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Why I Use My Middle Name

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Sometimes people ask me why I use my whole name -- Michael Gene Sullivan.

Ten years ago my father, Gene Sullivan, passed away. He was a very interesting guy. Blazingly smart, fiercely political, extremely funny and oh-so-annoyingly logical. He was a Black software engineer who wanted to be the writer/cartoonist/theorist for a revolutionary collective, somewhere.

He never knew where he'd been born, since his parents moved a lot. Why? They were gangsters. Old school, big Cadillac, 1930's Detroit gangsters. My grandparents. But they weren't especially violent gangsters, which was why it was possible for him to be kidnapped when he was around 10 years old, whisked down South and put to work on a plantation in Louisiana. Yep, just like in "Joe Turners Come and Gone." He and two of his brothers. They were put to work on a field with other Black kids that had been kidnapped from families across the North, families that thought they'd gotten away from picking cotton for a whip-wielding Master. After a few years, a sports car pulled up on the dirt road near the field, the door opened and a strange young woman snatched the three of them up and drove all the way back to Detroit at top speed. It was his mother, who he no longer recognized. But he was rescued. Eventually, the grandparents retired from the whole gangster life (my grandfather opened a golf pro shop) and my father went to college for a little while -- where he was captain of the football and basketball teams -- then into the army to support his new wife, Acqueline -- my mother. She came from a respectable family, so he had to fly right. In the army he was a radio man, which started him on his road to computers. But he really wanted to be an artist. Years later, he would show me cartoons he had submitted to magazines and sketches of landscapes he'd made in his teens.

By the time I really knew him he was the cool, erudite diagnostics engineer in Silicon Valley. He wasn't all folksy-country and shit, nor was he fake cosmopolitan; he was just a straightforward, fun guy who loved jazz, politics and the art of the SF underground comix. And he was in the corporate world. The thing with him was he always liked start-ups. He would stay with a company through all the tough times, but once it was on its feet and running he was looking for not greener pastures, but untilled ones. He would have loved the freestyle innovation of the Valley today, though not its sense of condescension. He was one of the first of the Silicon Valley pioneers, working with IBM renegade Gene Amdahl -- until that got too secure and he jumped to some other company. And all this time he was deeply political. I remember he and my mother sneaking my sisters and me through backyards and secret doors to go to a meeting of the Black Panthers in Oakland. And all the marches they took us to! Every protest, every meeting, every opportunity to fight against the bastard powers that be my parents toted the three kids. It was great.

After many financial ups and downs my folks bought a house in SF -- back when such a thing was possible -- and tried to finally sink in some roots. That was when my father had his first heart attack. He'd been smoking like it was federally mandated for years, and his arteries apparently had taken on the consistency of oboe reeds. But that didn't stop him from sucking that shit into his lungs. Anyway, around the same time my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, my parents met when they where in their early teens, so both of them were scared of losing the other, living their lives without the person they'd been with for so long. They spent those years bolstering each other up, taking a long put-off vacation to Hawaii, trying to enjoy all the time they had. Four years later, my mother passed away a week before my father's first bypass surgery. My mother had prepared the house for him, making everything easy for him in preparation of the difficulty he would have getting around. So now he was in the house, and at every step he was reminded of his loss.

Eventually he moved from San Francisco. I think it was too painful for him. He was offered a job on the East Coast and he took it, leaving the Victorian on Golden Gate Avenue for us kids to live in. I visited him back there when I was in a touring theater troupe, and my sister lived with him for a few years in New Hampshire. But I think he was lonely, and I was too caught up in my own stuff to stay in contact with him as often as I should have. Finally, the corporation offered him a huge promotion and raise, but it required him to have an advanced degree. They offered to send him back to college, then overseas to spend a few years as a top exec in Europe. A long way from being a kidnapped Black kid on a plantation. But he said no. He'd been away from the Bay Area too long, and he wanted to come home. So he turned down the huge gig to gamble on another start-up, but this time the start-up foundered immediately, and he was left a brilliant 50-something radical diagnostic engineer in the new, youth-worshipping Silicon Valley. He tried repeatedly to find a start-up that wanted his skills, but software diagnostics is only useful if you are making something to last. If you're going to pop out version 2.0 in a few months you don't always have to make sure everything works right the first time. So we sold the house -- a terrible idea, 'cuz it would be worth millions today -- and he moved in with my sister. He split his time between teaching computer skills to runaways and recovering addicts at a community non-profit, working with Radical Women (a very cool feminist organization) and trying to write the story of his life with my mother.

By this time he'd been a widower for 15 years, had heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. He'd tried at different times to get his health in order, but he just couldn't stop f*cking smoking and drinking. Guess it was the gangster in him. After years of not feeling so great, one night, he was rushed to the hospital on the edge of death. He was at the edge of death, not the hospital. That would be a bad place to put a hospital. My sister called, and I rushed over to the Veteran's Hospital and saw my father looking particularly tiny and ashen. Not to get into any details -- you may be eating -- but because of his diabetes he had a gangrenous foot. Word of advice: If someone ever says "Hey, want some gangrene?" say no.

So his foot was amputated. Then, a year or so later, the other foot was amputated. He was in the hospital for years, in constant pain, and worst of all losing his eyesight. My father read voraciously, so when he couldn't read anymore he was left bored and tired of living. I wish during that time I'd visited him more often, but too often I had an excuse for not crossing town and seeing him. I don't even have a day job! Yes, I was busy with projects, but if I'd put my mind to it I could have figured it out.

Ten years ago my wife, Velina, and I were cast in a show in Denver, so I had to leave town for two months. My father was very sick at the time, openly wanting to die, and I wasn't sure if he was going to survive until I got back. Our son was almost 1 at the time, so I brought him a few times to the hospital. That was always a little tough because a) I wasn't sure how much he could see Zachary and b) It's always a dicey feeling bringing a baby to the stinky germy weirdness of a hospital. But my father happily said how handsome Zachary (our son) was -- which I appreciated, since my father made a point years before of saying how hard it was for him to lie to someone if their baby was ugly. I told my father how much I would appreciate him not dying while I was gone, and Velina, Zachary and I went to Denver.

One night after rehearsal I got a phone call that he'd fallen into a coma and had a "do not resuscitate" order. I had them place the phone next to his head and I spoke to him for about 10 minutes, telling him how much I loved him, how much I'd miss him and that I was sorry that he would miss helping me raise my son -- because I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually I got off the phone, and the next day I got word that he'd passed away. Some of the actors in Denver wondered if I was going to leave the show to get home, but there was no point -- the guy I'd be going to see wasn't there anymore.

At his memorial there were family and some friends -- despite his friendly demeanor, my father never really had many friends. I think it was because of the kidnapping thing; he never allowed himself to get too close to people. But there were some folks from Radical Women, which I think he really would have appreciated. When it was my turn to speak I told a story about my father explaining what a "golden shower" was to me when I was about 11 after I'd read about one in a Penthouse forum letter. (Yes, I read Penthouse Forum when I was 11. It's hilarious!)

I still miss my father very much, and wish I could talk to him about so many things. Everything. It's hard to appreciate people when they are around, but I hope he always knew how much I loved him.

So that's why I use my middle name. Gene.