I Hereby Bequeath to You My Aloofness and My Fascination with Dinosaurs

Shared Shakespeare. Photo by kajmeister.

“Being of sound mind,” my grandfather said, licking the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices from his fingertips, “I spent it all.”

We were seated in his huge steel gray Cadillac, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken because he seemed to get a kick out of contrasting his wealth with the idea of eating fast food in the car, as a weird way to impress out of town family. He had built up a thriving business and owned a huge house overlooking a creek that flowed into the Mississippi in a swanky suburb of Minneapolis. Grandpa liked to show off its technical gadgets to his grandchildren, although woe betide any who touched the remote control that opened the curtains or turned on the lights. Whenever my mother referred to “the rich,” I knew she meant her father.

When he died, though, I don’t know where the money went. He had nine children and there were medical needs for my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s. The only thing my mother seemed to inherit from him was a restless industriousness and a fanatic desire to prove herself. She passed that on to her children.

This week’s topic is inheritance and, while first thoughts turn to wealth, for most of us inheritance is about traits, values, and interests. If we’re lucky, maybe a prized object or two as well. We all inherit; it’s rarely money.

Jasper John’s “Untitled.” Photo from StudioInternational.com.

No Broom, Forty Years Later

My mother taught classes about American art, especially modern art, so our house was always full of museum-ordered prints of Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe. I kept the O’Keeffes when she died and added a dozen more. I love the colors.

She also had a Jasper Johns’ print made up in 1973 when we moved to California (“Untitled” which I have always thought is cheating from an artist, but never mind). The wall didn’t have room for the whole picture, which is not entirely rectangular and has a real broom hanging off one side. I remember her agonizing about cutting off the broom because it is part of the artistic point of the picture–Johns was famous for incorporating “real” things into his painting. You can read a few thousand words on this revolutionary contribution to art here. Meanwhile, my mom cut the broom off.

Jasper still hangs, 47 years later. Photo by kajmeister.

The painting hung in our three living rooms during the 1970s and eventually was moved to her bedroom as other newer views took the prime spot in the room for entertaining. She died when my children were young, so I ended up with more than half of her things. Much was given away, but I had all these prints of Trova and Wyeth and The Luminists, some in the garage for a while. My three-year-old son, though, was given a primary color scheme in his room. So, next to red and yellow sketches of trains and airplanes that we painted on the wall, we put the Jasper.

When my son went through his forest-green-and-black Naruto room phase, the painting was sequestered to the back of the laundry room, where it gathered dust. However, I’ve put it back now in this guest room/office that he has left to go research optics for his doctorate, in another city. The frame is bent, and at one point I had hung it upside-down, but I dig the colors. During Zoom calls, I can see it in my background, and it makes me very happy. Frankly, I don’t think Jasper would object, even without the broom.

My parents both had large libraries, and part of my own large library is from them and because of them. Plus, I married an avid reader who now writes for a living. We’re proudly drowning in bookshelves. My dad bought me some Virginia Woolf when I was a teenager; I wrote my college thesis on Woolf. He bought me Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, too, which I didn’t care for at age twenty. I had an online class last month on American rivers, though, and finally read the Twain–it was stupendous. Apparently, my father had to give it to me in 1977 so that I could read it last month.

One of my most prized possessions is a copy of Shakespeare’s main plays, a black-bound tome with my father’s nameplate in the front and a mimeographed copy of one of my mom’s weekly student assignment sheets stuck in the back. I used it for my college Shakespeare class, as did both of my parents, so on a few of the pages, I can recognize all three sets of handwriting. Come to think of it, that was before my mother had died, so I didn’t exactly inherit it, did I? More like filched it from her office. She probably didn’t really mind.

Life Insurance Bah Humbug

I’ve been to my share of Financial Planning seminars, which always include a huge component for estate planning. Everyone should have a will and an advance healthcare directive, but life insurance has always been a pet peeve of mine. I think it’s a crock, only of value if you have young children. Otherwise, I’ve never understood why I should invest in something that goes to other people when I’m dead. Why would I care? If they want to invest in something that goes to them when I’m dead, fine. I don’t mind creating assets that I pass on to my children, but I hate having a greedy insurance salesman tugging on my heart strings as a way of tying up that money. That’s when I start channeling my snarky grandfather, taking a big bite out of an Extra Crispy leg or a buttered biscuit in his boat of a car.

My mother’s version of estate planning wasn’t bad. She gathered all her important papers together and put them in this Knott’s Berry Farm jelly box with a big sign that said IF I DIE on it. Since she did die, unexpectedly, it was the greatest gift to me! We’re still trying to sort through the disorganized mess that was the rest of her scholarship, twenty years later, but her will and funeral instructions were all in one place.

In case of death, open box. Photo by kajmeister.

So this is part of my inheritance to pass on. We’ve put our papers in said same box and showed them to our children, who didn’t seem to be paying attention. (I suspect they didn’t want to think about it, but, really! have these conversations when you’re way too young.)

What We Pass On

My mother also taught Drama in high school and directed plays when I was young. I was in Drama in high school. My daughter was in Theater Workshop and now is going to teach music in high school (whenever Covid lets them do that). We are all teachers; all three of us enjoy the stage. I believe my mother and some of her brothers and sisters also had a little family band, while Grandpa played the violin. Apple, tree.

Stage ham, generation one (Mrs. Peachum). Photo from a family friend, 1976.
Stage ham, generation two (A mime for a version Three Musketeers played for elementary school kids). Photo by kajmeister’s mom.
Stage ham, generation three. (Middle school theater workshop). Photo by kajmeister.

My son is excessively frugal. I had a colleague once who told me that I was so cheap that “I squeak.” This woman had married a wealthy man and was working to relieve boredom; I was a starving student at the time. However, she was dead right. I know where my son gets it from.

My daughter is an obsessive gamer. Lee builds extensive spreadsheets for their Dungeons and Dragons character with a logic that is probably from my genes. Yet when Lee goes online and starts shooting zombies maniacally in Overdraft and Dead by Daylight, they bear an uncanny resemblance to my spouse, in Karin’s old Majesty and Pac-Man days. When the three of us play card games, I quickly get pincered between their attempts to outmanuever each other. I can only hope they pick each other off and leave me to cross the finish line unnoticed, but that’s usually not the case.

My father worked hard and diligently all his life but through bad luck and mismanagement (some his, some other people’s), died without a pension or assets to reflect it. This taught me–aged 39 when he died–a lot about financial planning for the future. Retiring from full-time work at age 55 was through learning from his experience.

My mother worked hard and diligently as a teacher and a creative thinker all her life and retired with a tidy sum of money. She planned to use it for a long and productive retirement, full of grandiose plans for writing and traveling internationally, which was cut short by her accidental death only four years into those grand plans. This also taught me something about having a sense of urgency with life and a desire to not put things off.

My inheritance from them was rich, indeed.

The New Normal is Still Us

For today’s question, let’s consider the metaphysics of identity–wait! don’t run away! I promise to make it relevant, not full of highfalutin’ ideas! The intrepid Fandango wonders:

Is the concept of “you” continuous or does the past “you” continually fade into the present and future “you”? Considering that your body, your mind, and your memories are changing over time, what part of “you” sticks around?

Provocative Question #80

To me, this smells strongly of the Theseus Paradox, a thought experiment from the Classical Age of Greece, although my thoughts turn more contemporary. Never mind the You… what about Us? What can the Theseus Paradox tell us about living through a pandemic?

Theseus Paradox

The Theseus Paradox, video courtesy of Carneades.org

Theseus, after slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth of Crete, sailed home to Athens a hero. His ship was preserved and placed on display for all to see as a testament to his success and valor. Over time, the wooden ship rotted and planks were replaced. Then, the mast, bits of sail, rope certainly … and as decades and centuries wore on, all of the individual bits of the ship were replaced. Some of those replacements may have even changed the angle of the mast and the structure of the hall, since the blueprints were lost. Years later, the ship may not have even looked the same.

The paradox at heart, then, is If the entire ship is replaced, was it the same ship? That’s how I would rephrase that provocative question: What is the essence of You given that You are constantly changing? For some, the answer might be a religious one that mentioned the idea of the soul. For others who describe themselves as spiritual rather than adhering to a specific religious doctrine, they might say it’s your aura.

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Past Picture Perfect

Me, photo suitably dated Dec. 63. See my blog about How to Assemble a 3000 piece puzzle. Photo courtesy of kajmeister.

I have some picture-taking advice for my younger self. Have we invented that time machine yet, so I can go back and tell me? And, while I’m at it, tell my parents and my wife?

Maybe while I’m waiting for the Singularity to work on that, I can just tell you the basics that rank highest on the list. Write stuff down. Reduce to what’s important. Focus on people, not things.

This is top of mind because I just finished part two of the massive picture project–the one we all have–organizing and digitizing our photos. I think that’s on everyone’s “When I’m Retired” list which could also be “When I’m Furloughed… When I’m Stuck Inside for Days on End…” It doesn’t make the project more fun that you might have some time to work on it, though. But you should get started because those pictures are fading as I write. Plus global warming.

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Trash Dance

Photo of plastic lid to collect compost
How shall I collect compost? Let me count the ways… photo by kajmeister.

The biggest excitement in my life for the past week has been hearing the Bulky Trash people pick up my pile of Things. Last Monday, at 7:02 am, after the morning compost truck had banged its way along our suburban street, I heard the sound of backing up. I was, in fact, waiting for it; had, in fact, already gone out to examine the pile we had sneaked out there after dark on Sunday night to see if it was still humbly awaiting pick-up. (It was.)

Oh beautiful Bulky Trash truck, I was never so glad to see you! I heard the discussions outside in between sounds of metal scraping on concrete; I heard dragging; I heard crunching. Then, the Doppler effect of that engine driving away, and I dared to peek. All gone! All gone! I spent the rest of the day humming to myself and doing a little ceremony and dance, Bulky Trash! Bulky Trash! Everybody do the Bulk-y TRASH! Do you think me simple for getting so excited about trash? Definitely. To paraphrase Jango Fett, I am a simple person just trying to make my way through the universe.

Our Education Regarding Trash

We have come a long way just in my lifetime dealing with the Things we acquire and then jettison. Sesame Street many moons ago had a video with a little song, What about garbage? Where’s it go?Where’s it go-o-o-o? as they showed smiling men putting the trash in the trucks, and the trucks putting it on the barges, and off the barges sailed into the sunset….. Well… not exactly, right?

We learned when we got older and put away childish things that the trash got dumped in the ocean. Or landfills which filled up, begatting new landfills and more and more, until we realized we were going to run out of land for landfills. Voila! Earth Day and the 1970s and recycling, first a few hippies dragging trash bags full of beer cans, then a whole industry, and finally a regulatory imperative. Fast cut to 2020 where we have tri-partite trash, multi-colored cans, and 79% of our county trash avoids landfills.

But it’s not so easy, is it? Even though the Bay Area has some of the highest recycling rates in the country, even San Francisco has had to extend its Zero Waste goal another ten years, stuck at 89% because of leather, rubber, flame retardants. Or, as I found out, because nobody wants a 20-year-old metal bunk bed. We already separate out all the organics, cans, bottles, foil, paper, cardboard, egg crates, hard-molded plastic, yet there’s still cellophane. There are still Cheetos bags. (Don’t judge.)

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The Devil You Know Is Not Better

Removing Boalt name from building
UnBoalting. Photo by Roxanne Makasjian at berkeley.edu.

I read with some slight dismay that Berkeley’s Law School has decided to remove Boalt from its name. I went to Berkeley, although not to law school, but as an alumnus of the university, I feel snobbishly attached to anything related to it. These are the hallowed dusty buildings of my youth. The massive 750-person freshman Economics lectures in Wheeler auditorium; a classmate had narcolepsy so my roommate and I would share notes with her in case she missed some key point about downward-sloping demand curves. The steep climb up the hill to get to classes from Dwinelle to LeConte. The opaque glass in the English department offices that rattled when you tapped timidly on it to meet a professor for officer hours. I have fond and vivid memories of the place. Anything that changes those images seems sacrilege.

This is why we hold onto things, long past the time for better judgment.

Wheeler Auditorium Berkeley
My roommate and I would take notes for a friend whose narcolepsy made Econ 101 lectures problematic. Wheeler Auditorium, photo by Allen Zeng for the Daily Californian.

The world is a strange place. If you read the news to stay in touch with what’s going on, it’s a blizzard of cognitive dissonance. There’s an impeachment trial where the primary discussion today is whether they should bother looking at evidence or witnesses. An outbreak from a virus in China that’s rerouting air traffic. Death of a famous sports personality; Britain leaving the E.U. The news often feels like the world is sliding sideways. Someone told me the other day that they found it overwhelming, depressing.

On the other hand, much as I want to stay a citizen of the world, I remind myself (and ourselves, gentle reader) that not all these things affect me personally. I didn’t know the sports personality personally. I don’t live in Britain. I didn’t travel to China and don’t hang out with people who do. If the impeachment trial went the way I’d prefer, would the resulting people in power quickly enact legislation that would really help me? Or would things continue in their slow, inexorable, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back way? Must I feel so overwhelmed by change?

There’s a saying:

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Hold on to what you have, even if it’s awful, because among all these scary things out there, something might be worse. It’s an insidious thought, especially because the things that are the worst, which frighten you most, are designed to make you keep them. You may even become nostalgic about keeping them. Instead of gathering facts that might help you make more informed choices.

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