Tuesday, October 06, 2009


A bit about my background

You were wondering about my ancestry, right?  Right?  Well, now you are.  Right?  Well, here it is anyway.

I think it’s time for me to tell you about my great grandfather, who went through Ellis Island with his pregnant wife, neither of them speaking a word of english (and, in fact, neither of them ever did although they lived in this country for over 30 years).
     Life was hard for them both before and after leaving the old country.  Life was just plain hard back then.  My great grandparents weren’t poor, mind you, not like the vast majority of people who came here with their last few pennies in their pockets if they were lucky.  No, my great grandfather was shocked to be leaving what had been a good life.  He was an important man, but court jealousies and intrigue had him fleeing the country.  For years, he had been a computer expert, which was a much rarer thing in the 1880’s, let me tell you.  It wasn’t like today, when you can walk out on the street at random and say, “Hey, computer guy,” and half of everybody turns and looks at you.  He had risen to the title of Chief Pixel-Maker to the Czar, which was an amazing accomplishment back then.  Remember, pixels didn’t just automatically pop out of the computer screen back then.  A computer was an enormous, smelly, coal-powered machine that made a horrendous racket and seriously cut into the castle space that used to be the dungeon.  It’s a little known fact that the great populist movements of the late 19th century were not a great new philosophic movement or a natural offshoot of early industrialization or any of the crap they feed your sweet little mind in school.  Really, there was just a sudden drop in prison and torture space as all the dungeons and keeps were shrunk as the need for computer power grew starting around mid-century.  
     Anyway, Great grandpa had to carefully handbuild each pixel, which could only be used once.  He worked from morning to late into the night, by oil lamp.  It was said that he made the brightest pixels ever seen.  Of course there wasn’t color then, so he just made millions of carefully crafted little glowing pixels, and took them in barrels which his brother-in-law the cooper (that’s my  great grandmother’s brother, and likely why they were arranged to be married) made for him.  
     Back then, the main ingredient of pixels was dandelions, and if pixel-making was the source of his fame and security (he thought, anyway), then his dandelion farm was the source of his great wealth.  Now remember, the old country had some of the world’s crappiest and most alkaline soil, with a bedrock layer about 8 inches (20 cm) down, and it was damn near impossible to grow a plant whose strongest instinct and most heartfelt desire is to put down a 2-foot (60 cm) taproot.  It took him, his wife, and the field hands many back-breaking hours every day before, through, and beyond the brief growing season to generate enough dandelions for the government’s pixel needs.

       Now, when my ancestor was forced out of the government and the country, he had sold off most of his belongings and his home, but he had kept all his bags of dandelion seeds, and brought them over on the ship.  He came to this country, and instead of walking to Queens and renting a room like everyone else did, he bought land in upstate New York.  He didn’t know how well those flowers would do - his neat, orderly rows quickly overgrew the land, and he couldn’t pick the yellow blooms fast enough, and many went to seed, and the white puffy seed blew away, thrived everywhere, and took root.  Within a couple of years, the dandelion market crashed, and the farm came dangerously close to going under.  
     He had seen what was in the wind, so to speak, though, and had gradually switched his farm over to spaghetti.  No, really, listen, yes, I know spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees, that was an April fools thing.  I didn’t say orchard.  No, spaghetti is a vine.  So he saw how well pumpkins grew, but he didn’t like pumpkins, so he grew spaghetti.  It’s relatively easy to grow spaghetti, especially compared to trying to coax a dandelion out of the permafrost of eastern europe.  The work all came from the straightening, leaf trimming, and drying of the vines, which was mainly woman’s work back then.  Imagine my great grandmother, sitting by the fire at the work table which they used as the family bed every night, simultaneously cooking some horrid turnip-based cabbagy thing and watching all the kids, hoping to finish the day’s work soon enough to do some sewing.  All this stuff that you and I just go out and buy was a big deal back then, remember.  You know, when we want some broccoli (yes, I know you don’t really want broccoli, but you buy it anyway, don't you?).  Anyway, when we want some broccoli, we just pop some frozen broccoli into the microwave and keep moving.  In the old days, microwaving was a much harder thing.  You had to make the microwaves yourself, with a magnet, a coil of tungsten wire, and some other stuff.  Mostly it was easier to just burn dried spaghetti leaves, which, oddly enough, are completely inedible.
   So, with his wife doing most of the work, and with some income coming in to hire out more of the farm work, Great Grandpa turned to other things to keep busy and supplement their income.  He decided to become a musician, and found out that he was completely tone deaf and uncoordinated.  Now, this stubborn man could teach us a lesson or two.  He didn’t know the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  Actually, that would not have meant the same thing to him.  He would have thought of lemons differently.  Remember, this is the generation that thought brussels sprouts were a decadent dessert.  Anyway, he took his fantastic failure at all things musical and his intense and unexplainable desire to be in the Dryden, NY  Independence day parade, and eventually developed the player kazoo.  He developed the idea from the player piano-  like the player piano, the player kazoo is pedal-powered, supplemented by a wind-up spring mechanism, but in order to pedal and move in a parade at the same time, he had to hook the whole thing up to a unicycle.  Mind you, the player kazoo has a set of gears, pulleys, bellows, and belts that weighs over 50 pounds (22.5 kg), so he had to become quite the unicyclist to boot.  It turns out there aren’t many people in the world as musically deficient as our family, so the player kazoo never became a commercial success, but that prototype is buried in the deepest bowels of some Smithsonian Institution somewhere, probably right next to the Ark of the Covenant.  
     What else did he do?  Well, he was a great pornographer.  He built his own pornograph, and sold pictures of women in big poofy dresses and clunky shoes but without their hats on to the enlisted men of the Navy.  This business, for which he eventually spent 15 years in jail, brought him to the New England coast a lot, and he eventually became something of an expert in whale discipline, and did some of the great early work in the field.  He was the man who officially determined that it was not useful to spit at them (or at a fish), and that they are all very sensitive about their weight, which is where the whole plankton-based diet started.  Once upon a time, there were hardly any sharks, because whales ate them, and the whales, believe it or not, were even bigger and blubberier (it’s a word now).  Then the whales all switched to plankton, on the argument that you could never eat enough plankton to get fat - it’s like eating celery, and nearly as pleasant - and now that’s what they do.
     Where was I?  Oh, yeah, Professor Livingjetlag, of the Harpur College Department of Marine Biology.  It turns out that title was revoked when he went to jail, where he spent 15 years playing the player kazoo and breaking rocks, until he was released to his loving wife and children, and he retired and they lived happily ever after.

There, now you understand where I come from.  Maybe it gives you some insight into who I am.  I doubt it, though.  My family members are nothing like me.  They're an odd bunch.

Your Humblest and Most Devoted Servant,

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