Faces to go with Names.

Here is a portrait of James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923), my great, great grandparents referenced in the last obituary post.

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James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923)

Remembrance in the 1920s Newspaper.

While my mind is still musing on the modern-day obits section of the newspaper, here are two obituaries from my Ohio side of the family. James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923) are my great, great grandparents. They lived in Adams County, Ohio at the end of both of their lives.

The obits are actually pretty diverse. James’ spends a good deal of time detailing his last day of life, while Allie’s focuses primarily on her virtuousness. Could it be gender at play, or diversity in obit author styles?

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Obituaries for James A Graham (1855-1925) and Viola Alice (Allie) Kelly (1858-1923)

How Not to Write An Obituary.

I use to read the obituaries every week in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. I’d look for the oldest person to die and then read their obit for inspiration. Where did they come from? What did they do with all that time they had? And, there was also a tinier voice asking, “How do I get to where they were? How can I absorb so much of life too?”

Then there were always the sad obits. They were of people of my own age, my parents’ ages, friends’ ages. There were the little annual memorials to kids lost far too early; reminders that the memory of them continued to age, though they did not. It was these obits that started to bring me down. I started to identify a little too closely to some stories, some timeframes. In the older obits any form of identification was a bonus, but with these young departed it was too real a reminder of what obituaries signify: someone has left the building.

2016 has been a rough year for death, and particularly for music fans, as several well-known and loved lumnaries of the profession have passed on. On Thursday I found out that my Great Uncle Jerry moved on. He’d been sick for years, in a slow, slow decline that gradually robbed him of the ability to do many of the things the able-bodied take for granted. He wasn’t a musician, but I did learn very recently that he enjoyed photography.

It was almost a funny thing to learn that he liked photography. I knew he worked as a truck driver for years, as he’d tell stories from the road. In all non-obit-like honesty, Jerry presented himself as a tough trucker guy from rural Oklahoma. He’d sit around the house, smoking away, and puffing out homophobic, sexist, and racist things in a loud voice (when he still had a volume dial to turn up on his vocal cords). I never knew anything about him acting on any of his words, but the words were still tough to hear sometimes.

Is this speaking ill of the dead? It is at least speaking truth. I don’t aim to rob him of his humanity by glossing over the way that he presented himself. At the same time I don’t aim to portray him negatively either. I don’t aim to portray him in any other way than the very way he portrayed himself.

I think where this becomes complicated, is that the public presentation of self is often conflated with things that reside outside the self, or roles we are trying to play in society. Depending on the person it can be easy to be consumed by the reflection you’d like to see, rather than drawing on an internal well. It’s tough.

I think there are lovely things about Jerry that I never knew. There was something in him that my Great Aunt saw, and I adore her. He had a good wit, though it was often misdirected to social baggage better left behind in the 20th century. I don’t know enough about where he grew up and what formed him in his early years. I want to know more, I want to better understand.

In the meantime I will remember Jerry. I can’t bring myself to honor the dead by distorting the past, but I can respect the context in which people lived, and strive to better understand all angles of humanity. And sometimes I still sneak a peek at the obits page, and sometimes there is still beauty and inspiration in death.

Roadside: The Lafayette Hotel, San Diego, California

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I use to find myself in San Diego more often, but these days I barely even get as far south as Orange County. The work and school double header schedule keeps me on my toes (or more accurately keeps my butt glued to a chair and my eyes crossed in the glow of a computer screen). Thankfully this summer a work conference pulled me out of my orbit around the center of Los Angeles, and sent me out into the wilds of the Balboa Park region of San Diego.

I have a soft spot for old hotels, and when I get to pick the pillow I lay my head on at night, you can bet it’s going to be in a location that’s at least twice my age, if not older. The bright side to this travel affinity is that older hotels are often cheaper, or at the very least equivalent in price, to a decent mid-range modern chain. That was definitely the case on my recent conference jaunt, that led me to a very budget friendly but snazzy stay at the Lafayette Hotel.

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The photos on the web really don’t do the location justice. Sure, there’s a great pool and it was in a convenient location for Balboa Park. But what tops it all is the lingering mid-century pizzazz. It’s like all those years of star stays left a little sparkly residue.

The rooms themselves are clean and relatively basic, but then you get the old bathroom style and the big old windows. The lobby area is really where you feel jazzy. The umbrellas hanging off the ceiling look a little silly in photos, but in person they work.

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And then you can drink San Diego craft beer while overlooking the pool. Good beer outdoors with a view – here’s my number Lafayette, you’ve got my heart.

That time I had a hometown.

Stuff cool nerd kids liked in the early 2000s./Corner of my high school bedroom.

Stuff cool nerd kids liked in the early 2000s./Corner of my high school bedroom.

Sometimes there is sadness embedded in a present place. It’s too rooted in the sweeping movements of the second hand and no longer able to be the thing it was many pages of the calendar ago.

I grew up in a 1960s suburban ranch style house in the East Bay in Northern California. The house still sits on the same suburban street, but it’s now a much more expensive neighborhood with houses priced only for the very affluent tech workers of Silicon Valley.

It had a driveway, a decent sized front yard and a big backyard with a lemon tree and an orange tree. There was also a jungle of ivy along the side of the house and a lollipop tree. My parents were never very fond of the landlord, who delivered rent increase notices at Christmas, but to me he was just a slightly scary older person who left suckers in the lollipop tree on occasion. One time when he backed out of the driveway he took out the last bush in a row of front yard shrubbery. The little plant stuck to the back bumper of his car and bobbed along in the breeze as he drove away.

The things I remember about living there are very rooted in the physical space. We’d always tell newcomers to look for the house with the “bright green trim.” The bulk of the house was painted an off white color, but the almost neon green paint that framed the house really made it stick out. (Clearly no HOA forcing bland paint colors on the neighborhood.)

When we first moved in the carpet was a brown, ancient almost shag carpet. The kitchen countertops were a chipped mint laminate. In the decade plus of living there the landlord did eventually replace the counters and carpet, but he hired cheap day labor and orchestrated most of the “improvements” himself. Nothing ever quite lined up right.

Nothing quite lining up is also an accurate descriptor of my feelings about my childhood home. My parents always had some resentment toward me considering this my childhood home, but it was. Most of my growing up memories center on the place.

My departure from the Bay Area as an adult-in-training was shortly followed by my parents’ exodus from the place. I use to always make a pilgrimage to the house when I would go back to the Bay to visit friends. Strangers rented it by then, but my mind erased the foreign cars in the driveway and imagined summer nights running through the front yard grass (getting eaten by mosquitos) or days drawing chalk roads and traffic signs on the sidewalk.

My weirdo drive-by visits to my childhood home made sense the first couple years. I’d drive by and little things would change. The neon-y green trim color was toned down. The plants in front of the house were altered. More strange cars parked in the driveway. But still, this is the filter I saw the world through for so many years as a child. This was home, this was a place that made sense. Or at least I fought for it to make sense in my head.

I stopped driving by my childhood home a few years ago. I started realizing that I was assigning some sort of false sense of security and identity to a place that no longer existed. I even feel off telling people I’m from the East Bay. My childhood was there, but beyond that my family historically only dipped their toes in California. We aren’t Californians, though I am a Californian. It’s such a weird disconnect to have in the relationship between people and place; between family and individual identity.

In driving past the old rental house I was trying to have some sense of belonging or roots in a hometown of some sort. In the early years of leaving home that worked to some extent, but now I see the construct I built for myself and the functional role it filled. It did its job and then it retired. It always was someone else’s home in truth, but now it’s also someone else’s home in fiction too.

The place lost its meaning, and with it I’ve had to let go. It use to make me sad, but now I focus more on the bright points of child memory over jarring adult reality. It was there for all the doll soap operas and school lessons, the fake perfume making sessions, and the backyard burritos assembled from fallen lollipop tree leaves and blossoms. I’ll always have the memories of sunny days of running through the sprinkler, roller blading around the concrete slab patio, or having elaborately themed birthday parties. I don’t need a physical touchstone to remind me of these things – all these good things filtered out of the more expansive memory pool.

Roadside: BBQ Chip Road Trip

Michigan has game when it comes to 20th century snack foods.

Michigan has game when it comes to 20th century snack foods aka the beginnings of helping Americans make themselves fat.

In 2013 I went on a road trip through 11 states in 8 days. Along the road there were plenty of stops at gas stations, and at each one I tried to find something different that I hadn’t seen before. A couple states in I started to realize that there was something regional in the potato chip aisle. Though now-national brands like Lays are well represented across the U.S., little odd ball and generic-y brands would pop up. I decided to make it my road trip quest to find the best of the BBQ chips.

I don’t eat a lot of chips these days, but as a kid BBQ Ruffles were one of my favorites. As an adult I’m a big fan of the spicy heat of Grippo’s BBQ chips, my Dad’s hometown crispy potato. During the road trip from Colorado to Ohio, and then up through Michigan to Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, a few chips came close along the way, but I still didn’t find a chip to surpass the Grippo’s spice.

I resurrected the BBQ chip hunt on my latest road trip jaunt through Arkansas and East Texas and figure it’s time to start recording all those BBQ feelings before I complete forget. Still no new champions, but the quest continues. The contenders so far, along with my completely subjective and non-scientific opinions:

Regional BBQ Chip Rankings as of 2015 June:

  1. Grippo’s Bar-B-Q
  2. Better Made Special Barbecue
  3. Golden Flake Sweet Heat Barbecue
  4. Old Dutch Bar-B-Q
  5. Urge Barbeque
  6. Guy’s Barbeque

The Rust Belt region understands the fine art of properly spiced BBQ chips. This is only a scratch on the BBQ dust coated surface, so the rankings will grow as I get the chance to snack in new places. BBQ chip recommendations welcome.

Momday

Always thirsty - for knowledge, for beverages.

Always thirsty for knowledge.

From an early age my Mom instilled in me the idea that “haters gonna hate.” In grade school she put a little laminated clipping in my lunchbox with a picture of Albert Einstein and his quote, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Kids can be really mean to each other, but my Mom made sure I had perspective and understood that things other people say about you or to you explain a lot more about them than you. I think this is one of the most valuable things my Mom taught me. That it’s ok to be your weird self. That being quirky and creative is a value, even if others react to it negatively.

Now I surround myself with a bunch of openminded wonderful people or “great spirits” and mostly only encounter mediocre mind attitudes on the internet. There’s a lot of ugly out there in the world, and I don’t ignore it, but I feel like you need to be secure in yourself first. Like the airplane safety instructions that tell you, “You must secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help someone else.” Then it’s easier to have compassion and perspective because your own negative feelings aren’t getting tangled up in your reactions. Often easier said than done, but not impossible.

One lesson of many, thanks Mom!