Tag Archives: History

In Which Steff Gets Nerdy About Genealogy

Down the rabbit-hole I go.

Genealogy, which I’ve been interested in for the last few years for some reason, is starting to be a thing, officially.

I’ve learned in just the last 24 hours that my family, Clan Cameron, fought on the side of Robert the Bruce in the Scottish wars of independence, 1314. I’ve learned that my Cameron in particular emigrated to Canada on a ship called the Rambler out of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, 1806 by Clan Cameron records but recorded as having left their island in 1790 by my family’s records. They had lived on the Isle of Barra, southernmost inhabited island of the rugged, isolated Outer Hebridean islands, and possibly they moved to Mull for a while, or elsewhere, before ultimately taking on the new world in 1806. This coincides with the Highland Clearances, so perhaps it wasn’t an “optional” departure.

Okay. Best family war cry EVER, right? SERIOUSLY.

Okay. Best family war cry EVER, right? SERIOUSLY.

There’s even a Clan Cameron DNA project! And we have a MUSEUM, bitches.

We have Irish blood on my father’s side too, the Monks. Some of my family have opened relations with the Monks remaining in Ireland, which I didn’t know, and now I might be able to have a whole new kind of adventure in the British islands, one filled with meeting kin I never knew I had. Gosh.

Leaving Home to Find Home

Then there’s my mother’s side, which I know others have compiled information on, which hail from both Ireland and France. Normandy! Brittany! In my blood. Hers was the first generation to not have French as their first language, a fact which troubles me even now. But still, all of these people were a coastal people. I’ve always said saltwater was in my veins, but it’s proving more true now than ever.

I cannot tell you how exciting it is to start having a sense of these things. I didn’t know it would mean so much to me. I’m thrilled to go digging over the next couple of years. The idea of being able to investigate church records and archives on the ground in communities that my families have had ties to for centuries makes me bubble with giddiness.

It’s funny how it seems like only one generation in the whole of my father’s ancestral history might have moved off of an island — he and his generation. Our people moved from the Outer Hebrides’ rugged isolated island to Prince Edward Island, famous for similarly brutal winters, and there they farmed for the next two centuries. Many of my family remain there and throughout the Maritimes.

My father was the first to move to terra firma mainland, but here in the next generation, both his children have moved to a new island, where I am today. My brother and I are both now living on Vancouver Island. Both of us report feeling more “at home” than we have in literally decades.

Are these things really imprinted on the DNA? Are we truly islanders at heart, and have we been for centuries, if not millennia? Is that why it feels like “home” to be separated by a ferry from the Mainland again, after a generation of having been backwards about it?

I don’t know. But I’ll love finding out.

History Is Cool

Later this year, once my trip plans are solidifying, I think an expedition to the UK looms for next spring, summer, and fall, to learn who I am, where my family heralds from, and what the history entails across all branches of my family tree. Eight families, eight histories.

The modern Clan Cameron crest. The motto is "Let us unite."

The modern Clan Cameron crest. The motto is “Let us unite.”

History will be a huge theme in my travels anyhow. I want to stay in all the old buildings — I’ve already found a 15th century Tuscan farmhouse, Spanish villa from 1683. I’ll wander Roman ruins, gape in awe under massive cathedrals, pore through museums. If you want to find me, wherever I’m visiting, head for the Old Towns. It’s there I’ll likely be.

I really do dream of tracking my Irish family as well as my Scots side. I want to learn how the potato famine affected my people, whether we were in workhouses for the poor. I want to know if we were shit-disturbers from ages ago. It seems to run as a theme in my family, where we’re all straight-spoken sturdy sorts.

We’re also survivors. Hard-workers who overcome adversity and roll with whatever life presents us. No doubt a necessary trait for people eking out a life on a scrub of a rock in the southern Outer Hebrides, staring off into the gaping maw of the Atlantic for possibly centuries of wind-battered struggle.

I don’t expect to find fame and fortune in my line. I expect a lot of adversity and challenges, social conscience and diligence. There’s no shame in being the hard workers, the line fighters.

Will I feel my life more validated by knowing the history that precedes me? For whatever intangible reason, yes, probably. I don’t know why that is. We’re a tribal people, I guess, and that sense of belonging is just another attribute of our DNA, perhaps.

In any case, Steff the Sleuth gets to don her inspector’s cap this year, with the help of cousins and other family members, and get to the roots of her family tree.

I’m a very happy camper about this. I’ll tell you some tales as I learn them and share some of my methods with you.

If you’re curious about your family tree, definitely take to social media and ask about it. Your loose connections with family on Facebook may have done far more research that you realize! After all, it’s 24 hours later and I now have a stack of papers with four lines of my family’s names in front of me. Monks, Hynes, and Whites… I’m comin’ for ya.

Anticipating Autumn

Fall has landed.

It’s the first night I’ve had to close my windows all but a crack. Soon I expect the radiator will be turned on and will spend the next several weeks climbing in temperatures as the climate closes in on winter.

Photo by me, on Vancouver's Burrard Inlet, under the Cambie bridge, I think?

It’s the first day I’ve been funny in the morning in a few weeks. I’ve got my mojo rising and my body’s starting to feel like I’m in control of it again. Pneumonia has been a shitty ride, but my prescription finishes today, and I’m turning some good corners.

Good thing, too. Gettin’ busy — after all, a week from today, I’ll hit the ripe old age of 37.

September has been a long, hard month. Every year I seem to face some kind of adversity as I head into the autumn. A couple times I’ve cheated death on Labour Day weekend. Once I blew out my back a couple days after my birthday. Yeah, it’s always been a rocky time for me, one that suggests much change is ahead for me.

This year’s no different when you get down to the basics: Change is necessary, positives abound, opportunity knocks, et cetera.

But I suppose that’s autumn for most of us.

I think we all go a little off-track in the summer. From the time of childhood on, summer suggests two months of free-for-alls — a time when hedonism makes sense to just about everyone, days when abdicating your responsibilities are too tantalizing to pass up. Nothing like wind in the hair and sand in the toes, as the saying goes.

Then fall rolls around, and like it did when we were kids, it means life is coming back to the working cycle.

Harvest time. For tens of thousands of years, autumn has been a time of preparation and planning, a time to get working in order to ensure survival over the coming cold months of hardship.

Biologically, I think we’re still hardwired there. Summer’s that time when survival’s easier. We don’t even need shelter — sleeping under the stars isn’t just nice, but essential to the human experience.

Winter? Heh, not so much — especially here in the so-called Great White North. (Ironic, of course, since Vancouver, Canada gets far less snow than NYC, or even Vancouver, Washington, but, hey, whatever stereotypes rock your boat, man.)

As the days get shorter, my mind turns to the months ahead, planning and scheming for all I feel I need to accomplish. Thrown into cold, rainy, dreary, windy Wet Coast days, I’ll find myself methodically productive and compulsively accomplished.

Unlike summertime Steff.

It was at this point, three years ago this very week, I reached my self-esteem rock-bottom, had just quit the job making me miserable, returned to a job that allowed me to put myself first, and started on my path toward losing 70 pounds and being able to say I Am Not That Girl Anymore.

The fall has always been a powerful catalyst in my life.

You might think that, coming off a month of back problems and pneumonia, I carry dread and fear about the months that loom… but you’d be woefully mistaken, friend.

I’m stoked. For every step backward I’ve taken this year, there’s been two steps forward. You can choose to focus on the backwards steps, but I’d rather believe it was just practice, and practice makes perfect.

“Big picture” is always more rewarding than a nano-focus. Don’t think about the steps backward this year; think of how much forward you were able to move.

I know the possibility that can come from this bubbling anticipation and dogged desire to capitalize on it. I’ve been there before, I’ve seen what it can do to me. Hell, I know what *I* can do with it.

All this “stuff” in my way right now… it’s just stuff. It’s a bug, a sickness, and it’ll go away. It happens. It’s not “bad luck” or misfortune. It’s just my turn. It’s a reminder of the things I said were important to me — my health, my future, my soul. It’s a reminder of how much I could have controlled more aspects of my life, and an inspiration to do better in the coming months.

Your adversity is what you decide it to be. Make your conclusions carefully.

It’s autumn. A time for things to die and begin their cycle of rebirth. A time to reap what you’ve sown and account for it. Mostly, it’s just a time.

Today, I lament the loss of warmth and long days, the frivolity and fun, the recklessness and hedonism. I mourn that my inner kid’s gonna have a harder time coming out to play for a while.

But I’m truly thrilled to lose the seasonal distractions, gain some focus, and launch future plans for taking over the world.

I’m looking forward to chillier nights, leaves falling, storms that remind me just how fragile our place in the world is, bundling up, excuses for sleeping in, and cradling mugs of hot beverages in frozen hands. I’m longing for the crisp, clean smell, the quieter streets, the oft-patter of rain and splashing of tires, and the fuzzy comfort of wearing warm slippers.

By the year’s end, I’ll have begun growing tired of it all and will dread the next four months, but that’s how the weather cookie crumbles here in the proverbial Great White North.

And, today, none of that matters. Today, summer’s gone, fall is here, and survivalism kicks in — just like it ought to after tens of thousands of years of biological programming.

Happy autumn, everyone. Enjoy everything about it.

And please, for the love of god, don’t put ornamental gourds on your table.

On Capote: Writing is a Dangerous Business

On November 16th, 1959, Truman Capote read a New York Times article with only 300 words that would change his life, and American literature, forever. The article began:

A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle and nothing had been stolen.

It’s ironic that it’s on American Independence Day that I’m watching Capote, the film of how the book Capote would write transpired.

An early cover from Penguin's release of In Cold Blood.

I’m starting to realize what an important movie it is in my collection, from a million different perspectives, almost all of them to do with writing and what it means to me or what I feel it says about writing.

And in that realization, I found myself at a loss for a brief moment there, “pause” frozen on my screen, pondering what effect Truman Capote’s original book, In Cold Blood, must’ve had on the mindset of America.

The murders themselves, of course, resonated with the country then, but I wonder who, other than Capote, realized what it meant in the adolescence of his country. These days, it would seem he was ahead of the pack in those observations.

In the five decades since the Clutter Killings, one could say we’ve witnessed the death of the American Dream. With a look across the cultural landscape, one can’t ignore the economic strife America’s battling, the crime that has redefined the geography of the land, and the loss of the Here-vs-There that once existed — the “safe”-country-versus-the-“bad”-city mentality.

Where is the America that existed before it all? Gone, like any culture any other place in the world — a victim of modernity and technology?

About In Cold Blood, Wikipedia says:

The book examines the complex psychological relationship between two parolees, who together commit a mass murder, an act they were not capable of individually. Capote’s book also explores the lives of the victims and the effect of the crime on the community where they lived. In Cold Blood is regarded by critics as a pioneering work of the true crime genre.

It’s safe to say that In Cold Blood was one of the first mass killings in which the rest of the country had to say, “My god, if it could happen to them, it could happen to us.”

With that came fear, a fear that’s forever stained the fabric of America.

Anyone who’s paid attention to USA’s politics since 2001 knows just how destructive it can be to adapt to life under a regime of fear.

Well, by 1960, America had inklings of what “fear” was. It was the time of McCarthy and the Cold War, and a decade-plus of post-Holocaust reality that, out there, Evil existed.

And now, with the handiwork of killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the fear lived at home, too.

Capote’s true-crime masterwork is a book widely accepted to be a jumping-off point for what fine literature was able to do to real-life on the pages.* In it, a real and tangible look was given into the headspace of these killers — one of whom had very much the same sort of horrible childhood of abandonment and abuse as Capote, offering this brilliant author the opportunity to internally juxtapose the life he’d been able to create for himself despite his tragic beginnings, versus the horror Smith wreaked upon others as a result of his own.

And that, friends, is often what brilliant writing is — the seeking of truth in everything, and the ability to own it within yourself. The inability to do the latter in a lasting way, however, can be devastating to a writer, and Capote’s decline should be a warning to all writers.

Reading In Cold Blood was a defining point in my life as a writer/reader. True life’s tragedies could be rendered in beautiful language that conveyed so much more than just photographic evidence of its horrors.

I doubt it was Capote’s work alone that stirred a new consciousness of the possibility of Evil Within amongst Americans — much of society was headed in that direction at the time, powered by media and politicans.

But Capote did what I love that good writers can do: Through a seemingly miniscule event, he correctly understood the quickening pulse of his country, and that this event — a seemingly small rural tragedy, buried a few pages into the newspaper on his morning read — was something that spoke of a world to come, of changes that loomed in his country’s previously untouchable heartland.

______

As much as this film makes me want to be a writer, it terrifies me — the price it suggests one would pay for being great seems far too high.

Capote, I feel, was destroyed by his subject (and himself).

A young Truman Capote by Irving Penn.

With his book’s success bound to his subject’s journey to the electric chair, and his need to understand the parallels in their lives, Truman Capote slipped into depression and guilt. He almost certainly was traumatized by the reality that he knew Smith’s execution was necessary for his book to be the brilliance it could be.

Deep down inside, I’m sure Capote realized having Smith living would contradict the “truths” the writer would write in the book, that it might be dangerous to his masterwork’s longevity. No one wants to think like that, but I guarantee you the thought would occur to any intelligent writer. What if…

Today, speculation does exist that Capote fictionalized entire passages of what was boasted to be true in every word. Evidence of the fictionalizing has been hard to come by.

Having that “what if” of execution work out in your favour — guaranteeing the “truthfulness” of what would be your masterwork — standing there to bear witness as the noose snaps the neck of the man who is all that’s wedged between you and literary immortality, that must induce some pretty horrific guilt-laden realities for a writer.

In the end, it took him 4 years to write the book, and 18 years to drink himself to death before his 60th birthday in 1984.

The book came out in ’65, and Capote became somewhat a mockery of himself within the next seven years. He would never again write anything considered “great” and, by 1978, was comfortably threatening suicide on national television, the punchline of many a joke.

I believe, ultimately, that his willingness to go as far as he could to write about those murders and to draw parallels between his life and the life of Perry Smith is what drove him into his alcoholic haze that choked the greatness from him.

Writing is a dangerous business.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

The choices we make of holes to dig and skeletons to reveal, they define who we writers are in that moment and who we’ll become down the line. Writers must accept that these words they trifle with hold powers they maybe don’t expect, and the journeys taken to weave words can burrow deep into a writer.

Some opened doors will never be closed.

Capote couldn’t close his, so he drank to numb the opened doors away.

One could say he should have truly dived into the abandonment he felt as a child — that he was only comfortable peeling away the truths about others but terrified what doing so might reveal of him.

After all, he was an openly gay Southern man when being gay still meant being “one of them”. He was an outsider, born poor, spent a lonely childhood never belonging anywhere, and found his solace in writing.

When he stopped pushing envelopes and didn’t publish anything of significance beyond In Cold Blood, I would suspect he lost that solace and instead felt as though he had betrayed some part of who he was.

Not having been true in life and now not on the page, I’m certain Capote probably felt like a fraud and found himself seeing life through the eyes of Perry Smith, believing he could never really belong where he socially was perceived to be.

In my lowly opinion, the greatest, most tragic men in “big” American literature in the last 100 years were Hemingway, Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson.**

Each searched for an ideal, a life they felt obliged to enjoy or a dream they held about Their America and what the modern world could be. Each never found what they sought. Each engineered his own demise.

Ironically, though, Capote did achieve what he sought — the execution of a man he fell in love with after identifying with everything that made Smith the monster America believed him to be, a monster Capote possibly wondered if he himself had inside — and it gave him the book he dreamed he could write, solidified his placed as a master of American English literature, and it is, one could argue, that achievement (and guilt for it) which destroyed him.

Writing is a dangerous business.

*Some would argue too that Capote’s take on the killings romanticized and even justified the murders from a sociological point of view, and that the “literary” non-fiction approach may have led to the erosion of facts and journalistic irresponsibility. These aren’t entirely wrong, nor right.

**Without getting into a lengthy debate with hugely relevant but lesser-knowns like David Foster Wallace & John Kennedy Toole. Just of the “big scene” American writers.

The Daunting Power of Love

Our young protagonist, involved in an unlikely affair with a considerably older woman, one that all outsiders would state an “obvious fail”, just shrugs at his dubious confronters and says, “I know what I’m doing. I’ll be all right.”

skeletonsdm060207_228x304And me, there on my sofa, I scoff and chuckle, “Oh, sure you will.”

Because I know. I know that, no matter how old we are, love makes bitches of us all.

Whatever your age, power status, social stature, or financial means, when love comes knocking and your heart starts racing, almost every one of us knows the cloying struggle between terror and exuberation.

My god — someone I like? Someone I need to be vulnerable for? Someone who’ll require me breaking free of my thou-shalt-not-enter comfort zone? Someone else to be responsible to?

I know all about the terror and the desire to run. Been there, done that. Yet it happens every time.

Why? Because I’m too fuckin’ smart for my own good. Continue reading

Stupid Over Love: The Human Condition

If there’s anything that’ll make me sick of Twitter in a hurry, it’s the endless drama regarding relationships and people’s moods. Some days, life’s too short.

That’s not to say that I don’t get it when people need to vent. Oh, do I. I get it.

Last night someone complained on Twitter, “Oh, I hate when I get stupid over a boy.” So I replied, “For thousands of years, all the best dramas have been about two things: Love & War. Do the math. We’re all stupid about it.”

I wonder sometimes how many people realize this. We’re all so self-punitive when wrapped up in turmoils of the heart. We damn ourselves and scowl about being so weak. But, are we? Continue reading

nature is a cold bitch


ever noticed how, in cold weather,
women get sexier with their erect nipples
while men get shrinkage?
guess we know why, in primitive societies,
women always went topless
while the boys wore their little loincloths?