Category Archives: Personal Narrative

What Would Grandmother’s Job Be?

My grandmother, Helen Marshall Smith, was born in 1914. Like most women of her generation her career opportunities were limited, and like nearly all women in her socio-economic stratum – Southern working class – her educational opportunities were nearly non-existent.

One more fact to note: she had polio as a child and that, plus some sort of hip issue I never fully understood, meant she spent most of her life on crutches.

I thought about Grandmother the other day as I wandered around Denver Botanic Gardens with my Nikon. Read more

Ancestry DNA Results and My Mystery Grandmother


Fascinating. To me, anyway…

I just got the results back on my Ancestry DNA test.* I suppose mine are like everybody’s: they confirmed a lot of what I already knew and also threw a couple little curves at me.

A slight preface: My family has always been working folks and while official records exist, our oral history was longer on supposition than documentation. There are things we know, but a lot more we don’t.

What I Knew

A huge majority of my DNA traces to the British Isles. The population where I grew up is heavily Scotch/Irish and my family name traces to Scotland in the early 1700s at least. Other surnames, as well, are distinctly British and Irish (Marshall and Dillon, for instance, and Milraney). There’s a good bit more English and Welsh than I expected, although my grandmother (paternal) said she was part Welsh. And so on.

If you look at the map of where my relations – near and distant – live, it’s not too different from a map of Scotch/Irish immigration. Lots of Red country. Too much Ozark to suit me.

What I Didn’t Know

  • I’m 3% French. Kinda embarrassed about that.
  • Not much German at all. We had suspected we had a good bit of German and at one point there was even speculation that the Smith might be an Anglicized Schmidt. Apparently not.
  • I’m a wee bit Norwegian. No family insight at all into that one.
  • I expected some Central European. My great-grandfather was a member of one of the Moravian churches in the area. They’re a small denomination and they never seemed to recruit a lot, so my assumption is that many members are there through family tradition. The Moravians came from Bohemia in what is now the Czech Republic. But the test says no.
  • Most interestingly, I was always told we had a Native American grandmother a few generations up the family tree. Specifics were fuzzy, but there are some dominant physical traits running down the paternal side of the family that my relatives interpreted as Native-ish, and this was taken as evidence. But no – the test found not a drop of Amerind blood in me.

What it did find was a small trace of “Cameroon, Congo & Southern Bantu Peoples” – folks originating somewhere in the Southern half of Africa.

Given the small amount of said DNA, coupled with the absence of a perhaps similar amount of Native American, I find myself wondering about that mystery grandmother, who probably lived in 18th/early 19th century. Did she pose as Native for social reasons? Was she an escaped slave? Was the family in on the secret? Did they pass down the story that she was American Indian for safety reasons or, us being Southern and all, was it a scandal?

Or perhaps my Native grandmother never existed? Who knows where stories come from after a couple hundred years. Maybe she’s a myth and that little bit of African DNA comes from somewhere else entirely.

I can speculate all night here and probably will. I don’t imagine there’s anything remotely unusual about my family history, but I’m fascinated by these questions for the same reasons everybody else is. I want to know everything there is to know about where I came from, even though it makes not a lick of difference.


* Yeah, I know. DNA companies work with the Security State. I made this decision informed of all that. If they use it to lock me up they can pay my rent and medical bills for whatever time I have left.

Watching the Wheels

NOTE: I penned this a few months ago but never posted it. I’m now in deep enough to see some of the warts, and COVID certainly does northing to make you feel secure. But I was right. And that feels really good.


Finally, I’m off the merry-go-round.

“Surely you’re not happy now
you no longer play the game…”

A couple years ago I got cast adrift.

First, I wound up on the wrong side of a company political battle (it wasn’t about me, but I put myself in the line of fire by backing the wrong horse – never mind that said horse was right) and wound up getting forced out. Not long after I stumbled into a severely toxic “opportunity” that went even worse.

Which kicked off 20+ months of “self-employment.”

It was sheer fucking terror. Every morning I’d wake in a panic and it could take ten minutes just to collect myself and calm down. I had several medical issues, no insurance, mounting debts and the few freelance gigs I landed came nowhere close to keeping my head above water. I was sure I would wind up dead.

The upside was that even after working on the freelance stuff and hunting for jobs (applications with literally hundreds of companies, some phone interviews and a handful of in-person interviews which produced little more than a set of outraged posts on age discrimination, counter-productive interviewing rituals, ghosting and applicant screening systems), I had time to reflect on the dumpster fire of my professional life and how it had happened.

The Status Trap

Back in the early ’00s I took some career assessment inventories and among them was one that ranked professional priorities. It considered things like pursuit of wealth, the attraction of a challenge, etc. – basically, there are 10-15 things that motivate people at work, and you were force-ranked on what mattered most.

For me, #2 turned out to be status. This bothered me. I didn’t see myself as a status hound, but the test results raised ugly questions. Truth was, I did get hung up on titles and my place in the company. It was important to get promoted and to have people reporting to me. The gods forbid I should even wind up lower on the totem pole than (or worse, reporting to) someone younger than me.

These factors were visible indicators of the respect I had. I grew up Southern working class and deeply insecure on top of it, so status markers were tangible validation – the only tangible validation – of my worth. Even if I really saw myself as an artist, a scholar and a thinker, being an a executive director in a Fortune 500 making six figures with some direct reports, and even better, reporting directly to the C Suite, this meant I was winning by the incontrovertible rules of society. You might not care about poetry, but you had no choice to be impressed by the business card.

Status mattered in those other areas, too. PhD. Tenure. Publications. If a poem was rejected, it was a chip in the foundation of my worth as human being. So I lived life according to corporate/consumerist social rules, or tried to (even when I moved in academic or artistic spheres).

That hateful little test planted the seed of self-awareness, and while it incited a good bit of self-examination I never acted on it. I guess you could say I chose to live with the disease rather than seek a cure.

The answer

Despite a career which has seen me hold manager, senior manager, director and VP titles, those 20 months of futility eventually forced me to apply for work that was “beneath” me. And here, of course, was the CATCH-22 – it seemed that for every gig out there I was either not qualified or over-qualified.

When I did manage to land an interview for one of those lower-on-the-food-chain jobs I always – always – wound up hearing a diplomatically turned question that translated into something like “wow, what a resumé. Why would a guy like you want a pissant little job like this?”

It was a fair, if unwelcome question, and I experimented with a variety of answers. But the presumption lies against you in a job interview. There are very few right answers and a lot of wrong ones. Following the advice of a zillion HR experts probably only made it worse. But that’s what you do when you’re playing the game.

After all those months of failure I was compelled to face some realities about myself. I don’t love corporations. I don’t care about “career.” I find no personal or spiritual meaning working in the business world. I like money, of course, but not what you have to do to get more of it.

Instead, I love my wonderful girlfriend and my home life. I love playing with Trouble, the Cattle Dog from Hell. I love my photography and digital art. My writing? Well, some do it because they love it and others because they can’t make themselves stop, and I’m in that camp. But there’s value in it, whether it gets read by anyone or not. And nothing I could ever do in the corporate world would ever have that sort of meaning for me.

I finally broke down and admitted that I’m tired of chasing things that don’t make me happy just because other people say I should.

And that became my answer.

The new job

A few weeks ago I finally got the offer. Not for a Veep job. Not for a director job. Or senior manager or manager or any of the other things for which I’m qualified. Nope – my new position is copywriter – which is what I was doing in 1985.

And it feels so very nice. There’s less in the way of the pointless, manufactured stress that accompanies greater responsibility. (Pressure is how too many business managers reassure themselves that what they’re doing is important. It’s pressure driven by ritual, not reality.) My hours are reasonable. I’m not getting rich but I can certainly live on what I make. And I’m good at writing.

There’s some funny stuff about the situation, too, especially if you knew the old Sam. I’m probably the oldest guy in the group, for instance, and my boss is 30 years younger than me. Literally. She was born right about the time I was finishing my MA. She’s sharp as a whip and I really, really like her.

It’s early

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll

Sure, it could all go to hell. Sometimes situations are good early on and a few months later you want to murder people. No guarantees – not now, not ever.

But it feels different. It’s like a tremendous weight is off. I can breathe. And I know for certain that if this job doesn’t work out I won’t go back to the kind of joyless life I was pursuing before.

It took a while, but I now get it. I’m off the merry-go-round and I couldn’t be happier about it.

From Norris to winterSmith: A Long Quest for Identity


One of the first things my parents did when I was born was saddle me with the wrong name: Norris Gilmer Smith, Jr.

I hated that name. The Smith part was good, but the rest… I never liked Norris because it sounded … I don’t even know how to articulate this. It made me different without making me special.

Then there was the Jr. part. Daddy wanted a little him. Because that’s the sort of self-involved person he was. Of course, I never came anywhere near being a little version of him. Never wanted to be, and once I reached a certain age I started going out of my way to make sure he (and everybody else) understood it.

And Gilmer – I’m going to assume this one is self-explanatory.

When I moved to Iowa for grad school in 1987 I ditched the Norris and started going by Random. No, the derivation isn’t “random,” as in “proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern.” On the contrary. It was an amalgamation of Brand, from Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand,” and CS Lewis’s Elwin Ransom. Ethan Brand was the man who abandoned his life and went to search the world for the unpardonable sin. He found it: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!” Ransom, of course, was the salvation figure in Perelandra.

Denial of kinship of fellow human, salvation figure. Brand + Ransom = Random. Yeah, it was on the pretentious side, and sadly it was confusing as hell for folks. It sounded dumb. I’ve always lived in a world of symbols and back then was a bit full of myself. Thanks to those of you who put up with me during this phase.

Awkward first steps notwithstanding, the point is I was shedding an identity that wasn’t me and embarking on a quest for my real self. It wasn’t all in my head, either. People who grow up with you, people in your hometown, they have an idea about who you are. They aren’t interested in your discomfort with who you’re supposed to be. Their image of who you are is reality and the rest is silliness. Get back in your box and stay there. And that box has the name your parents gave you on it.

While in Iowa I changed my name legally to Samuel Random Norris Smith. Samuel was my grandfather, and he and my grandmother took me in when I was three. My parents split and it was wisely decided that I should be raised by adults. So Sam was the closest thing to a father I really had.

I kept the Norris so I could cash any checks made out to the old name. Literally.

And in 1994 I asked people to call me Sam.

Along the way I’ve made use of any number of personas, handles, and noms des plume. I was Road Angel online and fancied myself sort of a moral icon along the Information Superhighway. Or something. I was Dr. A Thaddeus “Tad” ver Bose, a writer and professor who was, well, a tad verbose. I was Roger Daylights (if I ever do an action/adventure film, that’s who I’ll be). My noir anti-hero character is Hawthorn Curve, Private Dick.

I blogged as Dr. Slammy for a long time, and while Slammy was me, he was the unforgiving, caustic, suffer-no-fools side of me. Slammy was a smart and relentless political thinker, but he he wasn’t especially fun to be around. Over time his toxicity began to take a toll on me.

Dr. Sidicious “Sid” Bonesparkle is an emissary of Hell turned American culture wag. He’s the voice in my head who takes over when things that are a little extra heretical need saying.

These days I use Doc in most of my social media profiles. I spent six years getting the damned PhD – I might as well get some use out of it.

And on and on.

Now we arrive at the present day. I said above I was okay with “Smith.” It’s as common as mashed potatoes, and try checking into a hotel with the name Sam Smith sometime. But a smith is also a creator, and for my entire adult life I’ve been a writer. A wordsmith. Now I’m a photographer and digital artist, which I suppose makes me an imagesmith. So Smith is right.

The “winter”part is a slightly longer story, but perhaps the one that brings it all home. I was born at 4:27am on Feb 2 – Imbolc, the midpoint between Solstice and Equinox. Midwinter. While many people, if not most, seem to hate winter, I never have. I don’t mind the cold. I love snow. Its bite reminds me I’m alive.

Nor am I bothered by the darkness. Bleakness, overcast, nighttime – in some ways this is my natural element. My art has always sought out the beauty in the darkness, whether in words or pictures.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered Terry Pratchett’s novel Wintersmith. In it the young witch, Tiffany Aching, gets caught up in the seasonal rites and accidentally awakens an elemental spirit. He becomes enraptured by her, obsessed. He sets out to become human and make her his own.

But the Wintersmith has no understanding of what it means to be human. He observes and imitates people, but his efforts to woo Tiffany are instead alienating, terrifying. And his attempts to connect with her ultimately threaten the natural order of the seasons and of life itself.

He wants to be human. To love. To be loved. But he doesn’t know how.

A good friend and mentor once said artists don’t get to live life life, they only observe it. I wish he’d been wrong, but in Pratchett’s misguided spirit I feel more kinship and empathy than I enjoy thinking about.

I was always a smith and was born a child of winter, but finally I’ve come to terms with winterSmith. Perhaps it isn’t the self I hoped to find, but at least there’s peace in the knowing.

I’ve long thought that the name we’re given at birth should simply be our childhood name, and that when we reached a certain age we should choose our own name. I’ve imagined this would happen when we reached legal adulthood at 18, but reflecting on my own journey maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe it should happen when we turn 50…


I can’t decide what to have them put on my tombstone. Advice?


He was a simple country boy.


The world ends not with a bang
Not even a whimper
But with ellipses…


He was a blind man playing tag with ninjas in the dark

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