My Influential Family

I want you to meet my family.

John Lennon and Leonard Cohen are my older brothers. I always thought I was closer to John, but lately I realize I take after Lenny more. Tom Waites is the disreputable cousin who was always getting me into and out of trouble (with a strong emphasis on into) until one day Blacksheep Tommy (“I know karate; voodoo, too!”) ran away to Japan. I have two little sisters: Bjork, and Fiona, who can do no wrong. Tori Amos is my redheaded step, and I love her fiercely, though she always finds it harder to accept than the other two, and she thinks I think she’s creepy because of all the rats and rattlesnakes in her bedroom. The truth is, she’s  more my kin than either of them, she just doesn’t know it, because I do have to keep my distance. I have this old uncle, too. Neil Diamond. I was taught to like him as a kid, but he’s actually kind of embarrassing in public. He gets on my nerves, but what can be done?  Family!

My father was the novelist John Gardner.  Manic-depressive. Impossible role model.  Distant and overwhelming at the same time. In my late teens and early twenties, I followed him around the country from Southern Illinois to Bennington, Vermont, to Binghamton, NY, but he kept eluding me until he finally self-destructed on his motorcycle. He and my mother, Ursula LeGuin, never did get along. At least, not on the surface. He used to yell and thump the table and break things in his self-righteous furies, and I always thought it was up to me to keep her on the same planet as the rest of us, but I can see now that she loved him in her quietly amused, otherworldly way. She tolerated his outbursts without suffering from them. She and Papa Ernest are not on speaking terms. I admire his terse accuracy, the way he boxes “scientifically” with the language. There’s Uncle Vonnegut and Uncle Mailer and Aunt Joyce Carol Oates, too, but they only show up on special occasions these days. And a whole other side of the family, who are all painters, but most of them are dead or institutionalized or both.

You don’t have to hang out with these people. No Sunday dinners or anything. I just want you to know who some of them are, so if you see me exhibiting a little bizarre behavior now and then, you can trace it back up the tree. Oh, and John Cheever. I’m never quite sure how he’s related. He’s just always around. Perfect gentleman, the soul of decorum. I stole his Collected Stories from my home town library, lost it, and made an anonymous donation to cover my crime.

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