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).

Monday, July 07, 2014

Frustration

Probably the single most powerful…and prevalent…emotion in my life is frustration. For me, it is a hair-trigger, automatic reaction to anything which, in my estimation, does not go exactly as I think it should go. For me, it is a bottomless chasm of fury and despair, and there is no slope leading to it. It is either precipice or pit.

The other day I bought a jar of olive oil, and last night wanted to use it. It is a screw-off cap, and there was no plastic cover over it which needed removal before opening. On the top of the cap there are two arrows indicating the direction in which the cap should be twisted in order to open. I twisted in the direction indicated. And twisted. And twisted. Nothing. I tried pressing down on the cap and twisting. Nothing. I tried pulling up on the cap and twisting. Nothing. The cap turned and turned and turned, but it would not open. How the hell could it NOT open? Am I so incredibly stupid and incompetent that I cannot remove the cap from a simple bottle of olive oil? Obviously, I am and I instantly found myself plummeting into the truly frightening abyss of fury and hellfire intensity of self loathing.

At times like this, I quite simply and sincerely do not know what to do. I want to scream. I want to cry lava tears, to find some way to vent my fury and frustration, but there is no way. I feel as though I will explode with rage. I know this kind of reaction is both counterproductive and unhealthy, but it happens time after time after time. I despise myself for my stupidity, for my incompetence in doing even the simplest of tasks.

I will get up from my desk to go into the kitchen and somewhere between the two put my glasses down. When I return to the desk, I look for my glasses. They are not there. I retrace my steps from desk to kitchen counter. They are not there. They are not anywhere. How the hell could I manage to lose something in the space of 20 feet? No matter. I do it. Eventually they show up…in my shirt pocket, for example. I didn’t put them in my shirt pocket. I…oh, the hell with it!

I cannot remember from one moment to the next how to do some simple chore on the computer, though I’ve done it hundreds of times before. I do exactly the same thing I’ve always done, and this time it does not work. I cannot read, let alone follow, directions or printed instructions without plunging into the pit when, trying to follow the most elemental of instructions on how to attach Part A to Part B, it will not attach, and absolutely nothing I can do can make it attach.

My cat will walk over my 358-button television remote while I’m watching TV and suddenly the set goes blank. I have absolutely no idea how to get the picture back, or what button/combination of buttons the cat stepped on, and I spend half an hour madly pushing 358 buttons in sequence and in every imaginable combination. No picture. The more buttons I press, the more furious I become, and the more strongly I loathe myself for my inability to solve the problem. Inevitably, I call my friend Gary, who lives in the building next door, and he will drop whatever he is doing to come over. He picks up the remote, taps one button….one button…exactly the same button I myself had pressed 96 times before…and the picture returns. “I did that,” I will say, to which he calmly replies “No, you didn’t. If you did, it would have worked.” How can I possibly respond to that?

The purpose of this blog, if it has a purpose, is to let you know that no matter how inept or incompetent you may feel yourself to be from time to time, I will see you and raise you. And I will win.


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 03, 2014

The Broken Compass

As so often happens when I set off to write a blog, I'll head off in one direction and not only end up nowhere near where I intended to go when I started, and have no idea how I got where I did end up. I seem to have a magic ability to unconsciously segue from one topic to another, and generally don't even realize that my mental compass is broken until I go back to read what I've written. What follows—the blog I'd planned for today—-is a perfect case in point. I realized I had the choice of just chucking the whole thing and starting all over again, or present it exactly as written as an example of how easily I wander off course.

Yesterday, I had occasion to take down my mother’s picture from the wall, and noted that the brown paper backing was in pretty bad shape, so I tore it off and tossed it in the garbage. And just a few minutes ago, when I was putting something else in the garbage can, seeing the torn backing, I realized with a shock that I was sentencing to destruction something that had coexisted with me—granted, all but unnoticed—for 58 years! I had that picture of my mom painted in Naples, Italy, while I was in the Navy. I'd asked her to have a picture taken and send me a copy, and I gave that to a local artist, who did the picture. It was he who had put that brown paper backing on, all those many years ago, and now I was casually dismissing it. I felt guilty, and sad, and experienced that now familiar sadness of another ending so difficult to explain to anyone who has not experienced it themselves.

For the world is passing strange, and all are mad, save thee and me. That I am constantly throwing out these unrelated little thoughts and reminiscences and then wandering off in another direction before I've adequately dealt with them might indicate that the problem may lie not so much in my compass's being broken as in my tendency not to consult it during the journey.  But if I were to stop every few steps and ask myself what these ramblings have to do with anything, I probably would stop writing blogs altogether. I am continually saved from the brink of this decision by getting notes from readers saying they, too, have had experiences and thoughts and feelings similar to my own, and had always felt they were the only one to have them. It appears that life, as my blogs, is made up of tiny things no one else—for reasons I do not understand—seems ever to mention. 

Life is so infinitely complex that we all struggle just to keep up with daily existence—work and family and paying bills and making practical plans for practical things. There seems precious little time for acknowledging the little things; the thoughts and feelings, and sensations that dance around us like the tiny bit of dust in a sunbeam. And in fact, there are many who seem never have time to consider them at all.

We speak and communicate largely in terms of those things widely acknowledged to be shared by most of humanity. But within ourselves we in fact live in a universe of the unspoken—the little things we assume to be unique to ourselves. And the less others speak of them, the more we assume we are alone in feeling/experiencing them. This adds to a sense of alienation, of being outside the norm, I suspect most of us in fact share. 

Conversely, we also seldom consciously acknowledge the little, off-the-radar things which please and delight us, though interestingly I suspect we don't speak of them simply because we automatically assume that what pleases and amuses us pleases and amuses everyone else.

A few minutes ago, for example, I looked out my window to see a garbage truck in the alley with a  decal saying: "Drugs are garbage. Just refuse." I had never in my life made the connection between the word "refuse," as in "reject," and "refuse," as in garbage. Yet they are exactly the same word, with the same root meaning, but with two totally different pronunciations. And while I realize there are any number of similarly-linked though differently-pronounced words in English, I cannot think of a single one now...a clear case of the "tip of my tongue" phenomenon and the perverse nature of my mind in refusing to give me what I’m looking for. I can sense them clearly, dancing just out of the reach of my conscious mind, teasing me. I am quite certain that the instant this blog is posted, they'll all come running happily toward me, arms outstretched like long-lost relatives. 

Now, if you were somehow able to follow all that without a compass, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Sigh.


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, June 30, 2014

Pondering the Imponderable

We humans seem to take a perverse delight in pondering questions for which there are and can be no definitive answers. It's one of the many wonders—and frustrations—of life that we spend so much time and energy on them as we do. Perhaps it is partly because while these questions seem profound in their inability to be answered, anyone can step in with an opinion. And thinking about them can and does serve as a form of old-fashioned razor strop for sharpening the mind. 

Being neither a philosopher nor a scholar, or even particularly bright, doesn't prevent us from thinking about questions which have intrigued our race since we stopped dragging our knuckles on the ground. And an interesting side-effect is that thinking of things beyond our ken can give us insights into just who we are and what makes us tick.

Yesterday, for absolutely no reason I am able to determine, I was thinking of the classic philosophical battle between predestination and free will. I had always been firmly on the side of free will. Predestination—the thought that the outcome of every single choice we make in our lives is predetermined and that we in effect have no control over our destiny—was (and is) both pointless and anathema to me. Some may well take odd comfort in the idea of predestination. We live in a world, after all, in which it seems increasingly clear that we in fact have no control over anything. Going with the idea of predestination is a simple "out" which frees us (no pun intended) from having to even try to change things.

Predestination is a popular biblical theme designed to forestall any blame aimed at organized religion when anything goes wrong. It says, in effect, that we mere mortals needn't worry our pretty little heads about anything: whatever happens was bound to happen no matter what, and since there's not a thing we can do to change it, we have to accept it as part of "God's plan." In other words, God: 1, Humans: 0.

Life is an endless string of choices. Free will says, "Okay, I choose this over that." Predestination says, "Ah, but it was predestined that you'd make the choice you did." This is the equivalent of responding to any statement with, "I knew that!" and challenging whoever made the statement to prove you wrong.

Granted, given that every choice an individual makes is influenced in part by predispositions, past experiences, and the emotional state at the time the decision is made, and that we might have made a different choice under slightly different circumstances, the fact is that we are stuck with whatever decision we did make. Sometimes we could just as easily said "no" instead of "yes." If predestination is removed from the cosmic level...the implication that some unknown forces rule our every action...and simplified to the mere fact that our past predispositions do in fact subtly influence us, I don't think there would be much disagreement; but the choice was still ours and we based it on the circumstances which existed at that moment. 

I look on predestination the way I view the predictions of Nostradamus...which are in fact "predictions in retrospect." ("Oh, yeah, that's what he meant!") Predestination also relieves a lot of personal responsibility and serves as a convenient excuse for anything that doesn't work out the way one wanted/expected them to. ("Oh, it wasn't my fault...it was predestined." Uh-huh.) 

And yet, having said all that, I realized that another of my basic philosophies—that time is an endless Mobius strip on which every nanosecond of time is repeated endlessly—renders the subject of predestination vs free will moot. Everything is, was, and will be without change and without end. We have free will to make whatever decision we choose, but it is the same freely-made choice we have and will freely make throughout eternity.

Debates which are rooted in questions which are humanly impossible to answer are, ultimately, merely interesting exercises in futility. But then it was predestined that I'd say that, wasn't it?

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