It was fifty years ago (December 17, 1962) that I was born, squalling and all scrunch-faced, undoubtedly looking a lot like the little old man I am bound to become if I should live so long, in the VA hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. My mother was nineteen at the time, single or recently divorced, I never quite got a reliable recounting of the tale, and already had a child, a girl born nineteen months before me. My older sister (stepsister?) was the product of the marriage from which Mom was either divorced, or not. I’m not really sure who my father is. I’m pretty sure it’s not the guy to whom Mom was married for a short while, who fathered my sister, but that was Mom’s official story, and there is no way to really know. Mom went to her grave never having resolutely cleared the matter up, although there have been rumors and behind-the-back murmurs from her side of the family about my paternal heritage for so long as I can remember.
The one and only time Mom and I ever talked about it, she told of a red-headed doctor who she worked with at the VA who had hired her husband (a guy with the nickname “Kid Cobra”, because his fists struck like a cobra’s in the boxing ring) to paint his house. I have red hair, blue eyes and an IQ at least half again as high as that of my older sister. My sister has black hair and black eyes. Kid Cobra was half Cherokee. Alas, a mystery that will never be resolved. I lean towards the red-headed doctor, who Mom did admit was quite the lady’s man, but there is no way to know for sure, as my sister would never agree to be tested, and two children from the same union are at times so completely different that no one who didn’t already know would never put them together. It’s possible we’re full-blooded siblings, but improbable.
Not much remarkable happened the day of my birth. The Beatles made their first appearance on British TV. The Constitution of Monaco was promulgated (whatever “promulgated” in that context means—it is a tidbit I found on http://www.historyorb.com/date/1962/december/17). The weather in Birmingham was bitterly cold. Several record low temps were set in the days leading up to the 17th of December in 1962—December 13 had the coldest high temperature ever recorded in December in Alabama. Why in the world I wanted to leave the warmth of the womb for the cold harsh world that awaited is beyond me.
In the first pictures I’ve seen of me, about age five or six, I look something like an orange-flavored lollipop, with a huge head covered in orange hair poised over a spindly body. People always called my hair color “red”, which confused me, or did as soon as I learned my colors, because there is no such thing as naturally occurring red hair in humans, and red was certainly not the color of my hair—the closest human hair ever naturally gets to red is orange, roughly the color of the citrus fruit of the same name that comes into season down in Florida this time of year, which is also the color my hair then was. It is darker now, more burnt orange, like the color of autumn, but has oddly not much gray or white, yet.
I was adopted at age four and half by Mom’s new husband, a soon-to-be doctor himself. Which is probably why I never pursued a medical career, even though I probably had a doctor’s genes in my bones, and was bred to it later on. I suspect redheaded stepchildren rarely aspire to follow in their stepfather’s footsteps. Though I was technically not a stepchild, as I had been adopted, blood is thicker than water, a lesson I would learn again and again through the years of my raising and beyond. The doctor’s natural children, of which he had two, were always treated differently than were either of me or my older sister.
It was probably before I was adopted, when it was just me and Mom and my older sister, that I developed my curmudgeonly outlook on life. Being raised by what amounted to two irrational female children, I learned early on to believe not much of anything I saw, and none of what I heard. I knew practically from the very beginning that if I was to survive, it would be on my own wits and initiative, and that the universe did not much give a damn about my particular needs. My first memory, probably around late three or early four, was of being so desperate to escape the oppressive irrationality of existence under the tutelage of the two females that I decided to strike out on my own. I made it as far as the Egg-A-Day, the corner grocery down the street from the house we rented, before Mom found me and reeled me back in, for a while anyway.
I think it was because my inherently skeptical nature was nurtured and hardened in the crucible of the early raising I received at the hands of the matriarchy (my older sister ran roughshod over my mother pretty much her whole life), I can’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus, or any other of the cultural myths to which I was heir. I no more believed that a fat man in a red suit climbs down a chimney to give out presents at Christmas time than I believed that God became flesh, died, and then was resurrected. It was easy to discount the Santa myth, as it was obviously impossible that anyone could do the things he was credited with doing. And the fact I knew the adults were lying about Santa perhaps made it easier for me to discount the myths of my Judeo-Christian heritage. But my strategy, every time I discovered something I was being told was just another lie, was to henceforth ignore the liar so much as was possible, or failing that, to heavily discount anything they said. The end result was that I pretty much raised myself. I got’s no one to blame but myself.
I was a decent athlete, a bit above average, but nothing special, and a pretty good student, well above average, but never the smartest in my class, except for my first two years of school, which were in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where Mom’s new husband had been stationed as soon as his draft deferment for medical school ran out. When we moved back to Alabama, I found there was one kid in my grade who could beat me, by just a sliver, on academic exercises, so I quickly lost the crown of being the smartest kid in the class, but didn’t much care. I cared more about sports. I would have gladly traded a lower IQ for more athletic ability, were such a bargain possible.
I played football from the 4th grade all the way through to high school graduation. I was good at football, beyond what might be reckoned on sheer athletic ability, mainly, I think, because I was mean. I loved to hit. But I wasn’t good enough to play in college.
I joined Army ROTC while in college at Alabama because I needed money to pay for school. The doctor who had adopted me had pretty much cut me off when I decided to transfer to Alabama after my first year of going to a local private college affiliated with the church to which he belonged, one which he heavily favored and endorsed. There was no way I could qualify for financial aid or anything like that what with his salary (which mattered, since he had adopted me, and wasn’t just my stepfather), so between him squeezing me with his stinginess and his big doctor salary preventing help from the school, I was sort of screwed. It was 1982, and there were no jobs, so I sold my plasma my first year at Alabama to pay the bills. Mother was not too happy with the doctor when she found out.
When it came time to graduate, I had done well enough in school until the Army offered to teach me to fly helicopters. I was never one of those guys who dreamt all their lives of becoming a pilot, but I figured it might be a fun way to see a bit of the world outside of Alabama, so agreed. Six years later, as I was shipping off to fight for the free flow of cheap oil for American soccer moms and their hulking SUV’s (Desert Storm in 1991), after having just gotten married and full of hope for what post-military life would bring, I had my misgivings, but it was too late by then to do anything about it.
After I got out of the Army (shortly after Desert Storm), I didn’t really know what to do, so I kicked around the deserts of West Texas and Southern New Mexico for a year selling tire supplies (my new wife had been transferred with her job to a box plant in El Paso). Then I decided to go to law school. I did really well on the LSAT, scoring in the 93rd percentile (meaning only 7% of those taking it scored higher) which is sort of ironic, because I rarely understand much of anything that comes out of the mouths of lawyers. But the score and my grades allowed my pick of law schools—I even got into my “reach” school, Columbia, in New York. I was offered a full ride, books, tuition and a stipend, at my alma mater, Alabama. But I decided on Texas, as it was the best for the money (Columbia wasn’t offering any money, while Texas had agreed to allow me in-state tuition, even though I didn’t meet the residency requirement). In retrospect, I should have picked Alabama, because that’s the state in which I ended up practicing, and it’s better to go there than even Texas, if you’re planning to practice law in Alabama. Like a senior partner in a firm where I clerked for a time asked, “Couldn’t you have just stayed in the SEC?” Things are quite provincial down here, as you might imagine. But coming back to Alabama was never really the plan, or at least wasn’t, until my first kid was born in the second year of law school.
I suppose it was to prove a point to my mother that I came back to Alabama. I wanted to show her that you can’t just rejigger familial relationships to suit yourself—that a woman giving birth to a child owes a duty to that child to be honest about where they came from—who their fathers were, etc. So I vowed that my kids would know, so far as I could tell them, from where it was they had come. My wife was from Alabama also, so she didn’t object, or probably much concern herself, with following my personal vendettas back to the state. I figured I had made my point by the time my mother died. My kids knew her well, and attended her funeral, which was a far cry from my experience. By the time my mother’s mother (my maternal grandmother) died many years earlier, I hadn’t seen her in over fifteen years, and didn’t even bother attending her funeral, such was my mother’s obsession with crafting a veil of reality from the whole cloth of her imagination that she had effectively excluded my grandmother from my life, the only person who could have contradicted her stories. Mom couldn’t allow her mother to intrude upon her fantasia with a different version of reality. But now that Mom’s dead, I see no reason to keep up the charade of a relationship with the rest of my kin. Mom’s funeral was the last family gathering I have attended.
Once in Alabama, I sort of stumbled into a real estate transaction practice, as I couldn’t stomach the boredom of courtrooms, and real estate was beginning to boom by 1998, which is when I struck out on my own, after working for a time with a local lawyer who later became a judge. I made a pile of money, and rather quickly. By 2005, even after having endured the displacements accompanying my son’s first bone marrow transplant for leukemia (2001), I had paid off the house and the cars and put enough money away to put both the kids through college. And I had somehow managed, after the first harrowing experience of caring for a person going through that most debilitating and dangerous of medical procedures known as a bone marrow transplant, to spend some time contemplating what all of it meant, or if it meant anything. When my son’s second transplant rolled around, I was much better prepared than the first time, both in knowing and understanding the disease mechanisms behind leukemia, and in understanding a bit better what it meant to be alive and human.
In the meantime, and with relatively little effort on my part to help her along the way, my daughter grew up, transformed from a cute little girl into a beautiful young woman, with only a bit of awkward pubescent teen in between, almost it seemed, in the blink of an eye.
And through all of the fifty years, my soul has stumbled and bumbled around, trying to make sense of things, trying to see the world as it is, always searching for that one universal truth, to find the key that would unlock the secrets to the meaning and purpose behind everything, to discover a grand unified theory for life. And what have I found? That there ain’t one, or if there is one, it hasn’t yet been discovered. And that anyone who tries to claim otherwise is lying. The Grand Unified Theory for Life is as elusive as the grand unified theory of physics. But I have discovered a few truths along the way; it is with these that I’ll conclude this retrospective naval gazing on the occasion of my fiftieth year:
~Everything is relative, just as Einstein observed (even if he couldn’t use that observation to pin down, in a unified manner, the true nature of the universe). There is no such thing as objective reality, except from the perspective of the individual perceiving it, or in the case of mental abstractions. For example, it is objectively real that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees for every observer, so long as the observation takes place as an abstraction of the mind, and not as an exercise on a piece of paper, because there is no such thing as a real triangle, according to the tenets of Euclidian geometry, except in the recesses of the mind. For everything else, i.e., for the world outside of the mind, reality is inherently subjective, always dependent on the observer’s perspective and his particular sensory mechanisms for perceiving it.
~All that can be confidently said about the universe and everything in it is something of a derivative of the theory of evolution—that the universe exists because it can. Human beings exist because they can. All we really know about why a thing exists is that it can. The purpose of being is being.
~If the purpose of being is being, then the meaning and purpose of life must be lunch (or the acquisition of lunch, and all of the other necessaries of life, for so long as existence is possible, unto eternity).
And that’s about it. In fifty years of existence, to borrow a phrase from a Jimmy Buffett song, of “…good times and riches and son of bitches, I’ve seen more than I can recall…” But through it all, I never lost sight of the true meaning and purpose for my life. I always ate lunch.