Thursday, April 17, 2014

Missing Me

While listening to the first segments of my in-production audiobook of A World Ago: A Navy Man’s Letter’s Home, 1954-1956 I once again grew nostalgic for the long-ago me. I’m still much the same in many ways; my sense of humor is exactly the same now as it was then. But what I no longer am is young. I remember the young me, and I miss him.

(Should you have any interest whatever in reading A World Ago, a compilation of letters written my parents while I was in the service, you can find it on Amazon or Untreed Reads.) 

Here’s one entry from my early days as a Naval Aviation Cadet:

Wednesday, October13, 1954

Today we saw a movie in P.T. on “How to Survive in the Tundra” (semi-arctic regions). It was one of those “how to survive on a broken compass and old fish heads” things.  I thought it was terrifically funny (though it wasn’t supposed to be).  Of course there were, among the six marooned men, several familiar characters.  There was a George Washington Carver who could whip up a tasty dish out of a bunch of rock lichen; a Daniel Boone type, who could (and did) trap everything from a lemming (a glorified field mouse―they are delicious) to a caribou which, unfortunately, they missed―they had set up an ingenious device with two twigs and a 90-lb piece of sod, but the caribou outsmarted them (not a difficult task, I assure you); and, of course, there was the General-All-Around-Genius who could make more things out of one lousy parachute than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio.  This latter genius also, in his spare time, made a dandy kite (out of the parachute, of course) for attracting airplanes―I expected at any moment to see him attach a key to it and discover electricity, but he never got around to it.

Now, to answer dad’s questions―I want just my one suitcase, so that when I come home at Xmas I’ll have something larger than my duffle bag to pack my things in.  Send them (or rather it) any time you want, just so it’s fairly soon. Yes, the band instruments are furnished, and I hope to stay on after moving to Corry or Whiting (which I’ll do on or about Nov. 26).

I surely am glad I joined the band!  I told you, I think, all about what we may get to do.  November 20 we are going to the Duke-South Carolina game (the Duke-Georgia Tech game would be too soon for us to be ready).  We will all be flown to Durham, North Carolina for it.  Last Saturday night we played for the Admiral at a football game, and he liked us so well he’s planned a “surprise” for us (which, it is rumored, may be a trip to the Army-Navy game!). Miami is still pending.  Nov. 11 we’re to lead a parade in Pensacola.  Four days before Xmas vacation, if all goes well, we will be flown to New York City to appear on “Toast of the Town”; then we’ll fly home from there if we want.  God, I’d give my life’s blood to get to New York for four days!!

Haven’t been doing much of anything lately except study―haven’t even gone to a show in two weeks!  Saturday morning we have band practice, but Saturday afternoon I hope to get downtown to pick up my picture.  I hope you like it―it will have to be hung as it is too large to put atop the record cabinet.

Did the movies come?  Have you looked at them yet?  The large blank space at the beginning is where I had written “Welcome to Florida” in the white sand, but it was evidently too bright.
Well, I’d better close for now.  I would appreciate your sending some money for new film.  (Note―this is the first time I’ve ever written home for money!  I’ve gotten $15 from you all the time I’ve been her, & that’s pretty inexpensive if you ask me).

I’ll try to write more this weekend.   Till then I am
                                                     As Always
                                                       Roge


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, April 14, 2014

Writers and Readers

Over the course of writing more than 20 books, I’ve become increasingly aware that though writers and readers are like yin and yang, there is a tendency for readers to be intimidated by writers. It truly disturbs me to hear a reader say, “Oh, I’m only a reader.” The fact is, of course, that without readers a writer is nothing, and the writer is much more beholden to the reader than the reverse. 

Given the tens of thousands of books there are out there, it’s infinitely easier for a reader to find a book to read than it is for writers to find readers for their books. As a result, I and most writers I know spend far more time than we would prefer playing carnival side-show barkers, trying to lure the milling crowds. “Right this way, Ladies and Gentlemen, to MY book(s)! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed at the artistry and dexterity to be found within these pages! Step right up!” 

Few readers are aware of the myriads of details and decisions that go into the writing of a book. Nor should they be. Each book is a story, but even before the first word is written, the writer must make the decision of who’s telling it—that is, in what “person” he is to write, first or third. Most novels, I’d judge, are written in third person, wherein the writer is like the Wizard of Oz standing behind a curtain, unseen. In third person, it is generally considered a serious “no-no” for the writer to interject himself directly into the narration. In first person, the writer, through his/her narrator, is talking directly to the reader. One advantage of the first person is that it provides the opportunity for the reader to identify more closely with the writer. But a major disadvantage to first person is that the reader is shown everything through the eyes of the narrator, which somewhat limits the writer’s flexibility; third person allows for much more flexibility and allows for the telling of the story from several different points of view.

Few readers, I’m sure, give much thought to the setting—the location and timeframe—of the story, but the writer must choose each and deal with the advantages and disadvantages of that choice. My Dick Hardesty mystery series, for example, is set in the 1980s, though I almost never make reference to specific dates, and I have to be careful to avoid anachronisms. In regards to location, I don’t know how many readers are aware that I have never, in the 15 books of the series, mentioned the name of the city in which he lives. A very deliberate decision, because Dick’s city exists on no map, but in the mind of the reader. But those who have followed the series have, I hope, been made to feel they know and are comfortable in it by the casual referencing of the same streets, restaurants, parks, in book after book.

By contrast, the Elliott Smith series is set in today’s Chicago, a fact which presents its own series of challenges. A lot more research is needed to be sure that if, for example, I refer to a particular area of the city, I have to have my facts right. I can’t say that someone lives in a two story house on Michigan Avenue because any reader who has ever been to Chicago knows there are no two-story houses on Michigan Avenue.

The writer has an advantage in that, as a general rule, the reader is willing to accept that the writer knows what he/she is talking about unless the reader has specific knowledge to the contrary. This is relatively easier, of course, in works of fantasy or science fiction, and to some degree in novels set in unspecified times or locations or dealing in subject matter generally unfamiliar to the average reader. But you can be sure that if a writer declares something as a fact and it indeed is not, some reader, somewhere, will catch it.

The average reader neither knows nor cares about all the considerations the writer has given to his/her book, or of the constant tweaking, changes, reworking and rewriting that goes on during the course of the writing. And if the writer has done his/her job, the reader will never know. But you can be fairly sure that the more smoothly the book reads, the more work the writer had to put into it.

I do believe the writer and reader are indeed yin and yang, with neither part more important the other, but I can’t help but feel that in my case, it is definitely the reader who has the upper hand.


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, April 10, 2014

Cassandra's Children

There is a war going on. There always is, somewhere, of course. But this is not a war between nations or ideologies, but a war between human beings and the technology we have created, and it is a war we humans are surely losing. 

It's not that we haven't been warned, time and time again, and shrugged or laughed the naysayers away. 
We have, incomprehensibly, simply ignored the fundamental axiom that "fire makes a good servant, but a cruel master." Technology is our modern-day fire. And melodramatic as it may sound, the technology we created to serve us is inexorably becoming our master. We have already reached the point where we, as a society, cannot survivefiguratively but increasingly literally–without our iPods and our smartphones and our laptops and the 450,000 "apps" available on our ever-at-the-ear cell phones. As we become more and more dependent on the things we have created–ironically intended to make us more independent–the focus subtly shifts from our using them to them using us. 

And if that were not bad enough, technology makes it possible for bureaucracies to become ever more complex and difficult to deal with. Just in case this thought had never occurred to you, look around you any time you go out into the street, or into a coffee shop or restaurant and count the number of people glued to their electronic gadgetry, or pick up a phone to call a credit card company to ask a question or report a problem with your internet or cable service. And for the most part, we go along without question, like lambs off to slaughter. We may not like it, but we say nothing. We do nothing. We accept.

Melodramatic? Of course. But consider that 30 years ago, no one had a computer, and the world went on quite well. Now computers have become laptops which have become telephones and BlueBerries and BlackBerries and iPods and iPhones and smartphones and every day more and more come along to make our lives even more complex.

And the more reliant we become on technology, the more control we lose over our own lives and destinies, and increasingly we take out our building rage not on our phones–which, after instructing us to Press 1 for English in our own country, assures us every thirty seconds that our call is VERY important to whichever faceless corporation we are calling for help or information, while we are kept on hold for 45 minutes–but on each other. The feeling of utter helplessness that each run-in with the Frankenstein's Monsters we have created engenders the urge to lash out, which in turn leads inevitably to the Columbines and Virginia Techs and Fort Hoods. And each time we shake our heads and wonder how it could ever have happened.

One of my favorite characters in all mythology is Cassandra. The god Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of prophecy. And after they had a falling out, because a gift given by the gods cannot be taken back, Apollo modified it so that while Cassandra was unerringly correct in her predictions, no one would believe her.

There are Cassandras among us today...there always have been. People who accurately foresee the future...if not in explicit detail at least in inescapable trends. And they are universally ignored until what they predicted has come to pass, and then it is too late.

There is a scene in the 1971 film, THX1138...Steven Spielberg's first...wherein a future society totally controlled by technology offers its citizens handy "Jesus Booths" where anyone can go for comfort. Enter the booth, and an image of Jesus appears. "What is your problem, my child?" The image asks, his face showing true concern and nods slowly, every ten seconds. Every fifteen seconds, regardless of what the human in the booth is doing or saying, it says "I see," and every forty five seconds it says "Could you be more...specific?"

I've often cited E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" and movies like Logan's Run as examples of perhaps only slightly exaggerated future scenarios. And what about global warming? And the dangers of overpopulation?

Ah, but what does it matter, really? There's not a thing I can do about it, after all. I'd just go watch some intellectually brilliant TV fare like Here Comes Honey Barf-Barf , but my cable is out and my call to the cable company is still on "hold" after six hours.


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, April 07, 2014

Crapshoot

Crapshoot: noun. A risky or uncertain matter. See also: Life

Okay, so I added that last part, but it’s true. Every single action we take or decision we make is a roll of the cosmic dice which determines and alters the course of the rest of our lives. Most of the changes are like tiny ripples on the surface of our lives, but some.…

The instances and effects of significant life-changing decisions or actions…the majority of them totally spontaneous…are mind boggling. If, when I was five years old, I had not jumped down a small embankment to watch a passing train, the little girl who, not seeing me there, also jumped down the embankment, landing on and breaking my leg, would I have been so acutely aware for the rest of my life of not doing things or taking risks that might cause me physical harm?

If, at around age seven, I had not gone to a birthday party at which the mother of the guest of honor insisted the guests pair up, boy-girl, and dance, would I forever since have been so aware of my lack of physical grace and subsequently refused to do anything that might demonstrate that fact?

If, while flying in formation on a night training flight while in the NavCads, I had noticed the miscalculation of my airspeed and how quickly the lights of the plane ahead of me were coming closer, ten seconds later than I did—giving me time to push the nose of my plane down and passing less than 10 feet under the belly of the plane ahead—there would have been a midair collision in which I and possibly the other pilot surely would have died.

If I had told my mother’s doctor “it’s time to stop trying to save her” when he, she, and I knew it was hopeless, rather than clinging desperately to the hope that maybe some new approach might make a difference, I could have saved her untold suffering and spared myself the guilt and regret that haunt me to this day.

If I had not decided to leave Los Angeles for Pence, Wisconsin to start a Bed and Breakfast in an attempt to “save” my partner, Ray, from the temptations of alcoholism—which destroyed him despite all my efforts—I would not have set off a chain reaction of events which graced my life with several close friends who I first met as guests at the B&B—through one of whom I subsequently met my best friend Gary.

If I had not been…um…intimate…with a bisexual young man a mutual friend had convinced me to let stay at my home to help me with various projects, I would not have been exposed to the HPV virus (Human Papilloma Virus) which caused the tongue cancer which was the equivalent of a 9.0 earthquake to the structure of my life.

And these are just a very, very few examples of the crapshoot of my life: what about yours? I hope you might take a moment to look back over your own life and pick out those instants, those actions, those decisions that sent your life off on a different path than you assumed it was pursuing. 

We are totally powerless to avoid this eternal crapshoot, since it is part of life itself. And once the dice land, whatever happened or whatever we did to alter the course of our future cannot be changed, and we must live with it. The only thing we can do is perhaps take a moment to consider our actions or our decisions before we implement 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).



Thursday, April 03, 2014

Fairdale


It's human nature, when hearing someone considerably older than yourself tell tales of how different distant yesterdays were from today, to roll your eyes and sigh heavily. It never occurs to us that the older have the advantage of having experienced both "then" and "now" whereas the young have only the "now" and the relatively recent past. It's difficult to comprehend just what a different world it was when the teller of stories—a parent or grandparent, usually—was younger than the listener.

For every human being, "now" is the norm. "Now" is the way it has always been and the way it will always be. Yesterday is just a footprint glimpsed directly behind us in the sands of time. Yet the more yesterdays we leave behind us, and the less distinct they become the farther away they are.

The problem with "now" is that we are too close to it to see it clearly. But the fact is that each of us grows up in a world different from that of our parents and grandparents—-just as our world today will be equally different from the world of our children.  

And thus the subject of this blog. 

I was thinking yesterday—as always, with me, for absolutely no reason—of my own distant yesterdays and a town which by it very name conjures up a long-gone rural Midwest America: Fairdale. 

In the mid-to-late 1930s my grandfather and his wife owned and lived in a combination bar and gas station in Fairdale, Illinois, one of those tiny unincorporated hamlets quaintly but often accurately referred to as a "wide spot in the road." It was located on far-from-busy Hwy 72, which connected with the far busier Hwy 51 which cuts vertically through the center of Wisconsin and Illinois . It was probably less than 25 miles from my hometown of Rockford, but seemed like hundreds of miles—and decades in time—from anywhere.

I first checked Google to see if Fairdale still exists (surprisingly, it does), and then sought a map for it's exact location. I see it has a total of three very short streets, each no more than one-or-two-block-long, The longest, and only one I can remember, had once served as the town's "main street." It ran north and south between Hwy 72 and the railroad tracks. Clustered along the end nearest the railroad tracks were perhaps three or four even-then-long-abandoned 2-story once-commercial buildings, but as I recall, Grandpa's bar/gas station was the only business in the town.

The bar, too, was old even then, a typical small farm-town bar which smelled of cigarette and cigar smoke and spilled beer and whiskey. Once, when I was "helping" Grandpa sweep up in the morning before the bar opened, I found a $5 bill someone had dropped. A $5 bill in the mid-to-late 1930s was a very great amount of money, indeed, and when no one returned to claim it, Grandpa let me keep it.

Neither the bar nor the gas station made much money. This was a very rural area, and the effects of the Great Depression still bore heavily on all aspects of the lives of average people.

Just east of Grandpa's place, on the highway, was Fairdale’s one-room school, which I remember primarily because its playground had one of those metal self-propelled "merry-go-rounds" you can still occasionally find today, which kids would start by pushing it in one direction, running faster and faster until they could jump on and go round and round until the centrifugal force died and it slowed to a halt. Then you jumped off and started the process over again.

Across the street from the school was a large farm with a large—to the eyes of a 5 year old kid, huge—barn. I can still close my eyes and smell the hay. The family that owned it had a couple of kids around my age, and we would sneak into the barn, climb up into the hayloft, and then ascend a ladder to a small platform almost to the barn's rafters. It seemed like a very great height, but was probably eight feet at most. We would then jump down into the hay, shrieking with laughter and the sense of excitement such courage warranted.

It was, indeed, a different time and a different world, with different values and attitudes, and the more harsh realities of life at the time gradually grow less distinct as the fog of time closes in. Sharper edges dim and soften, and nostalgia paints memories in softer colors, making the past often more appealing than the "now."

But man is a creature which craves comfort, and if memories of a tiny town long ago can provide me with some comfort, I'll savor it like a fine, vintage wine.

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, March 31, 2014

Ingrate

I don’t like to think of myself as an ingrate, but my entire life points to the fact that I am. And, lest you think I’m being characteristically too hard on myself, I hasten to point out that I most definitely am not alone, nor am I the worst-case example.

Being an ingrate is often directly related to being greedy. If I have something, I want to keep it. If I do not have something I want, I feel deprived and am envious of those who have it. I do not like endings. If there is something I enjoy doing or have enjoyed doing in the past, I want and fully expect to keep on enjoying it forever. I do not let go of the past, because to do so is to sever my connection to whatever I am clinging to.

I cannot stand the thought of loss of anything or anyone I do not want to lose. I can understand and appreciate the wisdom of the saying, “Do not grieve over those you have lost, but rejoice that you had them as long as you did.” But I cannot. I still grieve the loss—and as time passes there are more and more losses—of family, friends, lovers, pets, physical abilities. The pain is, like the scab on a wound covered over by passing time, but all it takes is a conscious thought to reopen it. Knowing that I am the only one who can change this, who can let go, is far easier acknowledged than done.

It all stems, I know, from my absolute inability/refusal to accept reality. Reality is the flesh and bone prison in which the mind and soul are held captive. It may be a comfortable prison, but it is a prison nonetheless. Part of my ingratitude is based on the fact that while my own personal prison has been very good to me and served me exceptionally well, I have even so always resented that others have prisons far younger and more beautiful than mine.

I like to think I still have many childlike—as opposed to childish—qualities, even while realizing that they come with a price not conducive to life in the real world. One of these childlike qualities, unfortunately, is the child’s concept of “mine!” If I have something I want, or have had it, I expect to have it forever. Period.

In truth, I am blessed in so very many ways, and I do appreciate those things I have. I just want more, and seem incapable of simply accepting what I have. There have been so many truly wonderful times in my life—memories I treasure and hold within my heart, things I have done, places I’ve been, people who have graced my life with their presence—why can I not simply accept that and appreciate it, and let it go? I can’t. I want to be able to relive every pleasurable moment of my life over and over, like re-reading a favorite book or listening again and again to a favorite piece of music.

I am not so far removed from reality that I do not know full well that there are countless numbers of people whose lives are infinitely and incomprehensibly more difficult than mine; whose courage and bravery in just getting through another day shames me for being the ingrate I am. But the often-vast gaps between who we should and want to be and who we in fact are is part of human existence. 

In the final analysis, Popeye is once again right when he says “I yam what I yam,” and there are things we cannot change no matter how hard we try.

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, March 27, 2014

Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee

The roots of who we become as adults are put down when we are children. As a child who never felt comfortable in the real world, I turned to the worlds I found in books and within my own mind. Always a great believer in happily-ever-after, fairy tales, and worlds that should be but aren't, I was fascinated by Walt Disney's "Pinocchio," and I suspect I subconsciously patterned much of my life after the song, "Hi-diddle-dee-dee":

Hi-diddle-dee-dee
An actor's life for me
A high silk hat and a silver cane
A watch of gold with a diamond chain

Hi-diddle-dee-day
An actor's life is gay
It's great to be a celebrity
An actor's life for me

Though I was much too shy to be an actor, I substituted "writer" for "actor." And while I have yet to buy a high silk hat or a silver chain, or find the "celebrity," I did get the "gay" part down right.

To say that I am a writer is a statement of fact no more remarkable than is the fact I have brown eyes. I am a writer simply because I cannot conceive of being or ever having been anything else. 

I can't presume to tell you why other writers write, but I can tell you why I do: to tell stories that assure both the reader and myself that those things which unite us as human beings are far more important than those which separate us, and that none of us is, despite our sometimes unavoidable belief otherwise, truly alone. 

Of course it helps that my mind is one gigantic version of Lawrence Welk's bubble machine, constantly sending out thousands of thoughts and ideas which appear and disappear in an instant. I'm forever reaching for them and every now and then one will alight on my palm long enough for me to see the elements of a story reflected on its surface.

I've often said that I do not write my books, I read them as the words appear on the computer screen. I am incapable of plotting in advance, because new thoughts and ideas keep sending me off in new directions. I am constantly editing and changing, going back several pages or chapters to lay the groundwork for the appearance of a character or plot element that came along as I wrote. I primarily write mysteries—probably because, to me, life is one large mystery—and while I start off with the basics of the plot and know generally where I'm going, the route I take to get there is not laid out in advance. I often don't know who the killer really is until well into the story, or I'll begin intending for one person to be the killer and end up with someone completely different...occasionally a character I hadn't even created when I began.

Writing is, to me, a far more effective way of communicating than are spoken words. Once out of the mouth, a spoken word cannot be changed. But in writing affords me the luxury, if I don't like the way I've said something, to go back and change it, and to go over and over it until I'm satisfied that it says what I want it to say.

My characters and plot elements are often based (generally very loosely) on my personal experiences, on places I've lived or been, and on people I've known or encountered. I enjoy naming my characters (either first or last name, but almost never both) after my friends and acquaintances. I am frequently amazed to find, in my writing, elements of myself I'd never known were there. It only struck me after several books, for example, that I have an apparent fondness for names beginning with the letter "J"...Jonathan, Joshua, Jared, Jake, John, etc. Why this should be I haven't a clue, which is fine with me. That there are many things in writing which have no explanation is part of its wonder.

But I do think that whatever success I have had in writing comes not only from my ability to tell stories people seem to enjoy reading and can relate to on some level, but from the fact that I am always acutely aware of the reader as I write. I look on every book as a conversation...albeit one-sided...with the reader. And I am delighted when that conversation is reciprocated in the form of a note from a reader.

There is no greater catharsis than putting thoughts in writing. Writing for publication is not nearly as simple as it may seem, but it is only one aspect of writing. I encourage everyone to write, whether for others to read or just as a way of putting into written words aspects of themselves they may not have been aware existed. Whether or not you intend for anyone else to read it is really important: seeing yourself through your words is. You may well be surprised to learn, or at the very least to gain insights into who you really are and what you really think. 

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).