As a proud member of the Virginia gentry, Cornelia was convinced that she towered above the unwashed squatters. To her further chagrin, she was astounded that the poor family exhibited not the least sense of shame over their pathetic condition.

Class made its most transparent appearance by way of such contrasts. We can read volumes into the scorn expressed by the educated onlooker as he or she sized up the uncouth figures who roamed the backcountry. The need to make them into a new breed focused on more than crude living conditions, however. The backwoodsman and cracker had a telltale gait that accompanied his distinctive physiognomy. While traveling in the trans-Appalachian West in 1830, a city adventurer drolly observed of his bed companion for the night, “lantern-jawed, double-jointed backwoodsman, measuring some seven feet one in his stocking feet.” A typical alligator hunter in southern Illinois bore a similar physique: “gaunt, long-limbed, lanthorn-jawed, Jonathan.” (“ Jonathan” simply meant “fellow” here, being a common appellation for a generic American.) The cracker women had the same protruding jaw and swarthy complexion, and were as often as not toothless.

Women and children were important symbols of civilization— or the absence of it. Officers stationed in Florida in the 1830s identified “ye cracker girls” as brutes, with manners no better than sailors, and often seen smoking pipes, chewing and spitting tobacco, and cursing. Seeing their slipshod dress, dirty feet, ropy hair, and unwashed faces, one lieutenant from the Northeast dismissed them all as no better than prostitutes. In his words, everyone of the cracker class was a “swearing, lazy, idle slut!”

The backwoods personality could be found as far north as Maine, as far south as Florida, and across the Northwest and Southwest Territories. They acquired localized names, such as Mississippi screamers, for their cracker-style Indian war whoop or love of squealing; Kentucky corn crackers, for their poor diet of cracked corn; and Indiana Hoosiers, for the poor in that state. “Hoosier” is a word no linguistic scholar can define with any precision. Even so, the class descriptor was the same. A Hoosier man ran off at the mouth, lied, boasted, and remained ready to harm anyone who insulted his ugly wife. They were as prone to a down-and-dirty fight as any southern cracker. Hoosier gals were no more refined than their Florida sisters. A Hoosier gal’s courtship ritual, it was said, involved a lot of kicking and hair pulling.

Sexual behavior was another crucial marker of class status. In a well-known poem of the era, “The Hoosier’s Nest” (1833), the author harkened back to the vocabulary of the Scottish naturalist Wilson. Here again, the cabins were wild nests, a half-human, half-animal retreat perfect for indiscriminate breeding. Using a racially charged slur, the poet identified the children as “Hoosieroons”— a class variation of the mixed-race quadroons. Under their leaky roofs were none of the hearty pioneer stock. Instead, poor Indiana squatters produced a degenerate dozen of dirty yellow urchins.

Filthy cabins, a lack of manners, and rampant breeding combined to make crackers and squatters a distinct class, as verified by their patterns of speech. Backwoods patois constituted a rural American version of the lower-class English cockney. In 1830, there was even a “Cracker Dictionary,” preserving their vintage slang. One was “Jimber jawed,” whose mouth was constantly moving, who couldn’t stop talking. The cracker’s protruding lower jaw carried over into his style of talking. A “ring tailed roarer” was a violent type; the descriptive “chewed up” literally referred to having one’s ear, nose, or lip bitten off.

But one polysyllabic word may have best captured their identity. The verb “obsquatulate” was a cracker conjugation of “squat,” conveying the idea of moseying along or absconding. For a people who wouldn’t settle in one place, “obsquatulate” gave an activity of sorts to the American heirs of English vagrants. They might flee like an absconding servant or amble at a slow pace without a destination in mind, but in either case it was their dirty feet and slipshod ways that defined them.

Terror Management and Depressive Realism

I happened across terror management theory. Intuitively, I find it compelling. It’s a basic explanation of an important aspect of human nature and how it is expressed in society.

It “proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live, but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.”

The originators of this theory wrote a couple of books together, the authors being Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski. One book is The Worm at the Core. The other is In the Wake of 9/11. The introduction to that last book has some quotes from Americans describing the recollection of their thoughts and experiences following the 9/11 terrorist attack.

It’s been so long ago. I don’t normally think back to that time. The reign of Bush, from stolen election to the great recession, wasn’t a happy time for this country. The attack itself was just one tiny part of an era of gloom, the decade of the aughts.

Reading the quotations brought back my own experience of that event. I’m reminded of how atypical I am. My immediate response, upon first hearing about 9/11, was a lack of surprise. It somehow seemed inevitable to me, something that was bound to happen one way or another. It fit the mood of the times. Maybe nothing good was ever going to come out of the aughts. But, before that fateful day, we Americans had no idea how bad it could get with 9/11 along with it’s aftermath of War On Terror, endless war, and the growing intelligence-police state.

On the eve of 9/11, I had fallen asleep with the radio playing. The next morning, with the radio still on, I slowly returned to consciousness with news reports of some great catastrophe that had befallen the nation. I suppose that is a surreal thing to wake up to. But, as I recall, I didn’t think of it as shocking, unexpected, and abnormal. It fit into the world I knew, which obviously wasn’t the world most other Americans knew.

Let me explain why that was the case. There were a number of contributing factors to my mindset.

The radio being on is the most central factor for multiple reasons. One study found that people who heard about 9/11 on the radio, as compared to seeing it on television, were later on less supportive of Bush’s War On Terror. It wasn’t ideology or partisan politics that drove the public attitude of revenge and aggression. Rather, it was how the initial experience was mediated. (Never doubt the power of media. Also, never doubt that those who own and control media fully understand that power.)

At that time, radio was my lifeline to the world. I didn’t have a television or internet. Nearly all info came to me via words—from radio, newspapers, magazines, and books. The first image I saw of the burning buildings probably was from a newspaper and so probably was black-and-white. The vividness of the event wasn’t immediately conveyed to me. I didn’t sit around watching video of the attack on endless loop, as so many did, repeated imagery that created a permanently traumatized state of mind. I’m more of a verbal person and words do communicate in a different way than images.

There is another important factor related to my radio listening. The most common reason I’d fall asleep with the radio on is because of a particular radio show I regularly listened to, Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell. It was old school alternative media before the internet had made popular the new forms of alternative media.

Art Bell’s show was an island of independent thought, sandwiched in between the status quo liberalism of public radio and the crazed ranting of right-wing radio talk shows. Back in those days, when Art Bell still ran the show, it had a bit of a radical and leftist bent to it. But the guests themselves were all across the political spectrum, not to mention all across the sanity-insanity spectrum. Art Bell would allow almost anyone to talk, as long as they were basically honest and respectful.

It was from that show and other alternative media that I was initially educated about the goings on in the larger world. Coast to Coast AM would quite often have serious guests, including scholars, political commentators, investigative reporters, etc. From such guests and other sources, I became aware of the meddling of the US government around the world and aware of growing conflicts, terrorism, and much else. Unlike most Americans, I understood that blowback was coming our way and, when it hit, it would be a doozy.

The other thing is that I had been experiencing years of severe depression at that point. My emotions had already hit low points on such a regular basis and for such lengthy periods of time that I had grown familiar with despair and agony. About five years before, I had attempted suicide and been temporarily institutionalized. As such, suicide ideation was ever lingering on my mind, a regular contemplation of suffering and death. This led me to an attitude of depressive realism, a stark appraisal of human nature and the human world.

Maybe this inoculated me against terror of death. If anything, I was prone to emotional numbness from long-term psychological stress and over-exertion. My normal emotional response is a bit broken and my psychic reserves are typically not far above zero. Entrenched depression brings on regular bouts of cynicism. I’m prone to expecting the worse and being unsurprised when the worst comes.

It’s hard for me to sympathize with those who are surprised. The world is a shitty place. That seems obvious to me. It doesn’t take a terrorist attack to get me to notice this sad state of affairs.

Marbles are for Fishbowls

In movies portraying kids from earlier last century, it’s not uncommon for there to be a scene of a game of marbles. It’s such an iconic image.

Yet that was my childhood back in the mid-1980s, when I was in elementary school. I remember playing marbles on the school playground. What a strange game is marbles.

That was back when low-tech was cool. But high-tech quickly took hold. Even as my childhood self played old school games, there was a simple computer and Atari system back at home, presaging the future.

On a related note, I was showing my nephew a hacky sack trick, specifically what is known as the Flying Burrito. Now there is another ancient game from the waning days of the 20th century.

My nephew had little interest in my antics. But he did get me to participate in a a different activity from the marble-era of my childhood. He was using his toy trucks to excavate a hole in the yard. If he only had some GI Joe figurines (any figures will do), we could have had a real good time.

I did notice something interesting from a couple of years ago. This same nephew of mine was having a birthday. As he opened his presents, I couldn’t help noticing that all the toys came from my childhood: Transformers, Ninja Turtles, Legos, etc.

But no marbles. These days, marbles are for fishbowls.

Being Asked For Directions

I had a nice chat with a stranger the other day.

On my work break, a lady asked me for directions to the university hospital. I started to tell her how to get there, but I realized she probably didn’t know the town at all and I hate trying to give directions. So I decided to walk her there, since I had the time.

On the way, we had opportunity to talk. She said she is from China and came here as a cancer researcher. She was meeting a friend at the hospital.

She explained to me that universities in China are enclosed by a wall. I guess they are entirely separate from everything else. this town must seem chaotic and confusing to her, as there is no way to figure out where the city ends and the university begins. This is literally a college town where the university dominates.

It got me thinking about how different societies can be.

The US can be a rather disorderly place in many ways, even in a smaller town like this. We Americans aren’t the most talented when it comes to building a planned society. This country is a mess of competing interests and jurisdictions. And this can be seen here in the overlapping of city and university with the haphazard location of buildings that don’t share common architectural style.

Even the naming of streets in this town is mostly random. And how some streets connect can be hard to explain. All reasons I try to avoid having to give anyone directions.

All of that despite Iowa being the most orderly planned out state in the entire country.

I suspect China would be quite different in many ways. But I couldn’t begin to guess what a Chinese city or university is like.

Family Connections and Disconnections

I’ve been working on genealogical research. I’ve spent most of my time on my mom’s family. That is largely because my mom was more interested in her own family.

Growing up, we spent more time visiting my mom’s family and my mom’s family spent more time visiting us. We also would visit more often the places of my mom’s past and that of her family. We went to the parks that she went to when she was younger. And on numerous occasions we traveled to the places where many of her ancestors settled in Indiana, including a place that became a state park and working village. I’ve seen the old homes where they lived and, in some cases, were born. I’ve walked on the land that they walked on and I’ve stood before their gravestones.

I have a tangible sense of my mother’s family and the world they came from. Many of the states they lived in are states I have lived in, visited, and traveled through. My mother’s family is a product of the Upper South and Lower Midwest, most specifically what some refer as Kentuckiana. I have a personal sense of that place. It feels like my ancestral homeland.

My dad’s family is different, though. I’ve become aware of this as I’ve tried to get motivated about doing genealogical research on his side. I realize I have so little personal connection to his family and so little sense of where his family came from.

My dad’s father and siblings rarely visited in the past. His father is dead now, but his siblings are still alive. My aunt lives on the West Coast and so it is far away. My uncle, however, has remained in the area. He recently visited my parents and that was the first time I’d seen him in more than a decade. The only family member on that side that used to visit regularly was my paternal grandmother, but she died when I was young and so I barely remember her.

My paternal grandmother came from the Deep South. And my paternal grandfather came from the East Coast. Besides a trip when I was an infant, I’ve never visited the parts of the country where my paternal grandparents were born and raised. Even the part of the Deep South I lived in (South Carolina) was a world away from the part of the Deep South my grandmother’s family was from (Texas, Oklahoma, and Mississipi), although many generations before her a line of her family lived a short distance from my home in South Carolina, a fact that my dad didn’t know until recently.

For some reason, my dad’s family isn’t close. Maybe it makes sense, considering the family history. He and his siblings were born and raised far from where their own parents were born and raised. Unlike my mom, my dad didn’t grow up with extended family living nearby.

Also, there were other sad breaks from one generation to another. His mother’s father disappeared when she was a girl and it traumatized her for life (records apparently show that he abandoned his family and started a new life, including a new family—a fact that would have broken my grandmother’s heart, had she known about it). Almost nothing is known about him or where he came from. As for his father’s father, he was given away as a child to a Shaker village and he never fully reconnected with his family. Then, when my dad was hitting young adulthood, his parents divorced with his father heading back to the East Coast and his mother leaving for the far away West Coast, taking his sister along with her. So, there were multiple generations of broken families.

This probably explains a lot. My dad and my uncle would go back to visit their father’s childhood home. It was on an estate on Long Island Sound, where their grandparents lived for most of their lives, their grandfather having been the head gardener. Yet it never occurred to my dad to bring his kids to see the place of his fondest childhood memories. We never even took trips to that part of the country, except for that one time in my infancy. I guess it didn’t seem important to my dad at the time. We are finally planning a visit later this year to visit. But we won’t be able to get onto the estate, because there are new owners.

I recently contacted a long lost relative on that side of my dad’s family, a cousin that is maybe two times removed. He never knew this person, although he does remember some of the same East Coast relatives and places that this person remembers. I got my dad to email this guy, but that was it. The guy gave his phone number months ago. My dad has yet to call this guy. He told me that he didn’t know what to talk about, if he did call. I found that bizarre. This guy is family and so you’d talk to him about family. It’s not complicated.

The real issue is that my dad lacks the motivation. This has been true even for the genealogical research. Trying to get my dad involved in looking into his own family history has been like pulling nails. It seems that part of him doesn’t want to know about his own family, not that he would ever admit this.

My dad’s lack of interest makes it hard for me to get interested as well. I’d like to have a better sense of my dad’s family, where they came from and what shaped them. But at present the personal connection is lacking. There is no living sense of kinship. It’s an emotional dead end, which is sad.

The Stuff of Childhood

I like to run and walk in the forest and I like to draw.
When I grow up I want to be a runner, forest ranger, or an artist.

Those are words from my young childhood,from 2nd grade. I still like those same things. Then again, right before those words, I also said that, “I like pizza.” But apparently I was self-aware enough at the time to realize I didn’t want a pizza-related career.

Besides, I wrote elsewhere that I wanted to work in the Sears Tower. I can’t say that fits my present aspirations and lifestyle, although being employed as a parking ramp cashier is closer to the Sears Tower than to the rest. Maybe I need to rethink the Sears Tower option.

* * *

My mom was clearing out old paperwork. She had multiple folders of various official documents giving glimpses of my life, from birth to high school graduation. Most of it is boring stuff, including grade reports. But there were a few interesting things mixed in.

My birth certificate shows that Dr. Suk W. Lee brought me into this world. He was my mom’s doctor during her pregnancy. He jokingly gets credit for why I had epicanthic eye folds as an infant. My eyes were quite squinty to an extreme degree and remained that way into early elementary school. Along with my blonde hair, I assume that would be my northern European ancestry.

Along with some other papers and cards, I found a newspaper clipping. It shows the dismissals for the hospital. It lists my mother and I, but what is interesting is that my mother is referred to as Mrs. Daniel C. Steele. This is what makes genealogical research so difficult. In centuries past, most women went through their entire lives without ever having their name stated on an official document.

It was still very much a man’s world, even in the ’70s. To emphasize this point, I wrote in Kindergarten (obviously with some assistance) that, “My father works. He works at the office,” along with a picture of a smoke-belching factory (a massive sun overhead, a symbol of power); but on the next page, I write that, “My mother works. She sweeps the floor,” and the accompanying picture is of her as the stereotypical smiling housewife. In reality, my mom was a speech pathologist who had been working outside of the house for years. I feel I should apologize to my mom (I did end up seeking her out in order to apologize about my childhood stereotyping of her. And guess what? She was sweeping the floor. Ha!). She did all the housework, cooked all the meals, and took care of us kids while she held down a full time job. Feminism back then meant a women could do it all, quite literally.

Mothers are the best. Civilization would collapse without them.

On a different note, another thing that caught my attention was my baptism record. Four months after my birth, my parents decided to get me (along with my older brothers) baptized and Christened. It was done at the United Church of Religious Science, the church based on Ernest Holmes’ The Science of Mind. It was the first church my parents attended as a married couple. They began attending a year before my birth and following a period of non-religiosity and, on my father’s part, agnosticism.

I was surprised that such a New Agey church did baptisms and Christenings. Anyway, it is nice having a certificate proving that my mortal soul has been safeguarded with proper Christian ritual, not that damnation is a part of New Thought theology.

Some of the more enjoyable things to look back on are old writings. There is a collection of stories from third grade. It includes one of my stories and that of my classmates. The story of mine was about a guy named Vick with a space ship who gets captured by the evil magician Zork, but his lazer comes in handy in making an escape. My best friend at the time, Andy Armens, wrote a micro-story that amused me:

“A train came out of a tunnel and tried to go over a bridge. The bridge broke. The train fell into Dead Man’s River. They went down a waterfall and got killed.”

I noticed something about many of the stories. They involved fear of one sort or another and often taking action in response to the source of fear—being or feeling threatened by, being killed or hurt by, being attacked by or fighting with, being captured by or escaping from ghosts, monsters, bad men, robbers, evil magicians, or unfortunate events. Just last year, I came across a recent collection of stories from the same local elementary school. Quite a few of the stories had the same focus on fear. I guess that is a fairly uncertain and helpless stage of life, when kids are just beginning to learn to take care of themselves. Stories, like art work, gives children a safe outlet for their fears.

I remember one story I wrote at around that age. It was about a future dystopian world. There had been some catastrophe and the biosphere was destroyed. People were then living in enclosed cities for protection. I didn’t find a copy of that story in the papers, but it would be nice to see it now. That was the Cold War fears seeping into my childhood psyche. It obviously impacted me for life. Some of my first essays written for school were on topics such as ocean pollution and overpopulation. That is a heavy load to put on the mind at such a young age.

* * *

What interests me the most are the official school documents. And there are lots of them. They bring back some painful memories.

The worst year of my mildly troubled youth was in 7th grade, having begun when at the transformative age of twelve. I did not transition well from elementary school to middle school. It was traumatic, in quiet desperation kind of way. I utterly despised school, except for art class. I did gain my love of reading fiction that year and spent a fair amount of time in the library, one of the few happy places while at school. I almost flunked out of 7th grade. I would have been held back, if we hadn’t moved. On a report card from that year, my grades were mostly Cs and Ds–it states that:

“NEEDS TO LISTEN MORE CAREFULLY AND FOLLOW DIRECTIONS
IS TOO EASILY DISTRACTED
SHOWING IMPROVEMENT
HOMEWORK IS FREQUENTLY LATE OR NEVER HANDED IN
IS ENJOYABLE TO HAVE IN CLASS
SHOWS CREATIVITY AND IMAGINATION”

My difficulties began much earlier than that, which I discussed in some detail in a previous post (Aspergers and Chunking). Even after getting speech therapy, my learning disability dogged me for the rest of my education.

Looking back at the years of school records, I noticed some patterns of observations. I was described as getting along well with others, makes friends, cooperative, willing to participate, tries hard, creative, imaginative, thoughtful, requiring ‘thinking time’, slow (even neat, conscientious, and perfectionist), hard time understanding or following directions (needing directions repeated or looking to other students to understand), inconsistent in turning in homework, disorganized, easily distracted, etc. Basically, I often tried hard to fit in and do what was expected of me, but I wasn’t always successful.

I had a disorganized mind, and I simply did not learn and work in a normal fashion. I still have a disorganized mind of sorts—sprawling and unfocused and, of course, easily distracted. My mind runs around in circles and takes extended byways to get to what is sought, if it ever gets there. I’m a slow thinker and slow reader… or rather I’m inefficient. Why do something simply when it can be made complicated and convoluted? Straight lines of thought and simple, direct statements are boring.

Much of this had to do with language skills. I was late in learning to read. It was partly word retrieval, but it seems there was more to it than that. I apparently had difficulty in making complete sentences and clear phrasing, overusing interjections, understanding pronouns and tenses, formulating questions, and other similar issues. In 6th grade, my teacher wrote:

“Ben has good literal comprehension, but at times misses points which lead to deeper understanding in stories. he has some difficulty relating ideas from the real world to the context of a story.”

I’m not entirely sure what that meant. I did find some other clues. From a 2nd grade speech/language form, there were several important details noted:

  • “Ben continues to have some problems with re-grouping in math and makes number reversals. he also has problems with sequencing which have hindered him in math. (What number comes before or after another number, etc.) Sequencing in stories is also difficult for Ben.”
  • “Ben is stronger visually than auditorially.”
  • “Weaknesses: . . . Language dev.[elopment] lag hinders ability to use context clues”

Interestingly, I noticed even a comment about visual perception difficulties. I really don’t know what that could be, as I’ve always been visually adept. It is the one area where I’ve always excelled. When tested in the first grade, my visual problem-solving was at a 12th grade level.

One thing that came up is visual cues were challenging for me in relation to any verbal task, and the challenge is that all of education is verbal. Both listening and reading were problematic for me. Language wasn’t easily connected to other aspects of my thinking and life, even such simple things as recalling a friend’s name. It wasn’t just word recall, but also information recall and making sense of it in any verbal context (e.g., being asked a question).

There was a particularly interesting psychological interpretive report. It was done because of my 7th grade problems.

The psychologist pointed out that my IQ was 102 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test when it was given to me in 1st grade. That is only average, but she doesn’t mention the breakdown of the test between fluid and crystallized intelligence (i.e., between problem-solving and book learning). That was probably the same test that showed me with problem-solving skills at a 12th grade level. So, considering that my IQ was average, the book learning part must have been extremely low.

She adds that, “It was thought that he had difficulties primarily in transferring information from one modality to another in expressive areas.” Problem-solving, as long as it was non-verbal/expressive, wouldn’t involve that particular difficulty.

In another section about my 7th grade abilities and behavior, the psychologist made some useful observations:

“At this time Ben is functioning intellectually in the average range of intelligence, but there is significant discrepancies between his verbal task, just at the average range, and his work on performance tasks, which is in the gifted range. When Ben works on activities that do not involve interaction with people, he can be extremely productive. He does not use trial and error, but figures out exactly what has to be done, and then does it. In verbal tasks he gives minimal interaction. There seems to be a word retrieval problem, which has been noted in the past, and he would make comments such as, “I don’t know how to state it.” Also noted in verbal tasks that he sometimes missed directions, and then would ask to have them repeated.”

A lot of that resonates with me. I’ve always had social issues that go along with verbal issues. I often felt stupid and, worse, that there was something wrong with me. There was a disconnect between my potential ability to do something and the actual results of my trying to do it. I developed a massive deficiency in confidence and, along with depression, began to develop social anxiety or something like it. I just couldn’t deal with the pressure and the constant sense of failure and inadequacy. It plain sucked. I hated school and I hated myself. I’ve never gotten over that feeling.

There was one thing that I think the psychologist got wrong and, in talking about it, my mom agrees about this. The psychologist concludes that, my younger self’s “problems are related to a history of learning difficulties and a present style of covert resistance to pressure. That is, Ben does not ever exert open defiance or resistance, but instead gives minimal responses whenever possible. He is never actively uncooperative, but the feeling he communicates is very definitely that he does not like being pressured.”

That misses the point. I was feeling frustrated and hopeless, a lost cause and a failure. I had a low self-concept, thought of myself as unpopular and weak, was painfully shy and carried a debilitating sense of shame. I lacked social skills to the point of being socially oblivious, probably somehow related to my learning disability. I didn’t understand people or the world, much less how I was supposed to deal with all my educational problems. No one else seemed to understand me either or knew how to actually help me. Anything I did or didn’t do would be wrong and so what was the point. I was on the verge of developing a permanent state of learned helplessness. It is almost certain that I already had depression at the time, although I wouldn’t be diagnosed until college.

The psychologists response was to have perceived me as having been uncooperative. That probably wasn’t a helpful conclusion.

* * *

While reading such reports, it gets me thinking about early childhood. Mixed in with official documents, there were some photographs of my young self. I was a happy little kid.

One thing I was always good at was art. In the quote at the the beginning of this piece, I stated that among other possibilities I dreamed of growing up to become an artist. Later on, I would even win a scholarship for an art degree. But I don’t think my parents considered that practical and so I went into a botany major and was predictably overwhelmed by science and math classes.

No guidance counselor should have ever allowed me to take that major without voicing some serious concern. The only class I ever had to repeat was a chemistry class. That should have been a sign of problems. But all anyone had to do was ask me. I hated science classes, partly because how they were taught and how I learned. My troubles with learning disability would be magnified a thousandfold in college, and yet no one thought to offer me extra help. I was simply thrown into the deep end with the assumption that I’d just start swimming. Instead, depression fell on me like a ton of bricks.

* * *

It feels like for my whole life I was always being set up for failure. I have this basic sense of being out of sync with the rest of humanity. I’m a seriously dysfunctional person, but I hide it well. That is all that society cares about is as long as you can manage to hide your problems and not make them public concerns. Struggle and fail in isolation. Don’t make yourself a nuisance. It’s all your fault and there is no one else to blame. Feel ashamed, but suppress it and pretend your normal.

What is frustrating about all of this isn’t just my personal problems and the unhappy moments of my past. My personal issues are rather insignificant in the big scheme of things. Our entire society is dysfunctional to the point of self-destructiveness, some might even say sociopathy. We humans have a collective learning disability in that we are incapable of learning from our past mistakes, much less grasp our collective failings in the present moment. My granddad gave my infant self a framed copy of The New York Times’ front page for the date of my birth. The events reported were rather mundane, pretty much the same old crap we are still dealing with—mostly an obsession with such things as politics and troublesome socialists and civil rights activists, healthcare and education, crime and drugs, international conflict and the Middle East.

I just turned 40 years old. That feels like a new era of my life. I guess I’m old now, but it occurs to me that I’m now at the age my dad was when I entered first grade. Back then, my dad was hitting the high point of his career in the private sector and, although his prospects were bright, he had a midlife crisis. He was wise enough to wait to get well into adulthood before having such a crisis. As for me, I started my crisis in childhood and worked from there.

Mine was a generation with many problems. I had good company. As I’ve pointed out a number of times, this partly had to do with lead toxicity, possibly related to my own learning disability. It was also the entire shifting of society and economy, pollutants just being one small part. We don’t choose the world we are born into. I was my parents’ last child because of the fears at the time about overpopulation and the overtaxing of the environment.

When we are young, we dream of the future. This is usually expressed in personal terms. Teachers and other adults will ask us what we like to do and what we want to be when we grow up. But it doesn’t take long for the larger world to impinge on the developing mind and to shape the emerging individual. Each new generation grows up with a shared set of dreams and fears, opportunities and problems. It is what we inherit and what we carry forward through the rest of our lives, traces of it passing onto the following generations.

What will the kids of today find in the boxes of childhood stuff when they reach adulthood and then middle age? What will they make of the world that made them into who they are? How will they see those of us who helped create the world they were born into and inherited?

* * *

With those questions in mind, it occurred to me how so many of my generational peers are at the age of being ‘young’ parents. Both of my brothers have kids, one of whom is just starting school. I have a number of cousins and friends with kids as well, all at school age, many still in elementary school.

I see the issues they are dealing with, both the parents and the kids. There are, of course, various issues involved, as growing up is always a challenge—issues of: learning, development, behavior, etc. In some cases, the parents are struggling. It’s a tough position to be in as a parent, not always knowing how to best help your child and no doubt making mistakes in the process. Also, like in the past, school officials aren’t always helpful, considering the limits of funding, resources, and time.

What kind of childhood do kids have these days? What memories are they forming? It does seem like a strange time to be a kid.

One thought I had was how the world is becoming more impersonal. This is seen in education, where bureaucracy has taken over. I noticed the shift happening even in the records across my own grade school education. The early forms were often filled out by hand and contained personal observations made by teachers, school psychologists, etc. But later records were almost entirely type written and often obviously computer-generated, all personal aspects eliminated.

It also makes me wonder what will get saved. My mom apparently saved almost everything and there was plenty to be saved. All work was done on physical paper. Computers simply weren’t used when I was in grade school, even though they were around. We had computers at home, but they ultimately were just fancy typewriters.

When I was growing up, my mom made photo albums for the family and for each of us boys. But neither of my sister-in-laws makes photo albums for their kids. Most of the photographs remain on the computer, at best maybe getting posted on Facebook. Will those photos just get lost over the decades? Where will Facebook and all those pictures be when my nieces and nephew turn 40 years old? Will people go back to some archived Facebook to explore their childhoods and reminisce?

Many have noted how much childhood has changed in recent generations. It makes one wonder how the remembering of childhood will also change.

 

Local Service Replicant

I had a customer drive up to my ramp booth. She informed me that I had two lights on. The light for ‘Cashier’ was lit up over the light for ‘Credit Card Only’. She then told me she didn’t know if a person was there or not.

The booth is basically a fish bowl. It was well lit and I was standing right in front of the window. I was on display for all to see.

I must assume that when I’m not properly labeled with a sign indicating that I’m human it isn’t necessarily apparent that I am indeed an actual human. I’m going to spend the rest of the year contemplating this new existential crisis involving my exclusion from the human species. I have gone to such effort over the years to appear as a normal human, but my attempts have obviously failed.

They have been slowly mechanizng the ramps. I knew that one day my job might become obsolete. It just didn’t occur to me that my human identity might become obsolete as well. Management must have mechanized me while I wasn’t paying attention… or maybe I was always mechanized. Yet my memories of my human life seem so real. Maybe I should have been suspicious all these years that upon my inception date at this job I was given a number to identify me.

I guess there are worse things to be than an android. Besides, just because I’m not a real human doesn’t mean my feelings aren’t real. Be nice to your local service replicant. We do all the hard work so that you humans don’t have to.