Monday, February 08, 2016

Letter to a Nun

I never cease to be fascinated by how life works, and by the astonishing intricacies of time, relationships, and coincidence.

Several years ago, now, I reestablished contact with a friend from grade school, and we have corresponded frequently ever since. Recently he emailed me with information of another mutual school-years friend—we all three had been Cub Scouts together at St. Elizabeth’s Social Center in Rockford IL—and with news of one of the nuns from our days at St. Elizabeth’s. I had not thought of St. Elizabeth’s in years, but as so often happens, just one mention opened the floodgates of memory.

As a non-catholic, my Cub Scout experiences with the nuns was my first exposure to any form of Catholicism and, while I was even then an agnostic, I was very impressed by their devotion.

The two nuns I still remember after all these years were Sister Marie Immaculee and Sister Ann Sebastian. Sister Marie Immaculee was probably in her 70s at the time. Tiny, with grey hair and an almost palpable aura of love and compassion, she could easily have posed for a Norman Rockwell painting titled “The Grandmother Nun.” I adored her. I remember someone telling me 25 or 30 years ago, that she died.

It is people like Sister Marie Immaculee who make me hope there is a God.

Sister Ann Sebastian was tall and rather stern, very much the no-nonsense disciplinarian—no one tried to put anything over on Sister Ann Sebastian—but never harsh. I had assumed she was long dead, but when I discovered she is in fact alive, well into her 90s and living in a facility maintained by her order, I had to contact her to let her know her influence went beyond the grounds of St. Elizabeth’s.

Here, then, is the letter I wrote her.

Sr. Ann Sebastian
Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity
3501 Solly Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19136

Dear Sister:

In light of eternity, 65 years or so is but the blink of an angel’s eyelash, but it was about 65 years ago that I joined the Cub Scouts, which held their meetings at St. Elizabeth’s Social Center in Rockford, IL. As a non-catholic, I had never met a nun, and you were my first face-to-face encounter. Not having any idea of protocol, I remember calling you “Lady.” You quickly and gently corrected me.

I have, after all these years, never forgotten you or Sr. Marie Immaculee (who I always see in my mind’s eye when I think of the ideal grandmother) and the other nuns whose names I cannot now recall.

Your always-kind firmness—no one ever put anything over on you—and the joy you all but radiated have remained with me to this day, and when I learned your address through a fellow former Cub Scout, I felt compelled to write you a brief note to let you know of the lasting impression you made on one very young boy. I cannot thank you enough for the example you set for me and so very many others.

God truly loves you.

With gratitude,

Roger Margason

I do hope it gives her a moment of pleasure. She richly deserves it.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Friday, February 05, 2016

As Ithers See Us

Robert Burns wrote: “Would but God the gift tae gi’e us, tae see oorselves as ithers see us.” (Better work on that spelling, Bobby!)

Being the consummate egoist, I’ve often rather coveted that ability, though more careful thought, and reflecting on just how deeply I loathe myself at times, dissuades me from putting in a formal request. We all want to be liked, admired, and respected. (I personally would go for adored and revered, but that’s pushing it a bit.)

However, because I spend as little time as possible in the world of reality, I suspect that others’ opinions of me might be somewhat different than my own. And they might be skewered further by the fact that people have been very kind to me over the years, leading me to believe that I’m more lovable and cuddly than the facts warrant.

What I think of other people is far simpler to explain. My 1-to-10 Hate-to-Love scale has far, far more people on the upper half of the scale than the lower, and my admiration for some borders on adulation. I can truthfully think of only two people I have known personally whom I can honestly say I hate. I am constantly and sincerely awed by the goodness of friends and even casual acquaintances. The receipt of totally gratuitous, unsolicited, and unexpected kind words and even occasional cards and small gifts never cease to humble me. I am truly ashamed that I seldom if ever even remotely approach their level of goodness.

So exactly how do I see myself? Weighing my self-loathing against my delusions of being a latter-day Mother Teresa/Mahatma Gandhi on my seldom-used scale of reality, I do think I come out a little more on the positive side than the negative. My negative qualities, which I am probably too quick to emphasize, are legion. I am too often petty and irrationally jealous of anyone whose abilities and talents I either totally lack or which completely overwhelm my own. My astonishingly low threshold of frustration causes infinite and largely unnecessary problems. And, again, I am simply not as kind and thoughtful to others as I expect myself to be.

In my own defense, I honestly do try to be better than I am. I do truly like most people, and try to let them know it. I can truly empathize with the sufferings of others and try to offer whatever moral support I can provide. I am not stupid, though infinitely less intelligent and well read than I would like to be. I recognize my prejudices and a few areas of outright bigotry, which, like all bigotries, are totally irrational, yet I do not let them interfere with my direct dealings with others.

The vast majority of what I see as my failings are based on unrealistic self-expectations and an aching desire to be what I think I should be and so badly want to be but am not.

My insatiable need for approval and validation go far beyond all reasonable expectation, and concentrating so strongly on myself, makes it even more difficult to get closer to who I would like and expect myself to be.
But enough of this exercise in narcissism! Let’s talk about you! So tell me…what do you think of me?
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available as a audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Monday, February 01, 2016

Jobs from Hell, Part I

My first job in Los Angeles was with a small public relations firm in Beverly Hills, whose major clients were two land development projects. The boss was, as best I can recall (I seem to have tried to blot out a lot of memories of him), apparently gained whatever success he had by strict adherence to one rule of business: his clients could do no wrong; his employees could do no right. All credit was his, all the work and any blame fell to his employees.

Paydays were Friday, and though the work day was supposed to end at 5 p.m., checks were almost never out before 5:45 on Friday evening. He had, perhaps not surprisingly, a rather high employee turnover rate.

Of the two land development projects, one was the then-new Lake Havasu City in Arizona, the other near Tehachapi, California about a hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. I was more involved in the latter than the former, though I did have the distinct pleasure of being roped into an occasional foray into the Arizona wilderness.

Every weekend, a Lockheed Constellation airliner would be chartered to fly prospective property buyers from Los Angeles to Lake Havasu City, as part of an absolutely free, “no obligation” package offered to those interested in getting in on the ground floor of this amazing new Eden. Actually, Lake Havasu City was at the time largely undeveloped desert, its only attraction being the much-touted London Bridge, which had been hauled stone by stone from England to span a largely man-made river. But it looked nice in the brochures. The few model homes available for inspection had front lawns comprised not of grass but of green-painted pebbles. But again, in a photograph, who could tell?

I never was quite sure what I was supposed to be doing there, other than to make sure nothing got too far out of hand.

The plane would leave at 10 a.m. on Saturday, and was scheduled to return at 8 p.m. that same evening. “Scheduled” was the operative word. The minute the plane landed, the prospective home/land owners were descended upon by a horde of salespeople hired for their specific ability to never take “no” for an answer. If 8 p.m. approached, and there was a prospective customer who had not yet signed on the dotted line, the plane would not leave the runway until they had. It was rare to return to L.A. much before midnight.

But it was the Tehachapi development I look back on with curled toes. The development was called “Golden Hills” only because, as the sun was going down over the parched, dried grass of the undulating, deadly-dull landscape, the brown could be considered, by someone with a vivid imagination, as having a golden glow which lasted maybe five minutes before it was just brown again.

The developers had created a small, two or three acre man-made pond in the midst of the development, and had surrounded it with lush foliage which must have cost a fortune to maintain.

Our assignment was to produce an informational sales brochure, the cover of which was to feature a handsome couple on horseback in front of the pond which, shot from a low angle, looked far, far larger than it actually was.
In preparation for the brochure, the boss demanded we find out everything we possibly could about the Tehachapi area and its history. After days of intensive research, we presented a thick stack of materials to him for his approval. He flipped through our several days’ work in fifteen seconds, looked at us scornfully and said: “I don’t see the average rainfall figures for 1947.” I beg your pardon?

Since we worked on salary, to be sure the boss got his money’s worth, he would inevitably come up with some way to have us work Saturday, primarily riding shotgun on the Havasu City flights. But at one point, in preparation for some ground-breaking ceremony or other, I was assigned to escort actress Pat Priest, who played the niece on the popular The Munsters TV show, to Tehachapi by private plane. It was the one and only pleasant experience I can remember of my entire term of employment with the redoubtable Laurence Laurie & Associates.

As they say....To Be Continued.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, "Short Circuits," available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Bureaucracy


Few things are more frustrating or more futile than trying to deal with bureaucracies whose sole purpose is on expanding their own authority through absolute inflexibility and a total disregard for the individual human beings they were created to serve. Bureaucracy is the perfect example of what happens when the servant becomes the master.

Bureaucracies beget bureaucracies and have within themselves subsidiary bureaucracies, and thus was this particular blog born.

I moved into an apartment building owned by the Chicago Housing Authority (a bureaucracy) and managed by Legume & Norman, an independent management company (also a bureaucracy) in November of 2006 and was assigned an apartment on the east side of the building, facing the elevated tracks, 500 feet away, of the Chicago Transportation Authority (yet another bureaucracy). The decibel levels in the apartment from trains roaring by every 3-5 minutes, day and night, may never have been measured by any of the above-named bureaucracies, but since it is not their concern and only mere individual humans are involved, there has never been any interest in doing so. (Whatever the decibel levels may be, I’m sure they approach the limits of human tolerability. In summer, with the windows open, it is impossible to hear a TV while trains pass.)

When the CHA reopened a facility about a mile away and managed by yet another bureaucratic management company, I put in an application for a one-bedroom apartment there and was approved. I was all packed and ready to go when a “quarantine” was placed on my current building due to an infestation of bedbugs. This dragged on for at least six months, during which I sat in an apartment stacked with packed boxes, waiting to move.

I checked frequently with the management of the building I was approved to move into and was assured no fewer than four times that a one-bedroom apartment was definitely being held for me. When the “quarantine” was partially lifted, I received a call from them saying that my studio apartment was ready. When I pointed out that I had been assured several times that they were holding a one-bedroom for me, I was told the one-bedrooms were filled and that they had no idea I had wanted a one-bedroom. There was no apology for having kept me in limbo all those months of course. I was given the choice of a studio or nothing. I chose nothing.

I then approached the management at my current building, asking to move from the east side of the building to the west side, to escape the noise. The apartment directly across the hall from mine had been empty for more than six months. It had not been cleaned/repainted/repaired since, but the management agreed I could have it as soon as it was ready for new occupancy. Two more months of “next week/soon/maybe by the first of the month” promises from the building’s management.

Finally I was able to move in, and was very happy with it. Then, a month or so ago, the building manager came to tell me that the CHA had deemed “construction” had to be done on my just-refurbished apartment, and that I would have to move out—back across the hall to my original apartment and the problems which had forced me to leave in the first place—while the changes were being made. But I was assured that I could move back in when the “construction” was completed.

The building was recently was taken over by another management firm: Habitat Company, which obviously is out to set new records for intransigence and contempt for anyone who dares question their edicts. I was subsequently informed that I would NOT be able to move back into my current apartment when the unspecified “construction” was finished. I said that if I were not going to be able to return to my current apartment, I at least did not want to move back to my original apartment and be right back where I started regarding the problem with the noise, and asked for another apartment on the west side of the building, away from the noise. Despite the fact that there are a number of empty units on the west side, I was told that moving into one of them was not possible...that there are procedures and processes and rules and regulations and waiting lists and forms and paperwork and....

When I mentioned to the new building manager that the previous manager had assured me that I could move back into my current apartment, her response should be engraved on the plinth of the Temple of Bureaucracy. (Get a pencil; you may want to write this down.) She said: “Did you get it in writing?”

No, you insufferably pompous bureaucratic hack. I was foolish enough to think that when I was told something by someone in authority, I could believe them. Silly, silly me.

So I am preparing a letter similar to this blog, to be sent to the management of this building, the Habitat Company, my alderman, my city councilman, the head of the Chicago Housing Authority (noting that when I asked the manager of the building to whom I should address my complaint, she had absolutely no idea), and the office of the Mayor.

I am not quite so deluded as to think that any of this will do one iota of good or result in a single positive action. But I will be damned if I won’t let them know how I feel. Not that they give a dung-beetle’s ass, of course.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Fretting

Of all the wasteful, unproductive, and frustrating pastimes we humans absolutely insist on wasting our time on, fretting surely has to be right there at the top of the list. I’ve come to the conclusion that fretting provides the same perverse form of pain/pleasure as picking a scab, and despite our protestations to the contrary, it must be, or we wouldn’t do it.

I’m quite good at fretting but, as with most things, not really a pro. Were college degrees offered in Fretting, I’d probably qualify for an associate’s degree at best. My friend Gary, however, would have a double PhD with honors. I have no idea where he possibly finds all the things to fret about, but if they are there, he will seek them out. He’s my best friend, and it’s unfair of me to single him out, since he is far from alone. He is in fact only one of a vast number of people for whom the making of an appointment for a routine dental checkup three weeks in advance provides three rich weeks of fretting, though not even they are sure exactly what it is they’re fretting about. Being a closet Obsessive-Compulsive probably helps. Full-time fretters never have housekeepers—they would fret so much about fearing to be thought untidy that they would clean the place from top to bottom (probably twice) before the housekeeper arrived.

I think I register so low on the Fret scale because I don’t really give a damn about some of the richest veins of ore for fretting.

Of course, fretting seems to be a part of the human condition, and there are times when it is both inevitable and understandable, as in the anticipation of physical, relationship, or financial crises. But even then fretting is less than worthless; it’s counterproductive. Fretting is Worry Lite, it’s Worry on a caffeine buzz, and while worry can sometimes lead to conclusions and solutions, fretting almost never results in anything positive.

One of the worst things about fretting is its insidiousness; it’s like inviting a vampire through the open window of your mind: once it enters, you’re doomed, and applying logic and rationality have absolutely no effect. Even knowing full well that the anticipation is far worse than the event, and that once the cause of the fret…that dentist’s appointment, say…is over, it simply goes away, like passing a kidney stone, and has no effect. We simply erase it from our minds and immediately move on to the next fret.

My total inability to control fretting once it has snuck into my mind is what I find most disturbing. I know it’s pointless; I know perfectly well that whatever I’m fretting about will not only pass, but that once it’s over I will wonder yet again why I’d ever wasted my time on it in the first place.

Animals don’t fret. Whatever happens happens when it happens and that seems to be just fine with them. They might put up something of a fuss if they want to be fed, but I wouldn’t call that fretting, necessarily…it’s more a physical reaction to being hungry. I doubt they spend much time fretting about what time they’ll have dinner and what might be on the menu. Even when animals have good reason to fret, they don’t. I have yet to open a closet door without my cat immediately darting in as though he’d never seen it before, though he’d just been in there half an hour earlier. Once inside, he refuses to respond to my calls to come out, and I’m not about to get down on my hands and knees and go feeling around behind the laundry basket to try to find him. So eventually and inevitably I will simply close the door and walk away. Does he fret and worry that I will forget about him and that he may be in there forever? He may not fret about it but I inevitably do, wondering how long it will be before he begins a plaintive mewling to be released. The fretting mounts until I stop what I’m doing, go to the closet, and let him out until the next time.

Fretting certainly does not respond to logic. We know it’s pointless. We know that whatever we’re fretting about will resolve itself one way or the other without the fretting. But still we do it.

A case of “simple pleasures,” I guess.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available as an audible book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Lazy Perfectionist

It’s hard enough, I’d imagine, to be a perfectionist under the best of conditions. But for me to aspire to perfection…as I continue to do despite stupefying amounts of evidence to the contrary, is a source of constant frustration and not a little bemusement. I know of many people who aspire to it, and a few who come relatively close. I’d like to think of myself as a perfectionist, but fall so far short of the goal I’ve just about given up.

I so want to be so many things, and might possibly even manage to come within a stellar nebula’s circumference of attaining one or two of them were it not for the unfortunate fact that I much prefer to wish for something than to work for it.

Laziness has been one of the banes of my life. Somewhere I have notes from teachers stretched over the years, all saying in effect the same thing: “Roger’s a relatively good student, but could be so much better if he just applied himself.”

I am sure that one of the reasons I was dropped from the NavCads was because I was simply too lazy to work at things. I remember with horror, now, that I never memorized the numbers of the various runways from which I was expected to take off and land…I merely followed the other planes. And one time I actually came within seconds of being killed when, during night flying exercises with a large number of other planes, we were carefully instructed to climb at a specific rate of speed, and to descend at another specific rate of speed. I got them confused and, in descending, suddenly saw the looming wing and tail lights of a plane directly in front of me. I pushed the stick forward just in time and looked up as I passed not more than 20 feet below the plane that had been in front of and was now directly above me. Luckily, being at night, no one who saw my stupidity could see my plane’s ID number and I was not reported, as I certainly should have been.

My total inability to grasp the workings of anything with moving parts or worse, should something go wrong with them, figuring out how to fix the problem, has provided me with endless frustration and resulted in childish fits of uncontrollable rage. But for those who say simply: “Well, did you check the manual?” my answer is invariably “No.” I once read the manual for a product made in China and was halfway through it before I realized it was written in Chinese. The English version made even less sense. I find it much easier just to have someone else do it for me, even if I have to pay them to do it.

And yet none of that stops me from demanding perfection of myself. The fact, again, that no one is perfect in no way keeps me from expecting it. It’s okay for you to make a mistake, or do or say something stupid, or something you wish you hadn’t done or said, but it is not all right for me, and I hold myself in contempt for being so flawed. One of my self-deprecating mantras is: “If I can’t do something well, I won’t do it at all.” And one side-effect of that is that my heart aches when I see someone who does do something well. And that they do what I cannot/will not fills me with envy and fuels the fires of self-loathing.

But I manage, somehow. I do what I can do, and take refuge in my own little world, wherein my Dorien side and the characters in my books can do all those things I cannot do. All in all, I consider it a fair trade.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from Untreed Reads and Amazon; it's also available from Amazon/Auible as an audio book:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Epiphany

It all began on July 3, 1978 when I met a beautiful (to me) young man by the name of Ray Lopez in the Silver Dollar Bar in Los Angeles. I soon discovered that Ray was a hopeless alcoholic, and the story of our relationship the stuff of which bad soap operas are made. But what I want to address here is the astounding power of epiphany, and how deeply we tend to hide things from ourselves.

When Ray died of AIDS in, I think it was 1994…I can never remember for some reason which probably has significance of some sort…my first thought was “Oh, Ray!” I was truly sorry, but it was an oddly detached feeling, and I was proud of myself for handling it far more calmly than I would have imagined. Later, when I thought of his death, the feeling was largely of frustration and anger: how could he not have saved himself? How could I not have saved him?

I have often said that I consider Ray to have been the love of my life. When he was sober, there was no one on earth more kind, caring, or sweet natured. But when he drank…and in the eight or nine years (on and off) we were together the longest he went without drinking was eight months…he became a tortured animal, lashing out at everyone and everything. Knowing that many others who have alcoholics in their lives have gone through basically the same thing didn’t make it any easier.

At any rate, time passed and while I thought of him often, it was still almost always rather as though I were viewing a display case of beautiful (but of course dead) butterflies skewered on a pin. Real but not real.
And then in June of 1999, a friend called me to tell me that PBS was doing an all-male version of the ballet Swan Lake that nightand insisted I watch. I’d seen the Ballets du Trockadero group…men with light beards and hairy chests dressed up in tutus and tiaras and toe shoes…a couple of times, and while they were mildly amusing, I have never cared for men in tutus. But since I’d told him I’d watch, I did.

From the minute I turned the program on, I did not move from my chair: I was transfixed…overwhelmed. This was no silly story of men pretending to be women: the swans here were all powerful, fascinating, alternately beautiful and threatening, and the love story between the lead male swan and the prince nearly tore my heart out. It was, I still feel, the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

When the production ended, I went directly to the phone to order the VHS of the performance, which I watched at least a dozen times. And when I heard the production…Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake…was opening on Broadway, I drove to New York for three days to see it: three times! And each time I was overwhelmed by the power and beauty…and ultimately, the tragedy…of it. Because of the impossibility of the lead dancers to do eight shows a week, they had two alternates for both the Prince and the Swan, and I did not get a chance to see the two from the video dance together.

So I returned to northern Wisconsin, still enthralled, still watching and re-watching the video.
And then I read that Adam Cooper, the Swan from the video, was leaving the show, and his last performance would be on December 19…and that he would be dancing with Scott Ambler, the video’s prince. I knew I had to be there, and (flying, this time) I returned to New York to see the show four more times, including Adam Cooper’s last performance.

The story of Swan Lake, as you know, concerns the love of a prince and a beautiful White Swan, who later becomes an evil Stranger. The Prince and the White Swan are reunited at the end of the show, but the indescribably bittersweet reunion ends in their death. As one review of the production stated with total accuracy and total understatement: “Simply heartbreaking.” And coupled with Tchaikovsky’s almost unbearably moving score, the result was breathtaking every time I saw it.

And the last night, as I was walking from the theater, I had my epiphany...why I had not realized it before, I don’t know—I’m sure you’ve already realized it. But it suddenly struck me that the Prince was me, and both the Swan and the Stranger were Ray: the loving Swan when sober, the inconceivably cruel Stranger when drunk. And most significantly I had not realized until that moment that I had never allowed myself to grieve for Ray, and that each time I watched this production, I was in fact allowing myself, finally to grieve for him.

Somehow, that epiphany lifted an indescribable weight from my shoulders...and my heart, and I have been able to finally say, maudlin as I’m sure it sounds, “I love you, Ray. Good-bye.”
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, "Short Circuits," available from Untreed Reads and Amazon: