And, BTW, neither are you, even if you’ve forked over $199 to 23and Me, Family Tree, and/or the various other genetic testing organizations you can find online. Because…Science. Because…for reasons I’ll get to, soon. But first

 

 

No, not butt first....

No, not butt first….

 

 …a bit of background/digression.

*   *   *

Department Of We Hoped She Was “Just” French

I have a curious (to some people, myself included) lack of interest in my genetic family tree. More curious to me than knowing all about those who have occupied the various limbs of my family tree – aka, blood kin – is my lack of curiosity about the subject.

For whatever reasons, my bloodlines have never mattered much to moiself, in terms of my own self definition/image/worth, and also in terms of other bipeds whom I find interesting and acquaintance-worthy. [1]  Even so, I fully acknowledge, if not fully understand, the existence of a desire which motivates people to research their genetic history via ventures that, IMHO, run the spectrum from harmless interest to absorbing hobby to batshit bonkers obsession.

A recent casual comment made by someone who’d used one of the afore-mentioned DNA testing services testing made me realize I knew little of what the testing companies offer. I felt a brief…gasp…curiosity, re both the process of such testing, and the results. Could genome sequencing possibly shed light on a family mystery regarding a paternal ancestor? Specifically, a Chickasaw or Cherokee [2] who married into the Irish Parnells and whose new family tried to “pass” her (or him) off as white.

 

 Looks like someone else had a story to tell?

Looks like someone else had a story to tell?

 

 

 

Excuse my detour through what I feel compelled [3] to call The History of the Mystery.

From about age four onward – once I got over my blond phase – I heard, at irregular intervals, mildly teasing comments from both family and friends about my “Indian features,” which were attributed by family members to a Native American antecedent on my father’s maternal side of the family

I can’t remember how old I was when my father had told me there was a Cherokee or Chickasaw ancestor on his mother’s side. He also told me he couldn’t remember whether it was his mother’s great grandfather or mother, and that the family records on such matters were scanty and unreliable for many reasons, including the fact that “… people back then changed names and information they thought was embarrassing.”

 

 

Age three or four, as I was transitioning to my true hair color. Fortunately, no need for a separate bathroom.

Age three or four. I was transitioning to my true hair color. Fortunately, no need for a separate bathroom.

 

 

 

The she looks Indian comments became more frequent during my high school years, particularly when I wore my long hair in two braids. The observations didn’t impress me or make me think I was in some way cool or hip (I did not buy into the White People Think It’s Cool To Have Native American Ancestry mentality that seemed to flourish in the late 60s-70s), nor did they bother me. I mostly attributed the remarks to the general lack of imagination (long dark braided hair = Injun, Ke-mo sah-bee!) in what passed for humor [4] amongst my peers. And then, my maternal grandmother, “Bapa,” chimed in, one afternoon during my freshman year of high school.

According to Bapa, my Native American heritage from a great great grandparent  [5] was scant, yet evident enough that Bapa’s friend gave Bapa a warning. Friend of Bapa  advised Bapa to take down the framed picture of me Bapa had on her coffee table, because said picture emphasized my “Indian-features.”

 

REALLY

 

 

Yes, really.

Bapa laughed conspiratorially when she told me what her friend had said. I laughed in turn, then asked Bapa what she knew about the possible Indian-featured member of my family. “Oh, well,” Bapa sighed, “There isn’t much to know.” [6]

A few years after Bapa’s youngest child (my mother) was married (to my father) it was somehow revealed to Bapa [7] that there was Indian blood on my father’s side of the family (“It doesn’t show in your father, but you can tell by looking at pictures of his mother.”)[8] It was an Indian woman, Bapa thought, although one of my father’s sisters had tried to reassure the family that the ancestor was “maybe just French.”

I was able to question my father’s youngest sister (keeper of the family tree information) about our Native antecedent only once before she died  [9] . She said, in that lovely Tennessee twang of hers and totally sans tongue in cheek, that she’d “…heard from a reliable source that the story was unreliable.”  [10].  She then made a funny face, lowered her voice said that, yes, her Mama had once admitted to having some Indian blood “back there,” maybe Cherokee but “most likely” Chickasaw, but that “we were thinking” (the tone of her voice implied, we were hoping) “it wasn’t Indian,  just French.”

 

 

 

 

No, please, anyone but the French....

No, please, anyone but the French….

*   *   *

We Now Return You To Our Regular Scheduled Babbling Programming

 

I checked out a couple of genetic testing sites, and almost immediately lost interest when I read their come-on tags – teasers meant to exploit our culture’s wide-ranging celebrity obsession (Could you be related to someone famous?).

 

 

avengerstreejpg

 

Further interest was lost via having some of my concerns about the prematurity of the science of genetic testing confirmed when I listened to a recent StarTalk podcast.

The Promise and Peril of the Genomic Revolution is a fascinating interview with both a researcher in the field of genetic testing – bioethicist Robert Kitzman – and also someone trying to profit by popularize the testing among the non-scientifically inclined public – Anne Wojcicki, CEO and co-founder of the genetic testing company 23andMe .

You are made of cells. And the cells in your body have 23 pairs of chromosomes.
Your chromosomes are made of DNA, which can tell you a lot about you. Explore your 23 pairs today. 
Find out what your 23 pairs of chromosomes can tell you.
(from www.23andMe.com )

 

Wojcicki, of course, wants you to use her services, and thus touts how such testing is “empowering individuals to take more control of their own healthcare and to benefit from increased understanding of their own genome.”

Except that no genetic testing company allows you to sequence your entire genome, nor even come close to “understanding” it.  Dr. Kitzman brought up the seemingly little-known (amongst the scientific laity) yet major point that people who contract the services of genetic testing companies mistakenly think they are getting their entire genome sequenced.  

Another concern…there are 3 billion letters (in a human genome). 23andMe is not looking at all 3 billion letters. What they’re doing is looking at one out of every several hundred thousand letters. Imagine a wall of books…what they’re doing is saying we’re going to take one book, we’re going to give you the first letter on every three pages. So the first letter is A, three pages letter the first book is a C, three pages later the first letter is T…you don’t know what kind of book you’re reading… What 23andme is now doing is just giving you one one-thousandth of the information that’s there, so there are going to be false positives, false negatives, there are going to be problems understanding it….”
( Robert Kitzman, StarTalk, 4-29-16 )

The literary analogy: well, then. What do you have, and how can you tell? Are you previewing Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking? A surah from the Koran? A Quentin Tarentino script (no, lawdy, take me now)?

As to such testing’s application to healthcare  [11] : the science, while amazing, is still in its relative infancy, and, as the podcast warns, there are real and serious “…limitations of what we do and don’t know at this very early stage in what is proving to be a much more complicated process than we used to believe.” Given the dangers of false positives and false negatives, tread lightly, y’all.

So. Having my genome sequenced, for whatever reason? I’m not ruling it out; perhaps, Someday For Some Reason ®. But for now, I’ll be content with letting that Cagey Chickasaw Chick – I mean of course, Furtive French Femme – lurk in the not-too-far-distant background. Or, my braids, if I ever have them again.  [12]

 

 

cclown

*   *   *

Department Of Moments That Scream, Inspiration

I recently finished reading a book about the history of Los Angeles punk rock. The book is composed of twenty-four chapter length stories and essays about the infamous west coast scene (circa 1977-1982) by ~ fifteen narrators/participants of that era. I came away from the read with three impressions:

(1) I found it appropriate that the book’s chapters were as varied (read: uneven) in competency and coherency of their prose as the punk bands described therein were as per their musical talent and artistic vision.

(2) Vying for Best Musical Trivia Ever ®  is the following passage from the book, on how the band The Germs got their name:

They were proudly wearing their new mustard-yellow band T-shirts, emblazoned in velvet iron-on letters GERMS. The shirts had been made at a store where they charged by the letter, and their first choice of band name, Sophistifuck and the Revlon Spam Queens, simply wasn’t affordable.
(Chapter 5, Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of LA Punk )

(3) There is no impression #3.

 

*   *   *

Department Of Combinations That Call For Consuming Anti-Vertigo Medications

After finishing When Breath Becomes Air, the profoundly moving memoir of a young physician’s journey into what-makes-life-worth-living-and-what-the-heck-is-life-anyway territory after he receives a terminal cancer diagnosis, I couldn’t start another book for several weeks. Then when I did, I ping-ponged between the afore-mentioned expository of the LA Punk Scene and Secular Meditation: 32 Practices For Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion, And Joy.

 

 

punkmeditation

 

 

 

*   *   *

May you be able to include Spam when naming some venture in your life; [13]  
May that blip on your genome turn out to be just French,
and may the hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

 

 

[1] I’m not going to be predisposed to like a person, or find them more or less interesting or valuable, just because we are supposedly “related.”

[2] Chickasaw or Cherokee – I’ve heard/read different attributions.

[3] By the spirit of the love child of Jesse Jackson and Johnnie Cochrane.

[4] I never took the comments to be insulting, regardless of the commenter’s true intentions. One time there was an implied derogation:  a friend (who had a German last name) called me squaw, as if flinging an epithet. I informed him of the origins of his surname and called him a Nazi. Ah, the compassionate maturity of youth.

[5] Or more…not sure how many great-greatss, as the available family tree info is less than helpful.

[6] Despite her protestations, she’d obviously known enough of something to tell a friend about it.

[7] Bapa was sketchy on details, and like the rest of my family’s older generation, was reluctant to talk about it.

[8] Make that picture, singular. Like the rest of our family, Bapa had seen only one picture of my father’s mother: a tiny, grainy shot of my father’s mother and father and their brood, lined up against their ramshackle tenant farmer’s shack. I don’t know how you could “tell” anything from that picture, except that my father’s mother was a poor farm woman who had too many children.

[9] So difficult to get those pesky dead people to cough up any details.

[10] Mere words cannot describe how much I loved her phrasing, nor how difficult it was to keep a straight face when she said that.

[11] The more nobler excuse/rationale for such testing, versus the self-aggrandizing, gossipy Find Out If You’re Related To Royalty! ego-appeals.

[12] The pix is of from my high school’s senior award for Campus Clown. I am biting down on a doll’s arm, which I found at the beach the summer before my senior year and then wore on a chain around my neck for the rest of the year…because I could.

[13] As long as that venture isn’t a child.