Category Archives: Family

Who wins? Love wins

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Marriage has not been so significantly redefined since Loving v. Virginia

Not so long ago, when everyone was talking about Rachel Dolezal, I found myself in the minority of people who supported her right to self-identify. Since then, has come a torrent of violence against the Black community: the church shooting in Charleston. More churches in the South, burning. The Klan marching with the Confederate flag. The President being greeted by this symbol of racism.

And then, the marriage equality decision, and the celebration. The rainbows erupting on my Facebook page. My friends, online and elsewhere, care about both of these events. Already, my more radical friends are moving on to celebrate Obama commuting the sentences of non-violent drug offenders, because the frontiers of social justice stretch out in all directions.

We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities.

In a group I moderate on Facebook, “All transmen know each other,” a member posted that they identify as trans* on the FTM spectrum, but also as a member of lesbian community. The kinds of remarks I deleted from that thread were made to show disrespect and disapproval of the original poster’s identity. Which just goes to show, even in a tiny subset of a minority, gathered in solidarity over at least one of our identities, we are fully capable of tearing down strangers for claiming to know who they are and where they belong. Familiar much?

One of the strongest allies I have, in all of my struggles, is my therapist. I’ve been seeing him for several years, and I trust him to see me, not to reduce me to my identity labels, to understand that I have both a history and a present. He’s even helping me see that I have a future.

And he’s a straight, married white guy. When he told me that his family went out to dinner to celebrate the marriage equality decision, I bristled, but didn’t say anything. (To my therapist. I know. And he’s probably reading this.) On a personal level, he’s a flamboyant nerd. There have been days I’ve walked into his office and bitten my tongue, so as not to say, “What is up with that shirt?” (Did I mention he’s probably reading this?) Over the years I’ve gotten a better focus of what has made him into the person and the professional I’ve come to trust. Those of us who know what the inside of a locker looks like, understand something about one another. My therapist and I have a few identities in common, but they’re not why I trust him. It’s because he’s passionate and believes in his work so much that he is my ally.

Thinking of him and his family out at dinner, celebrating the rights of same-sex couples to marry, I thought of all the people who come to our local Pride event each year. Some of the straight people there have politics as radical as mine, if not more. Some of the gay people there are conservatives with whom I have nothing else in common but an LGBT umbrella. My husband told me about standing in line for beer after the parade, behind two women who were complaining about the furry presence. There was no one more modestly attired than the furries, but this couple saw them as rubbing their sexuality in other couple’s faces. At a Pride event.

Identity politics erodes not only common decency, but our sense of irony.

My community can turn on its own, always has, in times of crisis. We’re not that different from any other group you can think of, as far as that goes. What’s remarkable, and worthy of celebration, is when we’ve fought together in solidarity for justice. We take meaning from the names we give ourselves and the groups and history with which we associate, and defend against those who appear to be subverting or watering down our meaningful identities. The uproar on “All transmen” against lesbian-identified FTM-spectrum trans people, the lesbian mommies who objected to the furries, and Black people and their allies who mock the idea of cross-racial identification, are all guarding the same source of personal dignity and self-knowledge.

When I went to my tenth high school reunion, almost fifteen years ago, it was my first time seeing my classmates since I’d transitioned to male. I went to a small public high school in the rural South. I recognize and know the names of most of the people I graduated with, and they mostly knew me, too. There were just over a hundred of us, so not too many to get to know. And we’d had this formative experience together, going through high school, beginning to figure out what kinds of adults we’d become. One of my classmates, who is Black, showed me the photos in her wallet of her family, watching closely for my reaction to her white husband and their children. This was her litmus test: If you don’t like what my family looks like, then screw you, I could imagine her thinking. She’d passed mine the minute she started talking to me. Not everyone wanted to talk to the transgender classmate.

I’m pleasantly surprised to see interracial marriages happening among my graduating class, because when we were in school together, there was no interracial dating. Few of our parents would have allowed it. No one came out as gay in those years, either, though I learned from my sister, who attended after me, that in her class five years after mine, there were one or two who came out.

I really like my high school class. I think we’re an exceptional group of people: a lot of very smart people, and kind ones, too. Some of them suffered a great deal: from poverty, racism, divorce, disabilities, bullying, domestic violence, substance abuse, you name it. “Suffering does not ennoble,” is a phrase my husband likes to quote. We were mostly much kinder, ten years out, than we’d been in school. We are capable of becoming more sympathetic from having suffered, but it’s not the only possible outcome. Abuse begets abuse. It takes effort to break the cycle.

The woman who showed me her family photos, posted on her Facebook wall on the importance of having a “loving” conversation about what marriage is and is not, and this definition is purportedly Biblical, and not inclusive of gay and lesbian couples. (So far, she hasn’t had anything to say about polygamy or divorce.) The larger culture of our country, in the forms of social approval and formal legislation, now includes my marriage, but my former classmate’s religious subculture does not.

It wasn’t long ago—around the time my parents married—that legally, my classmate’s interracial marriage was considered no more legitimate than my same-sex marriage. My father’s generation was the first in his family to marry non-Sicilians. My mother is of English and German descent. When I was in high school, my parents told me that interracial marriage was cruel to the children, who would have no place in the world. They said this without irony: my parents were racists who said they weren’t racists. They were not the first such white people to exist, but because they were my parents, they were the most confounding to me, and their racism, which became my racism, would be the hardest to see and undo. My parents hadn’t considered how the world had changed since their own marriage, and how it could change again. They hadn’t thought of how their messages to their children reinforced racism instead of changing it.

I agreed with my classmate that marriage has been redefined, and went on to say that this has been the most important change to marriage’s definition since Loving v. Virginia. I asked her which side of this change she wanted to be on. She hasn’t answered me, but I kept thinking about her, and seeing her continue to draw a circle around her marriage with her  Facebook posts, and excluding mine from legitimacy. Then I dealt with the same circle-drawing in the “All transmen” group, and then I had my silent recoil from an act of earnest solidarity from my therapist and his family. What did all of this turf-guarding mean?

I realized that, while part of me wants to protect my valuable identity as a queer, I will have to share my queer values with an ever expanding circle of allies, if I want to see progress in the world. Because there is a difference between a subculture and a culture. You can’t live in your subculture all of the time. The greater culture is constantly affecting it, forcing us to live by its standards, but also changing with us. In forty years, marriage between a Black woman and a white man has gone from dangerous and illegal to mainstream. You can now see interracial couples in ads for cars and breakfast cereal. Interracial celebrities: musicians, actors, models, comedians, athletes, and even our nation’s President. My parents were wrong: there is a place for the child of an interracial couple in this country. One is in the Oval Office. And there’s a place in this world for me, too.

What’s larger and more all-encompassing than identity politics is our human dignity, which does not rely upon us having one identity or another regarding our gender, race, beliefs, or abilities. Because as I’ve seen in my own, small trans community, we can define and subdivide identity groups in every possible way, to include those who are like us and exclude the ones who we don’t understand and don’t want to. If we can’t put a label on someone that makes their choices or existence make sense to us, some of us are at a loss as to how to respect them. Our real lives are complicated, and not just internet-famous people’s lives like Caitlyn Jenner’s and Rachel Dolezal’s, but all of us who are honest about our personal growth, how we’re not the same people we once were, and yet we are, and are capable of becoming so much more.

Violence against Black people, and against trans people, particularly poor trans women of color, isn’t going to go away unless the mainstream culture changes. Because I think we can agree, it’s not what the Black people are doing inside their churches, or trans women in public bathrooms, that makes hateful people kill them. It’s what we’re telling one another about who’s on the inside of the circle of dignified existence and who is not.

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, Queer, Trans

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, Writing

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

6 Comments

Filed under Family

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Family

Running and Falling

SWINGHow narcissism and identity are very much like falling off a gate.

When I was eight years old I ran away from the person I loved most.

Grandma was staying with us because our parents were vacationing in Atlantic City for a week. I had a twenty dollar bill, a months’ allowance saved. Someday soon, I was going to run away to New York City. I was eight and had been planning this for months. It wouldn’t be the first time I left home—or last—but it didn’t happen the way I’d been planning, this time. I didn’t mean to run away from her.

But somewhere during the week, Grandma got confused about how much cash she’d spent, and called me into my room to ask me if I’d taken the $20 bill from her purse. She was sitting on my bed, her purse on her lap. When I denied it, she asked me again, repeating the question until I snapped and ran from her. I ran out of the house, and for blocks, until my lungs felt like they were on fire and my legs would fly out from under me.

I’d run off without any money in my pockets. This wasn’t the way I’d planned it, but since I couldn’t go back, I continued in the direction of the city. I walked, for hours, until after nightfall and I was lost. I found a shopping center and called my uncle who took me home to his house for the night. Not much was said before he returned me to my parents, who were due home that morning.

♦◊♦

This story is coming out again for me in therapy, making me think, making me distant. I spend long hours cleaning up digital poop in “Zoo Tycoon 2” to distract me. I work on telling this story, and answering to my own satisfaction, why it is coming up for me now.

The public breakdown of Hugo Schwyzer has made me think about how public to make my own mental health related suffering. The internet is a public space—even our email is read. I believe that we as citizens of an online community have to have ways of creating accountability. I pride myself on being out: sharing our stories is celebratory, healing, connective. Even before the internet made it so easy to share, I always intended to tell my own story: always, since I learned to write. But not just for others. I need to understand my own story. And so I write it. And then I edit. I revise, reframe for other audiences.

Being mentally ill has a way of erasing credibility and expertise in some people’s eyes. It’s as if everything is a lie, nothing can be trusted, there is no real “self” to know. I worry that there are too many facets for me to know, more than normal people. There’s aspiring, and then there’s believing in your own branding.

The reaction to Hugo online, among people who know him slightly or not at all, also reminded me of how I usually deal with his kind of madness, which is to run away from it. Narcissistic personalities are particularly beguiling, at first. I’ve fallen for a few. But these vain and greedy souls take their energy from people like me, who watch from a safe distance, and much more from people who step directly into their energy fields, or respond to their flirtations. Narcissists must be at the center of attention, this being the only way they can handle the deep conflict they generate.

Charming, intelligent people who can surf the waves seem deep and balanced, but they are more like skimming stones, leaping to avoid sinking. They don’t know quite who they are, and with this, I sympathize. I compare their self image to my physical sense of self. It took me a long time, well into adulthood, to develop enough proprioception that roller coasters made me feel sick instead of pleasantly dizzy. Narcissists only know they exist because of their effects on others, and the way you rock a baby to teach its inner ears balance, they must constantly rock the boat to roil others, to know who they are in the world. The high school drama that most of us outgrow, remains necessary to them.

I take people like Hugo to heart, because we both suffer from our mental illnesses. The breakdowns, the relapses, the suicides: every one is a cautionary tale for me. There was reporting last week of a young man who had struggled with an eating disorder and anxiety, even posted an encouraging recovery video on ED. I wonder what it means to succumb: when all of that takes you. I want to know the details, to not only avoid these fates but to feel safe. Falling can feel that safe. It has for me every time I’ve experienced the sensation of being near death. One time I was hit in traffic on my bicycle, and another time, long ago, I was thrown from a swinging gate. Each time I found myself flying through the air, the hard ground coming fast toward my head, and there was nothing to be done about it. Time stretched, allowing time for panic to dissolve, regret to flicker, for a clear image of the end. There was no sound, only full, long nanoseconds of understanding.

The fact that Hugo has landed back at his parents’ house is, to me, a personal nightmare. I have a history of running away. Part of me still doesn’t forgive me for turning back, the time I ran away from my grandmother when I was eight years old.

The story that my husband likes for me to tell people about her is the one where she doors a guy in an Astoria mall for stealing a parking space. My grandma Cascio was a lover and a fighter. But she was so much more, and most of what she was, I’ll never know, because I was her grandchild: blood and generations cleaved us. The most important thing to know about her was that she always made me feel like I was her favorite: special, protected.

♦◊♦

After my uncle brought me home to my parents, I was broken down. I don’t even remember their reaction when they came home from their trip, anything they said to me. I remember that for months, it felt like, I could not look my grandmother in the eye. I acted like I was angry at her, and I was—for not trusting me, for thinking me a thief. But mostly I was hurt too much for her apology to work. I could not apologize for running away. How could she have believed that I would steal from her? Didn’t she know how much I loved her? For me, it wasn’t a lie: I loved her more than anyone else in our family.

Immediately after my grandmother died, I began my transition from female to male. People who I thought knew me well were stunned and disbelieving when I transitioned, while others shocked me by having seen what I thought was so well hidden, and took my coming out to them in stride. I was humbled, repeatedly. There was so much I didn’t know about the people I thought I knew so well. I like to think my grandmother would have accepted me as her grandson, if she had lived to see me. And yet the timing is undeniable.

Image courtesy of the author’s grandmother, may her memory be a blessing

3 Comments

Filed under Family, Writing

Future Devices: The Google Organ

computer implant, microchip, GPS tracking, smartphones, cyborgs, Google OrganI predict that in the not too distant future, we will all have implanted computers that connect us with one another. Will you be an early adopter?

Please note: “Google” is the intellectual property of Google, Inc. Resemblance to the Google Organ of any product, real or imagined, is purely coincidental.

Michal Levin, a senior user experience designer at Google admits that wearing Google Glass “gets pretty tiring pretty fast,” in an article by Cameron Scott on Social Times. But once the bugs are worked out, we’re going to come another step closer to what I call the Google Organ.

I imagine a time in the future when we have implantable organs that can do everything that Google Glass can do, and so much more. As I’ve been telling my friends for at least a year, the Google Organ is our future. Will you be an early adopter?

The Google Organ, or Organs—many manufacturers will probably be making items like these—will have multiple functions from entertainment to saving lives, just like our smartphones do now. Imagine a computer the size of a grain of rice, under your skin, that delivers heads up displays, connects you to the internet, and with applications to monitor your bodily functions and even control the WiFi enabled machines around you.

We’ll all be GPS monitored, and everywhere we go, not only will we know exactly where we are, and have contextual information for our locations, but others can know where we are, too. We can click “OK” on the privacy agreements that give our credit card numbers to the agencies that collect highway tolls, to our gyms and workplaces, so that wherever we go, doors open to us, and our fees are paid. ATMs will recognize us. We’ll walk out of stores without even having to pause, because the items and we will all be tracked by RFID. Dynamic billboards will change their displays as we walk past, based on as much information as we elect to share.

If you’re ever in an accident, EMTs will know who you are, your insurance provider, primary care doctor, and full medical history, including allergies, conditions, and the medications you’re currently taking. Such a device could potentially sense everything from your blood alcohol level to your sodium levels, dynamically regulate your insulin pump, pacemaker, APAP machine, and any other device in your house to manage your health and well being. It could send emergency notifications to your doctor or summon an ambulance.

Being inside you, there would be no more track pads or thumbing keyboards. Instead, we’ll commune with our smart devices in some subtle way, such as a subvocalization, eye movement, thought, or even without your conscious direction. It will revolutionize how we live, and it’s all possible with current technology.

Not long ago I interviewed a panel of dads about technology. One of the questions I asked was, would you have your kids “radio chipped”? My dog and one of my cats (who came through a shelter, rather than informal adoption) have these chips implanted, so that if one of them wanders off, they can be identified with information stored on the microchip implanted under their skin, and we, their owners, contacted. You can see how small these things are. It’s only a matter of time before they contain not only information, but processing power. In 1951, the original UNIVAC filled a largish room, and had less processing power than my Android. These are bound to get smaller and more powerful, more quickly, until the Google Organ becomes possible, and then more essential to who you are than your pancreas. 

The biggest change is going to be one of social acceptance—of the loss of privacy that is inherent in using such a technology. Once it reaches a tipping point, use of any technology will become the norm, without any of us really noticing. When did it become unsafe to ride a horse on the road, because of the preponderance of automobiles? When did we all start peeing in cups to get employment? When did we all start shopping online with our credit cards, and stop worrying about sending our numbers off into the ether? Or waving a key fob at the gas pump to pay for our fuel? Few of us understand the technologies we live with and rely upon, including ones that didn’t exist twenty years ago, or ten. That isn’t even the issue. It’s simply one of adoption.

Someday soon, the question won’t be, “would you chip your kids?” but, “would you let your kids get the Google Organ?” The question won’t sound like that. They’ll call it something else. The first ones will be buggy and hard to live with, like the first Google Glass. But you can be sure that once they smooth out the rough edges, all the kids will be doing it. And so will you. Because like cell phones and GPS navigation systems in our cars, it’s darned handy to have the technology you need, “at hand,” so to speak, and getting smaller and more hands-free with every iteration.

Finally, like Facebook, these devices won’t be cool anymore, because everyone and their mom will have them. We’ll all be muttering or eye flickering away, only fully present online, directed by satellite not to trip over the cracks in the sidewalk: radio controlled zombies to the outside observer, easier to contact and learn about than strangers have ever been, but only to those who have adopted the technology. No one will ever be quite alone, or lost, like we can be now, they’ll say when they sell you this. With any luck for the inventor of the Google Organ, it’ll be a technology that nearly everyone will adopt.

Leave a comment

Filed under Family, Technology

How to Take a Vacation

vacation house

The man who taught me how to vacation finds me online to remind me of the lesson.

It’s been such a long time since I’ve posted in any of my blogs that I’m considering updating my bio to read “Justin Cascio currently neglects writing about his life at One in Six Trans Men, or what he’s cooking at Justin Wants to Feed You, or why he hates industrial food at Tin Foil Toque.” Even my husband chides me for not writing in my blogs, and I know he’s right. I get wrapped up in just one thing to distract me, and that one thing has been working on The Good Men Project.

I’ve had a tough year, in which I spent most of the winter on my back and on painkillers. This spring, I’m coming to terms with just how sick I am, and that is a shock all its own. It’s harder to find gratitude when you’re down, but that’s when you need it. I’ve been stepping back just a little from work—realizing when I’m using work to escape and then not working—and finding again that while it may only take me half an hour to put up a post, it doesn’t mean I can put one up every half hour.

In stepping back I find inspiration to write again. My old neighbor, Papa Joe, sent me an email with a photo and one of my own stories. The picture is of us from 1982 on one of his boats. The story is this one, Summers in Maine, about the vacations we’d take with his family, and one year in particular when Papa Joe’s daughter and her fiance joined us. One of the joys of those trips was how they upset the power structure in my family, and Chef Jeff upset it further, to my complete joy. They were a model of how vacations can restore the spirit, by taking away the power of one’s job, or whatever it is that has dominion over you.

It was a joy to hear from Papa Joe. I wanted to send him back this story I’d just written on our best man, but I always feel funny about asking people to read my writing. Anyone who writes knows this feeling; I’ve read other writers who say the same thing. It seems attention seeking. My favorite novel is Geek Love, about a carnival family. One observation of the narrator is that “show off” is hardly an insult in their family. This should be true of all creatives, but we don’t all come from creative families. Most of us creatives, or wannabes, are raised by muggles. Some of us imagine it’s what made us so: see Harry Potter, Matilda. Some of us feel like we’ve gotten more attention than we deserve, already. For what it’s worth, my best man, his wife, and my husband all tell me that they read it and it made them cry. That’s all the praise I could ask for.

1 Comment

Filed under Family, Writing