Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Conversation with My Muse

You rang?

Yes! I just realized I've got to do a blog for tomorrow.

Relax. No hurry. You've got all day.

Oh, yeah. We know how that goes. I get up at 6 a.m., have a cup of coffee, pet the cat, and the next thing I know the late-night local news is on. And I still haven't done a blog.

So, write one.

That's why I called. You're my muse. What should I write about?

Whatever you've been writing blogs about for the last…what?…six years, now?

Yeah, well that's sort of the problem. I’ve written about just about everything already. I'm getting mind-freeze. I need a new one, but I can't figure out a subject to write one on.

You mean you "can't figure out on what subject to write."

Oh, great! You who couldn't pick a transitive verb out of a pile of predicate nominatives are giving me English lessons?

Could YOU pick a transitive verb out of a pile of predicate nominatives?

No, but that's not the point. Read my lips: I need to write a blog for tomorrow.

Childhood memories?

Done that. Lots.

How about jobs you've held?

Ditto.

Pets? Family? Friends? Past loves? What you had for breakfast?

Been there. Done that.

How about a nice, projectile-vomiting rant against something that ticks you off? You never seem to run out of ideas for those.

True, but I do way too many of those as it is.

Kittens? Puppies? Bunny rabbits?

Uh, not today. I'm in a hurry.

How about a blog on why you never hear about male muses? It’s sexism, pure and simple!

Good point, but would probably require more research than I’ve time for right now.

Okay, how about this conversation?

Nah. The reader'd never buy it. I'll just have to keep on thinking.

Okay. While you're doing that, I'll go have a beer.

Gee, yeah, you do that. Sorry to have bothered you!

Hey, no problem. I do what I can.

*****

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, July 28, 2014

Mr. In-Between

You're probably much too young to remember one of the top songs from 1944, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Accentuate the Positive," but my mind's radio was playing it when I woke up this morning. (You've got to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate-the Pos-i-tive, E-lim-I-nate the neg-a-tive; Latch on to the affirm-a-tive—don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.)

Like dreams, which are the mind's way of dealing with things that went on the previous day, I suspect my mental radio chose this particular song in response to a comment a friend made the other day. He said that a mutual friend had largely stopped reading my blogs because they tended to be pretty much negative, and I had to admit he had a point.

Why do I bitch and moan and complain and grumble so much here? I mean, I honestly consider myself to be a pretty positive guy. I like puppies and kittens and small children. (Aha! And the moment I wrote that sentence, I heard my mind add "until the bigots and hate mongers get to them." Maybe I am a little too negative.)

I know it's probably difficult for other people to understand—and obviously difficult for me to convey—how I can let negativity carry me away as often as it does. I wish it were easier for me to explain why: that it is simply because I believe so strongly in good and positive things that those things which are not good and positive...those things that are not as I so want them to be...bother me far more than they should. I simply cannot comprehend how easy it seems to be for so many people to totally ignore common courtesy, or respect for the rights and beliefs of others; how they can blithely deny others all the things which they expect or demand for themselves. And that frustrates and angers me.

It is  one of the wonders of our species that we are able to conceive, mentally, what we are incapable of executing physically. I'm not talking just about physical science here--we can conceive the idea of levitation without being able to achieve it, for example--but also about ideals. I have just talked about respecting the rights of others to believe what they choose to believe, and I firmly believe it. But that doesn't mean I don't hold people like Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, Michele Bachmann, and the legions of other garbage-spewers and hate mongers in utter and total contempt. Yeah, they've got a right to be unmitigated assholes, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. And I don't.

There is a great difference between saying, "Here's what I believe and why I believe it, and I hope you might consider it, too," and "Here's what I believe, and you'd damned well better believe it, too, or I'll do my best to make your life a living hell." One of the reasons I most vehemently object to people like Messrs. Cruz and McConnell, Ms. Palin, and their totally negative ilk is their total refusal to even consider the possibility of compromise, to acknowledge that views other than their own might conceivably have some merit.

I truly, deeply, and sincerely believe that if everyone saw things the way I see them, the world would be a much better place. But it amazes me...who chooses to largely ignore those aspects of reality I do not like...to realize that the negativists and naysayers are even more dismissive of reality than I. I'd love for you to think the way I do, and for you to seriously consider my suggestions, but I do not demand it as the “No to Everything!” crowd do, and I do not assume the right to tell you what to do or believe. They do. 

So I find myself painted into yet another corner between what I want to be and what is. While I so desperately would like to always "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate-the Pos-i-tive,”  and "E-lim-I-nate the neg-a-tive;”  and while I truly do try to  "Latch on to the affirmative," I'm afraid the reality is that we're pretty much stuck with Mr. In-Between.  

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, July 24, 2014

On Memories

The further one is from the source of a memory, the more likely time is to alter and rearrange things, rather like a well-meaning mental housekeeper who thinks the couch would look better over there. Most people never even realize that what they’re sure happened at a certain time in a certain place in fact did not. But because I have so much of my life laid out in the form of letters and other non-fiction writing over the years, I often running across incontrovertible evidence that what I was sure I remember clearly simply either didn’t happen that way, or didn’t happen at all. This is not pleasant, and it most certainly is not reassuring.

One of my strong memories from my Navy days was of being in Genoa, Italy, on the day that the Italian liner, Andrea Doria, set sail on her final voyage in July of 1956. I clearly remember looking up as our liberty boat passed under her stern, and wondering...rather precentially how anything so huge could possibly ever sink. (Surely, I thought, the bottom of the ship would hit the bottom of the ocean before the water ever reached the superstructure.)  It was a story I told many times and believed with all my heart and soul.

But on re-reading the letters I wrote my folks from our several times in Genoa, I find no mention of the fact and, on checking to see when the Andria Doria last left Genoa, found the ship I myself was on, the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, had been nowhere near Genoa at the time.  On reflection, the liner may have been the American liner, Constitution, which I do mention in a letter. Odd how the mind works.

Memory’s malleability can also be seen in the fact that, depending on the emotional makeup of the individual, our recollections of past events are tend to either enhance the pleasant memories or intensify the bad. I now look back on my days in the Navy with far more fondness than my letters…and a closer  look at reality…warrant. But I suspect that is simply because we are too busy living in the present to see its true impact on our lives with the perspective time provides.

How many times have we heard the caveat to live (and appreciate) every day as if it were our last? And how often, on hearing it, do we realize the validity of the advice only to have in almost instantly buried by the minute-by-minute demands of our lives. And though we may fully agree on the value and importance of letting those people in our lives know how we feel about them, we do not do so out of fear of seeming “odd.” 

We seldom think, in the “now”, of how much we might some day want to remember how the events of our lives truly unfolded. Diaries and journals are the surest way of making sure that future memories will be accurate, but few of us keep them.  In lieu of those, I have a few suggestions: take more photographs, even of things which do not seem at all important to us now. And with every photograph be sure to write down as much information about it as you can: date, location, the people shown. Of course we know all about them as the photo is taken, but again, the years will blur the details.  

As with good wine, and anything at all collectible, memories age and mellow with the passage of time, and become more ever more precious as we reach the point in life where so many of the people who form the foundations of our lives are no longer there, and all we have of them are memories. Always remember that today is tomorrow’s memory, and do whatever you can to preserve as much of it as you can.


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, July 21, 2014

America's Voice

One of the regrettable and inevitable things about aging is that the older we get, the more things which were familiar to us from our youth fade and are lost to generations which come after. I was reminded of that recently when I came across a 1938 film clip of Kate Smith introducing “God Bless America.” Those not alive at the time have absolutely no idea of what a frightening and uncertain time it was. We teetered on the brink of a cataclysm unequalled in human history, and while we realized it was coming, we had no idea of what would happen, how or when it would end—or that it would claim 48,231,700 lives worldwide, including 400,000 Americans.

The First World War had ended only twenty years earlier. Anti-war sentiment was strong in the United States, but when war broke out in Europe in 1938 with the invasion of Poland, we found ourselves being inexorably drawn into the conflict. We began to gear up for war first by supplying Britain the things it needed to ward off a Nazi invasion.

We were almost desperate for some sort of comfort, of reassurance that things would be all right. And then Irving Berlin revised a song he had written in 1918 to be part of a musical called "Yip Yip Yaphank," but was cut from the show. He offered it to popular singer Kate Smith, who introduced it on her radio show. It was called “God Bless America,” and it had far more to do with patriotism than it did religion. (If you haven’t already seen it, there is a film clip of her introducing the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEJo7x9y3D4)

It became an instant hit and, after the attack on Pearl Harbor…which shocked the nation in a way that would have no equivalent on the American public until 9-11…became something of an unofficial national anthem.

I remember listening to news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio, and President Roosevelt’s declaration of war on December 8. I remember my Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck’s concern for their three sons, all draft age, and all of whom subsequently went off to war. My dad did not have to go because he was nearing 30, was married, and worked in a war factory.

WWII galvanized the entire nation in a way, again, almost impossible to imagine in today’s world of political pettiness, mean-spiritedness, bickering, and division. It was a far simpler world, where good and bad, right and wrong seemed much easier to tell apart. We were all in it together.

I remember war bonds and ration books for food and gasoline, scrap metal drives and even drives to collect used cooking oil and grease. I remember Victory Gardens which everyone was encouraged to grow to supplement food shortages. Sugar and candy bars were almost unheard of, everything going to supply the troops.

I remember the small, gold edged banners which were placed in the windows of people who had family in service. In the center of each banner was a star…blue for those serving and gold for those killed in action.

I remember blackouts and air-raid drills, though I lived in the middle of the country, far beyond the reach of enemy bombers. But it was the not knowing that kept everyone extra, undoubtedly overly, alert.

America was a male, white, Christian nation. Blacks and other minorities were all but invisible, existing on the far outer perimeters of the white world. For the most part, all the white majority knew about blacks were the stereotypes seen—usually as comedy relief—in the occasional movie. The hugely popular Amos and Andy radio show, supposedly about Negroes, featured white actors playing the black parts. The only black actors I can recall on radio were Hattie McDaniel (the first black woman ever to win an academy award, for Gone With the Wind), who played Beulah, Fibber McGee and Mollie’s maid, and Jack Benny’s sidekick/servant Rochester. In the movies, blacks were largely used as comic relief, epitomized by Stepin Fetchit—whose very name exuded racism. There were a few anomalies where blacks were given token credit for their talent, such as Bojangles Robinson, who danced with Shirley Temple in a number of movies, and singer Lena Horne.

If blacks were seldom seen as anything but stereotypes, gays were even less visible and never, ever shown as anything but objects of derision.

But that was then, and now is now, and time has a way of blunting the sharp edges of the past. It is not our divisions we remember, but the power of patriotism and unity embodied in one woman and one song: Kate Smith’s unforgettable voice singing “God Bless America.”


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, July 17, 2014

"One Ringy-Dingy"

I've never been much of a phone talker since my teenage years—I don't do all that much talking off the phone, either, but that's another story. So when I moved back to Chicago in 2006, I decided not to have a land-line phone at all, and instead bought a cell phone for which I could simply buy blocks of minutes rather than signing up with some service and incurring a monthly fee. It's worked out very well. I would buy a block of 500 minutes for $50 and it would last me up to four months. 

But when my friend Norm died in 2010 and I became executor of his estate, I began using my phone more to deal with things related to settling his affairs, and I began buying blocks of 1,000 minutes for $100. When my minutes are running low, I get a recorded message advising me that: "Your minutes are about to expire. Please renew now for continued service." It then advises me that I can purchase more minutes with my credit card by simply punching in *233 on the phone.

So when I heard the message last week, I punched *233 and went through the usual "For so-and-so, press such-and-such, for thus-and-so, press this-and-that; for.…", and finally, "Enter your 437-digit phone number, birth date, mother's maiden name, name of your first pet, etc." routine, and just as I entered the last digit, the call was cut off. Assuming my order had not gone through, I went through the entire routine again.

An hour or so later, I made a call and, as I waited for the phone to ring on the other end, got the "Your minutes are about to expire. Please renew now for continued service." That hadn't happened before, but I figured there was just some delay in the processing.

And when I got the message yet again after another call that evening, I went on-line to see if my debit card reflected the transaction. The total charge, with tax, was $109.75 and sure enough, there it was, right at the top. And directly under that was another identical charge for $109.75, which meant I had purchased not 1,000 minutes but 2,000 minutes of phone time. That's 33.3333333 hours! That would last me at least until June of 2046.

So I decided I'd better try to get hold of someone at T-Mobile, from whom I buy my minutes. But
when I tried calling T-Mobile to find out what was going on, my phone was dead. Using my friend Gary's phone, I finally got through to a pleasant young lady who introduced herself as “Sally”—apparently a common name for women in Pakistan, which her accent indicated. At any rate, as I was trying to explain my problem—that I wanted first of all to start using the phone minutes I'd paid for and that I wanted to remove one of the $109.75 charges—she informed me several times that she could not understand me. I apologized and said I had a slight speech impediment. She couldn't understand that, either.

But finally, she checked my records and informed me that my last purchase had been four months ago. When I asked why, then, my bank showed not one but two transactions two days before, she transferred me to another department which, after going through the entire story once again, transferred me to another department. A nice young man who introduced himself as "Ted," and who I suspect may possibly have been an American, said he would look into it and call me back at the number he had on his records. .... Uh, excuse me? I pointed out that since my phone was not working, I doubted that he could call me back on it. "Oh."

Finally, in order to get my phone working again until all this was straightened out, I gave him my credit card information so he could bill me yet another $109.75, and reinstate my phone service immediately. As to the two previous $109.75 already on my bank statement...well, what's money? I haven't heard back from Ted yet, but I'm blocking out six hours of time to be spent trying to iron it out with my bank.


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, July 14, 2014

Thomas

I’ve taken, of late, to closing my cat Spirit in the bathroom at night with food, litter, water, a couple of places to sleep—he seems to like the sink—and a toy; all to prevent his sitting outside my bedroom door at anywhere from 5 a.m. on to sing me the song of his people at full volume. Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to mind his bathroom exile, since I lure him in with cat treats. 

The second night I did it, listening closely for the click of the latch as I closed the door, he somehow managed to open it, thus freeing him to resume his serenade. Thenceforth, I have closed the door, listened for the click of the latch, and placed a canister of cat litter against it to dissuade him from being able to force the door open even if he can unlatch it. The problem there was that as I refilled his litter box, the canister of litter grew lighter and lighter until this morning he was outside my bedroom door at 5:25 with a medley of his favorite wails. 

This afternoon, I bought two canisters, one of which will always be full and of sufficient weight, I hope, to keep him in.

And as I pondered our battle, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas, who will always hold a special place in my heart. Like Spirit, Thomas was jet black—thus establishing my ever-since preference for black cats—and, I’ve always thought, proof that both people and animals have guardian angels.

How Thomas and I met is one of my favorite stories. I was living in Los Angeles, at the time. Near my home there was a huge swap meet held every weekend, and I went regularly just to wander around and occasionally pick up things I really didn’t need. One Sunday I had just entered the swap meet grounds when I saw a tiny black kitten, obviously lost and/or abandoned. I was afraid someone was going to accidentally step on him, so I picked him up and took him to the swap meet office to see if anyone had reported losing a kitten. The man laughed and said, “People drop off animals here all the time” and went back to whatever he’d been doing before I interrupted him.

At the time, I had two large dogs and certainly didn’t want to add a cat to the mix. So I just wandered around and if anyone noticed the kitten, I’d ask if they’d like to have him. No one did, until one woman said, “I’d love to have him! I’ll give him a wonderful home!” I gratefully handed the kitten over to her with thanks, and went about my business.

An hour or so later, as I returned to my car in the middle of the gigantic parking lot, I was just about to open my door when I heard a “Meow.” I looked down, and there was the same kitten I’d given away an hour earlier. I decided that someone was telling me something. I picked him up, put him in the passenger’s seat, and went home. 

I named him Thomas, and he was with me for 14 years, moving with me from Los Angeles to Pence, Wisconsin. Given the fact that time does tend to blur the bad times in favor of the good, Thomas was truly a wonderful cat and companion.

And then, as is inevitable with cats and people and all living things, Thomas grew old. He would spend the night in my basement and come up to greet me in the morning, until one morning, he didn’t. I went down to the basement and found him lying on the floor, still alive, but I knew his time had come. I picked him up, carried him up to the living room and sat down, cradling him in my lap, petting him, until he was gone. I don’t remember if I cried or not…I probably did. But to have been there with him, to hold him and let him know he was loved even in his last moments, is something that I will never regret.

Spirit’s time will come, as will mine, and I wish us both the knowledge, at the moment of passing, that our lives meant something to others, and that we were loved.


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, July 10, 2014

On Meeting Myself

I know, I know...it’s always “me”, isn’t it? … Well, yes, I guess it is, but you are very kind in indulging me.

At dinner the other night with friends, while trying with great effort and limited success to force my head up high enough to make eye contact with the incredibly attractive waiter taking our order, I suddenly flashed on what might happen were I to be able to sit down with myself at the age of 21, and I pondered the scenario with no little bemusement and considerably mixed feelings. 

There’s little doubt that the meeting would be traumatic for both of us: the then-me would be shocked and horrified to see what he would become, the now-me overcome with longing to be the then-me again. The now-me, I am sure, would be somewhat angry and frustrated with the then-me for being so unaware of his incredible good fortune. Physically, I’m not sure he’d even recognize me, just as I do not recognize myself when I accidentally spot myself in a reflective surface.

What, the then-me would wonder with an understandable sadness and sense of horror, could have happened to turn his smooth-skinned youth into the Portrait of Dorian Gray?  Of course, he wouldn't have a clue about the cancer and radiation and chemotherapy that were still many years in his future, and being young, had given very little thought to the simple fact that there is no way to avoid the inevitable natural physical consequences of the accumulation of years. I doubt that any of us would be fully prepared to encounter our even-10-years-in-the-future selves.

What might we possibly say to one another? The now-me would be much more understanding and considerably less altruistic than the then-me, of course, having at least partially learned a great many life-lessons in the intervening years which divide us us. I know the then-me would not be happy with everything I’ve done, and disappointed that I hadn’t done more. I'm sure he would find me a little too hardened, a little too bitter, and not very much fun.

I know he would want to know everything, and the dilemma, as in all issues dealing with time travel, would be that I couldn't really tell him, since it is impossible to know the future without changing it, and despite the automatic assumption that the changes would be positive, the fact is that they could just as easily not be. Now-me would realize that while I know then-me will live to be as old as I am (following me on this?), there is no guarantee that this would be true were I to tell him anything that might change his future. 

How could I warn him against the many specific dangers and traumas and sadness that lay ahead? Were I to tell him of specific events, it could spare him incalculable pain, but at what cost, if it would only put him in the path of different but perhaps worse pain? 

I think I'd prefer to just reassure him that many good things lay ahead and not mention the bad; to appreciate everything he has while he has it. I could tell him, without mentioning specifics, of the happy experiences he will have, the wonderful people who will enter his life, the love and joy he will share, the friends he will meet, the books he will write. I would hope our meeting might help make him a little more positive and hopeful of the journey between then and now. 

Basically, I would want for then-me is what I want for now-me, and for you: if not complete happiness, then contentment.


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).