A hundred years in Corleone

Historical-map-of-Sicily-bjs-1Appreciation develops on its own timetable, or not at all.

Before I got interested in genealogy, the subject I adored and rarely spoke of with my friends was weight lifting. There just didn’t seem to be much to say about it to people who don’t lift. In those years, I thought genealogy sounded boring. Then I was laid up with a back injury and started reading a lot of history, out of an interest in my own origins, and it led me to genealogy.

I still imagine the word “genealogy” sets off certain associations, as it once did for me, of people who enjoy playing bridge and golfing, who go to early bird dinners and read murder mysteries. I can tell when someone doesn’t already associate genealogy with thrilling discoveries and intellectual rigor, because they don’t have any questions about my research. I don’t want to be that guy who can’t talk about anything that’s not his fantasy football team, or Magic: The Gathering card collection, so I move on to a subject we can both talk about.

This is what I find so exciting about genealogy: the way it lets me turn patience and attention to detail into a greater understanding of a larger world.

I don’t work at drawing people into my passion. Several inner voices rise up to remind me that my interest  is not popular among people who share my identity politics, to whisper that of course, other people do not find it inherently intriguing to squint at the baptismal records of people long dead. One voice insinuates that I’m a miser, a jealous hoarder of delicious details. I’m ashamed of being intensely interested in my far off and deceased relations, when I don’t even send birthday cards to my living family members.

Another, more doubtful voice suggests that maybe it is because it’s a solitary pursuit, and one I need no help getting excited about, that I do not bother trying to sell my friends on genealogy. There are forums where it doesn’t matter that we don’t share other common interests: we can still share this thing of ours and find genuine appreciation of our efforts. Relatives and paisan’ have found me through the profiles I publish and update online. Like any other interest or fandom, it seems that appreciation develops on its own timetable, or not at all.

This is what I find so exciting about genealogy: the way it lets me turn patience and attention to detail into a greater understanding of a larger world. I’m building up a body of knowledge about Corleone, about this town at a crossroads of civilization and the people who lived there, during a turbulent time in history. I’m creating a coherent narrative of how I got here. It’s not unlike knitting, writing a novel, or for that matter, brickmasonry: another one of the skills of my ancestors. They’re about painstaking precision, putting in the time, thinking about the engineering of the thing in advance of the work, because it is so slow. It’s meant to make something enduring and beautiful, and the way it’s done is with craft and care. There’s a reason genealogy and knitting are associated with our grandmothers, why brickmasonry still remains in the popular imagination as a noble art, long after we stopped paying anyone a noble salary to do it. Knitting wasn’t just a hobby, it was how we survived the winters.

Every time I stumble upon a close relative, or a tantalizing anecdote, I get a jolt. They are the bright bricks, unearthed randomly and placed where they can be seen. I’ll slog through pages of the death records of infants, for the genuine excitement and pleasure at finding what I think of as a “good” death: an elderly person who has married, who I know from my research has seen children grow to adulthood, marry, and have children of their own. Someone prepared for death: who has received last rites, and died in their own bed.

The sudden deaths are harder to fathom. I rarely see what I found earlier this month, which were the murders of three people, one of whom remained unidentified, in the spring of 1890. I found a fourth victim in the December of that year.

Of the two identified in the spring, I knew them both: who their parents were, whether they’d married. I have written about their lives. To find them murdered in the night, and this fact plainly stated in the Church records—records that, for the most part, tend not to judge, but to state only certain facts and not others—was unprecedented. The Church’s records will say how old people were at death, whether they ever married, who their parents were, who gave them last rites, where they were buried. I’ve found one suicide, in decades of Church death records. I’ve found one man who refused last rites: only the one. I’ve found the records of my own family going back nine generations; deaths at all ages, generally without explanation; of the murders, the suicide, the hundreds who died the summer of cholera, in 1837, and the records of countless, countless infants: left in the wheel house to be raised by others, dead in infancy, named after dead siblings. Some families have six, seven children, and lose every one. I have trouble fathoming such grief. No one I know today lives with that much loss, so closely.

Most recently, I’m following a priest through a walking tour of the city as it existed in 1811. It’s a document called the “stato delle anime,” the “state of the soul,” a Church census of households and individuals. The headings he’s jotted down throughout are the directions he takes as he goes: “out the Strada Grande,” “in front of the mill,” “under the castle,” “as one exits the courtyard.” He works his way in and out of alleys, called “vanellas,” a cousin who still lives in Sicily tells me, and which the priest numbers in lieu of names. He names the people who live in them, gives their ages and relationships. It’s given new, literal, dimension to my understanding of the people who once lived in Corleone.

Would you like to read more about my family in Corleone? I’m very active on WikiTree, an open source genealogy website. My profile is here, a page about my direct ancestors is here, and a page on my research methodology (potentially helpful to other amateur genealogists who are interested in Corleone, Sicily) is here.

 

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Sasha Blue

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The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one.

A friend died this year, too far away for me to get to the funeral. He had a chronic condition that I knew would contribute to his early death, but I was still taken by surprise to hear he’d been found unconscious in his home. Sasha never recovered. He died in the hospital about a week later.

When I was in my early twenties, Sasha was my closest friend. He was there when I was figuring out so many things about myself. Sasha was clever, sarcastic, smart, and graceful, making him welcome wherever he went. And because I was his trusted friend, he let me cross some of the boundaries in his life: between the straight world of Tampa and the semi-secret world of gay bars and dance parties, between the youthful university culture where we met, and the eighty and ninety year old ballroom dance students Sasha taught. Perhaps most importantly, he told me once that it is necessary to sort out what one desires from what one wants to be. It wasn’t more than a few months later that I began to transition from female to male.

Sasha was color blind. Color blindness of the most common sorts, like Sasha’s red-green version, mean that some colors are difficult to distinguish, not that there is no color at all. One night, I was riding home in Sasha’s car with two of our friends in the back seat. The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one. He wondered if we saw the same shade of blue he did. He might have also wondered if it stood out for him more than it did for us, because he had fewer beautiful colors in his visible spectrum.

Sasha had a way of being “on,” entertaining but not permeable. This was a different kind of remark, one that invited us in. We all craned our necks to see the shade of blue that Sasha found so captivating. And we agreed that it was, indeed, a beautiful shade of blue. I’ve wondered at times why this moment stuck with me, what it said about Sasha or about me. It is the one that came back to me most clearly, in the days after his death.

For the years that we were friends and roommates, Sasha let me tag along with him to the ballrooms where he gave dance lessons, to Denny’s to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee while we studied, and to the bars where he sang karaoke and danced and tried to score. I’d roam the dark rooms as if searching for someone. In the small country western bar where we threw darts with Sasha’s straight friends, drank Budweiser, and sang, I relearned how to be on stage, close enough to make eye contact, so near to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the sound of my unamplified voice and had to trust my experience in hitting the notes and what it felt like to vibrate at that frequency. Sometimes I failed to polite applause. But sometimes, it was like flying.

My transition put a wall between Sasha and me. Sasha, who studied gender performance and whose books were the first I read on the subject of transgenderism, thought I was making the wrong choice: that I was confusing what I wanted with what I wanted to be. My new identity felt fragile but real and worth protecting, so I pulled away from my closest friend, began making new friends who understood and respected my identity. I dressed more conservatively as a man than I had as a woman. My voice began to change and the songs didn’t come as easily, dropped out of my repertoire as the highest notes escaped my range.

It’s been years, now, since I’ve sang in public. After Sasha died I thought about going out again and giving it a try, to remember him, but it isn’t the same. I’m out of practice and too self conscious to sing anywhere except when I’m in the car alone. I haven’t had my own automobile in more than ten years. When I need to go somewhere, I borrow my husband’s car, and if I’m driving home late at night from wherever I’ve been, sometimes I will sing to keep myself awake. And sometimes, if I’m on winding country roads and put on my brights, the periwinkle glow of the icon on the dash will transport me to my twenties, the streets of Tampa, riding in the passenger seat of Sasha’s car.

Image credit: johnthoward1961/Flickr

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If America’s #1 Dad Couldn’t Save His Son with a Whupping, None of Our Kids Are Safe

 

Bill Cosby

Choosing not to hit my son is one decision I’ve never regretted.

With domestic violence so prominently in the news recently, in predictable sequence have come outrage and backlash. After it was made public that the NFL had known about the video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee unconscious in a casino hotel elevator, and then behaving coolly afterward, my friends on Facebook expressed righteous anger, first directed at the perpetrator and those who would cover up such violence. But then came the more complicated responses: the scorn for Janay Palmer, who expressed regret for events leading to her own assault, and who married the man who treated her so remorselessly. There were even defenses mounted for Ray Rice, saying that Palmer must have brought on such actions, that she had struck first and had it coming.

When the second scandal hit, of another NFL player, Adrian Peterson, beating his four year old child with a switch cut from a tree, the cycle of abuse coverage went through the same cycle of anger, shock, disbelief, bargaining, and shame. This time, among the defenses of his behavior was that loving African-American parents not only commonly beat their children with switches as a form of discipline, but that this is good and necessary. Necessary, according to one person with whom I’ve had this conversation, because Black children, especially Black boys, need to be harshly disciplined, or risk bringing upon themselves the wrath of a racist society.

***

I’m a white man, from what I think of as a fairly typical working class white American family. My sister and I would get spanked, and have other corporal forms of discipline imposed upon us. I decided not to spank my own son, and to raise him differently in other regards: to value difference, to be empathetic, to know that I was a real person, and so was he. I think I did, not great, but okay. Some of my choices as a parent were wrong, and some have been cause of long introspection and deep shame. The choice not to hit him is not one that I regret.

When I was a kid on Long Island in the early Eighties, my family’s principal bonding experience was watching TV together. My sister and I would sprawl on the white shag carpeting in front of the big console television in the living room, and we would all laugh together at “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H”, “The Muppet Show,” and other prime time programming, especially on Sunday nights.

My parents, sister, and I watched “Bill Cosby: Himself” on HBO when it first aired, in 1983 or ‘84. Cosby’s live show was a clear departure from our  family’s usual fare, the production bare, and revealing. His standup routine was delivered in a period brown suit on an empty stage, a conference chair and a microphone his only props. Cosby covered several taboos in succession: drug use, religion, childbirth, parenting. And he did it all without going “blue,” enabling my sister and I to stay through the whole performance. There’s a whole bit about how he and his wife would deliver nightly beatings to their five children, announcing it like an arena sport. My sister and I laughed at this along with our parents.

We all loved Cosby after that, and became devotees of his new sitcom. The Huxtables were well-to-do, squeaky clean role models of modern American family life, a version of the Cosbys, themselves. Whether Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable spanked their TV family was never addressed. I wouldn’t have chanced to wonder. That Bill Cosby had managed to bring a Black family into my father’s living room was miraculous. Even Archie Bunker types like my father were getting Cosby sweaters for Christmas and Father’s Day, in 1985, and growing to identify with him. My family, who regularly identified themselves with Archie Bunker et familia, now invited Dr. Huxtable’s family into our living room on Thursday nights.

The actor who played the Huxtables’ teenage son, Theo, on “The Cosby Show,” Malcolm Jamal-Warner, was serious “Tiger Beat” material.  The model for TV’s Theo Huxtable was Ennis William Cosby, Bill and Camille Cosby’s only son. He was killed in 1997 in a robbery on the side of the highway at night, while changing a car tire.

Ennis wasn’t alone that night. He called a friend, who came and watched from her car while he changed his tire. Someone came up and knocked on her window and caused her to move her car a short distance. When she looked up again, Ennis was dead.

Ennis Cosby did all the things I’d want my son to do, in that situation. Be self sufficient, and value your life. Move off the side of the road, fix the flat, don’t be alone in the dark. Ennis’ father was America’s Number One Dad. Ennis had dyslexia, and his parents sent him to the schools with the best LD programs they could find. The foundation named after him is for kids with learning disabilities. If the most perfect parents, giving their son every opportunity and tool that he needs to succeed, can’t keep him safe from a racist thug with a gun, then what can possibly keep any of our kids safe?

The answer is, nothing. We can do the best jobs we are able, even the best jobs possible, and yet we can’t control the whole world. Every day, millions of parents have to watch their precious children, whom they love, walk out the door into the unknown, and just… hope they’ve done enough to bring them home safely. What knowledge, what parenting act, what faith or magic, can possibly be momentous enough for this task? I imagine the fear that Bill and Camille probably felt for their son every single day, that someone would take their beautiful child’s life, because that unknown future assailant would not see their child as beautiful.

 

***

 

When I was a child, I was beautiful, but no one let me know that. Other kids told me that I was funny looking. From a young age, I told my classmates that I was from outer space, that my parents were not my real parents. I knew I was weird. I eventually stopped telling lies and tried to figure out the truths of why I was so different, what it was about me that isolated me, even in my own small family. It would take me a long time. Meanwhile, others volunteered their own answers to my question. Their taunts varied, leaving me only with the impression that there was something wrong with me that even others had a hard time pinning down.

One afternoon I came home from school and called my mother at work. I was sobbing and she was flustered. I never called her at work. “Let me call you back,” she said hastily, and hung up.

I’d gotten gum in my hair on the school bus. Someone had put it there. My hair was long and thick. I would have to cut the gum out. It would not make much of a difference, but I was defeated, anyway. This wasn’t the worst bullying incident. Yet for some reason, I called my mother. I only ever turned to her when there was no where else left to turn.

She called me back after a few minutes. “You bring this on yourself by being different, you know.” Her advice went on in that vein, not for long. Then she hung up.

I cut the gum out of my hair and didn’t mention it again.

When I hear the stories about Janay Palmer and Adrian Peterson’s son, I feel sorry for them, because they are being told that they deserve to be abused. And some people believe it’s true. The arguments for it include, this was done to me and I turned out fine and, if I don’t do this to my own kids, they will draw fire, however unjustly. But this is what happened to me and I’m not fine. Not only can’t you protect your kids by beating them, but hitting them begins teaching kids the lesson early that some people are allowed to hit other people, that there are natural hierarchies, with violence flowing down to the bottom. It sets them up for the next lesson, the one my mother stated so baldly on the phone that afternoon. It sets them up to take responsibility for their own victimization.

There are few subjects less divisive than how to parent. We all want to think that in such important areas of our lives as how we treat one another, the loved one and the stranger, that we are making the right choices. A new generation of progressive American parents is challenging bullying, even permitting the diversity of transgender children to flourish.

The conservative countervailing forces regard the couple, and the family, as small sovereign nations, places where we each must make our own laws in accordance with our own values, and be free to make the difficult choices of how to be good people, how to stay alive, and how to raise our children to be good, free, and safe, as well. None of us are perfect at it, even the ones with college degrees, TV shows, and worldwide recognition. It leaves us vulnerable to criticisms that go to the heart of who we are: our values, our children.

If you take cultural relativism to its extreme, any practice is acceptable, as long as it has a stated purpose and is accepted and perpetuated in a society. Female circumcision, child brides, even the deplorable practice of slavery, upon which America was built, can be defended and has been: that it is Biblically sanctioned, that it was “necessary” to economic development, that it was “less severe” in the North, that it “brought heathens to Christ,” or that ”it happened here, and we’re okay now.” Opposition to change is a conservative impulse, and not all conservative trends are bad, even to a flaming radical. Without doing things the way we always have, every morning would have to begin with a negotiation of terms that we would otherwise regard as settled: which side of the road to drive on, what language to conduct business in, whether we still have employment and on what terms. Some institutions are worth keeping, but leaving open to modification, as needed.

We still speak English every day, but we let new words slip in, and new ways of saying things. We still have laws, but we don’t pillory or publicly hang people, any more. And while many parts of this nation were founded on specific religious principles, or on slavery, or piracy, or genocide, these are no longer values we embrace as American. And we did this through the radical act of enlarging who we saw as fully human and worthy of being treated as an equal to ourselves, from a “We the People” that did not include me or most of my neighbors, to one that does. Even the Constitution, our nation’s Bible, is not immutable. Today’s “We” still doesn’t include everyone it could, and its breadth is constantly being contested. I would say it’s in our nature to contest it, has been all along. The reason we had to fight the Civil War was because we could not sustain the courage of our convictions at Lexington. The reason we had to fight the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960s was because neither war was fully over. Perhaps the Puritans were right to identify themselves with Israel, who wrestles with angels.

I don’t have all the answers to how we’re going to win the war on racism, or how to actualize the emancipation of children from the petty tyrannies of their parents. I am no more an authority on parenting than average, perhaps less so. Maybe the family is an oppressive structure that cannot help but recapitulate abusive power structures, or perhaps it can be reformed, a tool instead of a cage, and made just. In either case, change to the family unit will only happen incrementally. Yet it’s undoubtedly changing.

Image credit: fuzzcat/Flickr

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Because Ferguson

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The “Because X” meme from social media becomes news

“12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson” makes use of the “Because X” meme in a way that is effective, for the same reason we should notice when it’s being used.Source: http://0.tqn.com/d/webtrends/1/L/T/E/-/-/yolo.jpg

 First of all, “Because Science,” “Because Reasons,” and “Because Ferguson” work. Who needs prepositional phrases, when you can just say “because”?

 What is left out of these constructions is the argument, either because the reasons are boring, well known, or even unknown to the listener. The most important part of the equation is replaced with bluster. Writing “12 Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson” sounds cooler and more relatable than the alternatives that would more clearly define the relationship between white readers and the violence of institutionalized racism.Source: http://www.quickmeme.com/img/28/28f0d7244f31c441536aa4fe63be54c187c8920cb591fdbeddfc68ebfabe99f7.jpg

 Part of this headline’s effectiveness is the list format: as a former editor of a website, I can tell you that the numbers back me up on this: people do love themselves a list. We like the way it feels, like we can check these off as if they were on a “honey do” list, and have accomplished something. And while I don’t work for Google and don’t know exactly how their search algorithms work, the first headline is more direct and I believe, more likely to rise to the top of search results than the latter.

Source: http://treasure.diylol.com/uploads/post/image/174453/resized_philosoraptor-meme-generator-circular-logic-is-the-best-logic-because-it-is-circular-fa4a24.jpg“Because X” can be used to back up either side of a well-known conundrum. Perhaps what makes the “because” of the matter so boring as to be usefully elided, is our sense of familiarity with both sides of the argument. Those who agree that cookies are delicious, and those who believe cookies are evil temptations, can both laugh at “Because Reasons” as a justification for eating some cookies.

 Anyone who is invested in an issue, from “stand your ground” to teaching “intelligent design” alongside evolution, has an image of the other side that will fit onto a “Because X” meme. And since memes are distillations of inside jokes, they are a powerful shorthand for people who have politics in common. Chances are, the people on your Facebook page almost all “get it” if you post a meme like this, because you’ve probably already “hid” or stopped following the people you once knew online, who consistently demonstrated that they did not see the situation from the same perspective as you.

Source: http://www.funnyjunk.com/funny_pictures/1964098/BecauseIt’s the well-known effect of the echo chamber, which Facebook (and other social media, like Twitter, Pinterest, and Tubmlr) makes easy to create, and allows for selective exposure to the values you share. Follow who you like: people who post the stories and ideas that make sense to you, and with which you enjoy grappling or just nodding along to. Most people have a limit for the amount of grappling they’re willing to do in a day, so they find sources of content they trust: friends who will reliably post heartwarming videos of pitbulls playing with babies, well-composed pictures of organic food, and think pieces they already agree with. We already know enough about what a shitty state the world is in, thanks.

Source: http://www.quickmeme.com/img/92/9213857421bf8f4b1e2825f89cc95e5381a04a750c819fea21ec202dfca5adb9.jpgBalance is necessary, between bringing in new information and getting it to fit into one’s existing worldview. If the new info is too disparate, and constantly challenges the structure of one’s world view, it actually prevents growth of the individual. To be healthy, fully actualized people, we have to have firm roots as well as to reach for the stars. We need to be strong enough to withstand attacks on our values, but not so stiff that we do not alter our stance in response to new data. At the same time, without reassurance that everything we know is not total bullshit, that at least some of it is solid, there is no ground from which to evaluate contrary or novel ideas.

Source: http://www.funnyjunk.com/Loki/funny-pictures/5080869/31#31

 Having to find our own balance makes reading the news less secure than is ideal. There are still institutions, newspapers and magazines with trusted reputations. But more and more of the news we receive comes to us from—and is filtered by—social media. The job in society of news coverage is transferring from a small number of publishers, to a blogosphere of individuals. The work of determining what is trustworthy, traditionally performed by the publisher, has become the responsibility of the reader. At the same time, the “cloud” of your friends, in combination with social media, have taken over the job of filtering what is newsworthy. What would you do if IMDb and Snopes both disappeared?

Source: http://www.funnyjunk.com/boom/funny-pictures/4855343/8#8

 We’ve had to become more savvy, and yet we still get tripped up. When was the last time someone on your friends list got taken in by a fake news story? For me, it was this morning.

 I say all this like I know it, but this past week I had another lesson in how unreliable my Facebook friends feed is as a news source. I’ve been ignoring news alerts in my email inbox, heading straight for the pitbull videos and Upworthy links. Between the algorithms that Facebook uses, and what my friends post, I learned about Robin Williams’ death before I discovered what was happening in Ferguson, MO. A celebrity suicide trumps the police killing an unarmed teenager and then brutalizing the protesters. Facebook is more invested in my short-term happiness than in my growth as an individual. Likewise, content providers who just want 100,000 people to “Like” their pages right now, so they can make $1,000 in ad revenues.

Source: http://i3.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/156/686/why-mr2-meme-generator-why-open-door-while-too-much-wheel-spin-because-race-car-06b268.jpg

 Old media wasn’t perfect, either. There have always been broadsheets, pamphlets, and mullet wrappers, Page Six girls and puff pieces. I can be just as critical of my news sources whether they come from the Fifth Estate or the Fourth.

 

When bloggers get purposely vague by using constructions that remove the argument, whether because precisely describing what has happened is too boring, too wordy, or just not cool, man, then writers will have finally placed the last burden of journalism on the readers. Because news is not just what has happened, it’s also why it happened, and why it’s important. It’s not just today’s story, but the total reporting on a subject over the longer term. Those relationships and priorities are woven into what we write: from the headline and the lede to the prepositional phrases we choose to describe nuanced relationships among people and events.

Source: http://cdn.theatlantic.com/newsroom/img/posts/BecauseReasons.jpg

 Readers, having already sought out our own sources of news online and sustained them with our attention, must now come up with the very news itself, out of all of the op-eds, anonymous reports, blogging heads, and “fair and balanced” news outlets that are the remnants of journalism. The internet has set us free to read and believe what we like, but with freedom comes responsibility. We have to take responsibility for the content that we choose to consume, and how it affects us, and not rely on any one tool, whether it’s a newspaper or a news feed, to make those decisions for us.

Because reasons.

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“Heartbreak and Detox” Is Now Available for $0.99

torn heart

“Heartbreak and Detox” is now available as a Kindle eBook.

You can now read my short memoir of trans masculine identity, love, and pain management, “Heartbreak and Detox,” on Kindle. The story originally reviewed in “Manning Up:  Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves,” is now available through Amazon for just $0.99.

Heartbreak and Detox, Kindle Edition

Kate Bartolotta, author of “Heart Medicine” writes:

Justin Cascio’s “Heartbreak and Detox” reminds us that bullying doesn’t necessarily end with childhood, and love—even when it looks complicated on the outside—is often quite simple. …Cascio’s story offers a bittersweet look at the lifelong search for intimacy that transcends gender and orientation, and like many other stories, never truly ends.

Read “Heartbreak and Detox” now.

Cover art courtesy of Neal Fowler/Flickr

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“Heartbreak and Detox” is coming

Justin Cascio reads Heartbreak and DetoxA story of courage, transgender identity, and yes, heartbreak, coming soon on Amazon.

Not all of my stories develop such a life of their own, or recapitulate their themes when they do, but “Heartbreak and Detox” has brought me pride, grief, and hope since its publication.

I mentioned here in February that my story was accepted into an anthology from Transgress Press, “Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves.” The book was published in June, and has received fine reviews. I was proud to see my work in print, and read my story at a book launch event in the Boston area last month, where I was gratified by the reception. As many writers can testify, reading one’s work aloud connects the author and his audience with his words in a way that nothing else can.

However, not everyone was happy with my work. Someone I was once close to, and who I mention in my story, was upset to see her name used. Upon consideration of this fact, the publishers at Transgress Press have decided to remove my story from future editions of “Manning Up.”

This is an ironic twist, given the story’s themes of betrayal, bullying, and heartbreak. But she—and from here on I will call her “Mary Ann”—does not get to decide what I write about, particularly when it’s true. I know where I stand as a writer. My story is a powerful one, and it remains true, whatever names are used.

I still want to share my story, so I am preparing to release “Heartbreak and Detox” as a single eBook through Amazon. For a dollar, you will be able to read my story of “manning up” in the face of “indifferent fathers, screaming mothers,” and bullies, then and now.

If you’d like to see more before making this investment in my more intimate writing, here are a couple of essays I’ve published on The Good Men Project:

How We Talk About What Turns Us On

In Defense of the One-Night Stand

 

Heartbreak and Detox” will be available very soon from Amazon.

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How to be wrong without regret

Sacrifice of Isaac

I owe a debt for my existence, not just to my genetic ancestors, but to my cultural predecessors.

Heritage is more than genealogical descent

There’s more than one way to reckon descent: there is the genealogical, the genetic, the cultural. I count Benjamin Franklin as a grandfather on the basis that I was raised by public libraries. I’m a product of values and revolutions in thought going back centuries. I have more parents and grandparents in movements for knowledge, pride, and justice than I can count.

But most of the people who have lived and made my life better aren’t in the history books. Although I was pretty sure my family didn’t arrive in the United States until after 1850, and never owned slaves (or were enslaved), I knew that I owed a debt for the privileges that have come to me as a white American, that my life and identity are based upon, that I did nothing to create. I began to wonder where my ancestors were, exactly, while America was becoming the place that would change our destinies. What did that intersection look like, where my family joined the American experience, and what led up to it?

The myth of starting from nothing

Lots of people are curious about their family origins, but have not sought them out. Some might not know where to begin, not even what questions to ask that would get them started. The advice that other genealogists give to newbies is to capture living knowledge, by talking to the oldest members of one’s family. I did this by proxy: my sister interviewed our great-uncle Joseph Cascio in 2001, for an anthropology class project. When I declared an interest in putting together our genealogy, she emailed me her final paper, and a few other documents, including a table of names and dates that derived from our great uncle Warren’s research on the other side of our family. Right from the beginning, I was relying upon the work of others.

I could figure out some of the relationships among people in the table, but others were mysteries. Not only might I misinterpret what data I had, but the data itself might be incorrect: there were no citations, no sources. I would have to confirm every name and date in a primary document. On an intuitive level, I understood the great chasm between having questionable facts—otherwise known as hypotheses—and nothing at all. Researching my family’s genealogy has been a rewarding lesson in acting with confidence, while still leaving room to be wrong.

Induction

I knew that Cascio was not an uncommon surname, but when I began my search for Leoluca Cascio—my great-grandfather, who immigrated from Corleone, Sicily—I still assumed that his first name was unusual. After reviewing a few hundred birth records, and finding the second or third Leoluca Cascio, I began to realize my error. Cascio is a common surname throughout Italy, but it turns out that Leoluca is an exceptionally popular name in Corleone because he is a patron saint of the town. I’ve since found at least twenty men who lived in Corleone who were named Leoluca Cascio. I’ve also found five Angela Grizzaffis (the name of his mother, my great-great-grandmother) and innumerable Marias, Antoninos, Gaetanas, and Giuseppes.

Engaging in inductive research helped me understand the context in which those records existed. Captured initially by the Catholic Church, then the Mormon church, now online for my convenience, I had the leisure to develop mastery. I could even come to anticipate certain common errors.

I’d at first assumed that in Italian records, the name “Cascio” would always be spelled the same way. No more “Cassios” or “Cashios,” as I find in US Census records. But in Sicilian dialect, new issues emerge. “Cascio” sounds like “Castro.” In fact, so many Cascios and Castros are called by the other’s name, in one record or another, that to skip all of the Castros in the Corleone records on the assumption that they’re not my relatives would mean missing a lot of family.

I’d also been ignoring the “Lo Cascio” name in my searches, not appreciating just how often surnames would be rendered variously in the plural or the singular (“Colletti” and “Colletto,” for instance), or with or without an article or prefix, like “Lo” or “Di.” In English, “Lo Cascio” is alphabetized in the Ls—is a separate name—from “Cascio.” Not so to the Italian speaker. I took another look at the Lo Cascios, and found that they were the same family, sometimes the same individuals, referred to by different versions of the same name.

Don’t expect capital “T” truth

These were not the only errors in the records. In US Census records, my grandfather appears as a female in one census, and my great-great-grandmother appears as a man in another. I’ve found a small handful of Sicilian baptismal records that I believe get the name of one parent entirely wrong, possibly confused with a godparent or another relative. More common is for calculated birth years to float, with people seeming to grow older or younger over time, based on their reported ages. The worst offenders are death records, for the scientific reasons that at one’s maximal age and no longer able to self-report, there is the greatest margin of error. When an infant dies, the age is generally reported with the utmost accuracy by the grieving parents, even down to the day.

There is some consistency to the inconsistency, or at least patterns to it, and the best way to discover them is to take as large a sample as possible. I discovered the Cascio/Castro conflation because of one man with an uncommon name. When I started my research, with my assumptions about what “real” Italian names sound like, I could not have guessed at the difference in popularity between the names Leoluca and Spiridione. Thousands of records later, I could compose “Top Baby Name” lists for boys and girls of 19th century Corleone off the top of my head.

Find meaning in the absence of proof

After a couple months of searching, when I couldn’t seem to make a connection between nearer and more distant ancestors, I started to despair of ever being able to prove my genealogical history. I wondered if my grandmother had pulled my leg all those years ago, with her stories of going to Corleone with Grandpa, to visit cousins.

I grew existential: obviously I am here, I thought, and was born of two people who in turn came from two parents, and so forth. Would that have to be a sufficient answer to the question I’d posed about how we became American? I had a few more advantages in this search than many people, and I wanted to be able to say that I’d done all I could to discover what I could about where I am from: that I hadn’t wasted the privilege. I made my cast wider, kept searching for a sibling group that matched great-uncle Joseph’s story.

Build bridges

The first time I opened a document full of messily handwritten Latin, full of abbreviations, I slammed it shut again (to the extent one can “slam” shut a browser tab). I was daunted at the prospect of reviewing several thousand page long record books in two foreign languages.  But as my comfort level rose, that messy handwriting became a beguiling thicket, in which knowledge was hidden, and I couldn’t stay away. Even now, every time I see my name written on a page, I feel like I’ve found Waldo.

The first time I looked at a ship manifest, it didn’t dawn on me how the people traveling together might be related. I did not even recognize some of the travelers as nuclear families: I hadn’t realized that Sicilian women kept their surnames their whole lives, and didn’t consider it until I’d seen them preserved in Corleonesi records.

There is not only one passenger on a ship manifest, a single person in isolation. By looking at everyone else who came from Corleone at the same time, understanding the naming conventions, and taking in all of the details—who they’re with, who they’re traveling to join—families emerged. When my ancestor, Angela Grizzaffi, came to the United States, she went to her sister’s family, bringing four of her children. Later, her brother joined her with two more of his sister’s children. In the years that follow, I can see at least three nephews of Angela immigrate, and go to stay with her.

It’s not only the direct line of descent who have brought me here, but all of those aunts and uncles, godparents and cousins and step-parents, who supported them. And though the family legend condenses the sibling group to a single immigration, the truth is messier: I’ve seen whole families make the trip more than once, and young children traveling alone to meet their parents. Only by collecting all of the records, seeing them in context, and assembling them, could I make sense of the recorded facts.

Be ready to be wrong

It should be possible to determine whether new data confirms what’s already known, or contradicts previously established facts. Once I became ready to be wrong, I prepared more thorough and clear notes that explain what I know and how I know it, in a way that will be easy for a stranger (such as a distant relative) to understand, and to update in the face of new information. In the case of a conflict, I can thoroughly document the facts as they’re presented, allowing for the opportunity to later update my analysis, instead of simply deciding to replace one fact with another, in the order that they come to my attention.

Being ready to be wrong means not just building a tight argument for my case, but explaining it with courtesy and tact. One of the many inaccurate opinions I initially held of genealogy was that it would keep me safely far from the messiness of relations with my living family members, in the realm of the dead, who could not argue with me on inaccuracies in their life events or the ways in which I’ve presented them. Instead, researching my ancestors has brought me into contact with living relatives I have never met, and in some cases, never knew existed. I’ve developed an appreciation for those great uncles who became interested in these questions of our origins, and did the foundational work on which I have built. That some of what they discovered was inaccurate is less important, in the long run, because without their steps, I would not have taken my own.

I believe what happened to me and great uncle Warren, is likely to happen to my son: that he’ll reach an age where he suddenly cares about words that had previously rung hollow for him, as they once did for me: heritage, legacy, respect for the dead. Maybe that extra generation he and my niece are removed from Sicilian culture will make the postings of banns, Latin baptismal names, formalized class divisions, and strong family ties, that much more foreign as to be unintelligible to them. I might be the necessary link, the generation who is able to bridge the gap between the 18th and 21st centuries.

On the same day that I met my Corleonesi cousins through WikiTree, I was contacted by another person who thought we might be related, on my mother’s side. At first I wanted to dismiss this message as someone casting about in the dark, hoping to find someone who’s done this work already. How quickly I forget that I did not start my own search from nothing.

I studied the names she sent me carefully, looked at my own tree, asked questions. In the end, I had to tell her that I didn’t think we were related, but to do so in a way that leaves the door open for either of us to discover that I am wrong about this, as well.

 

Image: “Sacrifice of Isaac,” Caravaggio, detail. Courtesy of carulmare.

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