Friday, July 22, 2016

Kid's Play

Dorien as a Child
When we were living on Blackhawk Avenue on Rockford’s south side, the ten or so kids in my block would get together during summer to have picnics. Tommy Colatta, who lived on the fringe of our recognized play area, was a couple of years younger, and whenever we had a picnic, usually in the empty lot next to my house, Tommy would always show up, but he would never bring anything.

“What’s that?” he’d ask, pointing to something one of us was eating, and no matter what it was, Tommy would say “I like…” whatever it was. You could say “It’s a worm sandwich” and Tommy would say “I like worm sandwiches.” Sometimes we’d share, but most times we wouldn’t. And it never occurred to me, until years later, that perhaps Tommy didn’t bring anything to our picnics because he didn’t have anything to bring. I would certainly hope that was not the case, but that it might have been truly saddens me.

World War II ended and peace broke out during those years on Blackhawk Avenue, but it didn’t make all that much difference to us kids. Our favorite game was “Machine Gun,” which I can claim with no little modesty as being of my own invention. It involved one of us being the “shooter” and the rest of us falling down in the most dramatic way possible as we were “shot.” We had, after all, a wealth of newsreels and patriotic movies to draw upon. The one who died most dramatically became the “shooter” for the next round.

I think I mentioned somewhere before that although I was almost painfully shy and insecure, I was the “boss” of our little clique of kids. I remember once, while my dad was a deputy sheriff and working the night shift, that the gang was getting a bit boisterous in the empty lot, and I yelled: “Shut up! My dad’s sleeping!” so loudly that I of course woke him up. He was not as fully appreciative of my efforts on his behalf as I might have hoped.

With the return of the soldiers, sailors, and marines from the war, the country embarked on a vigorous post-war building boom. Blackhawk Avenue was only a block long, and at its west end bulldozers suddenly appeared to clear the trees for the construction of ten or twelve red-brick cookie-cutter houses. This afforded the kids of the neighborhood endless hours of fascination and fun, scrambling like monkeys through the unfinished houses that smelled of newly-sawn wood and wet mortar.

Anyone doubting the relation of humans to monkeys need only watch a group of kids clamoring over a construction site or…another favorite pastime…climbing as high as we could possibly get in every tree on the block. (And I know for a fact that every kid loves bananas.)

Billy Pearson, who lived two doors to the east of the empty lot, was something of a cipher. My age, he was and wasn’t quite part of our group. He lived in a large, very nice brick home which rather stood out on our block of small-to-tiny frame houses. I don’t recall ever having been invited into Billy’s home, and we all had the impression that Billy’s mom was convinced he was far better than we.

Across the street lived a family with a two-year-old son named Kenneth. Not Kenny: never Kenny. Kenneth. And Kenneth’s mother insisted that when we were around him we speak the King’s English. Contractions were not allowed. “That-there” and “ain’t” were viewed with shocked horror, and anyone who used them within Kenneth’s earshot was in for a firm and increasingly familiar lecture. I wonder if Kenneth ever had a real childhood.

As a matter of fact, do kids today have a childhood? Do they ever climb trees, or scramble through construction sites? I rather fear they are far too busy being hauled to soccer practice (and you can’t convince me that every kid who plays it is doing so out of love of the game), or sitting in front of a TV or computer monitor. Why play games with other kids when you can sit all by yourself and see how many Extruxians you can blast with your Nucleator?
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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, July 18, 2016

Pat

One of my favorite people during my Los Angeles days was Pat Mallon, who when I first met her was secretary to the President of the statewide (and politically powerful) Engineering and Grading Contractors Association. I was working at the time for a firm called NPR, which was contracted to produce a glossy house organ, called simply EGCA. I was the magazine’s editor, so Pat and I were in frequent contact, which developed into a friendship.

Pat was…well, to call her “one of a kind” would not come near to describing her. Pat was one of those wonderful Charo-like souls who, in her passion for life, simply ignored age. She was probably in her 60s when we met. Her hair was very long and pitch black. She wore probably about as much makeup as Tammy Baker, but she wore it much better. She favored toreador pants, spiked heels, low-cut blouses (often tube-top) and lots of expensive jewelry. (She at one time had worked with noted jeweler Harry Winston and conducted a side business selling jewelry. Her business card referred to herself as “The Diamond Lady.”) Unlike so many outwardly effusive people, her joy for living went to her very core. In many ways, including her voice and certain of her actions, she reminded me of Carol Channing, and I found her just as charming.

I’d see her every time I went to the EGCA offices, but our friendship was cemented during an EGCA conclave in Las Vegas, over several French Cannons…a delightfully refreshing libation consisting of a equal parts champagne and brandy, three of which could easily have rendered me comatose. But Pat could belt them back like water and never bat an eye.

When we first became friends, she was married to a great guy named Chuck…I am totally embarrassed not to be able to recall his last name (forgive me, Chuck)…who had been a singer with one of the big bands in the 40s. They lived in a beautiful house in the hills overlooking the entire San Fernando Valley. The memory of looking out from their patio at night, with the valley spread out below like a carpet of glittering jewels that put the stars to shame, is one of my fondest memories of L.A.

Chuck traveled a lot, so Pat spent a great deal of time on decorating the house to suit her unique taste, including curtains made of strands of crystal which, when the sun hit them, became a million prisms reflecting their light on every surface. She also spent literally hundreds of hours painstakingly gold-leafing every door frame in the house.

But though I considered Pat and Chuck to be the perfect couple, apparently they did not, because Pat filed for divorce and their house was put up for sale. She could not understand why the realtor did not feel that all her expensive gold-leaf and hard work would not be reflected in setting the selling price. The fact that the new owners may have different tastes or even want to repaint the house and door frames was incomprehensible to her.

Her second husband, Bob Mallon, was a very nice guy who adored her, but was not overly fond of gays, though he was always very pleasant whenever Pat would have Ray and me over, or invite us to one of her lavish parties, for which Pat would spend several days in preparation. Their house, on a hillside just up a winding road from Ventura Blvd., did not have the view of her old house, but there was a large if steeply inclined back yard set into a hillside, on which she and Bob spent a fortune landscaping and decorating with colored lights.

After I moved from Los Angeles, we more or less lost touch, though every year I would get the same mass-printed postcard saying “Keep in touch!” and signed “The Diamond Lady.”
While reality (my arch enemy, as you know) tells me that Pat may no longer be alive, I cannot (or, rather, refuse to) accept the idea. But I tell myself that of course she’s still alive, bubbly as ever, still throwing her parties and being her effervescent self. In some ways, Pat was for me a symbol of all my L.A. days, and every now and then, I truly miss them…and her.
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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, July 15, 2016

Stu

I learned, from the same long-lost friend who sparked my recent “Letter to a Nun” blog, that one of my very best friends from college, Stu, had died of AIDS…20 years ago!How could that be? How could that possibly be? Stu? Tall, crazy, skinny, incredibly talented, hyperactive redheaded Stu, dead? For 20 years??

I met Stu when I entered what was then Northern Illinois State Teacher’s College in September of 1952. He, Zane, and I were all interested in theater, and soon became friends. (Isn’t it odd that even today I hesitate to mention last names out of concern for opening closet doors?) We were something of the Three Musketeers, though Stu and Zane were far more outgoing than I. Not having to even attempt to hide the fact that we were gay when we were together was exhilarating.

During the break between our Freshman and Sophomore years, we agreed to meet in New York City for three days. I got my first direct evidence that my dad knew of my sexual orientation when, after an argument over the money for the trip being better spent in other ways, Dad finally said, in exasperation, “All right, go to New York with your queer boyfriends.”

One weekend at school, Stu got hold of a makeup kit from the drama department and he and Zane decided they were going to give me a makeover. I wasn’t happy about it, but went along. They wouldn’t let me see their work until they were done, and when they finally gave me a mirror, I saw an eyelinered, rouged, lipsticked drag queen. I fainted. Literally.

Stu was, as I’ve said, multi-talented. One time he designed costumes he, Zane, and I were to wear for Halloween (Zane was to be the sun, I the moon, and Stu the stars). They were beautiful. But like everything else Stu started, they were never completed. He was the poster boy for A.D.D. before the condition had a name. He would start one project, then drop it after 20 minutes to go on to another, which would be dropped in the same amount of time.

He was totally impulsive. At one point, while I was on my two-year break from school for the Navy, he decided there was a play opening in London that he absolutely had to see. He somehow scraped together enough money for a plane ticket to London…but not enough for a ticket back…and took off. I still can’t remember how he got back, but he did.

Our friendship was interrupted for the four years it took me to do my two year military service and to finish my last two years of school. When I graduated and planned to move to Chicago, Stu and I agreed to get an apartment together, which we did…six blocks and on the same side of the street as the building in which I am now living after my return to Chicago following a 38 year absence.

Stu could easily have starred in a play about Ichabod Crane, whom he strongly resembled. With his red hair and gangly frame, and his flamboyant style, it didn’t take much for perfect strangers to determine his sexual orientation. People would stare at him, and it would hurt him deeply, and he would react by becoming even more outrageous. If they wanted queer, he’d give them queer.

I got on his nerves (I can’t imagine how that could possibly happen, but it did). One night I asked him five separate times what time he wanted dinner. Finally, he snapped. I don’t remember what he said, but he never spoke to me again, and he moved out of the apartment within a week.

Several years later, I turned on the TV and caught him on a game show…a little older, but the same old Stu. It hurt.

True friends come along very seldom in life, and I always thought of Stu, even in the years after we parted ways, as one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and I was so very sorry to have lost that friendship. That it can now never be rekindled fills me with a renewed sense of loss.

Here’s to you, Stu.
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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, July 11, 2016

Lief

Dorien in High School
I have often said that I am not the “hail fellows well met” type who feels totally at ease among a group of people I do not know well. I tend to blend in more with the wallpaper than with other people. But I have been blessed, through my life, with a few “best friends” who have served as anchors in the stormy seas of life.

The term “best friends” is used perhaps a little casually by most people, and I am quite sure I had quite a number of people I might have considered—had I given any thought to it, which I don’t recall ever having done—to be my best friend for varying lengths of time. But few, in reflection, stand out.

Lief Ayen was probably my first “best friend,” and we became so rather by default. We met at Harlem High School in Loves Park, Illinois which I attended during one of my high school years (I honestly can’t remember which one…probably tenth). We both were loners through a combination of desire and necessity. Physically, Leif reminded me of a young Charles Laughton, with an explosive laugh, a sometimes abrasive personality, and a penchant for trying to embarrass me, which succeeded more often than not.

But we shared a decidedly unorthodox and outlandish sense of humor and would spend hours on the phone, laughing. We also shared a love for writing and for science fiction, and once collaborated on a story called “To Hell with Miss Primm” about a school teacher who, upon her death, is mistakenly sent to hell. I’m sure I must have it around somewhere.

At one point, we attended a science fiction convention in Chicago and Lief won a wonderful original oil painting by the noted sci-fi artist Chesley Bonestall. It is probably worth a small fortune today, and I would love to know what happened to it.

Like me, Lief left college to join the Navy, and he despised it with a passion. He was put aboard the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Toledo, and he spent most of his time aboard figuring out how he could get off. He finally came up with what he considered a foolproof plan. Two days before the ship was due to leave its home port of Long Beach, Lief sat down and folded his arms. And he just sat there, refusing to talk, to move, to obey orders. He just sat. So he was removed from the ship and sent to a Navy hospital for observation. He was elated to be off the Toledo and remained happily in the hospital for about a week. The day he was released, the Toledo pulled back into port, and Lief was put right back on board.

I was in the NavCads by this time, and when the NavCad band was sent to Long Beach for an Armed Forces Day program, we played aboard, of all the ships in the Navy, the U.S.S. Toledo. Lief and I had a chance to spend a few days together, and we had our usual wonderful time.

From his navy days in the Pacific, Lief developed a passion for all things Japanese, and he once sent my mom a beautiful watercolor which is currently hanging on my living room wall.
After getting out of the service, Lief returned to Rockford and to college. He met and married a nice girl named Julie, with whom he had two daughters. We gradually lost touch with one another, and it was not until about five years ago that I decided I had to look him up. I had no idea where he might be. His parents by that time were long dead and I assumed his sister had married and would no longer have the same last name. However, after a long search through God-knows-how many venues, I finally located a “Lief Ayen” and a phone number, which I immediately called in great anticipation of renewing one of the most important friendships of my life.

The phone was answered by a man whose voice I did not recognize (and I would have recognized Lief’s immediately, despite how long it had been since I last heard it). I discovered that he was Lief’s nephew, and that Lief had died some years before while working for a radio station in Australia. He and Julie had been divorced, and the Lief to whom I spoke had no idea of her or Lief’s daughters’ whereabouts.

So as I have done so often in the past and continue to do as fate necessitates, I carefully wrapped all my memories of Lief in a special box to be stored…for as long as I am alive, at any rate…in my mind and heart, and engraved his name on my mental Wall of the Lost. I don’t have a single photo of Lief, though I really don’t need one: I can see him when I close my eyes.

And even as I write, I can hear him laughing.
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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:

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Miss Piggy's Nose

For the past 10 days or so, I have been spending part of every day at my now-dead friend Norm’s condo, trying to do all the things that are necessary following the death of the owner/occupant. Norm had lived there 40 years, and has 40 years of “things”…some quite valuable, others just the “things” one accumulates over the course of the years.

I touched on this in another recent blog, and remarked that I had already packed and given away all his clothes. Aside from the time it took to pack the 13 garbage bags and 2 or 3 cardboard boxes, it was a fairly straightforward task.

But what do I do with Miss Piggy’s nose? It’s a perfectly good nose, made of pink rubber, and has a thin elastic strap that fits over the back of the head to hold the nose in place. It was in a drawer in his den, along with several decks of playing cards, a lint roller, the remote control for a long-gone television set, a couple rolls of film, six crystal balls of varying sizes apparently once part of a chandelier, a badly dog-chewed tennis ball, and a number of other things, most of which I was unable to identify. Not one of these items simply appeared in the drawer out of nowhere. Norm put them there for whatever reason, and they all once belonged somewhere, served some purpose, meant something or nothing to Norm.

In the bookcase I found a Day Planner for 2002, apparently never opened, and a like new two-volume Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary. There was also a very nice brick, apparently used as a door stop. There are several shelves of gardening and horticulture books, some of them obviously quite expensive when purchased. The fact that Norm enjoyed plants and at one point went to school for some sort of degree in horticulture is not coincidentally reflected, for those who have read my Dick Hardesty Mystery series, in Dick’s partner, Jonathan, having an associate’s degree in horticulture.

Probably as a reflection of his interest in plants, various closets held four huge and expensive ceramic planters, along with at least a dozen others of varying sizes. There are walkers and seats for the shower and bathtub which have never been used. One tub chair still has the price tag ($145) attached.

And yet what am I to do with them? A yard sale in a 35th floor condominium is a bit impractical, and even if it were practical, the time to price each item would be unimaginable.

So I plan to call in an art appraiser to give me an idea of the worth of some of the more valuable pieces, and hope the appraiser might direct me to a source of potential buyers. When that has been handled, I’ll look for estate buyers—those people who buy the entire contents of a home or apartment—to handle the rest. They pay only a tiny fraction of the value of what the items would bring if sold separately—literally pennies on the dollar—but again it spares the time and expense of trying to sell everything off piece by piece.

Wanting to get as much as possible for his things is not a matter of greed on my part. I’m merely the executor, and all the money, of course, goes into the estate, as will the money from the sale of the condo itself, and there are at least six worthy charities named in the will. I know they will appreciate and make good use of every dollar they can get.

But I never forget that every single thing I am charged with disposing of was Norm’s, not mine, and I can’t help but feel as though I were somehow…what words to use?…“taking advantage of him” certainly doesn’t fit, but there is an element of that feeling…treating it all as if it didn’t really matter; as if it all were just a bunch of things. It’s as if each item had existed in some sort of vacuum and had nothing to do with the real person who bought and enjoyed them. And it is true, of course: a book is just a book, a planter is just a planter.

But oh, Miss Piggy’s nose….
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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:

Saturday, July 09, 2016

The Shallow Pond

I sometimes like to stand on the shore of My Knowledge and look out over its vast expanse, and I try to pretend that under the surface lie vast depths of wisdom and insight and understanding. But the fact of the matter is that it would be possible to walk across it and never get the tops of my shoes wet.

In short, I know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about practically nothing. I’m very good at trivia. I can name songs from WWI (“Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven....’Cause My Daddy’s There”), tell you what the last song was played as the Titanic sank (not “Nearer My God to Thee,” but a hymn called “Autumn”). I can tell you what Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostly, and Robert Clary have in common (all were in the cast of New Faces of 1952, which I saw.)

But by and large, my vast knowledge is mostly a series of Potemkin villages (false fronts erected on the banks of a river by Grigori Alesandrovich Potemkin, a minister of Russia’s Queen Catherine the Great, to convince her of how prosperous the country was. Potemkin was also the namesake for the Battleship Potemkin, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film). In other words, pretty impressive at first glance, but without much behind it.

Which is why I dread people asking me who my favorite author is or what my favorite book is: I don’t feel myself qualified enough to answer. I’ve read many, many books, but know nothing of literature on a scholarly level. I shudder at the prospect of being asked my opinion on almost any subject. The truth is, I probably don’t have one that doesn’t sound like pap.

I have firm opinions on very few things simply because I don’t feel I know enough about anything to form one. In that regard I’m like the beauty pageant queen who, when asked what she wants to do with her life, grins vacuously and says her goal is to work for world peace. Uh, yeah…like that.

I have a love-hate relationship with those who will pontificate on any subject presented to them. On the one hand, I stand in awe of their knowledge, but on the other hand I have no idea whether they actually know what they’re talking about, or if they’re just blowing smoke.

One of the nice things about being a writer, as I’ve often said, is that your readers almost always give you the benefit of the doubt. Unless you have your hero, caught between the warring Umbizzi and M’gwuba tribes on a hilltop in 1880 Transvaal whip out his cell phone to call for backup, most readers will go along and assume you know what you’re talking about. You can get away with a lot when you sound authoritative, as long as you don’t push it.

Did you know the tradition of “women and children first” in disasters came from the 1852 sinking of the British troopship Birkenhead off South Africa? With not enough lifeboats for everyone, the troops formed ranks on the deck as the women and children were put on what few lifeboats there were. Few of the soldiers survived, but their bravery lit a beacon which still shines today. I love trivia.

But can I intelligently discuss the social ramifications of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the same year the Birkenhead went down? Nope.
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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, July 01, 2016

Letting Go

You’re probably much too young to remember flypaper, but they were coiled strips of sticky paper hung to trap flies during the heat of summer. Once a fly touched it, he/she was trapped forever. My mind’s like that, but it traps memories rather than flies. I cannot let go of thoughts and feelings and memories of physical things and people important to me. They are part of who I am, so how could I let them go? However, far too many things which stick there are wrongs and slights (perceived or real) done me; gaffes, blunders, and stupid things I’ve done; resentments I’ve harbored; griefs and grievances I’ve suffered, anything which the perversely self-destructive part of me can use to torment myself for my inadequacies, are things I wish I could simply let go, but cannot. They are all part of my life, too.

I always state these things as though I were the only human being to whom they happen, or who is aware of them and the reactions they engender, though I know this is not true. If you didn’t share some of the feelings expressed in these blogs, you wouldn’t still be reading them.

The exact details and circumstances of what sparks feelings differs from person to person, but the core results are the same: they made an impact on our lives. Most people seem able to either absorb or release these things. I can’t.

I can remember, when I was probably no older than five, being called in to dinner and, while eating, hearing the bell ringing on my tricycle, which I’d been riding and left on the sidewalk near the front porch. I told my dad someone was stealing my tricycle, and started to run outside to check. Dad told me to return to the table and finish eating. When I was able to go outside later, my tricycle was gone, and for some unknown reason, my relationship with my father was unalterably changed. How very, very strange that I should still be clinging to that memory so many years later.

Standing in my front yard as a kid singing Christmas carols in mid summer and being asked by a passing stranger why I was doing so when Christmas was so far off for some reason made me feel ashamed, and pushed me even further into my closet of shyness.
Along the same lines, while in fourth grade, being asked to sing a song as part of a class project, and being so horrendously embarrassed by the prospect that when I finally agreed, I had to stand facing the wall while I sang. (And I still remember the song; the Irish lullaby “To-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra.”)

Attending a neighbor child’s birthday party and having the mother insist that we must all dance, boy-girl, when I neither knew how to dance nor had the most remote desire to do so (especially with a girl) was one of my most humiliating memories. But it is still there and pops up, unbidden, from time to time.

But of course, the good memories also return: wonderful, vivid, loving memories of times and loved ones, and experiences long gone. I take comfort in them, and yet, perversely, I can only touch on them briefly, for to spend too much time on them replaces joy with a terrible longing and the knowledge that they are now only memories and are gone forever (or at least until the endless movie of time replays them, frame by frame. My belief that this is how time works, and that what was somewhere still is, and will continue to be endlessly, gives me if not total peace, at least reassurance that all is not lost when each showing of the movie ends.)

I am a strange duck. Thank God you’re normal.
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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: