Thursday, April 28, 2011

Famous for Thirty Seconds

Did you ever play that "Kevin Bacon" game, where players try to trace a connection between anyone they can think of...and Kevin Bacon?

I could play that game. Kevin Bacon walked right past my taxicab one afternoon. I was parked at a taxi stand in front of the Hotel Monaco in Alexandria, Virginia. Bacon came out of the hotel, walked right past my nose and went into a boutique on the other side of King Street. For the record, he looked awful. Dirty, greasy clothes, greasy hair, sunglasses. No doubt he was hoping not to be recognized. If that was the intent, it almost worked. I looked at him as he went by and thought, "Hey, that guy looks like Kevin Bacon." Later that night I learned that he and his brothers, who had a pop music combo, were performing at the hotel.

But it's not Kevin Bacon I'm thinking about right this moment. A lot of us can trace a six-degrees-of-separation line between ourselves and some famous person, or persons. Not long ago I played the name-dropping game on the way to dinner with my childhood pal Jim Provenza, who was in town on business.

I told him that not once, but twice, I'd had Senator John Warner of Virginia as a passenger in my cab. On one of those two occasions I actually picked him up at his house in Alexandria and drove him up to Capitol Hill.

Jim, an attorney who works in Sacramento, told me that he knows Leon Panetta, currently the director of the CIA.

I countered that play with an admittedly-less impressive connection: Thomas A. Shannon, as of this writing U.S. ambassador to Brazil, is an old crony of mine from my own days with the State Department. Tom and I served in Brazil together way back when he was just a junior officer. Since then he has risen as high as Assistant Secretary of State. More than once, just to keep him humble (not necessary, by the way: Tom is the soul of easygoing, self-effacing irony) I would sometimes remind him of his relatively-humble origins. Tom does not fit the stereotype of the career diplomat as a spoiled, prep-school scion of northeastern Old Money. Like me, Tom is a San Diego County boy (albeit one who holds a PhD from Oxford.)

 "Don't get the big head, Mr. Chief-of-Mission material," I'd say to him. "You're just a surfer from Clairemont Mesa."

He'd laugh. Tom can't bullshit me; I'm from Chula Vista, just a few miles south of him.

But I had to admit that Jim won that particular hand: countering a CIA chief with an ambassador is like holding a pair of jacks against three of a kind.

I took the next pot, though. Once, standing at the second-floor bar of the famous off-Broadway restaurant Sardi's in New York, my friend Charlie Berigan and I got to meet James Coburn, who sidled up to the bar with his wife Pat for a drink and, there being no other spots available, stood right next to me.

Senators, spookmasters, ambassadors, movie actors. All good plays. But how many can claim a six-degrees-of-separation line connecting them not with one, but two convicted killers? And one of them definitely on the "A" list, a household name in the world of crime.

I can. And it was from this experience that I can lay claim to my share of Andy Warhol's famous dictum about how in the future everybody's going to be famous for fifteen minutes.

I once got to be famous for longer than fifteen minutes. Try a whole weekend.

By now I'm sure you're all a-dither, wondering who my two killers were. I'll get the more famous name out of the way first. Chuck Manson, who would probably have a fit if anyone called him Chuck. But he's 76 and in prison; I'm not afraid. Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. Nyeh. But that's right. I am speaking of Charlie "Charles" Manson, head of the Manson "family" and power behind the infamous Tate-LoBianco murders of 1969.

My late father, by the way, (since we're playing this game) was a personal acquaintance of Vincent Bugliosi, the district attorney who prosecuted Manson.

But no, I have never actually met Charles Manson. He was almost a neighbor for a while. But that's only because I lived and worked in Vacaville, California in the early-to-mid 1980s, and Manson was an inmate at California Medical Facility Vacaville for some years.

Don't let the name of the place fool you; CMF Vacaville is not a hospital. It is a prison. It got the name "Medical Facility" back in the days when psychopathic killers could still be called "criminally insane." I don't know what they call such people now, probably something like "upbringing-challenged," since sociopaths usually turn out to have had bad childhoods, and in our current culture somebody else, usually your parents, is always responsible for whatever stupid or evil thing you might do.  CMF Vacaville was a prison specifically for the "upbringing-challenged" crowd. I've been inside it, but only as part of a media tour of its remodeled facilities in 1984. Among my fellow tourists that day was then-California Governor George Deukmejian. Deukmejian made a speech. I just looked around and thought about the dreadful claustrophobia I would get in one of those eight-by-four cells.

As a writer for the Vacaville Reporter newspaper in 1981, I got to listen to a tape of one of Manson's parole hearings at CMF. Manson, as I remember, was channeling Humphrey Bogart in The Caine Mutiny, playing with a couple of rubber balls during the hearing and asking pertinent questions like "Why are we here? What's all this about?" He was trying to freak everybody out by acting crazier than usual.

The "other" killer in this tale is much lesser-known than Manson, but every bit as vicious. I mean, this guy tried to kill Manson. He must be bad.

His name was Jan Holmstrom. Not as famous as Manson, no, but a pretty bad dude. In 1974, in Pasadena, Holmstrom killed his father with four blasts from a shotgun, then handed the gun to a Cub Scout who was standing nearby, and walked away.

Believe it or not, Holmstrom was a Hare Krishna. That's right, one of those people you see prancing around at airports, barefoot and baldheaded, shaking jingle bells and passing out religious literature.

I don't think the Hare Krishnas would want to make Jan Holmstrom their poster boy.

On the morning of September 25, 1984, inside the grounds of CMF Vacaville, Manson and Holmstrom got into a "religious argument." Holmstrom complained, specifically, that Manson had objected to his Hare Krishna chanting, and threatened him. Not to be outdone, Jan poured some paint thinner on Chuck and set him on fire.

That's where I come into the picture. You see, at the moment that all of this was happening, I was doing my laundry.

Well, yeah, I was. Doing my laundry. I was a radio news broadcaster at KUIC, 95.3 FM, upper Solano County's only FM radio station in those days. Yes, you can stream my alma mater on the Internet now, if you care to: The last time I checked, one of the deejays who worked there way back when I did, Rick Batiste, was still on the air at "Quick-95." Not much ambition, I guess.

As I remember, I was temporarily without a car. My 1975 Ford Maverick had been totaled in an accident on the Oakland Bay Bridge not too long before, when my roommate, Doug Parker, on his way to pick up two friends of ours at San Francisco International Airport who were flying in from Philadelphia, got rear-ended pretty badly in heavy traffic. The maypole-dance with the insurance companies was still in progress, and for the moment I had no car. I was going to and from the studio on a bicycle.

As I was sorting my socks and underwear, I got a phone call from my boss at the station, news director Paul Hosley. Something had happened at CMF, but he was in the middle of his morning news block and didn't have time to look into it himself. He asked me to call the prison and talk to the public affairs officer.

I don't remember the guy's name. But I got him on the phone. "I hear you have a news item for us," I said.

"Yeah, and you're going to want to run tape," he said.

"Well, I'm not at the studio, I'm at home. I can't run tape from here. Whaddaya got?"

"I'm telling you, Kelley, you're gonna want to run tape," he insisted.

"Why don't you tell me what it is first? I don't have a car, and I'd have to ride my bike down to the studio to run tape."

"Okay," he said. Then he started reading the release. "At eight-eighteen this morning, inmate Charles Manson was attacked and set on fire by inmate Jan Holmstrom..."

"Hold it," I said. "I want to run tape."

"I knew you would."

"Let me call you back in fifteen minutes." Socks and underwear forgotten, I jumped on the old Huffy and got myself down to the studio as fast as I could pedal.

As subscribers to the Associated Press, we at KUIC radio could also be contributors. Once in a great while the AP might be interested in something we had to offer them, usually something involving a death. We'd get a credit line, and five bucks, for a wire story. For example when our good friend Toby Johnson, one of our disc jockeys who had been fired months earlier, got killed in a head-on collision between his car and an RV early one morning on Highway 29 over near St. Helena in the Napa Valley, AP picked that up from us. I phoned it to them, and a few minutes later, here it came over the wire, slugged "FROM KELLEY DUPUIS, K-U-I-C VACAVILLE." We were all in shock over Toby's death, but traffic fatalities were traffic fatalities, and the AP liked them.

A story on the wire would get you five bucks. But a voicer, that is to say, a 30-second audiotape segment, would get you $25 if the AP wanted it.

Needless to say, they wanted the Charlie-and-Jan barbeque story from CMF. And they wanted a voicer.

I'd taken the call, cut the tape and written the copy, so if anyone was going to do a voicer, it was going to be me. The guy from AP in Sacramento was explicit, though: 30 seconds. No more.

He and I must have spent half an hour on this. My voicer kept coming in at 36 seconds, or 34. It took several tries to get it whittled down to an exact 30.

I was allowed no "intro." Local stations, if they used the item, would provide that themselves. The voicer was just me, reeling off the facts of the incident in 30 seconds. My "outro" as we called the tag line at the end, was simply, "Kelley Dupuis, Vacaville." AP was one big family. One big cheap family. Local stations that might use the clip would do their own intro, something along the lines of , " Convicted killer Charles Manson, serving a life sentence at Vacaville state prison, was attacked and set on fire this morning in what was apparently a religious disagreement. Kelley Dupuis of KUIC Vacaville has details." Then they'd roll the tape of me.

Given the fact that we were all living on starvation wages in those days, I smacked my lips over the 25 bucks I was going to get for this. Other than that, I didn't give it much more of another thought. Who, outside of our area, was going to be interested in such a thing?

Silly question. Lurid sells. Radio stations all over California picked this item up. In fact, as far as I know, AP stations in other states may have run it as well. After all, this was Charles Manson we were talking about, the Mariah Carey of killers.

I got a surprise the following Sunday. Okay, it was a pleasant surprise, although I can see where a lot of folks would hesitate to use the term "pleasant surprise" in connection with a story like that. What can I tell you? Reporters have big egos. Why else would we be willing to work like galley slaves for the kind of pay that forced most of us to share quarters with other reporters?

The surprise came during a telephone conversation the following Sunday with my mom. Mom had a monthly appointment to have her hair done, always on Saturday. Since it was a regular appointment, she usually saw at least one person at the hairdressers' whom she knew. Now I was living in Vacaville, which is about 35 miles west of the state capital, Sacramento. My folks lived way down in Chula Vista, where I grew up, about 600-some miles to the south. Mom was not, by any stretch of the imagination, in our broadcast area.

She said, "I saw Mrs. So-and-So at the hairdressers' yesterday. She asked me, 'What's the name of that boy of yours again, the one who's a journalist?'"

"Oh," my mom replied, "You mean Kelley."

"Yeah, Kelley!" her friend replied. "I heard him on KSDO this morning, talking about Charles Manson."

KSDO, one of the oldest AM radio stations in San Diego. They'd picked up my voicer!

Damn, I'd hit the big time! San Diego!

It was the only time I ever did. My voice never got anywhere near a big radio market again, that I know of. I had to take my 25 bucks, plus the knowledge that my own voice had been broadcast over Greater San Diego for 30 whole seconds, giving everybody the hottest news item of the week. (Get it? The hottest news item? Rim shot.)

The following year I gave up radio and joined the State Department, giving up humiliating pay in exchange for a humiliating job. But I did get a dozen or so years of world travel out of that deal.

Manson, as far as I know, has traveled no further than the trip from Vacaville to his new home in San Quentin, to which he was later transferred, in all the years since he and I made a showbiz team together.

And he's been famous for most of his life.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Some People Have All The Luck

I just finished reading, back-to-back, two books by David Sedaris.

I've already decided that I don't like him especially.

I had a similar experience years ago with Anais Nin. But I had to read three volumes of her diaries before I got sick of her. The honeymoon ended quickly, but it did last three volumes.

I went through all the usual stages of an affair with La Nin by reading her diaries, which I only learned later had been heavily-edited, hence some of the mendacity and what used to be called "glaring omissions" of which I ultimately suspected her. It was this mendacity of hers which ended our romantic relationship. That, and how wildly self-absorbed she was. How, I wondered, could a married woman write page after page in her diaries, describing pregnancy and childbirth, without once mentioning her husband? (Subsequent reading revealed the dark reason: Anais aborted that baby, whose real father was Henry Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer.)

But poor old Hugh Guiler, Anais' long-suffering banker husband, probably wouldn't have gotten a mention even if the baby had been his. He was "edited out" of Anais' diaries generally, in much the same way Stalin had photographs in Soviet history books edited to erase the people he'd killed.

But I went through all the stages with Anais: awareness, infatuation, fantasies (she was, after all, dead by the time I read her diaries) and then finally disillusionment and the desire for a breakup, in this case the return of her books to the public library. But the relationship ran an ordinary and not-entirely unexpected course. I understood, after sending her back to the shelves, both how Henry Miller could have become so infatuated with her himself, and also why Gore Vidal, who had a much more jaundiced eye than Miller, dissed her so thoroughly in his own memoirs. Vidal described himself and Nin as two "chicken hawks," and I don't think anyone could have said it better.

On the other hand, I didn't need three volumes, but only a couple of hundred pages to become acquainted with Sedaris and his jokes, especially the ones he keeps repeating, like "my childhood was awkward and unpleasant because I grew up gay." Yeah? Well, my childhood was awkward and unpleasant because I had a weird first name, and between the ages of 13 and 18, bad acne. I don't browbeat the world with it. In any case, by the end of the second book of his that I read, I was already sick of listening to him.

Still,  I can hear the screeching already. 


Admit to not caring for any member of any federally-protected grievance group, for whatever reason, and you're going to be immediately labeled a "Fill-In-The-The-Blank-O-Phobe" by its PR wing. Meaning, of course, a "phobe" of whatever grievance group your victim belongs to. In this case, the grievance group just happens to be gays, and if there's any doubt in your mind, just read anything Sedaris has ever written. This guy has been dining out on "gay" for years. Someone should tell him that it really isn't avant-garde anymore to whine about how no one understood you when you were a child because you preferred baking banana-nut muffins to playing football. (Hey, as a teen I preferred muffin-baking, or for that matter almost any other activity, to football, and I'm straight. I just don't like football. Never did, particularly.)

Unfortunately for all of the "homophobe" screechers out there, Sedaris' sexual orientation has nothing to do with my dislike of him. It's his narcissism that rubs me the wrong way. That, and the fact that I find him as funny as hell maybe 15 percent of the time, but as funny as a root canal the other 85 percent. Especially when he's talking about dying animals and floating turds. Yuk-yuk-yuk.

By the way, is there a correlation between gayness and narcissism? Ask W.H. Auden. He was gay, and he thought there was. But don't ask me. Ask him. He's dead, but ask him anyway. (I tend to think Auden was a little too enamoured ((note spelling)) of Freud, but that was common among intellectuals of his generation.)

Sorry, friends of my ex-wife:* hurling the epithet "homophobe" at anyone who fails to approve of one of your group for any reason whatever sounds just a LITTLE bit too much to me like my late father's old, tried-and-true method of winning arguments. Any time someone began to get the best of him in an exchange of opinions, or merely to question the reasonableness of his latest ill-informed rant, (usually punctuated with an index finger stabbing into the air or into his interlocutor's chest) my dad would begin jumping up and down screaming "You hate me! You hate me! You've AWAYS hated me!"

I called this technique of my father's, and still call it this even though my father, like Auden, is dead, the "Beaver Cleaver Bluff." In one episode of Leave It To Beaver, Beaver ran from the room shouting "Everyone in this house is against me!" Boy, did that sound like my father! Anyone who dared to disagree with my father about anything was immediately branded his personal enemy. Oh, I tell you, it was great having a nine year-old for a father.

My father, by the way, was a homophobe, and such a screechy one himself that we often found ourselves repeating Hamlet's old saw about the lady who doth protest too much. He also hated Jews, blacks, women, the French, (clear self-loathing, that last; my father, who hated "the Frogs," actually spoke Canadian French very well) the pope, (ditto; he came from a Catholic family) men who wore their hair long, Mexicans, (although he spoke Spanish as well as he did French) Jane Fonda and cilantro. I think my father considered it an unconscionable outrage that anyone should feel sorry for anybody in the world except him.

But at least my father didn't write books. I'll give him credit for that. David Sedaris does, and I just finished reading two of them: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Read two of a guy's books, particularly if they're written in the first person and are basically all about him, and I think you can be excused for deciding you don't like him even if you've never actually met the guy face-to-face.

For, in these two books anyway, himself is just about all Sedaris writes about. Himself, his family and his boyfriends.

Okay, jealousy is in the mix. This guy gets buckets of money, literary awards and God-knows what all else for telling tawdry, insipid anecdotes about himself and his family. Hey, I've been doing that on my blog for years, and nobody has showered me with money, awards and appearances on National Public Radio. What's so special about David Sedaris? He's funny sometimes. So what? My younger sister was funny. She didn't get to be famous and lionized for it.

And another okay:  I hear Sedaris is also a playwright, and I admit that I have not seen any of his plays. Maybe he's another Noel Coward. I don't know. But these two books I read are basically blogs-between-covers, and I don't see why he should get showered with ticker-tape and fame for doing something thousands upon thousands of us have been doing since technology caught up with our rampant egos and allowed us a forum in which to pop off about ourselves and our own not so much differently than he does.

So how come he gets all the attention? Maybe he is funnier and cleverer than I am. Plenty of people are, but most of them haven't been richly rewarded for it. In fact most of the clever, funny people I know are as obscure and unknown as I am. This guy must have a good agent. I don't suppose he, she or it would be interested in talking to me.

But if they see this and surprise me, I'll let you know.

* My ex-wife Valerie, a Washington, D.C. real-estate hawker the last time I spoke with her, is the only Gay Rights advocate I have ever met who is, technically, not gay. Valerie generally prefers men, although she does tend to prefer them in a "Sugar Mama" sort of scenario (she being the sugar mama.) Like Lawrence Welk, whose genius it was to find a  previously-untapped "niche audience" among the Geritol crowd, Valerie has made the LGBT community her own niche market. And since the gay community is mostly where she makes her money, Valerie tends to sound off on gay rights like the aging Christopher Isherwood (although, generally speaking, more as a cheerleader, who knows on which side her pom-poms are glued, than as a player.)

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Of Round Numbers, DNA and other Spooky Stuff

Top left: my mother circa 1940, about age 19.

Lower photo: 1954. The baby on my mom's lap is my older sister Carla. I wouldn't come along until the following year. Carla was the apple of her mother's eye. I wasn't the apple of anyone's.

"There is nothing more sad or more glorious than generations changing hands." -- John Mellenkamp, from the liner notes to his album Scarecrow, 1985

I was out driving my cab tonight when the Mexican national anthem began to play on XLNC-1, the classical music radio station here in San Diego which serves San Diego and northern Baja California, announcing classical pieces in Spanish and then, when they're over, back-announcing them in English.

That's how I know it's midnight: XLNC-1 always plays the Mexican national anthem, Hymno Nacional Mexicano at midnight.

And these days (or I should say, nights) I am usually still driving around at midnight when the music plays, picking up and dropping off for Red Cab of San Diego.

My anecdotal life: the cherry on the sundae of my evening tonight was ferrying two drunks back to the La Quinta Inn after midnight. The police turned them over to me after a fracas outside the Star Gazer, a noisy bar on Broadway. A third member of their party, their buddy, had apparently been severely kicked, pounded and stomped in some difference of opinion which may have been racial (the Star-Gazer's regular Saturday-night clientele mixes drunken black guys with drunken white guys: you do the math) and was at UCSD Medical Center. No doubt they had been involved in the fracas as well. They were both as plowed as beanfields, and I handled them with extreme care. It was okay, though; when I dropped them at the La Quinta, they tipped me.

Anyway, when I heard Hymno Nacional Mexicano tonight, I knew not only that it was midnight, but also that it was now, officially, April 3rd.

April 3rd is the birthday of two members of my family. It's the anniversary of the birth of my mother, Sheila Marjorie Winrow Dupuis, born April 3rd, 1921. I say "anniversary of the birth" because my mother isn't with us anymore. She died on October 1, 2000 at age 79.

It is also the birthday of my cousin Melissa Gray Billon Thirloway, born April 3rd, 1951, who hasn't spoken to me in 30 years.

That is correct. My mother and my cousin Melissa were born 30 years apart, to the day. Of the implications of this, more in a moment, as Nabokov said in Transparent Things. (He, too, for reasons that will soon become obvious, fits into this little narrative.)

It is only Melissa's birthday, by the way, not (and I hope not until I'm "anniversaried" myself) an "anniversary." Melissa is still with us, and as far as I know, so are my other Billon cousins, her older sister Shari and her younger brother John. Melissa and I, while we do not share a birthday, do have that one thing in common: both of us were the middle child in a set of three.

I've always been partial to the Billons, but I'll get to that some other time. (I will, too. My uncle Pete Billon, Shari, John and Melissa's father, was a real character. I loved him, but he was a character. We had that in common, Uncle Pete and I. Two characters, we. We came to blows once, Uncle Pete and I. That happens when two "characters" split a bottle of Scotch. I don't care; I loved him anyway.)

Of his wife, Jessie Winrow Billon, I could, and hopefully will, say a great deal more some other time. I adored my Aunt Jessie.

It took some digging, but I found two older photos of my mother. My cousin Melissa appears to the right. She looks more like her father than she does like her mother. (And by the way, has more of her father's personality than her mother's. Believe me, I know. I knew both her and her father very well. She's the female version of him. No wonder I could never get along with her. )

I also decided to throw in a picture of a butterfly. Hey, it's my blog. I can stick butterflies on it anywhere I want.

My mother was quite beautiful. So were her younger sisters, my aunts Jessie and Bernice. Grandma Winrow had a framed photo on her piano of my Aunt Jessie and Uncle Pete, taken on their wedding day in 1944. It looked like a shot from some hokey home-front movie that Hollywood might have churned out during the war. My Uncle Pete, (whom I always thought looked a little like James Arness, TV's Marshal Dillon) was dapper in his flyer's uniform, and I swear my Aunt Jessie looked like June Allyson.

Atop the old upright were also a tinted photo of my mother, aged about 18, and a little, framed red-white-and-blue sampler that said "America, Love It or Leave It."

I'm not making any of this up.

The "baby" of the family, my Uncle Bert Winrow, (1927-2008) got the richest dollop of all this DNA. He was movie-star handsome, which you can see in a photo of him taken during World War II when he was in the Navy.

There he is, in his sailor suit, looking like a member of the cast of Leonard Bernstein's On The Town. It'd be positively queasy-making if he weren't my beloved uncle.  But he was.

I've seen the photos from my parents' wedding in 1950. Uncle Bert, aged 23, was one of my dad's groomsmen. He looks like the smiling punk he was. (I can get away with saying that; my cousin Steve Winrow, one of my favorite people in the world, has also seen those wedding photos and he agrees with me that his dad did indeed look like a punk that day.)

How I came out looking like I did is anybody's guess. I'm not beautiful, or anything remotely approaching it. I don't think I look like either of my parents. Neither did my late sister Lynn, and she was beautiful when she was young, before depression, booze, painkillers and junk food swelled her up and killed her off at age 47.

The only one of us Dupuis kids who even remotely resembles one of our parents is my sister Carla. She has Dad's nose. (All I got was his personality, which no doubt has much to do with the fact that I've been divorced twice and currently live alone. I don't look like my father, but my mother told me often enough that I sure as hell sound like him. )

Great. I seem to have inherited the personality of the man with whom I had the most problems. (See Three Flies Up: My Father, Baseball and Me, by me, Outskirts Press, 2008.)

But this isn't about me. It's about my mom and Melissa, the two birthday girls. Yes, my mom was beautiful when she was young, and Melissa was a stunner at 22 or so. Now it can be told, as they used to say: when I was 18 and Melissa was 22, I had a perfectly horrific crush on her. (Actually, I made this confession to Aunt Jessie and Uncle Pete 25 years ago. Uncle Pete's only comment: "Call her.")

Melissa and her husband Jeff have two (I think) fully grown children: daughter Briana and son Tyler. I think the Thirloway "children" would both be in their thirties now, but I haven't seen a photo of either of them since they were babies, and I've never met either of them. Not long after they were married in 1977, Melissa and Jeff took up residence in Seattle. I've spent my share of time in the state of Washington, but believe it or not, I have never been to Seattle. To me, Washington always meant Spokane.

But I'm sure that Briana and Tyler Thirloway must be favored of the gods. Their mother was gorgeous, and their dad was a very handsome fellow who, I think, might even still have hair. (Lucky Jeff; I got my dad's hair, which is to say I don't have any, and haven't since I was about 30. I first had noticeable hair loss at 20. My father, taking me out for dinner on my 20th birthday in 1975, poo-poohed my worries: "You don't have my hair, you have your mother's hair," he said. Well, if I do, I hope someone can find it.)

Now. When James Watson and Francis Crick broke the genetic code back in the early nineteen-fifties, all they did was scratch the surface of what are far, far deeper mysteries.

I'm going to tell you an anecdote. It was a flash-and-gone moment in my life, but one that I have never forgotten, because it would have made me think of Vladimir Nabokov if I had known his work at the time this moment occurred. But I was going-on 18 that day and had not yet discovered Pale Fire, Lolita, or one of my all-time favorite books, Speak, Memory.

I didn't start reading Nabokov until a few years later. But his curiously intense visual sense led him to be unusual among writers. Nabokov was the most "visual" of writers, and he had a way of treating narratives as though they were chess problems. (He loved chess and composed many chess problems, by the way.) Nabokov noticed things, things that most of us usually miss. A quarter of a century ago we would have called him "right-brained." He liked to stick little puzzles in his narratives and challenge his readers to notice them.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote novels the way he
played chess. Nobody else has ever done this,
that I know of, anyway. comes coincidence number two (coincidence number one will come shortly): there was a popular book in the mid-1980s called Drawing On The Right Side Of the Brain. It put forth the idea that the right sides of our brains handle things like spatial relationships, while the left sides handle the conceptual stuff, language, grammar and all that. It was a "how-to" book; it showed  you how you could become good at drawing by trying to "shut off" the left side of your brain, the part that handled ideas and concepts, and liberate the right side, the part that processed visual images and spatial relationships.

An interesting concept, discredited now I think. But I was trying to draw in those days...and so was my Aunt Jessie, who lent me her copy of the book. I tried its exercises.

"Pay attention," as Nabokov might have said (if he'd thought to say it.)  "Pay attention" was Nabokov's "message," the only message his writings would ever send. Small wonder that he was derided for so many years as a writer who supposedly had "nothing to say." He had plenty to say: "Pay attention" is one hell of a message.

So pay attention: my Aunt Jessie lent me this book.

(About now, if you know Schubert, the early bars of the piano part of his Erlkonig should be sounding in your head: "doodley-doodley-do, do-do," etc. )

I would expect that Melissa would "get" this, by the way. When we were young, I wanted to be a poet and Melissa wanted to sing opera. She knew Schubert's music. I was discovering it. She had just graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles when we started talking about music. She had thought that she wanted to major in choral conducting. Then she decided she wanted to sing. We started writing letters to each other.  (No e-mail in 1973.) Pretty soon we got into an argument. Then we kissed and made up. Then we got into another argument. Melissa and I simply do not get along. And I adore her as much as I adored her mother. But in the hard-to-get-along-with sweepstakes, Melissa would blow her mother away in the first round. So would I.

"Opposites attract" may be a truism, but it doesn't apply in this tale. Melissa and I are too much alike, that's our problem. Or it was until we both got too old to care.

Dateline: Pasadena, California. Time: late summer, 1973. Melissa had just graduated from "Oxy" as it's called; I had graduated from high school in June and was about to start college myself.

On an impulse (I had access to the family Chevrolet) I hauled myself up to Altadena (near Pasadena) where Melissa was sharing an apartment that summer with her equally-beautiful friend Peggy. I sometimes wonder whatever became of Peggy. The last time I saw her was at my cousin John's first wedding in 1976.

My unannounced arrival left both of them a little nonplussed. I suppose that was the idea. It was a Saturday night. I don't remember many details, but Melissa and I talked rather late into the night, then I bunked on the living-room couch. I think we managed to avoid quarreling; don't ask me how. I do remember that Melissa was wearing a flowing dress of some mauve-gray color when I barged in, and was barefoot. I still had hair, was parting it in the middle as fashion dictated in those blow-dried days, and was also sporting an ugly gash on my nose. My boss at the Union 76 station where I was pumping gas that summer had a black labrador, who bit me on the very day I quit. I still have the scar on my nose.

I think I was wearing a light-blue turtleneck sweater, jeans and Hush Puppies. Well, maybe my memory is better than I thought. Take note, shade of Nabokov (who, by the way, named the dead poet of his novel Pale Fire "John Shade." Clever.)

I arrived on Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon Melissa clearly didn't know what to do with me. I was getting ready to leave, though probably not as quickly as she and Peggy would have liked. Anyway, she suggested we go out and have lunch.

There was a popular delicatessen in Pasadena in those days, whose name escapes me now. It was a mouthful, no pun intended: "Rumpelmayer's," or something like that. Melissa and Peggy agreed that this would be the best place for us two cousins to go and get a bite to eat.

We went there, Melissa driving the ponderous white Ford Thunderbird she drove that summer (Uncle Pete picked it out -- don't ask.)

As teenagers will be, (especially if they're in the incubation period of painful crushes), I was extremely self-conscious. We stood at the counter in this deli, Melissa and I, looking at the menu. All of the sandwiches they served were named after celebrities. This was where my self-consciousness kicked in: I just couldn't make myself order a "Mickey Rooney" or a "Robert Redford." It was too embarrassing.

Melissa noticed my discomfort and suggested we might go somewhere else. We did. She drove us to a coffee shop which was called...oh, hell. The Pepper Mill? The Salt Shaker? Something like that.

We sat opposite each other in a booth and ordered lunch. And it was while we were waiting for our food that Nabokov's butterfly flew through the room. (Oh, yes. For the uninitiated, Nabokov was a lepidopterist as well as a writer; butterflies are a regular presence in his work, and now I suddenly understand why I chose to stick a butterfly at the top of this posting.)

So we're sitting there. We're chatting. Melissa is gorgeous. I'm shy. There's a long, embarrassed pause in the conversation. She winks at me.

That was when that butterfly (here it is, folks: coincidence number one) landed on my shoulder. I've never forgotten it.

Melissa's wink was a long, slow one accompanied by an affectionate grin, a sort of tightening around the mouth. The kind of grin you give someone with whom you share a secret.

My mother's grin. My mother's wink. I swear to God, for one fleeting nanosecond there I had the unmistakable impression that I was sitting in that booth with my mother. The way Melissa looked at me, grinned and winked, was exactly, right down to the twitch, the way my mother would grin and wink at me. It was eerie. And it only lasted a fraction of a second. But somehow, in that Augenblick, the Billon genes and the Winrow genes and the Gray genes and all the rest came together and struck The Lost Chord. For a second, Melissa became Sheila. Melissa became my mom.

Oh, sneaky, sneaky DNA. So on-target in its knittings and weavings, so on-the-mark in its splashes of watercolor. It would have done Nabokov proud, that moment. But I was a few weeks shy of 18 and hadn't read him yet. In the years since, having read his stuff over and over, I know that I participated in a truly nabokovian moment that afternoon. And I'm deeply, profoundly grateful.

Here's to you, maestro. Happy Birthday to the shade of my mom, who I'd like to think is sharing a snicker with you as I write this. And Happy Birthday, dear Melissa.

And here's to DNA, and life's most precious, sometimes-fathomable mysteries. (If you pay attention!)

I love you all very much.