Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mushrooms or How I Ended Up Here

Mushrooms play a big role in my family. My mother's family at least. It goes back to Elias Fries, the great taxonomist. He also had several famous descendants, including my grandmother's grandfather, a doctor who gave his name to a big square in Göteborg.

Unfortunately, my grandmother's father did not quite measure up to his father. He was a pharmacist who became addicted to his own medicine, a "morphinist" as my grandmother called it, and ended up killing himself at a young age after ruining his family's finances.

My grandmother met my grandfather at a highly dubious political rally in the early 1930s. Soon thereafter she got pregnant and they had to marry. Then they had 5 children. My grampa spent his entire life in the army and then died when he was about 50 (before I was born). My grandma had a stroke a couple of years ago (she was about 95) and lives in a home. The woman next to her keeps shouting "Hello! Hello! Can you hear me?" My grandma says the woman thinks she's a little girl lost in the woods. An iconic figure in Swedish culture (See Daniel Sjölin's introduction to my Aase Berg book).

My dad's biological parents were a Scotts-Irish businessman and a Swedish woman of "ill repute" (very ill according to the adoption papers). He was adopted by an accountant who had married his maid. Unfortunately she died when my dad was about 10 and I don't think my grampa spoke a full sentence after that. He lived to be 99 based on a daily regiment of cognac and cigars. He had the best taste of any person I've ever met - the coolest suits, coolest home. When he died I stole a suit and a bunch of Strindberg books published in 1908 that had never been opened.

When I was growing up my dad was a journalist in Eastern Europe, which meant he spent a lot of time in jail. He got a little too involved and ended up smuggling people and secrets out of Eastern Europe, as well as hosting a meeting with the Croatian underground in our little rowhouse in suburban Sweden (resulting in bomb threats galore). By the time I was 6 or 7 I had hung out with Lech Walesa and numerous other legendary figures.

When my dad was home we spent a lot of time talking about the news. My favorite character - to my dad's consternation - was Ayatollah Khomeni. My dad had two coffee-table books that he told me stories from when trying to get me to sleep (I never slept, I always suspected people were trying to kill us): Stalin's reign of terror and Hitler's Third Reich (I'm not kidding).

Sometime in the early 80s, Swedish intelligence figured out that the KGB was trying to kill my dad. My dad has a framed copy of a newspaper frontpage of when this was leaked to the press (the headline is "The KGB's death list" and features an unflattering photo of my dad). So Swedish Television pulled him off the job and put him in charge of the Children's Newshour (which believe it or not was the most popular children's show on TV, that's Sweden for you). In this capacity he made a report that was heavily critical of the US (racism, poverty etc). In difference to the Soviet Union, the US did not try to kill my dad but invited him for a year long all-expenses-paid trip to the US. All across the country my dad met with Chambers of Commerce and got many job offers, in the end picking an ad agency in Minneapolis. He was totally brainwashed and to this day thinks Ronald Reagan was a great man.

My dad had really wanted to be a film director and to make up for his failure he planned to make me into one. When he was home we always watched movies and during the entire time he would meta-narrate the movie for me (notice the cut, now he's going to pan pan pan cut! etc). By the time I was 4 or 5 I had seen all of Hitchcock and most of John Ford. I still can't watch movies without hearing an inner voice saying "this shot is too long, we need a cut" (my dad's aesthetic is very ADD). This should explain many of my shortcomings.

I'm still scared of taking showers, of the snake beneath my pillow, of birds.

My mom worked at a plant nursery when I was growing up. But when she and my dad had met she was a very 1960s. When I was in 7-8th grade I began to read serious literature and it was her library I began to read: På Drift by Jack Kerouac, Muren by Jean Paul Sartre, Camus, Ginsberg etc. One day I decided to listen to her records. I turned on Highway 61 and I've been rewriting the lyrics from that damned record ever since.

I also have a brother. He tortured me every day of my life but he's grown into a good citizen who does layout for Advertising Age and occasionally for Action Books. He is a soccer lunatic. Goes to English soccer bars in NYC and starts brawls with Manchester U fans (since early childhood we've both been loyal Liverpool fans). He's married to a first generation Palestinian-American woman named Vicki, who works for Big Pharma (but nevertheless gets stopped in airports because her last name is Barghout). At their wedding I learned that the world's greatest pop music is Arabic.


Blogger steve said...

Pretty fascinating--I'd be interested to read more. Saw Ginsberg in 1967 or '68 in Cedar Falls, IA. (I was a high school junior.) A lot of University of Northern Iowa students walked out when he read "Wichita Vortex Sutra." Kenneth Rexroth was born in South Bend and grew up in Elkhart--"An Autobiographical Novel" is worth reading, even if half of it is made up.

P.S. Pete Teo makes a strong case for Malaysian music, though it doesn't compare with Arabic.

7:48 PM  

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