Sunday, October 19, 2014

Platform Diving


Not all of my internet interactions (or face to face contacts!) end with bitter fights and acrimony. Sometimes, people actually like what I have to say, and some will even go so far as to tell me I should be in office.

That's not possible right now, because of the Hatch Act of 1939 - and I doubt I would really want to put my family through the ordeal that even a local elected official has to face. (My aunt sat a city council term a few years ago, and I saw what SHE had to put up with!)

But people don't say encouraging things to be mean, and whenever someone says that I should be "running the place", I do stop and think about what I would do if I were magically airlifted over the election process and sat in a position of power. And that kind of informs what I look for - so far, fruitlessly - in my candidates.

So here, off the cuff and with minimal deep thought, is my own, personal platform. If you find someone running who hits even 60% of these issues the way I do, let me know so I can make THEM take over!

Campaign Finance


I'm with Professor Lessig on this one - regardless of your party affiliation, you have to recognize that money - not speech - has corrupted our system. Clearly, there is a lot at stake in every election, and the ridiculous amounts poured into campaign spending - $7 billion in 2012 - could directly fund solutions for many of the issues being debated - which makes you wonder why, if the donors care about those issues, they're spending that money to make horrible candidates look more appealing.

Like the Professor, I don't think it's too late to do something about it; things are not as stark or as bleak as you might be led to believe. I wouldn't even push for new laws or rules on this one - I'd just use this as my campaign slogan: "I won't take your money."

No donations.  No apparatus. Want to help me? Get involved spreading the word - here's a JPG of my poster and a link to my YouTube channel. Want to sponsor me? Go vote.

If enough of you insisted on this as a standard requirement from every candidate, and refused to vote for anyone taking money to run for office, the amount they could fundraise would cease to matter. That won't make PACs go away, but I can't solve everything!

Free Market Solutions


The phrase "free market solution" implies a "free market problem." There are problems where the appropriate solution for a governmental body is to step back and let people vote with their money; and there are problems where the solution is to step in and create an incentive for them to make a better choice.

Healthcare? That's already not a free market. If it was, people would choose doctors the way they choose mechanics. Green energy? The energy market is already skewed and rigged, thanks to the practice of selling futures on unextracted (and often unlocated) oil and coal. Education? At every level, we see the corrosive effects of allowing "competition" for arbitrary test scores (which equate to money) to trump the real competition of acquiring skills, knowledge, and work in the desired field.

The point is not "I don't believe in the free market" - the point is that most of the people who scream for so-called free market solutions don't actually believe in the free market. That whole "government shouldn't pick winners and losers" idea is a great, flashing sign that they don't believe in the ability of informed adults to make the best decisions for themselves. What they really believe in is convincing you to give them free reign to continue picking the winners and losers their donors are paying them to pick.

Don't feel bad - this country has been trying to get this right since the founding.  (I'll spare you the lengthy history lecture about Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, monetary policy, and the evolution from tariff-based protectionism to subsidy-based protectionism.)

Shorter version: if you have a simple, common sense answer to a complex problem, it should by definition be easy to demonstrate it. And if it works, I'd support it.

The Role of Government


Not to oversimplify, but the point of having government is to give us all a controlled, non-violent mechanism for dealing with each other. We have a great founding document that lays out that mechanism; it has flaws, but it's designed to let us fix it, which is why women are voting now, and African-Americans count as 5/5 of a person, each. We still have work to do, as some of the compromises made to get the Constitution ratified still cause us problems, but we've made a good start.

I have no patience for anarchists who try to convince me that the government we have is "too Big" - if your goal is to live a lifetime in which you always get your way, your problem isn't government. That said, I live in Maryland, where they pass laws the way I pass gas* - frequently, and with obnoxious, invisible side effects.

Legislators should take a gander at The Death of Common Sense before they start drafting new laws, and representatives at every level of government should think hard about the rules they put into place... and even harder about removing those that are in our way.

(Of course, that will be easier for them if they follow my Campaign Finance platform, and aren't beholden to any powerful, wealthy donors.)

Social Issues


Most people I talk to agree on one thing when it comes to "social policy" - the government shouldn't meddle with personal affairs. Most of those same people also agree that the government should be protecting us from each other. One favorite quote I frequently hear is, "Your right to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose."

That's pithy, but Social Issues are so thorny precisely because it's rarely easy to tell where the "tip of the nose" is.

Gay marriage seems like an easy one to me, since other people getting married has no effect either way on my marriage. But because marriage is tied to so many other rules (see "The Death of Common Sense") many argue that it has an effect on theirs. I would err on the side of freedom and equality - let people do what they need to do, and if the rules get in the way, remove or rethink them.

What about public health policies, such as mandatory vaccinations? I don't want your infected children spreading disease to my family - so I should be able to make you get vaccinated, right?  Except... what about finding the balance between allowing patients to refuse treatment (including vaccinations) on religious grounds on one hand and preventing child endangerment due to that refusal on the other hand? What about abortion policy - balancing on those same grounds? What about "end of life" decisions? Where is the line between the fist and the nose in each of those situations?

I've never believed that the role of government extended to teaching morality. Government is necessarily limited to what facts and evidence can prove, and when the question is a moral one, government has to give way to the individual. Will your child die without that transfusion or chemo - that your god tells you they can't have? Will you decide to continue or terminate your pregnancy? Will you endure six more months (or years) of deterioration and agony with an unforgiving and expensive disease or go out on your own terms? I can't even tell you what I would personally do in each of those situations - if it were me, my wife, my parents, my children at stake - how could I possibly presume to make a law telling you what to do?

The best I can tell you is that given a choice of what to do with my vote, I'll do what anyone else should do: ask a lot of questions, make a lot of suggestions, and if it's still a no-win situation, I will lose.

The Common Sense Fallacy


The really tough challenge facing anyone trying to represent any group of you has little or nothing to do with common sense, or moral character, or family values - none of these popular and populist catch phrases that are designed to put you at ease and win your vote should actually put you at ease. If you're ever 100% confident in a candidate and you feel safe trusting them to make decisions on your behalf, that's probably when you should begin asking harder questions.

I've left a lot unsaid here, because this was supposed to be superficial. Since I'm not actually running for anything, you can argue with me or ignore me as you see fit. But you shouldn't be satisfied with any of your candidates if they aren't willing to talk about any of this stuff. Or worse, if they claim to have neat, tidy, uncomplicated answers. You need to challenge them, and their platform. And you need to do it all the time.

Because at the end of the day, I don't really believe that the blame for all our problems lie on the Government. There are certainly poor representatives and appointees, but every two to four years, you get a say in whether they keep their jobs. If you're compromising yourself when you vote for them, you have only yourself to blame.  That's the only Common Sense solution - paying attention, and holding yourself accountable.

Did you vote for a mainstream candidate because you thought your third party choice would lose, and you didn't want to "waste your vote"? Guess what - you wasted your vote.

Did you vote for a known criminal who will rip off your state's retirement fund because his opponent seemed "too young"? Guess what - you wasted your vote.

Did you not vote at all because "they're all criminals and liars, and I won't waste my time"? Guess what - you wasted your vote... and your time.

So, what do you think? Still want to put me in charge?

*Oh, yeah - did I mention that I'm unelectable because I'm a biological organism? And I make sick jokes, listen to obnoxious music, use bad words, laugh at everything, and annoy most of my friends. Just so you know.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 3

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game


"Part 1: On Documentary Evidence" discussed several stories from my family history and the standards of evidence I use to decide whether those stories are true.

"Part 2: Staking Claims and Proving Names" explored the limits of following evidence and raised some questions about...questions.



Chances are that you've seen one of those places that sells plaques and books on "your family name" or (even better) "your family crest" or Coat of Arms - something that speaks to your noble heritage, perhaps? Here's one that I found for the Callin clan years ago:

These kinds of things can be fun, and when you're just starting out with your family history research it can be very motivating to put something like this in that big empty space above where your great- or maybe great-great grandparents names peter out. But you have to be careful not to take them too seriously, because... well... these things aren't exactly what you could call "real."

As that article points out, individuals were entitled to wear such heraldry, and in certain cases a father could pass his arms to a son, but the likelihood of anyone in your family tree having ever been one of those individuals is vanishingly small. Remember each generation further back you go doubles the number of people who are your direct ancestors; 5 generations back in my tree puts us in the early 1800s and involves 31 people (including myself). To get back to the glory days of feudalism, you'd need about 15 generations...about 32,767 people out of the millions living back then.

I can't prove that you AREN'T related to someone who was entitled to such heraldry, but when you follow the evidence it should become clear to you that you can't bear the burden of proof to support any such claim. And that's sometimes a hard pill to swallow.

It can be tough for people to give up on a story that makes them feel special.

Solid Anchors


Up to this point, I've told stories that were supported by several different types of evidence, though I've only given examples of one type of evidence. So far, we've been talking about all of the documents that provide a form of testimonial evidence, but I haven't talked at all about scientific evidence - like DNA or archaeological research - or the physical evidence of still-extant houses and public buildings in the places where my ancestors are said to have lived. Because I do most of my research online, I personally tend to take a lot of that for granted. But that's okay for what I'm trying to prove.

One common goal for family historians is to document an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. If I want to apply for membership in an organization for descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, I only need to provide documentary evidence of my connection to them. I don't need to prove that the war itself happened. That war, and a lot of the details of who fought where and when are well documented. Physical evidence has been collected for two centuries, catalogued and tested, analysed and written down; so when we "prove" that one of our ancestors fought in that War, we aren't required to prove on our own, from scratch, that it occurred - only our connection to it.

When it comes to something that everyone generally accepts as fact, we tend not to question the details. It would be absurd to question the existence of the American Revolution every time it was discussed - but it's important to make this distinction: if you did question it, there is all of that evidence I just talked about supporting the Fact. Not just one document or one artifact, but multiple lines of study and chains of evidence.

The important thing to keep in mind is this: if I'm carrying on with my research and find evidence that shows that I'm NOT related to a Revolutionary War veteran, that can be a hard thing to accept. But even if I find that not one of my ancestors were in the colonies at that time, it doesn't make me any less American, and it doesn't call into question the historical fact of the War itself.

Life Rings


You may have noticed, too, that I tend to link to Wikipedia articles - perhaps when I reference a topic like the Revolutionary War - and you might have wondered why. A lot of folks have an unreasonable distaste for Wikipedia, in my opinion. Because anyone can edit it, it can be easy to dismiss it as being error-ridden or unreliable. But I've observed over the years that history itself can be unreliable. We find new evidence all the time that changes the way we understand what happened in history, whether that is a newly discovered fossil or new discoveries about Viking burials that change our assumptions about those topics.

Keeping up with the changes - and understanding which ones do and don't have merit - can be overwhelming. Wikipedia is not an anchor - it's more of a flotation device. If you're going to figure out which Facts are "true" and which things are "legend", you have to start somewhere, and Wikipedia represents a place where, if you happen to know about a subject, you can add it. If there is a mistake and you can provide a link to evidence that it is a mistake, you can correct it! (That link tells you how to change a page - this one tells you how to make your change credible.)

Evidence is the key, there. Being able to defend what you write to the swarms of editors is what keeps it honest - depending on how many editors are in a given swarm, naturally. That's incredibly valuable to me, because I am not a scholar, and I don't have time to research everything myself. That should be valuable to you, as well, because if we're going to answer a difficult or controversial question, then ultimately, our goal is always to find a credible source that we can both count on.

And this is the important bit: we don't have to agree on the conclusions we reach. I may show you my flimsy evidence that my 3x great-grandfather's farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and it's okay if you aren't convinced. I may not be able to put it on Wikipedia, but I may still choose to believe it, and I will keep looking for other clues. But even if you reject my evidence of that fact, you won't be able to claim that he didn't exist, he didn't live in the right place at the right time, or that the Underground Railroad didn't exist - because those are established facts. There is plenty of other evidence that supports those conclusions, and roots them to the rest of our history.

A Few Words About Mormonism


The 12-year-old version of myself - from here on referred to as Believer Me - had already accepted the Bible as one of those anchors. It was established fact. There was no question. So it should follow that what he wanted more than anything in the world was to be able to prove it. But Believer Me had a problem: Mormons. Because this is already long, I'll let you watch this South Park episode, "All About Mormons" (which Believer Me would have adored) as background. 1

The problem was not simply that my Mormon friends believed different things than I did. The problem was that my Mormon friends made a lot of the same claims about their scriptures that I made about my own. They claimed archaeological evidence of their story (that a lost Israelite tribe settled ancient America), which never materialized outside of church-funded research; they claimed bias in the official criminal records of New York and other places that cast Joseph Smith as a con-man; and if I insisted on rejecting their interpretation of that evidence, they would offer various Special Pleading arguments - some of which struck too close to home, because I used them myself on non-believers.

I recognized at that age the importance of following solid evidence - and even though much of my faith was based on accepting what had been handed down to me without really questioning it, I naively believed that there really was evidence that would prove my faith to be the right one. After all, one of the things I was told all the time was that there were historical documents, physical evidence, and all kinds of archaeology backing up the Bible.

In this way, I was motivated by that uncomfortable realization - that these believers in a religion that I knew to have been fabricated in the 1830s could, after only 150 years have developed such an earnest apologia - and it drove me to question some things that I had always assumed to be Established Fact. If I was going to dismiss their claims, but honestly accept my own, I had to hold all of those claims to the same standard.

For that, I needed Evidence.

The Family Tree of Man (Biblical version)


Jump ahead 30 years to now. During that time, I looked for the evidence I needed to truly anchor the beliefs of Believer Me to the established facts of history. But there was a problem: there wasn't any.

(I apologize for that bald assertion, but that's what I learned. This took a long time for me to discover and come to terms with - if you're new to the idea, I don't expect you to just accept it. If you want to read more, there is a decent overview on Salon, or you can try Richard Carrier for a more scholarly research approach.)

Initially, I followed the advice of pastors and family, and kept looking; I literally kept the faith and for a long time, I convinced myself that I would find that evidence. Others tried to tell me it didn't matter - but it did. And this is one example of why.

Everyone who has ever tried and failed to read the entire Bible has joked about getting lost in all of the "Begats". When you hit certain books, there seem to be pages of them. "And Porcine begat Nadal, who begat Someguynamedezar, who begat Shumway by Alf who bade him lay with his porcupine..." you get the idea.

I tried several times over the course of the past couple of decades to map all of that out. I wanted to document all of it. Most recently, I started with Jesus Genealogies on Wikipedia and created a tree on Ancestry.com. Just as I had done with the George Callin Family History of 1911, I took it all at face value, and plugged it in as-is. If you've read that Wikipedia article, you already know what kinds of problems that caused me - but I wasn't done, yet! I tried to ignore all of that controversy and soldiered on - to 1 Chronicles 7:30-40.

If you want to see what I did, you should be able to visit this public tree and explore for yourself - this link should take you to Jacob (aka Israel). Look around. Wherever possible, I pasted in the passages that I got their information as sources. I put a few days' worth of effort into this, and when I started out, I planned to create citations and continue seriously as if I were doing my own family history. I can't stress that enough - I wanted to treat this project with the same rigor and skill that I bring to my own family history research.

But something dawned on me rather quickly. This was a pointless endeavor.

Remember the first post where I talked about "James 1st"? In my own tree, when the evidence I found didn't support his existence, I changed my records. They no longer said the same thing that the George Callin Family History said - and that's a good thing. That's how Wikipedia works - hell, that's how history works!

I use George's research as a starting point, and verify (or reject) what I can based on established facts. Evidence from multiple angles, disciplines, and sources told me that it is far more likely that my family descended from Patrick Callen than from James. Evidence from various places told me that Rosemary's "impression" that her grandfather William might have fought in the War of 1812 was wrong, and that it was probably Patrick - William's likely grandfather.

This is how evidence, scrutiny, and facts are supposed to work. You are supposed to change your story to fit the facts... but there is no way to do that with the contradictory Biblical accounts of the genealogy of mankind. Because as soon as you "fix" the Biblical account, you are breaking the Law - of the Bible, at least.

This isn't just a theological problem, either; it's a problem of basic scholarship. If you don't allow me to "fix" problems and correct the text as new information becomes available, then it is no longer history; it is just another legend I can't use. If you do allow changes, then it begins to unravel, as there is too much in the book that is fantastic, self-contradictory, and contradicted by things that we have learned in the last couple thousand years. In short, if you follow the evidence, there is no way to tie the Biblical accounts of anything - particularly the genealogies - to established fact.

The problem for Believer Me wasn't ultimately in the evidence, though; I would have been perfectly happy to throw all of the evidence away if I could just have my Anchor back. But after finding that there isn't any reliable evidence to support my faith, I had to admit that there wasn't any more compelling reason to adhere to my childhood faith other than that was what I was told to believe.

Where Does It All Lead?


For me, it took a long time to go down the path that the evidence pointed me to. Even though I resisted for a long time, and tried to ignore the obvious for even longer, one by one, the problems with all of those claims caught up to me. All the claims of infallibility and inerrancy gave way in the face of unavoidable realities about translation, transcription, and simple human error combined with two millennia of wishful thinking.

Having pored over the U.S. Census, I have gained a great appreciation for the number of mistakes that can crop up, and for how they can throw you wildly off base. It's possible to sift through it all and make sense of some of it - but you have to learn to recognize what to keep and what to throw away. You have to use the tools of logic and be willing to give up on a story that can't be true - no matter how cool you think it would be if it were.

The eighth or ninth time I saw that they claimed to have found Noah's Ark, it occurred to me that they were desperate to do so - enough to ignore the obvious reasons why it hadn't been found yet. The seventh or eighth time I saw the Shroud of Turin go on tour, I looked into the disturbing world of religious relics - and that story is unfolding again with a new corpse! Start peeling away the obvious layers, and they all start to disappear. And I sympathized, because I know how hard it was for me to give up on my family "coat of arms" and the idea of Irish immigrant James 1st bravely fighting in the American Revolution.

I hope no one thinks that I put the Jesus Family Tree together to mock or to stand as "disproof" of anything. (No one can ever "prove" a negative.) But it illustrates the problem of ignoring contradictory pieces of evidence and of not being allowed to follow that evidence where it leads. If you're a believer, I know how scary that can feel. But the burden of proof is on the person making bold claims.

Anchors are the worst thing to throw to someone clinging to something as an Established Fact in an ocean of misinformation. The best thing you can do is to let go of the assumptions weighing you down. Start asking questions, test the answers against each other and start building anew with the evidence at hand. If you're going to build something - maybe a raft? - you need three things:

You need a toolbox .

You need to find a stable location to work.

And you need to be willing to start over.

I did it, eventually - and I didn't have to throw away everything - because there is always a place for poetic imagery.

26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
Matthew 7:26-27New International Version (NIV)

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Notes:

1. I am sorry if stating my opinion about the validity of the Mormon faith so plainly causes offense. My intention is not to mock Mormonism here, but to highlight the fact that my younger self was highly motivated by that opinion to embrace a neutral, reason- and evidence-based approach to proving his faith to be the correct one. If it is any comfort, that strategy obviously backfired - as the rest of this essay should demonstrate.

To paraphrase Dennis Miller:

"I think so little of [our differences] that I refuse to treat you like a Fabergé egg. You are part of the human collective. Come, join us in our reindeer games. You too can be poked fun at."

Monday, September 8, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 2

Following the Evidence: Part 2 - Staking Claims, and Proving Names


In "Part 1: On Documentary Evidence" I discussed several stories from my family history and the standards of evidence I use to decide whether those stories are true. 

I remember first taking interest in the family history when I was around 10 years of age and my friend Andrew told me that his mom's cousin was Neil Armstrong. Now, I knew my cousins, Jeff and Aaron, and they were only 2 years older and younger than me, respectively, so they hadn't had a chance to become astronauts. I had a vague notion that my dad's cousin Pat was a teacher. But Andrew had gotten me wondering for the first time about more distant relatives, and the tantalizing idea that they might be somehow famous!

Naturally, I asked all of my relatives if they knew if we were related to anyone "good", and they mostly shrugged and said no. Except for Grandpa Bob, who thought that his grandmother was a Hale - so we were probably related to Nathan Hale. Of course, if you read part 1, you might remember how much time it took for me to track down proof of my connection to the Hale/Hales family. While I eventually did find a lot of leads going back to the mid-1700s, I haven't found a connection to Nathan, and can't really prove much of what I have from before 1840. I am pretty sure my 4th Great grandfather Baker Hale(s) was born in Virginia in 1803; but Nathan Hale was born in 1755 in what is now Connecticut, so if there's a relationship further back, it remains to be discovered.

If you look at the evolution of the U.S. Census you see that the farther back you go, the less "information" each document contains. From 1850 forward, you could see individuals listed by household; prior to that, you saw the name of the Head of the household, and a tally of the other members by age and gender. Prior to the first Census in 1790, you must rely on local tax and land records, church records, family records - all of which recorded transactions or events as they may have happend, and all of which are vulnerable to decay, destruction, or simple loss. It becomes tough to tie fathers to sons (let alone daughters!) if those sons left home before 1850.

All of that makes tracing a line to Nathan that much harder.

I Want to Believe


So, when I set out trying to prove that I was related to someone important, or cool, or at least famous, two things became apparent:

First, I needed to prepare for disappointment. This was an easy lesson, because over the years, it has become much less important to me to find a "famous" connection. The more I dig, the more I learn about the people and places that weren't famous, and the more interesting they become. Some of the wild frontier tales and ties to major historical events, like the Underground Railroad, have been their own reward for me. Just finding out what I have already learned about all of these "ordinary" people has been so revelatory that at this point even proving distant kinship to a key historical figure, while certainly interesting, is no longer the reason I'm doing all of this.

Second, cultivating healthy skepticism is critical to keeping your research honest. When you go into a project like this hoping for a particular result, you can't help but make mistakes. Your bias changes the way you search records, causing you to ignore clues or fill in gaps with pieces that don't quite fit. You tend to favor records that fit the story you've already chosen, rather than letting the records tell you what happened.

When you want to believe a particular fact might be true, it becomes even more important to focus on what you really know - and can prove. In the case of the Hale family, there is still room for possibility - the absence of evidence is not yet evidence of absence - so if I keep looking, I could find that tie to the famous Nathan Hale.

But I have to follow the evidence... not lead it where I want it to go.

Be Careful What You Wish For


I did eventually find a connection to someone famous.

When you think about your family tree for very long, the mathematics can become daunting. The possibility of finding lost relatives increases exponentially every generation further back you go.

There is one of you, you have two (biological) parents, four grandparents, eight "Greats", and 16 "Great-greats" - that's 35 people, not counting any of your siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts, or step- and half-siblings/cousins/etc. you might have.  Every generation further back you go doubles the number of great-grandparents you are dealing with, so when I start talking about Baker Hale, my 4th Great-grandfather, I mean that he is one of 64 people in that generation alone without whom I would not exist.

Thomas Clemson (1710-1785) was my 6th-great grandfather - one of 256 people without whom I would not exist. According to a book called "Ancestors of American Presidents", Thomas had (among many other children) two daughters - my 5th-great grandmother, Elizabeth, and his daughter, Mary. Let's save 1,000 words and have a look at who their branch connects us to:

Click to ennixonate.
That's right - my grandmother was a 5th cousin of President Nixon; that makes my children 8th cousins to the Nixon-Eisenhower kids!

Of course, healthy skepticism means that I need to take the time to evaluate the evidence in Mr. Boyd's book. The question you have to ask yourself is, how do your feelings about the person you have this connection to affect your willingness to accept the evidence? A lot of people aren't big fans of Mr. Nixon - but you can't pick your family!

In Which I Finally Begin To Arrive at The Point


All of this storytelling about my own family history was intended to bring us to what I really wanted to talk to you about: the family tree of one Joshua ben Joseph, more commonly known as Jesus of Nazareth.

Remember how I said I took an interest in all of this family history stuff when I was 10? That was also right around the time when I began to get serious about my church. I went forward in the Southern Baptist tradition and was saved at age 11; at 12, I was terrorizing my classmates, first in my public school, and later in a Christian school, with my passionate zealotry. Everything I did when I was 12, I did zealously, including my family history. And one of those "famous people" I wanted to prove a family connection to was... Jesus.

Okay, I knew even then that it wouldn't be a direct family connection, but I figured that since every generation you go back doubles in number, by the time you go back to that first century the odds would increase that you might find some common ancestor. There are numerous genealogies documented in the Bible, so I assumed I would have to tie my own family to a line of descent from the sons of Noah. And after thousands of years of scholarly analysis of these stories, surely someone had done the homework of collecting evidence, documenting family connections, and filling in the gaps so that I had a chance of doing that... right?

In a word, no.

But there are so very many people out there who claim to have done so, starting with organizations like the Mormon and Catholic Churches, not to mention the vast and varied Jewish traditions. Being a staunch Southern Baptist, I was bound to approach their claims with that healthy skepticism I was talking about earlier. I wanted to believe that it all could be proven, but I wasn't willing to accept their claims at face value, for the simple reason that I didn't consider those groups to be trustworthy. There are also loads of crazy (by my standards at the time) stories about Jesus's brothers and the tales of the Apocrypha to contend with.

So, going into this, we need to set the stage properly.

Setting the Standards, Asking the Question


We've already established some of the rules and boundaries needed to tackle the Big Questions about the possibility of proving an ancestry link to Jesus (or anyone in the Bible, really). In this post and the last one we learned that:

  • Eyewitnesses are unreliable
  • Documents can have mistakes
  • Documents can be missing
  • Family "legends" have a place, with proper context
  • You have to guard against your biases

And so far, we've been dealing with relatively recent, relatively well-documented history.  Stitching together the evidence to support a family tree is hard enough with the documents we have available to us, but that kind of detailed record-keeping was not a universal given even in the New World. Ancient history is obviously much less well-documented.  We can't go into this expecting that we can prove every link in the chain.  But can we find evidence that at least shows that there are chains with a possible connection?

When I research my family, I look at each fact, and decide whether there is evidence to support that fact. I have to frame a question for each fact - "Was Person A the son of Person B or Person C?" or "Did this person who died in 1863 die in the Civil War?" - and if I don't have evidence that proves a particular birth, death, or marriage fact, I have to figure out from what I do already know where I am likely to find that evidence. If there is no proof, for example, that my 4th Great (one of 64!) Grandfather was the son of an Irish immigrant named James, then I have to treat that as a family legend.

And remember - James 1st, if he existed, was only separated from me in history by 200 years. How much more questionable would that family legend be if we were separated by 2,000? We will have to go into this expecting a much broader, and much murkier historical picture to emerge.

The trickiest part of this is framing our questions in a way that can be tested by accessible evidence. How you ask is important, because how you frame it determines what your standards will be. For example, if I frame the question as "Can we prove that James 1st did NOT exist?" the answer is "No" - because it's rare that you can prove a negative under the best of circumstances.

Which means, we still have a lot of work to do before we can even ask the right question.

Following the Evidence Part 3: Millenial Telephone Game

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Following the Evidence Part 1

Following the Evidence: Part 1 - On Documentary Evidence


I frequently refer to the need for evidence to back up claims. I also frequently dismiss claims that either aren't backed up by evidence, or for which the "evidence" presented isn't strong enough to merit acceptance. But for those trying to convince me to accept an idea or a fact, it can be frustrating to hear me dismiss their idea without understanding the standards I look for in evidence.

Here is an attempt to illustrate how I use "evidence" both as a word and as a tool.

When I started working on the Family History, all four of my grandparents were still alive. Most people who get into this hobby wait until later in life, when even their parents are no longer around to help get them started, but I was able to talk to each of them and get a head start.

Of course, as valuable as their insights could be, the problem with eyewitness accounts became apparent rather quickly. We didn't know it at the time, but one of my grandfathers was suffering from the effects of Alzheimer's, and one of my grandmothers was suffering from a circulatory disease that affected her short term memory. My other grandmother was uncomfortable talking about family, especially if I planned to write her memories down and put them on the Internet - that struck her as being too close to "gossip". The end result was that I got the names of all of their parents, and siblings, but not a lot of detail, and some of the details I did get were not very reliable.

That said, there were a lot of photographs and newspaper clippings to go through, as well as all of the documents which were, at the time, just becoming available online. My dad's parents had a book, compiled in 1911 by my 2nd-Great Grand Uncle, George William Callin, and for the Callin side of the family, this proved to be a real gold mine. While it didn't cite any sources, and it mostly consisted of bare lists of facts (with a few paragraphs on what seemed to be George's immediate family), it attempted a thorough listing of everyone descended from a man George referred to as "James 1st", who George claimed was the original Callin ancestor to immigrate from Ireland some time around the Revolutionary War. (1)

My work over the past couple of decades has mainly consisted of testing G.W. Callin's Family History against the evidence of official documents, and I mostly rely the U.S. Federal Census as the starting point for each family. Remarkably, until you get back past George's grandfather and great uncle, John and "James 2nd", respectively, the Census records agree with the details that George records: names of children & spouses, dates of birth/death/marriage/etc.  But things get a little fuzzier when I try to find evidence of anything that occurred before John and James 2nd moved their families from western Pennsylvania to Ohio in the early 1810s.

The Story of Aunt Polly


Every family has its legends; things that are passed down word of mouth from generation to generation that might have happened, but aren't "provable". In the Callin Family History, there is a story about James 1st's daughter, Polly, in which she is carried off by "Indians", and rescued by a posse that her father raised to chase them down. In the fracas, Polly was shot in the knee, and spent the remainder of her life at home and unmarried.

In my quest to figure out who James 1st was, and prove his ancestry, I ran across another branch of the family with a PDF book called "The Callen Chronicles".  In it, there are some promising documentary leads for various James and John Callens who might match the two I'm looking for - but there is also an interesting story about the daughters of a Patrick Callen, who lived in Armstrong county, Pennsylvania, being carried off in a raid by... "Indians"!  In this version, there are two girls, and there is no posse to rescue them. Instead, they are gone for several years before one sister slips away from the tribe and is brought back to Pennsylvania by a fur trapper. The other sister stayed behind with her husband - described as a "brave" in the text - and their babies. The daughter who escaped and returned was described by her nephew, Watson, in a story passed down for generations as being "special and different" and a little bit wild.

The details vary drastically, and many theories could be posed to explain what actually happened. Digging into the history of that area, I discovered that my ancestors - regardless of whether it was James, Patrick, or someone else - were part of a larger story going on in pre-Revolutionary America. It's plausible that some version of this incident happened in the frontier world where they lived - my fractious Presbyterian relatives apparently lived in perpetual conflict with their pacifist Quaker neighbors, indigenous tribes, and immigrants. But it's not as if there were newspapers or a police report to corroborate the story!

However, whether it actually happened or not, and whomever it happened to, there is a place in our documentary evidence for these "legends". They can't be proven, but they provide color and texture to the often bland facts that we can prove. As long as you have that context - that this is a story that my ancestors told themselves, and that they believed it to be true - it's a legitimate part of their story. And in the case of this particular story, a family legend shared by two distant branches of the Callin/Callen family suggests that I'm on the right track for finding the elusive "James 1st".

Underground Railroad


As another example of a "family legend", check out this story courtesy of a brief memoir written by George's daughter, Rosemary, before she died in 1970:
William and Elizabeth [Rosemary's grandparents] had six children [one of them being George]... Father said they were warned not to say nothing at school about it, but their cabin was a station on the Underground Railway. I don't know whether it was William or Elizabeth, probably the latter, who awakened them softly in the middle of the night and led them to the window. The moon flashed out and they saw a white man, maybe William, leading a string of blacks through the clearing around their cabin and into the woods. They were on their way to Great Uncle George's barn. From there he would take them onto the next stop.
The history of the Underground Railroad is fascinating in that it clearly existed, but it is almost impossible to document reliably. You really can't verify a claim that a particular farm or family was "a stop" on the Underground Railroad, unless someone else - either an escaped slave or another proven participant - documented these farms elsewhere. If they did, I haven't found that evidence, yet.

As exciting as I find this story to be, and as personally gratifying as I find it to be that my family was on what I consider to be the right side of history, I have to be careful about drawing conclusions. The evidence that my family helped the Underground Railroad is thin (though they lived not far from Oberlin) and I've learned over the years not to attribute too much enlightenment to farmers like William and George Callin for helping, as many of them were motivated as much by distaste for the black people they were helping and a desire to transport them out of the country as they were by a moral objection to slavery.

The Mystery of Bertha


As anyone who uses a lot of historical documents will tell you, there is another problem with documentary evidence: some of it is missing. A fire destroyed most of the 1890 U.S. Federal Census, leaving large gaps in many of the families I am trying to trace. The closest of these "holes" made my search for the ancestors of my grandfather's mother, Bertha May Greenlee, extremely difficult.

When I first asked grandpa about his family, he gave me his mother's name as "Bertha May Cramer." Later on, I spotted the name "Bertha Greenlee" in a family tree that grandma had done for one of my cousins, and asked him about it. He recalled that she had been adopted by George Cramer, but as that had happened so long before grandpa was born, he didn't know any details.

With so little to go on, it took me years to fill in the blanks. Bertha was born (inconveniently) in 1885, but I found her in the 1900 census, living with the Cramer family. As another example of the difficulty of trusting documentary evidence, one transcriber listed her as "Bertha Gruntle;" I had to open the image and look at the handwriting myself to see that it was "Greenlee" - be careful if you have to trust indexers and transcribers! (And don't get me started on translators...) Humans make mistakes.

From that record, though, I confirmed that Bertha was George Cramer's step-daughter, that her mother's name was "Alice" and that Alice and George had been married for 11 years. Grandpa hadn't been sure of Alice's name, but he had thought her maiden name was Hale or Hales, and that 1900 record shows a John and Carrie Hale in the household. Armed with these details, I could sketch out that Bertha's father had left or died between 1885 and 1889, so I went looking for more about Alice.

Starting with the 1880 census, where I found a 15-year-old Alice Hales living with her parents and siblings, I was able to flesh out that side of the family pretty well. But finding the elusive Mr. Greenlee was much more difficult. I do have a shaky chain of evidence showing an Allen Greenlee living in the right county at the right time. In 1870, he is listed as a 9-year-old male named "Ellen", and he is living with Sarah C. (31) and "Elesur" (57) Bollman. In 1880 19-year-old "Allen" is living with his grandmother, listed as Eleanor Bollman. From there, assuming that his mother was Sarah C. Bollman (or Bowman, or Bowlman), a marriage record indicates that his father was a Robert Greenlee who had inconveniently died between his wedding to Sarah, Allen's birth, and the 1870 census!

All of this means that, while I am happy enough to go with this story and keep looking for clues, I still don't have "proof" that this Greenlee family is MY family. I don't have a document linking Allen to Bertha.  I have enough evidence for a theory, and I'll keep looking, but until a magic Bible appears, or my DNA turns up in a Greenlee family somewhere, I won't really know.

Historical research like this will never be cut and dried. There is always room for doubt, and always room for imagination. Until I find a death record, I will never know for certain what happened to Allen; did he die in 1889, leaving Alice a young widow with an infant? Or did he run off, and have a whole life somewhere else, maybe under another name? What happened to his father, Robert? He apparently died during the Civil War, but I haven't found any record of him being in the military.

The crucial lesson is to understand the difference between "legend" and "history", and to guard against ruling out possibilities while not letting your imagination run wild. Over the years, I've learned to document as thoroughly as I can, and to be flexible and aware of the possibility that documents can be wrong. People can lie (saying they are "widowed" because they found "divorce" embarrassing), and they can misremember or mis-calculate. Census takers or county clerks can misunderstand a thick accent, and were prone to misspell or write sloppily, leading transcribers and indexers to make transcription errors, like turning Allen into Ellen. So many things can go wrong.

And yet, there is much we can know. The important take away is in appreciating that there is a certain amount of skill and skepticism needed to know anything. But so far, we've only been talking about the last couple hundred years!

What happens when you go further back in time?

Up Next: Following the Evidence Part 2

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Notes:
1. I have a digital copy of the George Callin Family History that I am happy to share with relatives. I scanned and edited it, with an introduction, and it is available in PDF for sharing under a Creative Commons license.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Harsh Light of Day

See Part 1: A Fire in the Desert

My grandfather was a force to be reckoned with. He saw himself as a light in the desert at night, trying to show people the way. There is no doubt that wherever he went, he left an impression - but not everyone got the same impression. People have always told me that "perception is reality," but what do you do when the harsh light of day shows that your perception does not match reality? What do you trust?

Grandpa always trusted his perception - even if it was at the expense of what others called reality. I was enthralled by the power of his storytelling, but I quickly learned not to repeat or echo back the parts of the stories that I found most entertaining, because I had a tendency to pick up on those colorful bits of embellishment that he added for emphasis - things that weren't exactly factual, but made the story feel true - and that would earn me a rebuke from Grandma (for lying about what Grandpa had said) or from Grandpa (for missing the point of what he was trying to tell me).

His engaging tall tales about growing up in the South and his ever-evolving stories about his exploits serving in the Navy during World War II were, if not factually precise, intended as morality plays. His more immediate stories of bringing Salvation to random strangers he met during his day-to-day wanderings were, if not verifiable, meant to show the wickedness and unreliability of the world. And of course, when he told a story from the Bible, that was unquestionable - even if his version didn't exactly match the infallible text. The thread running through all of it was Jesus; every story, every tale, every anecdote was, at its core, about how much better the World would be if it would just listen to Jesus (as related by Grandpa, of course).

Sometime in the dim, early reaches of my memory, Grandpa had an nasty fall. He was working as a building inspector in downtown Phoenix and fell off of a building he had been climbing. His knees were destroyed, and he spent a great deal of the rest of his life in and out of the VA hospital for various surgeries to repair or replace his joints. It happened that one of his visits occurred during my junior year of high school and coincided with a new knee replacement at the hospital where my girlfriend's neighbor worked as a nurse.

As was expected, when Grandpa came home from the hospital he began to regale us excitedly about what a blessing it had been for him to be the instrument of the Lord in that place; how he had prayed with all of the nurses and Saved them all - reinforcing his perception that there was a Higher Purpose to his suffering, and that Jesus was using his pain to win souls.

But when I asked my girlfriend's neighbor, the nurse, about Grandpa's story, she told a slightly different version. "Oh, yeah," she said, "I remember Mr. Clark. He wouldn't let us change his bedpan or give him any meds until we prayed with him. I accepted Jesus eight times, just so I could finish my rounds."

Clearly, perception differed from reality in the harsh light of day.

As a youngster, I took Grandpa at face value and in every literal way possible. Being young, I didn't question much of what I was told by trusted sources, like Grandpa. The other adults in my life all reinforced what he taught me, though in hindsight, there were a lot of signs that I didn't pick up on that should have told me how disturbed they were by some of his attitudes about things like race and politics. But for the sake of Jesus, they never openly contradicted what he said and I came to perceive a reality where everything was rooted in a concept of Jesus that matched Grandpa's perception.

I took my perception of reality to school with me, and this is where the conflict arose.

My classmates bore the brunt of my evangelical fervor. Most tried to ignore me, but some of them would engage in heated arguments about evolution, the evils of pop culture, religion, politics, or whatever came up. I argued with atheist kids, with Mormons (the Southern Baptist's natural enemy), or with "normal" kids who just found my constant judgment to be annoying. When my behavior became so disruptive that my parents felt moved to transfer me (and my sister) to a private Christian school, we all expected things to get better simply by removing me from influences of the Rest of the World. But even though the atheist kids were no longer there, I still found fault in the various "non-denominational" Christians who surrounded me.

To my mind, their failure as Christians to live up to my expectations was even worse than the failure of non-Christians to perceive my version of reality, and I felt it was my duty to shine a light on their darkness. It was that sense of duty combined with my perception of their failure to fit with my concept of the rules that drove me, at times, to violent protest.

Several years ago, my son exhibited similar behavioral problems. He has since been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Looking back, I have to wonder if my struggles to relate in these social situations were due to a condition of my own. As hard as it is today to explain autism, it would have been impossible to diagnose when I was a kid, let alone treat as a medical condition. Whatever was driving me - undiagnosed Asperger's or just religious zealotry - even the administrators at our Christian school and the leaders in our church couldn't put up with that kind of excessive behavior. I was outraged that they didn't take my side - after all, I perceived that I was fighting the Good Fight. For a long time, I followed Grandpa's pattern of blaming the backsliders and hypocrites for conspiring against me - but in the harsh light of day, I was forced to recognize that just because I perceived certain things to be true, no one else was obligated to see things my way.

Eventually, I came to understand that no one's perception controlled what was real. However hard I believed, however deeply I needed to believe it, the world stubbornly refused to change to fit my perception. And somewhere in there I shifted from being someone who took the stories and tried to fit the facts to support them to being someone who asked questions and followed the evidence until the facts made sense.

I started trying to perceive reality as it was - not the way a lonely kid who grew up in the desert wanted it to be, and not the way a kid who looked up to his Grandfather was told to see it. And once I started holding my own perceptions accountable, I was on a collision course with Grandpa's.

There was never a single incident or argument that I could point to as The Moment when things turned. I couldn't bring myself to openly contradict him. Even though I still loved dinosaurs and space, and his claims about those things were clearly wrong, I felt like I was supposed to just let him say what he wanted about those things and let it go. If I even hinted at contradicting his version of reality, I would earn a lecture about respecting my elders.

I think it was music that sparked the real rift.

I have always loved music. To me, music was a language that didn't depend on meaning. I gave it meaning. It brought me joy, but that joy always came from inside me - and in that sense, the music that I loved was a part of me. I attributed the joy to Jesus - as a young evangelical kid is taught to do - and I remember showing Grandpa the music I was into; mainly pieces of the budding evangelical tribal culture of the 1980s.

I had a number of LPs and cassettes by people like the Gaithers and the Continental Singers. The Continentals had a touring production of their musical about Joseph called The Dreamer, which was supposed to correct the "errors" of the more popular (and secular!) Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. A school friend introduced me to guys like Steve Taylor and Carman, who mocked the secular world while they parodied the pop music of the time. I remember expecting Grandpa to be proud of me for sticking it to the World, and for staying true to Jesus while embracing something that made me feel as alive as music did.  

Instead, I got a lecture about how Satan used the secret messages of those African tribal drums to infect good, honest Christian culture. I was shocked, though having seen some of his rants about "hippies" - sparked by TV ads for the annual Easter showing of Jesus Christ Superstar on the local independent station - I should not have been. This was different from his attack on dinosaurs and astronauts. Those were just childhood dreams, but music was more visceral. When he attacked the music, Grandpa was attacking an essential piece of my heart. It was as deeply personal as if he were criticizing me for having hazel eyes and made even less sense to me than attacking me for having hair that was slightly longer than he thought appropriate.

This was too much for me. This was really the first time that I recognized that everything anyone did or said, no matter how well intentioned they were, could be twisted into some theoretical schism with Jesus's Word (as understood by Grandpa) or some plot by Satan to distract us from that Word. It had nothing to do with reality; it was a wrestling match between perceptions, and I realized that it was a game that nobody won. Ever.

That was really when I dug in and began to trust my own judgment over his.

I don't remember the rest of that discussion about music, but I remember standing up for myself.  I remember throwing Matthew 7:1-3 at him, which didn't go over well. And after that, even though I had been saved in the church and even though I believed just as hard as he did, I was now a backslider in his perception, and I needed to be Saved... properly.

The comments were ever-present. He never came out swinging, but Grandpa had a talent for saying things that were framed innocently while being designed to be provocative.  I could either ignore them (and he made it clear that this meant tacitly agreeing with him) or challenge them (which was the fight he wanted). I had to learn to let go, and find my own way.

By the time I enlisted in the Air Force, I had taken the first steps toward leaving the evangelical tribal culture behind. I had learned to take Grandpa's stories - including things that he didn't think of as "stories" - in the spirit intended. He saw his actions as an expression of love; he wanted me to go to heaven and to be happy. Early on, I think he saw the possibility that I might become a preacher myself, and carry on his quest to save the World (even if the World just wanted to get the bedpans changed and go home). Later, I think he just wanted to steer me away from what he perceived as dangers - whether they were actually dangerous or not.

When he found out I was joining the military, he was proud, and he pulled me aside to tell me about his experiences. He warned me of the "traps" he had fallen into as a serviceman in the U.S. merchant marines; his cocaine and heroin habits (which I had never heard him mention before) on top of his drinking and smoking (which I had). He told me how he had been singing in a night club on shore leave in Italy, and had been approached by a U.S. Army Major who wanted to recruit him to sing in his USO band - but that Major, one Glenn Miller, had disappeared in Africa before the transfer papers went through. Needless to say, the details he told me didn't add up with official accounts, but I understood by then that they were true enough for stories, and that he was really telling me he loved me.

Grandpa passed away in 2002, about a year after I returned to Arizona from serving overseas in the Air Force with my young family. I had known his health was declining for a while, so as soon as we returned to the States, we visited Grandma and Grandpa in their RV, which was hooked up on the San Carlos Apache Reservation outside of Peridot, AZ. I had told my wife about him, naturally, and she was almost terrified to meet him. She knew he had strong opinions about tattoos and how a wife should behave, and she didn't want to be resented by anyone in my family. But when they finally met, Grandpa was overwhelmingly sweet. He complimented her tattoo, and dandled the baby on his knee (which had recently been replaced again) while recounting his adventures on a Liberty ship taking lend-lease materiel to Murmansk through a German submarine convoy in 1941.

We had a wonderful (if short and hot) visit. Kate was relieved that Grandpa hadn't criticized her or tried to Save her - but she wondered why he kept calling her "Karen." The explanation for the name slips and the apparent change of character was horrible and simple: Alzheimer's. He had been suffering from the slow decline of Alzheimer's related dementia for years.

It is a horrific thing that a disease like this can alter your perceptions without you knowing it. The more we learn about the human brain, the more we understand that it is a delicate marvel and how easily it can be deceived. We have evolved to look for patterns, which can either be a problem solving blessing, or can mislead us with phenomena like pareidolia. We learn more all the time about how memory works (or doesn't) and how unreliable we are as eyewitnesses. There are so many reasons why, in the harsh light of day, I had to reject Grandpa's perceptions - but Alzheimer's magnified the problem because there is no way of knowing how many years it worked in him, chewing away at his memories and altering his perceptions. I have no way of knowing how much of his life was driven by a disease.

Perception is reality. It's only your reality, though. It's the only reality you ever know, even though you can never trust it. You must question everything, test it against evidence that doesn't depend on your perception, and be willing to alter your perception to match actual reality. When it comes to others, be patient; we aren't always in control of what we can see. I think we are all trying to do the best we can, and we cling to whatever we think we can trust. Try not to waste your precious time together being angry that we aren't seeing the same things the same way.

While it's impossible to know how much the disease had to do with altering his basic character, I choose to see the sweet man we said goodbye to as the real Grandpa. I choose to perceive him in the best possible light - warts and all, flaws proudly on display.

After all, a fire in the desert may cast shadows at night that disappear in the harsh light of day; but without it, the night can get very cold.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Fire in the Desert

This is a true story, though it may not be factual. I've been told that the Devil is in the details; but I've also been told that God is in the details. Either way, whatever the facts may have been, however I may have misheard or mis-remembered the details, this is the story I know. You may have your own - feel free to write it down.


The preacher roamed the wilderness of the desert Southwest for 50 years in a series of new and used recreational vehicles, his wife by his side, always seeking receptive souls to bring to the Lord. He raised a son who went to Vietnam and two daughters - all three raised sons of their own. He built houses, sank wells, raised chickens and rabbits, saved souls, started churches - and moved on, always moved on.

He was a big man with a big voice, a broad smile, a ready laugh, and a proverbial fire in his belly. He once joked that this was why he ate so much when he visited us. His hair, what was left of it by the time I knew him, was usually a close-cropped white stubble that seemed to grow wild and wispy over night. I thought of him as a bald man, but he always claimed to need a haircut.

"Grandpa," I would exclaim, "You're bald! Why do you need a haircut?"

And his laugh would boom, and he would start to relate to me a tale about Jesus telling all men to keep their hair off their collar, not like those... but Grandma would usually swoop in with the clippers and a towel, and hurry him off to our patio for a trim before he could get much further.

He traded camper vans up for RVs, traded the RVs up for pickups with fifth-wheels, and traded the trailers up for mobile homes on an acre of property before deciding he had tied himself down with too many possessions and scaled back down again. No matter where he lived, you would find Grandma with her box of mementos, her organ, their dog, and her quiet hope that some day they would find the right home.

One thing about desert life is its innate mobility. Plants' roots never run deep - they run shallow and broad. Animals may dig in and hide during the heat of the day, but they know to stay on the move if they want to find shade and water. And one place Grandpa could always find some shade and water was under the tree in our driveway.

When Grandma and Grandpa showed up, it was almost always a surprise to us kids. Mom learned not to give us any warning that they were coming to visit, or we would stake out the couch by the big picture window and drive each other crazy with anticipation, shrieking "They're here! They're here!" at every puff of dust on the washboard that was 89th Avenue.

And they would finally roll in, pulling up under the skinny poplar tree where Grandpa would jack, level and brace whatever mobile domicile they were currently living in, and hook up water and electric. He'd run a hose from the sewer line to the poplar tree, and remind us kids that if we used their toilet, only to "run water" in it. When we were little, he'd explicitly tell us, "Only pee-pee and wee-wee in there! No poop-poop!" and we would giggle at the naughty nonsense words and repeat them daringly until we remembered that Grandma was waiting inside.

Most of the time, we could take turns sleeping over in the Camper; no matter what the actual vehicle was, it was always "the Camper" to us. Our favorites were the cab-over motor-homes with their inevitable forward and side windows. I'd fill every spare inch with Star Wars men, posting guards at the corners and locking imprisoned rebels in the cup holders. My sister would pasture her My Little Ponies on and around the dining table. Meanwhile, the grown ups would stay inside with sweating glasses of sweet sun tea, talking about trade-in values, equity, and whatever else grown ups discuss when the kids are out of ear shot.

None of these visits ever lasted long enough for my sister or I, but mom and dad seemed to uncoil a little bit whenever the clouds of dust would follow the caravan du jour down the road toward their next stop - usually my cousin's house a few miles away. Looking back, I can see how my dad, who was always happiest building and tinkering with his handy projects around the property, might have looked forward to not having his father-in-law offering advise on how to build and tinker better. And since they were mom's parents, I could see how maybe there were lingering childhood issues that every family has that made her feel progressively less in control of her own home until the visits were over.

They never said anything to us about it, because they would never say an unkind word about anyone to us. But I think now that maybe the mornings after Grandma and Grandpa drove off after each visit might have been the mornings that mom's old Beatles, Monkees, and Lovin' Spoonful records came out for a spin - replacing Kate Smith's "How Great Thou Art" and Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" which had seen more prominence the previous few days.

Whatever the adults' issues may have been, I remember treasuring the stories Grandpa told us. If Grandma left him alone with us for any length of time, we would prod and pester him to tell us stories about growing up in Kentucky and Alabama, and when he did, we would sit around him, raptly hanging on every word. This happened most often on Sunday afternoons, after church and the big chicken dinner that mom and Grandma would prepare. I remember sitting close to him, despite the inescapable odors of dust and sweat that plague a man who spends long days driving Arizona back roads. I remember feeling full of chicken and listening to him tell adventurous stories about the things that his brothers got up to, or cautionary tales of drinkers and smokers who ended up badly.

My personal favorite was a memorable tale about the time a young Grandpa had found a perfectly good hat floating on a vat of sheep dip when he took a shortcut through the stock yards. He wore it proudly down the main street, only to have a woman run screaming out of her house, calling the police and demanding that he show her where he found it. When the police dragged a pole through the vat of sheep dip, they found the woman's husband - dead and drowned. He had evidently wandered through the stock yards after a night of heavy drinking and fallen in. Sometimes, when he ended the story, Grandpa would tell us that the woman let him keep the hat - and he would point at his sun-bleached ball cap with the enormous grin of a champion spinner of tall tales.

Grandma was never comfortable with Grandpa's insistence on filling our heads with nonsense, so he would frequently placate her by telling us Bible stories. I know he was incredibly proud that I became such a prolific reader of the Bible, largely because I loved hearing him tell those stories. He always stuck to the standard, relatively kid-friendly stories of Daniel and the Lion's Den or Jesus Walking on the Water; I had to find the Death of Jezebel and the story of what Jael did to General Sisera on my own.

I always figured the Bible stories came naturally to him because Grandpa was a preacher. At least, he would talk about being a preacher; and once or twice, he was invited to give a sermon at our church. In school, when our religion class covered the revival movement of the 1860s, I knew exactly what they were talking about when they described the hellfire & brimstone of the tent revivals, largely because of the impression that my Grandfather made on me from the pulpit. He lit up in front of a congregation, and his oratory would grow olive branches and wind its way along the corners of our plain, unadorned sanctuary turning our little Southern Baptist church into a cathedral - or a great tent, depending on how you view these things.

It didn't occur to me until I was much older to ask why Grandpa, if he was such a grand and wonderful preacher, didn't have a church of his own. By then, I was old enough to recognize how uncomfortable that question made everyone, so I dropped it. I figured out on my own that there is a big difference between being a "preacher" and being a "pastor"; it's rather the same difference between being a revolutionary and running a government after the revolution is over. Following the lead of the adults around me, I accepted Grandpa for what he was; but by that point, I was old enough for Grandpa to begin to show concern about me - and my sister, and my cousins - and our resolve in the Lord, and I began to develop a more nuanced conception why it might be hard to stay in a church (or a house?) with someone who wanted to Save you so badly that they applied a deep scrutiny to every belief.

His preaching was never something that was criticized or questioned in our house. We all supported each other in our dreams and endeavors, after all. But I do remember the occasional incident; times when Grandpa would go out for a gallon of milk, and come back hours later relating how he had spied a young man "with an earring" who had clearly needed to hear the Word of Jesus. Or he would leave Grandma with us while he went "visiting" - coming home late in the evening, bursting with energy and planning to move back to Phoenix and start a revival that would sweep the city!

Even when he did "find a church home," it never seemed to last. There would be excitement; property would be purchased or rented, and funds raised. Ground would be broken, and promises would be made. But eventually, almost never longer than six weeks along, the enterprise would evaporate and Grandma and Grandpa would pack up and drive off disconsolately, shaking their heads, and sadly bemoaning a general lack of faith and unwillingness to hear the Word of the Lord.

I was probably twelve, and at the height of my own religious fervor, when he pointedly asked me about my haircut. I never liked having my hair cut; dad usually did it himself. He used two ancient devices to accomplish this: a rebuilt electric clipper that sparked and clattered like something Thomas Edison might have used on an elephant to show how dangerous electricity was, and a pair of dull trimming shears that seemed to pull out as many hairs as they cut. Being uninterested in either electrocution or plucking, I usually made such a stink about haircuts that dad and I would uneasily circle each other for about a week before he would pounce, sit me on a stool out in our garage, and remove as many offending follicles as he could before the noise started to worry the neighbors.

Grandpa seemed to have some odd ideas about me, though, based on the shaggy state of my coiffure. I didn't understand much of what he was saying - I thought my loafers were kind of heavy, actually - but once I got him to state his insinuation clearly, I was horrified. What did my hair have to do with .... THAT? And once I got over the shock, I asked him how, if Jesus had long hair, it could be related to such a Very Bad Thing?  Was Jesus like that?

This conversation did not go well.

Eventually, mom intervened and sorted all of this out, but it was very confusing to me at the time. After all, you have to understand that I had been saved at age 11, and I was going for some kind of record at age 12 of being more "faithful" than anyone else I knew - faithful, of course, meaning that I was a Reagan-supporting, Republican, pro-life, Dr. James Dobson listener with a passion for shouting down the atheists and backsliders that surrounded me at school. For Grandpa to think otherwise based on my unwillingness to submit to my dad's infrequent torture sessions was appalling.

We had a similarly odd conversation a couple of years later, when Grandpa expected that I might be taking an interest in girls. Obviously satisfied with my orientation, he wanted to caution me about the dangers of "mixing a brown horse and a white horse," to which I replied, "No, Grandpa, that's how you get an Appaloosa - and Appaloosas are AWESOME!"

That conversation also did not go well.

I eventually picked up on several notions that Grandpa harbored in his heart along with his extensive knowledge of Bible stories and personal morality tales. When I got older and read about the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater, and started seeing "conservative" radio and TV hosts gaining popularity in the early 1990s, I recognized many of the ideas that Grandpa had tried to teach me over the years. I remembered how when I was 9 and deeply into dinosaurs, he waited until we were alone in the living room to tell me that Satan had placed their bones in the ground to confuse scientists and to test our faith. I remembered that when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, he reminded me that the space program was just man's foolish attempt to build another Tower of Babel, and that the explosion was God's way of reminding us to stay focused on Jesus.

I remember asking the other adults about some of this stuff, and no one seemed to want to discuss any of it. Grandma would deny that Grandpa had ever said such things, and mom would just steer me onto other topics until I forgot (mostly) about my disappointment.

At the time, though, I hadn't explored any of this very deeply. To me, Grandpa was simply one of the most colorful and admirable people I knew. On balance, he made me feel loved more than judged, and he was clearly proud of me. Maybe his stories exaggerated some details, and maybe some of his beliefs about science were on the questionable side, but he instilled an appreciation for narrative and a love of words that I still cherish. He showed me the beautiful and awkward relationship between fiction and truth.

After I left home on my grand adventures, I didn't see any of the family often, but mom kept me updated on how everyone was doing. And as I went out into the world, some the most deeply rooted ideas I took with me came from the big, bald man who always needed a haircut, and who gave me the gift of stories.

Next week: The Harsh Light of Day

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Death and Heroes

In 2008, one of my favorite writers, David Foster Wallace, took his own life.

I was hurt and angry when I found out; I was also a little scared. This was someone whose work and words I found inspiring and encouraging, and yet he had come to the conclusion that his best option was to opt out. I was just at the beginning of what would turn into several years of private struggles with my own set of adversities, and I was taking his death as something of a warning - that from the outside, you can't tell what someone else's limits are, and that ultimately, we are all alone with our most intimate enemy.

To deal with how I felt, and to process what I was learning about Wallace's private hell and depression in general, I wrote a song called "Get Me Home" (apologies for the demo quality):
"I appreciate the love you give me
But it's not enough
Because it's up to me to get me home."
In the last few years, I've watched other people who you might or might not consider public figures talk about their depression; The Bloggess, Wil Wheaton, and one of my favorites (because I relate so closely to many of her experiences) Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half. They probably aren't what the average person would recognize as "celebrities," but they are brave people who don't hide their pain or their joy; and they want what I want right now: they want you to be alright.

Robin Williams was a celebrity. But like these other folks, and like me, that's not what was important about him. To me, his bravery and honesty, his fear and his unabashed embrace of joy were the things that were important about him. I never met him, and he certainly didn't know who I was, but as I watch the world - the TV, radio, internet, all of my friends and family - react to his loss, I see everyone sharing their favorite moments from his career. Those moments are the evidence of those qualities.

There are the cynics among you who will scoff at another well-off famous person who couldn't handle their too-good life; if that's what you need to feel safe, go ahead and scoff. But for the rest of us - those who are hurting and looking at ourselves and our own struggles with life, I'd like to share one of my favorite moments.

Watch this 5 minute clip from the 1991 Terry Gilliam movie "The Fisher King" and if you haven't seen this film before, pay attention. Then come back here.

When Robin Williams burst exuberantly onto my TV when I was just a kid, he embodied madness. I loved it, because he was putting what I felt inside all the time on display; he was being accepted for being the person that everyone around me told me not to be. He was an epiphany. Even when his jokes didn't work or his character voices fell flat, he still charged brashly out in front of everyone and didn't hold back - and that set me free.

And even at the time, anyone watching him knew - KNEW, without being told - that his life at that time was a drug-fueled piece of performance art. Later, when we saw his Live at the Met performance, he confirmed that. Even though it was a performance, it was honest. You knew he was scared, but instead of hiding from that fear, he turned it into a huge, defiant farce. And many of us watched him work through the self-destructive side of that life and build something better. If you paid attention to his career at all, you gradually realized that while everything he did was a performance, none of it was "fake" - that was why we loved him, even when he was in a colossal piece of crap (looking at you, Popeye).
It was always him up there on the stage running around behaving like a clown, inspiring students and Vietnam soldiers, winning back Neverland, trying to help out Aladdin or trying to love Nathan Lane. Even if you didn't get it or love it, you couldn't deny that he was trying to give you a brilliant gift.

I realized early on that he and I had a lot in common.

That scene in the Fisher King captures this essence. That scene is all about how we perform and put up defenses against getting too close or getting hurt. It says everything that needs to be said about him. His performance - every performance - was a raw display of a man who did not care about the facade he was building. He just loved. Everything he did spoke of that. And he was scared. Everything he did - every joke, every goofy face, every raw, vulnerable moment of quiet showed that he was both terrified and amazed by the world.

As am I.  As are you, if you let yourself feel it.

If you watched that Fisher King clip, but haven't seen the whole film, I'm going to give you a small spoiler. At the end there, when you are seeing him through the window, and he steps to the side, you see his image split into two by the bevel in the glass - that next moment is when his character, Perry, is attacked by "The Red Knight" - the external embodiment of Perry's fear and trauma. It's a confusing and brutal moment of cinema.  When I heard about his death and started seeing my friends and family posting about how surprised they were that Robin Williams of all people would take his own life, that moment is what I thought of. And I wasn't surprised at all.

Because all of us have a "Red Knight". All of us are terrified of this mad, amazing world. Even the brave clowns who dance through the madness are afraid of it. And it can jump out at you from the shadows at the moment when you think you should be your happiest. Your most intimate enemy is always hovering just out of sight.

So I will take two lessons from the life and death of Robin Williams. I will BE joyful, because the world is beautiful and full of love and joy; and I will BE afraid, because it is also dangerous. But I won't let fear of the danger keep me from feeling the joy. I don't let it stop me from loving; and I won't let anyone else pretend that there isn't love and beauty all around just because it feels safer to skip over the scary parts.

And if you need me to, I will help you in any way I can. You may not appreciate how I do it, but I will love you, I will share my amazement with you, and I will sound forth as many barbaric YAWPs as the situation calls for.  (However, unlike Perry, I DO drink coffee.)

The brutally beautiful and honest truth is that it will always be up to you to get you home.  But you're not the only one traveling, and you don't have to fight the Red Knight by yourself.