Monday, September 22, 2014

Once Upon a Town

I moved from northern Wisconsin to Chicago some eight years ago, now, but every now and then I think of my 23 years there and shake my head in contemplating the differences between the two.

Pence, Wisconsin, is a tiny, time-warped town in an economically depressed area of the Great North Woods, separated from Lake Superior twelve miles to the north only by one highway, a few narrow roads, and virtually uninterrupted forest. I’m sure Henry David Thoreau would have loved the idyllic nature of the area: he’d have appreciated the mile upon mile of forest, small isolated lakes, and the majestic, endless shores of Lake Superior; walking through the woods to find large patches of wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries.

But the idyllic beauty of the area is in stark contrast to the economic realities of actually living there. Once a major lumbering area rich with iron and copper mines, when the ore ran out in the 1950s and the virgin forests were decimated by lumbering, the entire area was plunged into a depression from which I doubt it has yet recovered. In my time there, a large percentage of local residents depended on a number of seasonal employment opportunities for their livelihood. Several ski hills provide employment during winter, though that was largely dependent on the amount of snowfall, which fluctuated from year to year. Hunting season drew large numbers of deer hunters, and was—and undoubtedly still is—a vital source of income for the area’s many bars and restaurants. Beginning around Thanksgiving and running for several weeks, many found employment in the cutting of greenery for Christmas wreaths and garlands, and the making thereof.

Aside from television, the local movie theater, and a small local theater group, the area was, and I suspect remains, a cultural wasteland. There was and is a small junior college, but it offered nothing in the way of cultural activity. Hunting, football, and beer drinking were the primary means of entertainment, and made the region a form of Bubba-land North.

I had moved to Pence from Los Angeles (culture shock, anyone?) in January, 1983, with the intention of opening a Bed and Breakfast inn…surely one of the worst decisions of my life, for I found myself caught in the same trap of income being totally dependent on the season. The day I arrived, it was 19 below zero and the U-Haul truck I’d driven from L.A. froze solid about 300 feet from the house, necessitating my finding someone to help me unload all my furniture and carry it into the house.

The entire area’s population was of Italian and Finnish backgrounds. The Finns were brought in to work the logging industry, the Italians to work the mines. Pence’s population (198 per the 2000 census) was representative of that mixture. All good, hard-working, church-going (predominantly  catholic) family-oriented people, for whom having a homosexual in their midst was something of an anomaly. But aside from some teenager childish phone calls, I really didn’t encounter any direct prejudice. 

Most of the male population were retirees from the mines, who lived primarily on their pensions. Rather surprisingly the younger people did not tend to move away, but to marry very early and have four or five kids before they were old enough to realize that that decision was an obstacle to practical hopes for a better life.

Shortly after I moved to Pence, I attended a couple of the monthly town meetings which, I soon discovered, were attended by the same handful of mine-retired men. No women attended and any proposals for change of any kind met with the objection that if it hadn’t been done that way in 1933, it wouldn’t work now. I soon stopped going.

Five miles to the east of Pence lies Hurley, Wisconsin, on the Wisconsin/U.P. of Michigan border; Ironwood, Michigan is on the other. They are essentially one town with a combined and declining population of around 8,000.

Between Hurley and Pence, on Hwy 77, is the town of Montreal, a classic example of a paternalistic company town, built by the mining company for its employees, with row upon row of neat, identical white houses. The only break from the cookie-cutter houses along the highway are two larger homes for company supervisors. The houses along Hwy 77 were designated for employee families with several children. The street to the north of the highway was lined with identical smaller bungalows, for employes with smaller families. When the mines closed, the former employees were given the chance to buy their houses for as little as $800, but with no work, few were able to take advantage of the offer. And while the houses were for sale, the rights to the land on which they stood remained with the company, in the highly unlikely possibility that mining might somehow pick up at some future point, and the mines reopened.

Looking back, I question my sanity. I had bought a 12-room house primarily because I wanted to have a B&B despite having had absolutely no experience in doing so, and because the house had a mansard roof, which I’d always loved—now, there was an excellent reason. The total cost for the 12-room house was $7,500. Did that ring any alarm bells or tell me anything about what I was getting myself into? Of course not. Let it suffice to say that I did open the B&B, struggled to keep my head above water for five years, finally closed it and bought a tiny little house about four blocks away. It was an experience made bearable only by the fact that several of the B&B’s guests became and remain good friends. 

For reasons I cannot and probably could not explain, I remained in Pence until 2006, when I returned to Chicago after a 40-year absence. I have seldom looked back since. Until now.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).



Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Illusionist

This is the second blog I've done recently touching upon the lengths to which the mind will go to avoid the unpleasantness of reality, but I think it is sufficiently interesting to warrant two posts, and hope you agree.
I'm always intrigued by a really good magician. How can they possibly do what they appear to do? I recently saw Chris Angel, I think it was, drop a playing card into a fish tank, then reach in to retrieve it...from the side of the tank, through the glass! I know there had to be some trick to it; that it went against all the laws of physics. But he did it. He somehow convinced those watching that it was real.

I take pride in being something of an illusionist myself, though the tricks I perform are done for an audience of one: me. But on that level I am, if I may say so, on a par with the very best of them. I can firmly and utterly convince myself that what I want to believe is real. And just as David Copperfield can walk through the Great Wall of China and others make elephants and tigers disappear at will, I can make what I want to disappear...well, disappear.

To say that I do not like the fact that I am growing old is an understatement of epic proportions. Therefore, I am not growing old, no matter what all the mirrors and store windows and other reflective surfaces may tell me. And while I should be ashamed of myself for saying so, I simply do not relate to anyone my own age....or 20 years younger. (My friends who are "of a certain age" are, of course, the exception. But I am much younger than they...or you, for that matter...despite what our birth certificates might say.)

There are certain downsides to being an illusionist with an audience of one. For one thing, I find myself as uncomfortable among those euphemistically called "seniors" as I am among most heterosexuals. (It doesn't take much figuring to see that I'm fairly well outnumbered on all counts.) I live in a subsidized senior citizens complex (only, I tell myself, because I could not afford a regular apartment elsewhere), but I have absolutely nothing...nothing!...in common with the others who live here. Some of them are very nice people, rather like my grandparents' friends. But when I look at them, they are all old, and I simply will not allow myself to consider that when they look at me, they see someone no different from themselves.

Please understand, for all my apparent obsession on aging, I'm not really unhappy. Do I wish with all my heart that I were much younger? Of course. Do I wish many things about me and my life were different? Again, of course I do. But they are not, and the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments does little but leave one naked and in need of a dentist. I do enjoy life. Just not the way I would really like to. So I fill the gap between what I wish was and what is with harmless self-delusions, rather like filling in the chinks in an old log cabin with newspapers and rags to keep out the winter's chill.

So I walk down the street and I see so very many beautiful young men, some singly, some in groups, some in obviously-in-love pairs, and they are laughing and full of the joy of, well, being young. And I, in my mind and heart and soul, am truly one of them. But I cannot, dare not, extend this illusion to the point where I think they might possibly accept me as one of them. I do ache for their youth and beauty, but I am not like the pathetic character in Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice," who tries to make himself into something he was not. I do know my limitations. I am pummeled by them, but not shattered or destroyed.

What, then, is the point of all this self delusion? Do I really think I am not growing older by the day? Of course not. Do I really think I can triumph over reality? Of course not. Then if not, why in the world do I do it?
I do it first and foremost because there is no real harm in it, for myself or for others. I consider my gentle delusions as something like a thick quilt on a cold winter's night, comforting and warm. We each have the right to take our comfort where and how we can find it. I would far rather have my illusions to keep me warm than to shiver in the increasingly cold wind of reality coming through the chinks in the wall.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Words as Food

Long before I lost my physical sense of taste, I fortunately had developed a “taste” for words—their flavor, their texture, the pleasurable sensations they elicited in me. I delight in and savor them. According to my mother, the first word I ever spoke, other than “momma” or “da-da,” was “Constantinople.” How that might have come about, I have no idea, but “Constantinople” is a pretty big mouthful for a small boy. She probably misunderstood whatever it was I was trying to say, but it makes for a good story.

Just a few of the words that fascinate me? “Lugubrious”—the sound, if not the meaning (looking or sounding sad and dismal)—has always pleased me. It sounds heavy, like the verbal equivalent of, say, warmed over mutton stew. “Onomatopoeia”—any word, like “thud,” “bang,” “screech,” “boom,” and “juicy” in which its sound is also its definition—is like an exotic soup of infinite flavors. “Anti-disestablishmentarianism” is a word to impress by its sheer length if not its substance; rather like a classic popover: a confection of impressive size, but hollow.

As a rule, I enjoy multi-syllabic words. In the course of human conversation, and in the bulk of writing, words of more than four syllables are seldom heard/seen. “Tintinnabulation,” “genuflection,” “prestidigitation”…a lot of words ending in “tion” involve at least three syllables, which is probably why I enjoy them.

And there are words like “we,” which appears to be so common as to be flavorless, yet is in fact vital to our very existence as humans and gives life itself its flavor.

I delight in words to which we never give a moment’s thought…words which appear to be one thing but are indeed something far more complex. Among my favorites are the distress call “Mayday” which doesn’t really make much sense until you realize it is actually the French pronunciation of the words for “Help me”…m’aidez.

“Breakfast” literally means “break (the) fast” since the last meal of the previous day.

The true meaning of “President” becomes clear when the emphasis is switched from the first syllable to the the second: the President presides over the country.

The never-to-be-spoken racial epithet, “nigger” derived, in fact, in time from the too-rapid pronunciation of the word “Negro.”

Scientific words have always puzzled and somewhat annoyed me, especially the names given to medications—where in the world does “tioproprium” come from, or “corticosteroid” or “meloxicam,” or “pilocarpine” or “doxazosin”? I suspect they are for the most part totally made up so that the “common folk” can say “Ooooooooooooh” in a tone of reverent awe over the wonders of science.

The contemplation of words, their meanings, and the analogies that can be made from them provide endless fascination. Should you ever become bored, just open a dictionary.

To close with another brief reference to the “words as food” analogy, words are the ingredients which, blended together in a billion different combinations, create and provide the nourishment which fuels not only our individual lives, but our civilization. 


Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The King of Romania


Dear reader. I have for you a non-refusable offer to which I require your most urgent response.

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In the box was a note directing King Brzynaba III, the present king's great grandfather, to deliver the jewels to his illegitimate daughter, Anesthesia Sonnovavich, then residing in Romania. Sadly, King Brzynaba III and his entire family died following a nasty incident involving a runaway steam turbine before Tsar Nicholas's wishes could be fulfilled.

The present king immediately directed me to find the heirs of Anesthesia Sonnovavich and after an exhaustive and expensive search, I have found you.

To reclaim the jewels of Tsar Nicholas, we need only to verify your identity. Please immediately furnish me with the following information: your full name, address, phone number, date of birth, full social security number, all bank account and credit card numbers, a thumb print, a retina scan, and a copy of your passport. Please also send a cashier's check in the amount of $500 to cover search expenses.

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Excretia Moldava III

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Note: The sincerity of this exclusive blog offer is verified by being having been awarded the prestigious and coveted Dorien Grey Seal of Utmost Integrity.


New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back...and bring a friend. Your comments are always welcome. And you're invited to stop by my website at http://www.doriengrey.com, or drop me a note at doriengrey@att.net.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Comparisons

Because we humans are solitary creatures in that our minds are confined within a single physical body, it is impossible for us to really know or fully understand anyone but ourselves—and few of us can really manage even that. As a result, we are and can never really be sure of what the lives of others are like. Being only one of nine billion equally individual beings and therefore vastly outnumbered, we tend to rely strongly on assumptions and often-faulty comparisons as we stumble blindly through a life few, if any of us, understand. But in making assumptions and comparisons, those of us with a strong sense of insecurity, self-doubt and self-deprecation tend to see the lives of others as somehow better than our own.

I spend an inordinate amount of time minutely examining my flaws and weaknesses, real and imagined, and frequently, in light of what I read and hear and understand about the lives of others, ask myself the age old human question: “What have I done with my life?”, the answer to which is too often: “Nothing. You have all but wasted 80 precious years!”

But on those rare moments when I can drag myself back from staring into the abyss and force myself to sit down and try applying a little seldom-used true objectivity, I can grudgingly admit that my life has not been totally devoid of memorable events and achievements.

I have flown an airplane around the tops of towering, whipped-cream clouds. I have descended into the crater of Mt. Vesuvius. I’ve walked the streets of Pompeii and Rome and Athens and Istanbul and Vienna and Venice and Budapest. I’ve been places and done things that never even entered my mind as being possible when I was a child. I read of fairy-tale castles and  fortresses and kings and great adventures, and while I have yet to meet a king, I have visited castles on the Rhine and recently visited a fairy-tale fortress on the island of CorĨula.

I have written and published more than 20 books, yet criticize myself for not having written more.

I realize that others have done far, far, more, been far more places, and accomplished far more than I ever have or will, but for that to in any way diminish the pleasure of my achievements is the height of ingratitude.

I have been blessed with a loving family and dear friends. I have been in romantic love, and been loved, several times—though when I look back on these loves, my reaction tends to be more of sorrow and regret that they ended than of infinite gratitude that had them at all. I fear I am shamefully greedy and selfish when it comes to my own wishes and desires.

I think it is because I love life so deeply…so desperately…that the thought, at the age of 80, of not having it forever terrifies me. I do not fear and never have feared death itself, but the thought of not being here to enjoy all life has to offer….

I cannot speak for you or your life. I’ve not had your individual, specific joys and sorrows, your adventures, known the people who have come into your life and either stayed or left it, or your reactions to any of these things. I am only sure that your life has been filled with them all, and that you quite probably look back on them with as much emotion as I look back on mine.

The word “alone” is generally seen as a negative; to many people it is frightening. But it is a simple fact is that no matter how many friends or family members surround us in however-close proximity, they are not us, nor are we them, and each of still exists totally within a small box of bone located at the top of our spine. The old saying “No man is an island,” is true as it relates to our intellectual and emotional connections with others, and the comfort we take from the proximity and the touch of a friend or loved one. But I…and you…l can fully be aware of our own sensations, feelings, and reactions to any given circumstance. So, in that context, we must admit that each of us is our own island.

So, in the final analysis, we cannot compare ourselves with others: we are each unique, and unique has no comparisons.


Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen

There is a lady who lives in my building who I see frequently...on my own floor when I'm coming or going, or occasionally on one of the floors to which I go when I'm trying to find an available washing machine...always with a mop or broom, diligently cleaning the hallways. She is not employed by the building, which has its own maintenance staff, so why she does this I have no idea. But it doesn't matter whether I know or not. She wants...for whatever reason...to do it, and she does.

There is a lady slightly past “a certain age” who frequents a coffee shop not far from my apartment. She always, summer or winter, wears an ankle-length gown and gold high heels upon which, it seems to me, she walks a bit unsteadily. She can be easily picked out of the throngs of people coming and going on the street, but she neither notices nor, if she does notice, cares. It is what she wants to do and I admire her for it.

When I lived in Chicago the first time, in the late 1950s, there was a woman I've commented on in a previous blog some time ago. She would pass by my ground-floor apartment frequently. She was probably in her late 70s at the time, and toothpick-thin. She carried herself like an empress and always dressed stylishly in a tight black dress, with a large, wide-brimmed hat with a bright red cabbage rose, and black, elbow-length gloves. Though pale, she wore lipstick to match the cabbage rose, and her cheeks were brightly rouged. I would love to know her story; I'm sure it would have been a fascinating one.

Her counterpart...though I never saw them together or even at the same time...was a gentleman of probably her same age, though he was neither gaunt nor heavy. He also passed by my apartment frequently and always wore a spotless white suit with, if memory serves, white shoes. And I never saw him without a flower in his lapel. I always wished he and the lady in black could have met. How wonderful for them to have combined their two very unique worlds.

When I was a teenager, when going to or coming from school, I would frequently see a plain, ordinary-looking lady standing at the same bus stop. Yet she never got on a bus. She was, I learned, something of a neighborhood legend, and she was standing at the bus stop waiting for her son, who had been killed in WWII. It broke my heart then, and it breaks my heart now.

I recently did a blog about an elderly gentleman I'd seen in a coffee shop who, though sitting alone at the next table, commented on the weather and the menu, and I could not determine if he were talking to me or to himself. I do know I felt...and even as I type these words, still feel...an overwhelming sense of guilt for not having at least acknowledged his presence. Was he homeless and a bit deranged, or was he hoping that someone might say something to him to verify that he was indeed visible and a valid human being?

I have never forgotten my friend Ursula, on whom I also did a blog a couple of years ago, whose life was incomprehensibly hard. A half-Jewish German whose father being a gentile saved her from being gassed, Ursula never spoke of her experiences willingly, but she did relate being on a cattle-car train being shipped from one camp to another when the allies fire-bombed the city of Dresden, killing over 100,000 people, and how she and the other prisoners were forced to go through the city picking up the remains of the dead. How can anyone not be scarred forever by something so horrific?

In a more positive vein, one of my favorite fictional characters is the little lady from the play The Madwoman of Chaillot, who every morning reads exactly the same edition of her favorite newspaper because she likes the news in it. My kind of woman!

The fact is that the world abounds in fascinating men and women who have the courage to dance to their own music or who face and survive unimaginable hardships with grace and dignity, and I stand in absolute awe of them.


Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Delusionist

[Back from vacation, ready to resume my regular Monday/Thursday blogs. Thanks for your patience!]

I’ve been a delusionist all my life. Never comfortable with the harshness of reality, I early-on developed the ability to pretty much ignore it unless it was somehow physically impossible to do so. It worked well for seven decades. If I chose to see the world in a certain light, I did so, and no one was harmed or basically the wiser. (When, for example, as a gay man I see an attractive man on the street, I automatically assume he is gay. Whether he is or not is entirely beside the point; I think he’s gay, so he is. It gives me quiet pleasure, and harms no one.)

When I was five years old, I had absolutely no interest in being six…or sixteen, or anywhere beyond. I most certainly never wanted to be a “grown-up.” Grown-ups were almost a separate species to which I had no interest in belonging…and, largely, I have managed to avoid doing so. Even into my 40s and beyond, I still found it difficult to think of myself as a “man” because men are grown-ups. (If this sounds childish to you, well, I rest my case.)

However, as the years mount up and it becomes impossible to ignore the ravages of time, the little boy in me grows increasingly frightened at what is happening to him. Being a delusionist works fine for seeing the world from the inside, but not nearly so well when the physical body is involved. I have never been more aware of, and frightened by, it than following my recent trip to Europe. I, who as a 22-year-old, bounded up the slopes of the Acropolis with ease on a hot summer’s day in 1956, found the 2014 August heat incredibly draining. Though bottles of water were distributed by the cruise line, because I now am unable to lift my head high enough to drink normally from a bottle, I recognized the very real threat of becoming quickly dehydrated. 

I’m sure there were crowds on the Acropolis in 1956, but in 2014 it was difficult to see anything but people, especially since despite my sincere efforts to increase my head and neck flexibility with Botox treatments, I was unable to lift my head up high enough even to look people in the eye, let alone see over their heads.

Age brings with it totally unexpected surprises. For nearly 70 years there was never any question that my body would do whatever I wanted of it. I didn’t even really have to make any effort between thinking of an action and my body’s doing it. I realize now that this was a very large delusion on my part; I assumed body and mind were the same. They are not. I must spend more and more time now trying to convince my body to do something, with less and less confidence that it will do it.

Where I could stand up on the toes of one foot and spin around like a top, I no longer even try. I do not run—I lumber and lurch awkwardly. Equilibrium, yet another of the myriads of things we take for granted, is increasingly unreliable. Where I used to walk purposefully, I now frequently find myself hearing my shoes shuffling on the sidewalk without my being aware of it. Whereas walking in a straight line was automatic, I now find myself occasionally weaving. Where I routinely walked—or bounced—up and down stairs two at a time, I now do one at a time. I have not yet reached the point where I must step up or down with one foot and bring the other foot up or down to the same step before proceeding to the next, I fear it is only a matter of time.

Of course I feel terribly sorry for myself. I am, after all, like all small children, an extreme egoist. But I sincerely see myself as a latter-day Paul Revere, sounding a warning of what lies ahead for you, in hopes you may handle it better than I have.

There are many people in their 80s and even 90s who have much more control over their physical lives than I, and that realization is a great blow to my lifelong sense of invincibility. I have relied upon my delusions all my life and now find myself being stripped of them. It is not a comfortable position to be in, I can assure you.

But though I realize that I cannot escape the inevitability of “that good night,” I still do not intend to go gentle into it.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website (http://www.doriengrey.com) and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (http://bit.ly/m8CSO1), which is also available as an audiobook (http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B00DJAJYCS&qid=1372629062&sr=1-1).