Posted by rebecca.mcswain on September 22, 2013 at 4:20 PM

           “This is Lord Peter Wimsey, my dear,” said Theophilus mildly.

            She was unimpressed.

            “Ah, yes,” she said, “I believe you are distantly related to my late cousin, the Bishop of Carisbrooke. Poor man! He was always being taken in by imposters; he died without ever learning any better. I imagine you take after him, Lord Peter.”

            “I doubt it,” said Lord Peter. “So far as I know he is only a connection, though it’s a wise child that knows its own father. I congratulate you, dear lady, on takin’ after the other side of the family.”  [Whose Body, Chapter III]

            Now that we’ve reached our 60s, my brother and I have many, many cousins – first cousins once removed, second cousins, third cousins, etc. First cousins share about 12%-13% of their DNA, as I read on the Internet, that font of information if not (usually not) wisdom.


            H.L. Mencken said, "Every man sees in his relatives, and especially in his cousins, a series of grotesque caricatures of himself."  Mencken was a notoriously grumpy man. I don’t see “grotesque caricatures” in my cousins.  Maybe they see caricatures in me, of course.  No, I admire 9 out of 10 of my cousins, on both sides of the family.  They’re endlessly interesting, a panoply of human life, the whole passing parade thing – rich and poor, educated and un, talkative and silent, handsome and homely, complainers and cockeyed optimists full of energy, skeptical contemplatives, wacky mystics, and conservative realists, who have good luck, bad luck, successes, failures, adventures, tribulations, religious experiences, and endless doubts – taken as a group, they don’t leave anything human out.  And I don’t even know all of them.  My very young first cousins twice removed, for example, remain mysteries – they’re still babies and I don’t see them, and their futures are yet to be determined (unless you believe in predestination). I only share 3.125% of my genome with them. I hope it’s the good 3.125%, not including, for example, the Fat Gene or the Whiner Gene.

            There is one cousin, who shall remain nameless, who does kind of fit Mencken’s aphorism. I don’t know him extremely well, but we’ve met from time to time, and I’ve heard the stories the rest of the family tells about him. He seems to embody many of the worst traits of one branch of the family tree, traits that are – fortunately – only weakly expressed in other twigs. Those are, to sum up, narcissism, greed, and lack of empathy for fellow-beings.  He thus does seem to be a kind of caricature, such as might be found in a Charles Dickens novel or a Thomas Nast cartoon. I’m sorry to say that his mother died giving birth to him. It seems to have been a bad trade-off.

            All these cousins and their lives and we and our lives are swept along in time, developing ramifications that seem more like the fractal convolutions of chaos than the offshoots of trees.  We’ll lose track of most of us.  We’ll forget the strange attractions that started it all and keep it unfolding. The biochemistry is always with us, but its manifestations are legion, and the human brain can only encompass so much memory. Nevertheless, in 10,000 years, inextricably mixed with everyone else’s cousins, we’ll fill the world.


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Reply WTM aka WTF
8:57 PM on September 23, 2013 
The tragedy of it all is that we lose those connections-mysterious, infuriating, wonderful-with those closest to us. We can't choose our DNA, but we can choose how we bond, and thus learn, with those of the closest affinity.
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