“I, state your name,”…

I always laugh at certain Mel Brooks jokes, and “I, state your name,” is one of them.  This factoid seems like a good intro to this post, which is based on today’s WordPress Daily Writing Prompt, “Say Your Name.”  Here is the full text of the writing challenge:

Write about your first name: Are you named after someone or something? Are there any stories or associations attached to it? If you had the choice, would you rename yourself? 

To answer the last question first:  when I was a kid, I longed to be Joe, or Billy, or Bob (I was a Yankee, so Billy Bob wasn’t an option).  Somewhere along the line, Morgan began to fit.  I think what really cemented it was my years in the hi-tech world.  Before I left, it was so diverse that if you include international teleconferences, in a given month or even week, I might interact with people from China, Japan, India, Pakistan, Italy, Israel, England, and Arizona.  I learned that there is no such thing as a “common” name.

I was named after my mother’s father, and this is where family history takes a turn toward the novels of Thomas Hardy – a single tragic event that rippled through many lives.

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan and my mother, 1923

Grandfather Morgan was the son of a Dutch immagrant who became a paper tycoon. Not one to rest on family privilege, at the age of 17 he lied about his age to enlist in the war to end all wars.  Fortunately, WWI ended before he could get “over there.”

Back home, Morgan married my grandmother, June, a schoolteacher.  The couple moved to Richmond, Virginia to manage a paper mill.  My mother was born there in 1923.

In the 20’s, baseball fever was rampant, and Morgan pitched for the company team.  Sometime around 1928, a line drive caught him in the groin.  It hurts to even think about, and after a series of operations, he developed tuberculosis of the bone.  The family moved west, first to Tucson, then Prescott, Arizona, and finally to Albuquerque, where Morgan died in 1930.

My grandmother nursed him during that time and said that on his last night, he was joyous and smiling and said, “The worst is over now, I can feel it.”

My grandmother became quite the cowgirl.  Most of the roads were single lane, and the rattlesnakes could easily grow to six or seven feet long.  Coming upon them, Grandmother June would run over them with the model A – repeatedly – then climb out to cut off the rattles.  My mother had a snake phobia and was frightened even of rattles in the trunk.

Another time, when she was six, my mother climbed a rock spire in Prescott known as, “Top Rock.”  Once on top, she set up a wail, crying that she couldn’t get down.  Without a fire department to come to the rescue, June put on her boots, hiked up her skirt, and learned what she had to know about rock climbing on the fly.

In the end, the death of my grandfather, Morgan, affected everyone badly.  Grandmother June developed TB and spent several years in a sanatorium in Colorado.  Though she recovered, the disease affected her inner ear balance, so from her mid-30’s on, she had to use a cane.  She saw a psychiatrist for depression, something I never learned until she was gone, for at the time, it carried a stigma.

My grandmother believed there is only one true love in a person’s life.  Though men courted her well into middle age, she refused all offers, in order to “be true” to Morgan.  At the end of her life, when she lived with us, her depression returned.  She believed her life-long loneliness was a judgement from God.  This compassionate and adventurous woman died believing she must have sinned in some way that lay beyond atonement.

Understandably, my mother suffered from depression too.  Sometimes it manifested as a “sense of impending doom.”  If a picnic was planned, she’d be the one to look at the morning sky and say, “I hope it doesn’t rain.”  Both of these are tendencies I have to battle.

I never knew either grandfather.  Though there were uncles to teach me essentials like how to play poker, I know the lack of “wise old men” in the family contributed to what Robert Bly calls “Hunger for the father.”  Perhaps this helped nudge me toward the arts, where we learn that hunger can work like the grain of sand in the oyster that leads to the forming of pearls.

Sometimes I think about ancestor worship – not in the literal sense – yet some primitive part of me seems to believe that what we do now can affect those who came before.  That the effort to live well may carry some kind of redemption.  My grandfather Morgan’s story is filled with life unlived.  His name is a good one to carry – it reminds me that what I do matters.

The first time I went to a Zen sesshin, we ended each day of meditation by reciting this “Evening Caution:”

I beg to urge you, everyone:
each of us must be completely awake:
never neglectful, never indulgent;
life-and-death is a grave matter,
all things pass quickly away;

By the time I got there, I already knew that.  These truths lie embedded in family history.

Of Football and Family

I’m anything but a diehard sports fan, but I’ve noticed over the years that certain sporting events become unforgettable when they mark key moments in my life or our collective life.  Do you remember how moving the Super Bowl was in Feb., 2002?  Our nation was still hurting after the 9/11 attacks, but here was proof that we were not going to let anyone stop us from celebrating life.

I thought of my father yesterday.  Football was one of the ways he and I connected.  Thirty years ago, he and I talked on the phone with growing excitement as the season progressed, and this new quarterback, with the unusual name of Joe Montana, led the formerly hapless 49ers to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  The best game of the season, however, was the Division Championship game. Montana won it with an 89 yard drive after the two minute warning, and a justifiably famous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark with less than a minute to play.  This wasn’t just a persona moment; it set the entire region on fire after a difficult decade.

Montana to Clark, with 59 seconds in the game, Jan, 1982

My father moved up here to be with us in 1999, after he was diagnosed with a wasting illness. Mary and I spent most of our Sunday afternoons with him during football seasons. First lunch and then the afternoon game. My father died in 2007, and we haven’t watched much football since. Until this season. Until our “formerly hapless” 49ers took off so dramatically you couldn’t help but notice and want to follow along.

Yesterday it happened again, 30 years later, almost to the day. The niners won the Division Championship game with another spectacular drive and touchdown pass, this one with only seconds left. Another on-your-feet, unforgettable moment. Hopefully, something to rouse all of northern California after a difficult decade. My father would have loved this game.

Smith to Davis, with 9 seconds in the game, Jan, 2012

I don’t go in for sentiments like, “Maybe he was looking down from heaven.” Hopefully those in the afterlife have better things to do than peer over our poor shoulders. But I do believe – and I’ve heard various spiritual teachers hint at this – that the ancestors and those who are gone can pick up our prayers and love and kind thoughts. That’s a pretty good deal. And if football is the occasion, there is nothing wrong with that.

As the poet Lu Yu put it (quoted in The Tao of Pooh):

The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?

Father’s Day Musings

About ten years ago, a woman from the U.K. told me that in a British poll, Homer Simpson had been voted “the most influential living American.”  One thing hasn’t changed much over the last decade:  men don’t get a lot of respect in the popular media.  Best case, they come off as lovable though horny goofballs like Joey and Chandler on Friends.  Worst case they are portrayed as liars and nincompoops who couldn’t survive a day without the steadying hand of a woman.  Without Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburgers, some guys would starve.

If you believe the marketing experts who layout the Father’s Day advertising supplements, the male imagination is limited to Docker’s shorts, socket-wrench sets, wide-screen TV’s, and golf balls.

When I was in the first grade, my bus used to stop to drop off a boy at a corner then turn uphill toward my house a mile away.  One day that boy’s father shot himself; it was clearly accidental.  He was a WWII veteran who brought home a German luger, and as he was cleaning the gun, he forgot the round in the chamber.  The details were discussed all over the schoolyard and the kitchen table at home; how the man had tried to reach the telephone before he died.  I lay awake quite a few nights with this reminder of my father’s mortality.  I think of that boy every Father’s Day and wonder what thoughts he has.  It may be that no one appreciates a father as much as those who have lost or never had one.

Father’s Day is a nice time to celebrate the expressions of men’s generosity as they have appeared in our lives.  It’s a time to celebrate every man who ever told us, “You can do it,” and made us believe we could.

Tough Love, Math, Software, and Writing

One sunday afternoon, when I was in the second grade, I learned a key life lesson because my mother got tired of hearing me whine.  I had some difficult arithmetic homework.  Plus the afternoon was gorgeous, and I could see my friends playing baseball up the hill.  My mother was trying to show me how to work the problems, but I was having none of it.  “I caan’t,” I said.  “It’s too haard.”

My mother finally had enough, and said, in her no-nonsense voice, “Sit here, and do not move, until your homework is done.”


“No buts!” I don’t want to hear another word until you’re finished.”

After a quick review of alternatives, such as rafting down the Mississippi, I realized I was trapped – nothing left to do but figure it out.  I remember how delighted I felt when I did, but I didn’t begin to understand how important that lesson would be.  How often I would be faced with similar situations, especially in the world of work – critical problems that no one else knew how to solve – and what a boon it would be to think, “Let’s take a look,” instead of, “I can’t.”

There were times when I was younger when “practice situations” arose, and I remembered and took inspiration from that day in the second grade.  I fought a similar battle to learn formal calculus proofs as a freshman in college.  Another time my van broke down in Bakersfield, and I didn’t have enough to pay someone else to fix it.

I joined the high tech world before the phrase, “cutting edge,” became a cliche – when we really were trying things that hadn’t been done before.  Through luck and interest, I spent some years doing early work in a specialty sort of software.  That made it exciting, made us kind of important, but also meant when we were stuck, we were stuck.

In the second grade, my mother forced me to learn what it meant to do my best – really do my best.  In the world of math and software, it’s rather easy to gauge.  You pretty much know when you have a solution, and the harder you work, the quicker you get there.

It’s not so clear cut in writing.  Sometimes white-knuckle effort pays off, and sometimes it’s counter-productive.  The quality of the my work does not always correlate with “feeling inspired,” and I can’t really judge it until weeks or months go by.  Sometimes it’s best to sit at the table and and hammer away, and sometimes it’s better to go outside and play.  What works one day may not work the next.

I’ve said before, I love the image Joseph Campbell gave for the way the Knights of the Round Table set out to look for the Holy Grail.  Each of them entered a trackless part of the forest, for it would have been “shameful” to follow the trail made by another.  In trying to find my own way, charging ahead is probably not the best way to proceed.  Rather, it’s time to take my time, pay attention, listen especially to the strange hunch and “crazy” idea.  Watch what happens out of the corner of my eye.  Learn to enjoy the forest and let it go, for as T.S. Eliot said, “The rest is not our business.”