15 February 2013

Fun With Keyword Searches #3

Every so often I like to look at my blog stats just to see how I'm getting the minimal traffic I receive.  Two years ago, it was all about the Ukranian porn sites.  Last year, it was all about Russian home decorating and/or military-grade heavy ammunition because apparently a blog obsessed with redheads and snickerdoodles needs to acquire better interior design and/or mafia backing.  So far this year I have a much more eclectic array of referring urls.  Naturally the more mainstream Google, Facebook, BlogHer and other such sites are represented as are yet more Russian/Ukranian urls, this time for spy equipment,   industrial house siding, a mommy web-ring called "Cafe Mam," another (untranslatable) page that appears to be for phone sex considering the skimpily glad female on the home page and the plethora of phone numbers listed, and what appears to be a betting site for fantasy football.  Color me diversified.

Meanwhile, I'm always boggled by some of the bizarre things that come up in the keyword searches that refer people to my blog.  I've gotten everything from "evil porn," "whale's nipples" (seriously, people?), and "toddler sports bras" (I understand that obesity is a growing crisis in our country, but how many toddlers honestly require mammary support?) to "enlargement time delay electric shock physiotherapy" (WTH?), "ugly redhead perms," "nude dumkopf" (yes, I know it's misspelled), and "ginger boobs."  Well, alrighty then.  I guess I at least understand past hits from porn sites, but electric shock therapy?  Is that an editorial comment, or is it just something my readers think I need?  Not that I'm necessarily disagreeing, mind you.  I also never fail to be astonished by how many hits I get from variations of the word "macrame."  I realize why I get them, but could never have dreamed that people would still be obsessed with macrame even some 40 years after its heyday in the '70s.  You keep rockin' the hemp all you hoopy froods out there!

Some of this week's search offerings prove to be no less random than those previous:

First off, it's not my birthday and I'm not that old (or rather I don't act my age, as most of my friends would attest).  Secondly, "ginger redhead" is redundant and really, don't we ALL have red hearts?  I'm pretty sure that organ color is not  exclusively reserved for those of the ginger persuasion (though how cool would it be if it were?), at least not last time I checked.  I can only assume that the Schwan's man became frozen when a person or persons unknown shoved him into a freezer compartment of his own truck, possibly somewhere along Florida's Route 27.  Personally, I have absolutely no idea why either of these terms would show up in my blog stats, considering I've never been on route 27 (at least not to my knowledge) and I'm not generally in the habit of putting people on ice, regardless of how many mafia-related hits I seem to get.  Maybe all the Florida snowbirds are just desperate for a little ice-cream to relieve the excessive Floridian heat but couldn't afford Schwan's renowned sweet treats on their Social Security and pensions and so were forced by circumstances to do over the local Schwan's guy in order to liberate his stash of frozen nutty bars.  I'm guessing that would also explain why so many people were in dire need of peanuts.  Either that or the nearest sports stadium was looking to replace their depleted stash of peanuts before many people show up in the stands.

I realize that rabbiting on about keyword searches and referring urls probably isn't tremendously interesting for most of you and I suppose many people might even accuse me of having peanuts an over-active imagination.  While no doubt that's true, I prefer to think of it as a Creative Responsibility Avoidance Program (or CRAP for short).   Whatever gets me out of housework is okay by me.

Feel free to borrow my CRAP.  You're welcome.

13 February 2013

Remembering Brian

Years ago when I was in the English Department at Purdue, several of the new grad students each year got crammed into a "gang office" because there was not sufficient room to house us all in individual offices.  As a result, we were put into a large classroom lined wall to wall with desks and file cabinets and which included an island of four additional desks all butted up against each other in the middle of the room.  All told, there were probably at least 15 desks in the room, perhaps more; I can't remember exactly.  You can imagine how much privacy any of us ever had, particularly during student conferences and most especially near exams when everyone's final papers were due.  At these times the room would erupt in mass chaos as we all hosted the never-ending stream of ever-more desperate students hoping the magic "A-Fairy" would blithely ignore their past sins of missing classes and/or assignments and offer grade forgiveness.  Trying to get any grading or work of your own done in this atmosphere was frequently challenging, but the upside was that you always had backup when a student got unruly and you always had other instructors to offer advice on how to grade or handle difficult situations or whatever.  Later, as the older graduate assistants (GAs) finished their degrees, we were able to leave Grand Central (Teaching) Station for something marginally more private as we were rotated into their newly-vacated cubicles, sharing only with 2-3 other GAs rather than close to 20.

In some ways, though, I preferred the gang office to the pokey, dark closet/excuse-for-an-office I was eventually given for my home base.  While certainly it was often distracting to try to work in the larger office, you also always had peers to talk to and to hang out with, people who completely understood where you were coming from because they were in the same boat.  Amid the stacks of endless essays, each of our desks were dutifully lined with Great Works of Literature.  Our desk drawers, on the other hand, housed each of our secret literary vices.  One girl's desk hid a succession of romance novels, another's hid Stephen King novels, and still another's held People magazines.  Mine frequently housed Sci-fi/fantasy novels, among other things.  I always found it highly amusing that we all had a stash of something decidedly non-Literary (with a capital "L") on hand for the mindless breaks we all desperately needed from our own studies and from the piles of twitch-inducing freshman compositions.  No doubt most of our professors would have tongue-lashed us for reading such trashy and/or pedestrian novels when they weren't looking, calling them "drivel" or "fluff."  But we didn't care; one person's drivel is another person's sanity.

Another reason I secretly enjoyed the gang office was because I made some dear friends there that first year, a couple of whom I am still talk to regularly.  One of these friends was named Brian Mexicott (he kept old-school mystery novels like Mickey Spillane tucked in his desk drawers).  At the time, I was probably closer to Brian than to anyone else in the office; we were both very into theater and so often had classes like Contemporary Drama together.  We also even ended up being neighbors in an apartment complex for a couple of years after B and I were unexpectedly forced to vacate our previous residence after only two days because none of our friends had bothered to tell us it was in the middle of a crack neighborhood, and I didn't consider dodging bullets daily to be part of the academic's job description.  As a result, Brian and I hung out a lot and on nights when we both had a late class, and he would drive me back home across town after class since B had already left campus hours earlier in our only car.  Brian and I spent a lot of time in his little truck laughing our butts off and doing impressions of assorted professors as we traveled to and from campus.

Not long after completing my Master's I left town because B had finished all but the dissertation for his doctorate, which he intended to finish during his first year working as an assistant professor in Memphis.  So we packed up and headed south while all my friends, including Brian, stayed on at Purdue to complete their own doctorates.  I stayed in touch with Brian, though, and followed his progress as the years went by.  While he was working on giving birth to his dissertation, I was in Memphis giving birth to my daughter, neither effort any less a labor of love than the other.  A couple of years later I learned that Brian's deteriorating health had prompted him to move back home to Ohio so his mother could help look after him during his illness.  Brian continued to try to work on his research and dissertation (and his novel), though, and we continued to write each other, even calling each other on occasion.

Sadly, Brian's health continued to worsen; he developed throat cancer, which made it difficult to speak.  He lost his hair.  He got terrible rashes on his face and neck. He was miserable and scared.  And I was scared for him, because I knew he wasn't going to get better.  You see, my friend Brian had AIDS.  And even though it was ultimately cancer which took his life, Brian likely would never have gotten cancer at such a young age had his whole immune system not become so horribly compromised.

Brian and I continued to write, especially after he could no longer speak; he always asked about my daughter (so I'd send him pictures) and he always told me with pride about what his nieces were up to.  He showed me things he was  working on and he told me how he was feeling even though I know he played it down.  Through it all, he remained surprisingly witty and upbeat and tried not to dwell on the pain he was suffering.  But I still knew how difficult things were for him.  Even from a distance it's hard to watch a friend die.  I only wish he'd been able to complete his doctorate before he left us...he came close, though.

Brian passed away on January 5th, 1996 when my daughter was only 4.  I can remember her asking me why I was crying and trying to comfort me with her tiny little arms.  I was invited to the funeral, but unfortunately terrible weather conditions that week made it impractical and unsafe to drive the 10 hours to Ohio for the funeral.  Had I still lived in Indy, I probably would have tried to go anyway, assuming I could even get there.  His mother understood, though, and very kindly sent me a copy of the program.  I still have it.

A couple of months after Brian passed away his mother contacted me with a surprising request.  She was trying to put together a panel for the National AIDS quilt in memory of Brian.  Her daughter and granddaughters created a panel of their own, but his mother wanted several of Brian's friends to contribute to a second panel which would recognize their mutual interests.  She asked one friend who shared an interest in flowers with Brian to create a square commemorating that interest.  Another she asked to do something with his and Brian's fondness for photography.  She herself had a couple of Brian's poems transferred onto fabric to include in the quilt, as well as making a block for each of Brian's degrees.  Brian's mother asked other friends to provide similar such memorials.  She requested that I design a square which celebrated Brian's and my shared love of theater.  I had no idea what to create at first, but I was deeply touched to have been asked and more than honored to perform this small service for my friend.  Brian's mom gave me the details and specifications and I went to work.  In the end I made a stage, complete with velvet "curtains" on the sides.  In the middle were a couple of easels with placards announcing the names and acts of some favorite plays.  I even included a spotlight and the comedy/tragedy masks over the proscenium.  When finished, I mailed his mother my offering.  She sent me a note of thanks, and I never heard anything else about it till one day a few years ago when I was feeling nostalgic and happened to look Brian up online (there was no Google in 1996), where I found a reference to his quilt block.  His mother had sent me photos of the completed panels, but this was the first time I was able to see his panel, complete with my tiny square included, as part of the larger AIDS Quilt.  I kept a digital copy of the picture to remember Brian by, but I've still never seen either his panel or indeed any of the AIDS quilt in person.  Soon that will no longer be true.

As it happens, last month I saw a notice in my newsfeed from the local newspaper mentioning that the AIDS Memorial Quilt would be coming to my town.  Turns out that the AIDS organization here is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year; in an effort to raise awareness and to commemorate locals affected by the disease, the organization requested that sections of the quilt relevant to the city be brought over so they can be put on display downtown for three days.  Included in the article was a note that anyone could request additional panels to be included in this display and a link to the proper forms required for such a request.  I could hardly pass up the opportunity so I again looked up Brian's panel to retrieve his official panel block number.  In addition to providing some basic information, I also had to answer the question "Why you have chosen to request this panel for AIDS Athens 25th Year Commemoration?”  To be honest, I don't really remember what I wrote, other than to say that I had contributed to the panel and that the due date for the request form was almost 17 years to the day that Brian had died.  I mailed the form and then didn't think much about it afterwards, figuring I'd hear one way or another at some point since I'd had to include my email address.

A month and a half went by with no word, then on Monday I received an email from the director of the local AIDS organization stating that they had indeed been able to procure Brian's panel for the display and inviting me to attend the opening ceremonies next Monday at 6 pm, during which the names of everyone on the panels would be read out.  The director also asked permission to include my answer about why I was requesting the panel on Brian's quilt because it was "so lovely" that she wanted everyone else to understand the personal connection to his panel.  I was stunned.  Needless to say, I gave my permission straight away.

Brian was a good friend--a kind, sweet, witty guy who loved life and sought to make the world a better place through his art.  He didn't deserve to die so young or so horribly or with any of the stigma attached to his condition.  No one deserves that--no one.  He was just as human as any of the rest of us, and I think of him often.  Being asked to contribute to Brian's AIDS panel has been one of the signal honors of my life and I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity both to see the finished product in person and to remember the dear friend who inspired it.  I will be grateful to say a prayer over it for Brian's continued peace, as well as for that of his family and friends, and I will borrow Martin Luther King Jr.'s prayer for us all:

       “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of...prejudice will soon pass away,
        and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and
        brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating

Be at peace, dear friend...and thanks for all the rides.

06 February 2013

Genealogical Serendipity

Most people grow up having some sense of their history--who they are, where they came from, who they look like--what their overall heritage is.  When you grow up adopted things are different, or at least they were several decades ago when most adoption records remained sealed.  Of course I knew some of my adoptive parents' heritage; for example, my mother was Dutch all day long.  But I also knew that didn't mean I was.  Nor did I ever look like anyone in my family.  I was always just me, unique and wholly myself for better or worse.  Still, there is a certain advantage to that sort of anonymity and might in part explain why I always seemed to look like someone's uncle's cousin's babysitter's dog walker.  Since I never quite looked like anyone in particular, I instead looked like everyone.  Or so it seemed.

Naturally I had a history like everyone else but as far as I knew mine didn't begin till I was born.  There was never a sense of what had gone before because there simply wasn't a before.  Again, there are advantages to that, such as the ability to start out life with a clean slate.  After all, you can't be held accountable for whatever stupid things your ancestors may have done if you have no ancestors.  Life becomes what you make it, perhaps even more for adoptees than for everyone else.

More than a few times over the years I've wondered how I would fare in one of those "nature vs nurture" studies; how could I help but wonder how many traits I'd inherited from my birth parents vs how many I absorbed from being around my adoptive parents?  I've always known I picked up several habits (some good, some not-so-good) from my mother and, like my dad, I can be both a huge goofball or someone who talks big but who is really a giant softie underneath.  But which of my various traits were the result of my unknown genetic heritage?

Now that I've met NJ and we've been corresponding regularly for the last couple of months I'm starting to figure out what some of those traits are, and it's been freaky illuminating.  You know how sometimes in the news there are stories about twins separated at birth who grow up on different continents or in different cities in wildly disparate conditions and circumstances from each other?  And who, despite these divergences, still end up liking all the same foods or playing the same instruments or both running track or both flunking algebra?  Yeah, well, I'm starting to feel a bit like that too. Obviously my birth mom and I are not identical twins, but the number of similarities that we have thus far uncovered is a little scary.

What gets me, though, are not the commonalities themselves but the specificity of some of them.  For example, a lot of people could easily say they liked chocolate (who doesn't?), but how many would then qualify this declaration by stating that they prefer their chocolate to be broken up by other things, such as mint or wafers or Rice Krispies or whatever so that the chocolate will be less rich than if it were solid?  Apparently we both do that, just as we both abhor chocolate with coconut in it.  Well, I abhor coconut in anything really, but still.  Similarly, we both prefer hard candies to chocolate in general, but we also both chew the candy rather than sucking on it like normal people (a habit which drives the girlie bonkers, I might add).  Now really, how likely is it that we'd both do that?  A lot of people like Lifesavers, but how many of those people feel a need to pummel said Lifesavers to candy dust inside their mouths?  When I told B last night that NJ liked to chew her candy his eyes widened.  I'm the only other person he's ever known to do that consistently.  There are other coincidences, too.  And while there are physical similarities like our ultra-fine hair or big rack or dental issues, it's the little things--the unique quirks--which make this all so very real to me.

But it goes far beyond that.  Years ago, when my family traveled to England, we started out in London.  B was a royal pain, no doubt because of the sensory overload there.  A few days later, however, we got on an express train to Inverness.  The closer we got to Scotland, the more he relaxed, which made the girlie and me relax more as well.  Much of the countryside seemed grey and overcast, yet at the same time there was a palpable feeling of going home, of finding a place you belong, just because.  We all felt it.  Not surprisingly, we had a great time in Inverness and then Edinburgh, though sadly we didn't get to spend as much time in Edinburgh as we would have liked.   This journey with NJ is becoming a little like that as well.  While certainly it doesn't change how I felt about my adoptive parents in the least, I can't deny that there is a certain element of "coming home" to all of this discovery.

I'm learning that context is everything.  For example, I've been mildly obsessed with King Arthur and the legends surrounding him, both the old romances and more modern incarnations, for the majority of my life.  I wrote term papers on aspects of Arthurian legend in both high school and college.  I found it all terribly fascinating--not just the romantic idea of chivalry, but the concept of a unified government, where all men were essentially equal because they sat at a round table with no head and could therefore be equally heard.  I liked the philosophy of "right, not might."  Plus you've gotta love the sci-fi/fantasy aspect of some random Welsh dude getting a sword from a woman in a lake if for no other reason than because it spawned one of the most epic parody movies ever made courtesy of Monty Python.  So while I always thought King Arthur was pretty cool, I never expected to be tracking a line on my family tree one day and run smack into a whole cadre of Welsh forbears.  After all, I'd always assumed that I was part Irish or Scots rather than Welsh (though I may yet be once all the threads on my family tree have been traced).  Soon I began seeing familiar place names and familiar people--names I've read about in the Arthurian legends for years.  It was unexpected and exciting and remarkable.  Suddenly my lifelong affinity for Celtic mythology and artwork also started making more sense because, unexpectedly, there was a precedent for it--a genetic tie--just from a different Celtic nation than I'd anticipated.  To make things even more interesting, one of the Celtic names I've been randomly considering for my SCA persona is "Angharad," which turns out not only to be Welsh in origin but also turns out to be the name of about 10 of my Welsh ancestors.  Go figure.

As surprising as all this newfound Welsh heritage is, I was still stunned the other night to find the name "Anna Morgawse"--and especially the name of her father Uther Pendragon--in my family tree.  Uther Pendragon.  As in King Arthur's supposed father.  In most of the legends, Morgause is Arthur's half-sister, but according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the primary source utilized by Ancestry.com for Britons that far back, Anna Morgawse is actually Arthur's full sister.  This would make Uther Pendragon my 45th great-grandfather and King Arthur my 44th great-grand-uncle.  I was flabbergasted...fantasy meets reality.  Sort of.

Now don't get me wrong; I know that the likelihood of this connection being at all accurate is astronomically small.  I'm not an idiot.  After all, good old Geoff was about as scrupulous in his record-keeping as an amnesiac crack-head shooting up Drano would be.  And of course there are the chronological discrepancies between when the King Arthur of legend was supposed to have existed and those of the potential historical kings who could have been the basis for said legends.  Sure, I can plausibly trace my line back to Rhys ap Tewdwr and Rhodri Fawr (or Mawr, depending on which source you use).  But the Pendragons?  Yeah, that's a bit more of a stretch.  Doesn't mean I'm not gonna milk it, though, however unrealistic it might be.  More to the point, I find it remarkable that the possibility of relationship to King Arthur should arise at all after a lifetime of fascination with the king in question.  What are the odds of that, really?  I'm pretty sure Ancestry.com isn't charging for wish fulfillment.  Or maybe they are...who knows?

At the end of the day it doesn't matter that my "connection" to King Arthur is almost certainly bogus. There are enough legitimate Welsh kings back in my line that one or the other of them was bound to have been related in some way, however distantly, to whomever the real King Arthur was.  And I'm cool with that.  Either way, I've still gained more of a context for all my assorted interests and quirks.  I'm building a better understanding of how I became some of who I am, which is far more precious than any purported relationship to King Arthur. In other words, I'm finding my way home.

But you still have to start bowing.