Before the Beginning

When my father met my mother she was the town librarian and he was the town drunk.  She was age 30 – an old maid already in those mid-Depression years, and also in an early  stage of schizophrenia.  She was, and remained all her life, terribly naïve and gullible.  Her mother believed this had all resulted from having had an extremely high fever from diphtheria when she was three.  Family lore had it that the doctor expected her to “be dead by morning”.  She was further handicapped because she had lost most of her teeth in a bicycle accident when she was young.

My father, who was sixty, already had a family in town; but he must have found her an easy mark, and got her pregnant.  This triggered a “rearrangement” of families, and must have been extremely awkward for his parents; his father was pastor of the Methodist church – the church for the upper crust – in town. He had come from Northwestern University where he’d been chaplain. The town was Wheaton, Illinois, the Rome  of Fundamentalism, and host to Billy Graham’s future alma mater, Wheaton College.  Churches everywhere, and purely pious.

My mother’s father was already dead from diabetes (at a time before insulin’s invention).  He had been like a traveling bishop for the Congregational church, and rode a 3-state circuit as a “pastors’ pastor.  My mother and her sister, however, believed that it was his way to keep on the run from his wife, their mother: a sanctimonious but slyly, diabolically wicked woman for whom the word “harridan” may have been specially coined.  (She used to send my siblings a “new leaf”, a dollar, for birthdays; but she always sent me a quarter because, my mother said, I resembled her hubby, the traveling preacher.)

Granny loathed the idea of the intimacy of marriage, but since she wanted, in her words, to “go to Africa and save the niggers”, she needed a husband so she did it – and then the diabetes showed up and wrecked her plan.  Worse, she still had to get babies, and do what it took to get them.  After two, however, she’d had her limit of that.

If my oldest brother Bill had arrived early he would have been a bastard.  Since he was on time he was barely legit, because it had taken my father until the last minute to get divorced. The newlyweds bought a small mom-and-pop grocery store in a small white house in town, but my mother said my father “drank it up”.  Later, for many years, my optometrist occupied the little white frame house, so I could revisit my birthplace.  (Now, however, it’s a parking lot.)

My mama hated Catholics and democrats passionately, except for the ones she knew.  She hated FDR most, though, because he’d abolished Prohibition.  (Evidently she thought it was Roosevelt’s job to keep my father sober.)  But Mr. McGrath, a Catholic, was one of the sweetest men she’d ever known. My cousin, however, recently found letters that indicated Mr. M. had bought both the sisters fur coats posing as a selfless benefactor to disguise the fact that he was luring my aunt Elizabeth into breaking her vow of faithfulness – in which sweet Mr. McGrath seemed to have succeeded.

While Mr. M. was diddling Aunt Elizabeth, it turns out that Uncle Leroy, a music professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana, was diddling the coeds – which was why he suddenly took early retirement, and they went to live happily ever after for a while in Northern Michigan.

There was a problem with the women in my mother’s bloodline.  In each generation back at least to my German great-grandmother, each mother hated at least one of her children.  In my mother’s case she hated both my only sister and my younger brother (the last of her four boys).  Because the life immediately in store for us severely handicapped our chance for emotional survival, I think that hatred was key to their lifelong severe alcoholism – the last, insurmountable straw.  Blessedly, they sleep now at peace at last, forever, in the sand.

I know that even I, who witnessed it, cannot imagine their misery, their repeated attempts to stand free, and once more falling.  I’m convinced the hate was a product of that old-world Germanic authoritarian culture which demands constant servility. It was blatant, and severe hatred. Only in my own generation does it seem to be gone; but, like Freddy Krueger, it may be back…

Later, when I was a young adult, I was puzzled about parts of my own personality.  I was convinced that character sprang from the circumstances of one’s early life; and since mine had been pretty sleazy, it seemed to me that I should be more of a craven critter than I was; but I seemed instead self-reliant, and usually benevolent – although I have a controlled mean streak in me that’s available on demand.  (I let it loose when someone sees that I’m a nice person and decides that I must also be a sap.)  I have now concluded hat I owe my nature largely to my ancestors: maybe those preachers back there in the mist.

In the beginning, I must have become a nasty, small cynic early.  I remember sitting on Santa’s lap, and noticing a highly suspicious green-and-white binding of some sort skirting the top of his beard.  I asked my brother about it, and also how he could get to our shabby cardboard fireplace since it had no chimney.  At his responses, I reacted like Satchel does to one of Bucky Katt’s outlandish tales:  he looks skeptically at the ceiling and murmurs “Mm hmm.  Mm hmm.”

For years I believed I’d made this stuff up, because I’m a member of the species, and I know how deceitful our delusions of our past can be.  But I recently remembered a kid asking me, just after I’d come home from the orphanage at age 10 when my father died, “What does your pop do?  (That’s a shorthand question to identify your rank.)  I said, “Shovels coal.  (Pause.)  He’s died and gone to hell.”.

The kid’s mother held him back a grade the next year, so I didn’t know him after that.  But the memory demonstrated to me, at least, that if I could already respond capriciously like that, I must have somewhere already lost my belief in the supernatural.  I decided to try to contact him (his name was  Bill Wingader) to see if he remembered this, starting  by looking in my high school’s chronicle. Turns out he’s dead, so never mind.

My point is that it’s taken me years of wondering why I was able to see clearly like that, and why the uniform ignorance of the people I grew up among was also apparent to me when I was so young.  My conclusion is that I was very bright, and also possessed of a high level of social intelligence.  It is that peculiar clarity of vision, though, that for me makes people’s pretenses visible, and why I for so long couldn’t understand that others didn’t see past them – why I thought the people in my church, for instance, had deliberately deceived me.

I will reiterate that, in order to understand my world, I want to be as honest as possible about where I fit, intellectually.  This must include acknowledging my intelligence (which for years I was reluctant to do) as well as knowing when I’m in the presence of a mind superior to my own – which is why I so enthusiastically investigate the things I’ve been writing about lately:  evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. I am constantly doubling back on myself to prod:  “Is that honest?”  “Is that objective?”  But my friend Elissa said it better:  “I am getting better and better at calling bullshit on myself.”  And she expects the same from her friends – as do I.


I am homing in on claiming my credentials as they relate to my (and others’) sense of entitlement.  I have very little of that left.  The “brain guys” I read are convincing me more and more that almost everything I am now is the result of my nature.  I’ll tell you the best example I can think of, and it again is about me, because that’s where I’ve learned the most.  (It’s inevitable.)

I have for all of my adult life told the story of my scramble away from where I started, allowing the hearer to infer that I behaved heroically.  It’s a really hard deceit – although inadvertent – to own up to, because the response was so gratifying.  Here’s what I’m now pretty sure the neuroscientists would say – and I now tentatively buy it:

Genetics is like a Pachinko machine.  I sometimes call the process the genetic sift.  Out of all the possibilities in my gene pool.  Some traits I ended up with are a high emotional sensitivity and compassion; unrelenting skepticism; and a well-calibrated shit detector.  I encountered a version of “Christianity,” part of which seriously appealed to me.

Our brains are made to abhor a vacuum.  If an explanation is missing, Brain will supply one, regardless of how far-fetched.  Michael Gazzaniga has named this brain part the Confabulator.  The best Brain and I could do at the time was to grab onto the compassionate Jesus, and to believe that as far as the supernatural bunk was concerned, we had thought it through and rejected it, at only a subconscious level in the beginning.

What actually happened was that there was no way I would have rejected the compassionate piece, and no way I would have accepted the supernatural.  It’s my nature.

My particular makeup does not include the kind of hubris that would make this hard to accept.  I am, first, vitally interested in knowing the truth.  Like almost all of science, this is counter-intuitive.  So be it.  I am very much in thrall to science.  I am completely convinced that it’s far and away my best and only hope for approaching understanding of my world.

This is all about how I am made – as Gazzaniga describes it, the way I came from the factory.

 A different idea about the Nature of the Beast, which can’t be discounted – a sung fable:


 Remember “entitlement”?  I’m still trying to get there.  Sorry.

I recall, in the corporation in which I worked for 23 years, the uniform elitism I sensed as I rose into the thinner air toward the top of my company: lots of silver-spooned pantywaists, “to the manor born.”  (All born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple – Barry Switzer).  At a certain level the other august personages on the upper slopes assumed that all their peers were filled with the same puffery as they were.  But I was a plebe.  I hadn’t tried to deceive anyone.  At executive retreats I didn’t do golf.  I rode around (“inappropriately”) on the beer cart with our secretary; or I sat in the lobby and read a book.  Even so, people would assume that everyone there had become homogenized, and the stomach-turning bile of presumed superiority flowed without inhibition.

(I guess I must be prole to the bone.  It’s a new idea to me, but one I should have thought of long ago, because it rings true to me now.)

I always hasten to add that there were many exceptions to the hubris, people who made the place more bearable.  It was not altogether a Confederacy of Dunces.  The difference was that these special people didn’t take themselves too seriously: a valuable knack.

The higher beings were largely unaware of their inbred belief in their own superiority.  I will paraphrase the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which was in full sway:  “The more ignorant one is, the more knowing he assumes himself to be.”


 Another part of my original equipment is a vivid imagination.  That’s what combines with my sensitivity so often to make me miserable.  But in “A House In The Country,” I will describe how my complete knowledge of my mother’s hoarding, her herd of cats, and glimpses of the interior of her house left me completely unprepared for entering it when she was evicted from it.  The wall of stench I encountered is still in my nostrils.

I realized the woeful limits of my imagination.  I had had no experience in my life to compare to that happening.  Steinbeck was also completely unprepared for what he experienced as a young middle class reporter venturing among the migrant workers in California’s Central Valley; but he then did his best to make us aware of what he saw, in The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men.  That’s a vital function of fiction, although it can, of course, have no impact unless it’s read!  I can’t imagine one of those entitlement babies hunched over a Steinbeck novel.

I don’t believe JFK knew what poverty was about.  Lyndon Johnson had experienced it himself in West Texas as a young man.  Brother Bobby Kennedywas also from an elite background.  His original motive for visiting migrant workers in California, and poverty-stricken Appalachia, may well have been callow.  He had that part in him.  Nevertheless, he was gobsmacked by what he saw, and I believe it essentially changed him.  It awakened something in him.  If that essence had not been present, there would have been nothing to catalyze.

An elitist comes from the factory without his shit-detector.  It was E. O. Wilson who defined sin as selfishness (epitomized in Ayn Rand), and virtue as caring for others (the Great – but mortal – Sandalman rabbi).  Memento mori.  “Keep in mind your own mortality.”  (It is not a morbid thought – simply an aid to our keeping things in their proper perspective.)


 I’m gonna go now and try to sweeten my sour attitude.

Ah, the hell with it.  I yam what I yam.


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