Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I Sing the Body Electric

Walt Whitman’s classic poem demonstrates how one human has the ability to sound notes within others, and enable them to identify completely with the message. Such words are comforting proof that each of us is part of a whole. We all have favorite books with which we identify, sometimes without recognizing exactly which specific chords in them resonate most strongly. But it is poems and song lyrics which, by the very nature of their compactness, have a uniquely and directly powerful ability to encapsulate our own, deep-down outlooks, attitudes and core beliefs. Given that most of us are far more often exposed to songs than to poetry, I’m quite sure that each of us can point to at the lyrics of at least one song—probably several—and say “this is me.”

This past weekend, I went to see a production of Cabaret, which I had never before seen on stage. It was an example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts in that while some of the cast members had good voices, they played the part of their character rather than being the character and therefore the spark of magic which makes some productions magical was missing. But there is no question about the power of songs which comprise the show.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to the point that I’ve always been able to lay out my entire interior makeup in the words of a few songs. One song in Cabaret—“Maybe This Time”—has always grabbed me by the heart and described my sense of longing as well as if not better than I could ever do myself. (Turn on your mental stereo and listen to it carefully. You’re hearing me—and perhaps, if you do not have someone to share your life, yourself.)

With all the emotional rigidity of a blade of grass, I am frequently moved by songs, and believe I did a blog on them before at one time. But after “Maybe This Time” reentered my head, where, as is my wont it has stubbornly remained ever since, I decided to select three song lyrics which, even if you knew absolutely nothing about me as a person, would paint a trompe l’oeil self-portrait.

I chose three because while one could be a sketch, a portrait is seldom done in one color. So I selected “Maybe This Time,” to perfectly mirror my life-long search for romantic love, which I still have hopes, however unrealistically, to this day.

While my being gay is not the only thing that defines me as a human being, it has been a preeminent influence, and my entire life has been colored by it. My attitudes toward—and defiance of—bigotry and stupidity and those who would dictate how others should live their lives were formed and have evolved from it. Hence, the second of my three defining songs: “I Am What I Am,” from Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles. To me, it defines the word “pride.”

And the third song...the one which encapsulates my view of everything I aspire to and know I shall never fully realize, is “The Impossible Dream,” from The Man of La Mancha. Can you possibly imagine what the world could be like if everyone “strove, with his last ounce of courage, to reach the unreachable stars”? I can.

I note that the underlying theme of all these songs, and the underlying theme of my existence, is, as noted in my reasons for choosing “Maybe This Time,” hope. With hope, anything is possible, any star eventually reachable. Without it, there is nothing.

So there you have it. I am what I am, and I cling to the impossible dream in hopes that maybe this time....
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Songs

I was recently informed by my cable/internet provider that the company was going digital and that I had to have a digital cable box attached to every television set in my home, at a cost (hinted at but I don’t think ever specifically stated, $2.50 per month). I did not see the need for anything other than what I already have, and I certainly did not need to spend another $2.50 a month for something I didn’t want in the first place. Foolish me.

I now have a digital converter box for my TV, and will be spending $2.50 per month for the privilege. However, after all my bitching and moaning, I discovered that with the conversion to digital, I now have available, through my TV, 40 music channels. Everything to Christian Rock (one of my favorites, as you can imagine), through Jazz and Hip-hop (close seconds to Christian Rock).

However, it also contains Big Band, Standards, Light Classical, Classical, and Show Tunes. I guess I can afford the $2.50. So now I get up in the morning, turn on the computer and, passing through the living room to make coffee and let my cat out of the bathroom (a long story), I turn on the TV to one of the music channels...usually Show Tunes.

While I’ve not been really up on musical theater for several years now, and therefore do not recognize many of the songs, they also have all the classics from Oklahoma! on. They’ve just played a couple of my all-time favorites: “What I Did for Love” (A Chorus Line), “‘Til Him” (The Producers), “Somewhere” (West Side Story). Anyone who knows me can clearly spot a pattern here: I’m a sucker for songs which, to me, speak particularly strongly to gays. They haven’t yet played…that I’ve heard, anyway…“I Am what I Am” (La Cage aux Folles), but I’m sure they will at some point. And if by any remote chance they might play “Tell Me, Please” from Boy Meets Boy—a delightful gay musical that originated in New York and which I saw six times in L.A.—I will be a happy man indeed.

While the words “song” and “music” are synonymous, they are two pieces of a whole: “music” implies a broader and somewhat more elevated range. “Music” carries with it the signature of the human race as one of our finer qualities: songs are music on a smaller, more personalized scale.

Songs have significance to different people for different reasons. First, and almost universally, it has to have a pleasant melody, and second, universally, the words have to have some special appeal or meaning to the listener. Where one first hears a song, under what circumstances, with whom it is heard or with whom the listener relates it…influence an individual’s reactions.

There are a few songs that have a power which transcends its words and its music: “God Bless America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are perhaps the two prime example for Americans. Yet I doubt they have nearly the same impact on non-Americans. Such songs reach deeply into our national psyche and trigger powerful emotions we lump together under another powerful emotion: “patriotism.” Songs are often closely tied to specific times…World War II, the big bands, rock and roll…which become part of their appeal.
Your taste in songs…and in music…may differ vastly from mine. But the thing is that we each recognize its power to move us, and its impact on our lives. Play it again, Sam.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Dangling Wires

I sometimes think of my head as a large, unfinished attic with two windows through which I look out at the world. When it came to the wiring of the attic, however, the electrician(s) must have been in a hurry to move on to a more important job. Rather than neatly color-coding each wire and making sure that each went from point A directly to point B, they apparently left hundreds of exposed live electric wires just dangling from the ceiling, so that when the breeze of thought stirs them, they brush against one another randomly, effectively short-circuiting any attempt at linear thinking.
The breeze that comes with music must be especially strong, since it almost always sends me off in random and totally unrelated (on the surface, at any rate) directions.

Yesterday I heard music from one of the great documentary TV series of the early 50s,Victory at Sea, composed by Richard Rogers, and when the main theme came along, I was instantly transported to August of 1953 and to Broadway’s Majestic Theater. It was my first trip to New York, and the first Broadway show I ever saw…Rogers and Hammerstein’s Me and Juliet. The one hit song from that show was “No Other Love,” which was taken note for note from the Victory at Sea main theme.

But once a short-circuit has begun, it tends to set off a string of other sparkings, as this one did. Another song from Me and Juliet was “Keep it Gay” (a song by the same title was used in the more recent Mel Brooks movie, The Producers). I was 19 years old, gay, and in New York on my own for the very first time. Not knowing exactly where to go to find other gays, I went down to Washington Square in the Village, and remember standing in front of the New York Public Library whistling “Keep it Gay,” in hopes that someone might get the message. No one did, alas.

So now we’re short-circuiting on New York/gay memories, and sparking to 1960 when my mom and I went to New York…her first time. I’ve probably mentioned these two memories before, since I tend to repeat my favorite stories. Anyway, we saw The Sound of Music the night Oscar Hammerstein died, and all of Broadway dimmed its lights in tribute.

For some unknown reason, whenever I was with my mom and unable to do anything about it, I would find myself being cruised by guys I’d have given anything to be able to respond to. I remember we were at the top of the Empire State Building and a really nice looking young man took an interest in me. Utterly frustrating, but I couldn’t very well say: “Wait here, Mom, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

When it comes to my writing, my mind’s odd wiring has taught me never to try to plot things out too far in advance. I’ve become rather adept, I hope, at making use of these little electrical “pffffffftzzzzzzzzzz” reactions in my writing. (Well, this blog is a perfect example, obviously.) The best I can do is, when I start a book, to do a stick-figure drawing of the plot, and perhaps, at the very beginning, point to a spot on the horizon and say “let’s try to end up over there.” Writers who can and do draw intricate treasure maps of their books before they ever start writing (“three paces due north from this specific event, turn SSE and go exactly six paces to something else specific,” etc.) is fine for them, but I cannot comprehend how they do it, or why they would want to tie themselves down so securely. Part of the fun of writing, for me, is never knowing what comes next. It’s all up to the dangling wires.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Marching On

A march is playing as I type…a march I played as part of the Naval Aviation Cadet band at a time, it seems now, both only slightly after dinosaurs roamed the earth and yesterday afternoon. And instantly I am back on the parade field at Pensacola Naval Air Station, sweating in the Florida heat, but almost euphoric with the sense of being part of the music and something much larger than myself.

I played the clarinet, and I did not play it particularly well. In fact, I dreaded the very thought of actually being heard as other than a part of the whole band. But I also know that I played far better when I was one of many than I ever could alone.

The need to feel we belong is an elemental but…other than, perhaps, during our teenage years…seldom considered part of being human. Few things promote a sense of belonging more strongly than patriotism, and patriotism is nothing but an awareness of unity and, underlying it, the human need to feel that we belong. There are, of course, both visual and visceral symbols of patriotism and unity: the flag being most prominent of the visual, music…and especially march music…being the most visceral.

Marches convey a sense of power, confidence, boldness, exhilaration, and inclusion which resonate strongly with something deep inside us all. It is not coincidental that the rhythm of march music has been proven to increase the heart rate. (Drums, the very first musical instrument after the human voice, echo the heartbeat. You can’t get much more basic than that.)

To stand on the curb along a parade route and hear the approaching staccato of snare drums and the flourish that leads into the start of the next march…or even better, to be in the band…never fails to create an almost out-of-body experience in me. I love it, and I am not alone…literally.

It has frequently been suggested that “The Stars and Stripes Forever” should be made our official national anthem, and I agree wholeheartedly. Can anyone listen to it without being infused with a deep sense of patriotism? “The Star Spangled Banner” evokes patriotism, I think, largely through a form of osmosis: we’ve been simply programmed for that response. But it doesn’t grab us with anywhere near the power and force, or provide the euphoria of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” No need for programming there; it just scoops us up and carries us away.

I think those of us who have spent much of our lives being made to feel like we are outsiders, like we do not belong, take perhaps an inordinate degree of comfort in anything which tells us that we are not, indeed, alone. Music…almost any kind of music…provides this comfort, this escape from the world. Some find it in opera, others in symphonies or string quartets. But for me, play me a march, turn the volume way up, and I’m gone.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Cat's Tale

When my cat Crickett died recently, after 18 years, I determined I’d not get another. Losing any living creature, human or animal, with whom you’ve shared a life leaves a sizable hole in the roof of one’s soul, through which the cold rain of sadness can too freely enter.

But then Gary mentioned that he had gone to PetSmart, a large pet supply chain, with his friend George, who was thinking of adopting a cat. PetSmart gives space to local animal shelters as adoption centers, a fact of which I’d not been aware, but which certainly elevated them in my estimation.

Gary said they’d seen a beautiful 2-year-old named Billy, who was pure white except for a black tail and two small black smudges on his forehead. George had wanted it, but was in the process of moving and thought perhaps it might be too difficult both for him and Billy, with all the confusion.

Well, that set me off, and I went to PetSmart the next day. I truly hate going to animal adoption places, since my heart goes out to all the animals there, and want to bring them all home with me, which is very nice altruistically, but somewhat lacking in practicality. At any rate, on a whim I filed an application for Billy on the spot.

Having done so and given the paper to an employee, I went back to the viewing area and saw there was a section I’d not noticed, and in that area saw a pure black, 1-year-old male named Spirit. I have always had a very soft spot in my heart for black cats, so I asked for the application paper back and wrote in “Billy OR Spirit.” I knew I couldn’t take both, and have always hated making decisions like that, since I never want to hurt anyone’s (not even a cat’s) feelings by rejecting them in favor of someone else.

But the more I thought of it, the more I favored, on a practical level, Spirit. My love of black cats goes back to my beloved Thomas who was with me from the moment I found him abandoned as a tiny kitten in a parking lot in Los Angeles until he died in my lap 17 years later in Pence, Wisconsin. Shortly after Thomas died, I looked out the window one snowy day to see a large black cat in my yard. I learned from neighbors who had been feeding him, that he’d just shown up at their house one day. They called him Sheba, and I took him in.
I’d had Sheba (at the same time as I had Crickett, though Crickett never wanted anything to do with him) for almost 15 years when I decided to move to Chicago. Sheba I’m sure thought of himself as a panther, and he loved prowling the forest across the street from my house. I was always worried about him, what with the predators which roamed the forest, plus his crossing the street to get back and forth. But he was very street-smart, and there was never a problem.

But when the time came to move, I knew I could only bring one cat, and I knew that Sheba could never be happy cooped up 24 hours a day in a small apartment, so with a great deal of regret, which I feel to this day, I gave him to a friend who lived, with her husband, in the middle of the forest, a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. I’ve not checked to see if he is still alive. The chances are very slim, but I simply don’t want to know. That way, he will always be young and sleek, stalking wild mice through the tall grass.

Which brings us to Spirit. When I mentioned my plan to adopt him to a friend, he pointed out that a black cat named Sprit was wonderfully fitting in light of my new Elliott Smith mystery series, which deals with spirits. So back again to PetSmart with considerable guilt to change my application from “Billy OR Spirit” to just “Spirit.” After considerable back-and-forthing and will-they-or-won’t they, they called yesterday to tell me I could come pick Spirit up. He is, thus far, a sweetheart, who craves attention (something we have in common), and who insisted on sleeping with me last night...something Crickett never did. I do hope Crickett won’t mind.

Oh, yes, and when I went to pick up Spirit, Billy was gone; adopted by someone else, which greatly reduced my guilt.

So I have embarked on a new adventure, albeit a small one. But adventures, even small ones, keep us young.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Friday, September 09, 2016

Catharsis

When I knew she was dead, I picked her up from the kitchen rug on which she had lain, barely moving, for two days, and laid her on her blanket. I folded the blanket over her, picked it and her up, and put them into a large blue plastic bag. I got the box I’d saved for the purpose, and put the bag, the blanket, and Crickett into the box. It was not an easy fit, but after considerable gentle readjusting of the bag, I managed. I got a roll of clear plastic box tape and closed and sealed the box. I then carried it to the elevator, rode down to the first floor, went out the back door and laid the box carefully in an open dumpster. I covered it with a couple other empty boxes and returned to my apartment.

A large city is not conducive to a dignified burial beneath a tree, or deep within a flower bed. But I’m sure Crickett didn’t mind. Were I one to believe in the Pathetic Fallacy, which ascribes human traits and feelings to animals, I would have felt more guilty than I did. And were I to go down that mental path, I’d have truly grieved at the thought that for her entire 18 years, she may have been outside a total of less than a dozen times, and was terrified each time. To be in a box in a dumpster on a cold winter’s day in Chicago....

I got Crickett when she was a kitten, and she was a strange cat, even as cats go. Yellow-orange and white, she was very pretty, and must have had some sort of genetic disorder because her eyes were always fully dilated, never slitted. I don’t recall ever having seen another cat with eyes like hers. Like all cats, she loved attention, but only on her terms. When she came into my life, I already had Thomas, a huge black male with the disposition of a saint. Thomas was everybody’s pal. Crickett wasn’t much into having pals. She largely ignored Thomas, and they never became friends. She was the same with my dog, Samantha (Sammy), and the several other cats that came and went over the years. She remained aloof from it all. Up until the last month of her life, the only time she ever got on my lap, it was on her terms, not mine. And even then she would sit down, get up, circle around (swatting me in the face with her tail), sit down, get up turn around again, etc. until I’d get exasperated and put her on the floor. Occasionally she would climb on my lap and move up to drape herself over my left shoulder (never my right) as she had done when I would hold her as a kitten. Toward the end, she spent a lot of time calmly in my lap. She seemed to need me more, and that broke my heart because I felt she knew something was not right.

While I have had animals all my life, I have not been present at their deaths more than a few times. When Thomas, who I had found as a kitten in Los Angeles, died in Pence, coincidentally also at 18, his decline was rapid, the result of old age and a good life. I found him lying on the basement floor one morning and knew he was dying. I carried him upstairs, where I put him in my lap and sat petting him until he died…I hope peacefully.

Crickett was not so lucky. She developed cancer at the site of a rabies shot she had received more than two years before. The vet said this is far more common than anyone realizes, and she avoids giving rabies shots to indoor house cats for that reason. At any rate, Crickett’s death was neither quick nor easy. She did not appear to be in pain, and the vet prescribed two different medications which appeared to be very effective in keeping her comfortable. But she lost the use of her leg, which she dragged behind her.

I know, I know. I should have gone along with that infuriating euphemism of having her “put to sleep.” But it is not putting her to sleep. It is killing her, and I could not bring myself to play God. I wanted her to die as comfortably as possible in her own familiar world. (I did, on Friday, call the vet, who said she would come over and kill her at home, but I still could not bring myself to do it, though I felt both remorse and guilt as, over the weekend, I feared she might be in pain. She’d stopped eating or drinking, and just laid there. When she tried to stand or move, she’d fall over. The one medication required being put on her food, but when she stopped eating and refused to be fed, I was left with only the second medication, which I could put into her mouth with a small syringe.

I was sure Saturday night she could not possibly last until morning. But she did. 

AndSunday night.

Finally, at about 2:15 Monday, she died.

I know…she was “just a cat.” But she was a part of my life nearly every day for 18 years, and one more link to my past. And I miss her.

And why am I telling you all this? You never knew Crickett. But if you’ve ever lost an animal who was a part of your life, you know the need for catharsis. Writing this is mine.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Monday, September 05, 2016

Pets

Spirit
“Pet” is one of the few English words which is not only both a noun and a verb, but its own definition, like “fly”…a fly is what it is called, and fly is what it does. A pet is what it is called and also its primary purpose: to be petted.

Pets—primarily dogs and cats—have been mankind’s companions for a couple of millennia now. Countless books have been written on our inter-species relationship, its role in our society and in our individual lives. Pets are not human, but our emotional bonds to them can often rival that of all but the very closest of our human relationships.

While comparing cats and dogs is like comparing tangerines and tangelos, they both fulfill basic human needs. Dogs provide around the clock unconditional love. Any time we need, or the dog senses we need, affection, it is right there to provide it. And while cats can also be great sources of comfort and affection it is far more frequently given on the cat’s terms, not the human’s. Call a dog, and it is immediately at your side. Call a cat and 9 times out of 10 it will just stare at you, if it deigns to look in your direction at all. It’s just their nature. Dogs are and have since their first bonding with humans thousands of years ago been “pack” animals. They consider man to be just another member of the pack.

Cats are, by their genetic nature, far more “loners” than dogs. Being part of a group is not nearly as important to them as it is to dogs.

In my life, I have had innumerable pets—probably more cats than dogs, yet it seems on reflection that I am basically more a “dog person” than a “cat person.” The first family pet I can really remember was a Doberman pinscher named Kaiser. Dobermans have the reputation of being a one-person dog, and my dad was that person. Kaiser tolerated my mother and me, but it was to my dad that he was totally devoted. Kaiser once got up on the dining room table when no one was around and ate an entire cake my mother had baked for some special occasion. If Mother was not Kaiser’s favorite person, he was not her favorite dog.

The first dog I remember distinctly as being my own was Lucky, a black mutt who my dad found one day and brought home. Lucky was my dog, and I loved him almost on the same par as I loved my parents. I’m not sure how long we had him, but when we moved into a new home, my dad said we couldn’t have a dog there, and gave Lucky to my grandfather, who lived on a farm. It broke my heart, but Dad was adamant, and that was the last I ever saw of Lucky. Grandpa reported that he had run away. And within two weeks of moving into the new house, Dad bought me a boxer pup, Stormy. I never forgave him for taking Lucky from me, and I have never, after all these years, stopped grieving for him.

I of course eventually grew to love Stormy, who we had from the time I lost Lucky to after my two years in the Navy and completion of college. I forget just how Stormy died, and I don’t want to remember. When I moved to Chicago, I got another boxer, Thor, who had very serious mental problems as a result of inbreeding. He became impossible to keep in our apartment, so I gave him to my aunt, who had a large yard. Thor tried jumping over her chain link fence while wearing his leash and hanged himself. I felt terrible, but it was not the depth of sorrow I felt over Lucky.

When I moved to L.A., I had Cindy, a German shepherd, and Boy, a wonderfully loving large mutt, both of whom died of old age at my home. Overlapping Cindy and Boy was Sammy, another mutt who strongly resembled Toto from The Wizard of Oz. Sammy was a total delight and lived to be 15 or so. She moved with me from L.A. to northern Wisconsin, and died of old age while I was on a trip to L.A.

Bozo, a huge golden retriever, was surely one of the most loving dogs I have ever had. He loved to sit at my feet, with his head on my lap while I was watching TV, waiting for me to feed him popcorn, a kernel at a time. One day I let him out and he did not come back. I found him dead by the side of the road. For months after, I could not eat popcorn without crying.

My last dog was Duchess, a beautiful pure-white Samoyed I found on the street and who no one claimed even after I put an ad in the paper. Duchess was my only “outside” dog in that she loved winter; the colder the better. I built her a large doghouse attached to my garden shed, and filled it with bales of straw. And then one harsh winter I noticed her drinking a lot more than normal. I thought it was because the water in her bowl had frozen, so I brought her fresh water more often. She couldn’t seem to get enough, and I noticed she was getting thin. I will never forgive myself for not taking her to the vet immediately. When I did, I was told she had severe diabetes. I hadn’t even known dogs could get diabetes. The vet said they would keep her overnight to see what could be done. When I called the next day, I was told she had died during the night. Is it any wonder I think so little of myself?

I now live in an apartment and having a dog is out of the question, so now I just have my cat, Spirit.

And I see that I have rambled on and on and have not yet even mentioned the cats in my life, some of which were, like my dogs, memorable.

Well, another time, if you’re interested.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com: