Thursday, January 12, 2017

Now Playing

Fairly recently I reestablished contact, after nearly 50 years, with a friend from my grade-school/cub-scout/college days, Ted Bacino. I have often said that the mark of a true friend is the ability, after not having been in contact for years, to effortlessly pick up where it left off. Such is the case with Ted, and I have him to thank for reopening long-closed doors of memory.

We’ve been, for the past couple of exchanges, talking about our home town, Rockford, Illinois, and what we remember of it in the 1940s?1950s. We got to talking of Rockford’s movie theaters, and the nostalgia, for me, is almost palpable.

When we were growing up, Rockford was an industrial town of 90,000; the second largest machine-tool producer in the country, which was a source of civic pride. (Machine tools are the machines that make the parts for other machines.) We had ten movie theaters: The Coronado, Midway, Times, Palace, State, Rex, Capitol, and Rialto, with the post-WWII additions of the Auburn and, in the suburb of Loves Park, the Park. Both the Auburn and the Park were modified Quonset huts.

The Coronado was the city’s flagship movie house in the Grand Dame lush tradition of Movie Palaces.

By far the largest of Rockford’s theaters, it had a Moorish theme, with a grand, red-carpeted staircase sweeping up to the huge balcony. The walls of the auditorium were made to resemble a Moorish town, with small balconied building facades extending out above the seats. The ceiling was painted an evening-sky blue, with stars.

It and its closest rival, The Midway, showed nothing but the biggest, first run movies. The Coronado was on the west side of the Rock River, which cuts the city in half, and the Midway…which had elements of San Simeon in its exterior design…was on the east side, across from the city’s largest hotel and tallest building, the 12-story Faust.

The Times, just a block south of the Coronado, had an art deco facade and, while probably only a third the size of the Coronado or Midway, was one of my favorites. It played the less-than-blockbuster first-runs and occasionally a second run of a popular film which had first played the Coronado or Midway.

We had a vaudeville theater, too: the aptly named Palace. I don’t know what circuit it was on, but I’ve read and heard that Rockford was a really tough town to play and was noted in vaudeville circles for the audience “sitting on its hands.” (When I was growing up, Rockford was at least 75 percent Swedish, a nationality not known for its bubbly good humor.) The Palace had seen much better days by the time I came along, but still had vaudeville shows on weekends, between showings of not-quite-stellar films. Ted reminded me that they even had their own version of the Rockettes: the Palace Theater (pronounced “Thee-A-ter”) Adorables, and the orchestra was under the baton of Paul Walker. You could time it to go in in time for a vaudeville show, sit through the movie, then see another vaudeville.

The State, on the west bank of the Rock River and on State Street, Rockford’s main drag, was actually two buildings. You entered the lobby, then went down a long hallway to the auditorium in the other building. The State was very popular with kids, since it showed lots of westerns, and on weekends featured cliff-hanger serials like “Sheena, the Jungle Princess” and Gene Autry adventures. One of the first times I was allowed to go to the movies by myself, my mom was furious with me when I sat through the film, short subject, newsreel, and cartoon twice without telling her in advance. Hey, I didn’t know I was going to do it!

The other theaters were in a descending order of importance to me, and were largely undistinguished. I don’t think I ever went to the Rex, which was far off the beaten path on the city’s east side, and the Capitol and Rialto, on the west side south of downtown, were within a block of one another and had a reputation for being rather sleazy.

So, you see how a simple mention of just one movie house so many years ago opened up a floodgate of memories? Oh, yes, and next to the Times was a small Caramel-Corn shop. I can still smell it, and both my mouth and my mind water at the memory.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, "Short Circuits," available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Laziness and Priorities

Okay, there are two ways to look at it: either I am incredibly lazy—a lifelong condition—or I simply have a different set of priorities than most. I think I prefer the latter alternative. I have never sufficiently applied myself to anything. My school report cards were often accompanied by notes to my parents to the effect that “Roger could do much better, but he just doesn’t apply himself fully.” In college, I found it much more important to take full advantage of just enjoying the experience than in devoting as much time as I really should have to my studies. I averaged mostly B’s, but probably could have upped several of those to A’s if I had, as they say, applied the seat of my pants to the seat of a chair more diligently.

When I became a Naval Aviation Cadet, this tendency nearly got me killed on more than one occasion. On one night-flying exercise, several planes were sent up at the same time to practice formation flying. We were instructed to climb at a certain set speed, and to descend at another set but different speed in order to keep an exact distance between planes. I promptly forgot which was which and descended far more rapidly than I should have—a fact I did not realize until I saw the wingtip lights of the plane descending directly ahead of me getting larger and larger, faster and faster. I pushed the control stick sharply forward, and looked up to see the plane which was supposed to be ahead of me soaring directly over my head. I pulled back the throttle to slow down, and managed to get back into my proper position, but it scared the hell out of me, and rightly so.

I waste an inordinate amount of time going back to check things which I should easily have remembered. I’m copying a list of numbers, say, from one window on my computer to another. 5, 15, 31, 12, say. I look at them carefully and say them over as I look at them: 5, 15, 31, 12. I close out that window and go to the new window where I want to type in the numbers. 5, 15, 44, uh.... Back to the first window. 5, 15, 31, 12…5, 15, 31, 12…5, 15, 31, 12. Back to the window I want to put them. It’s been all of, what, three seconds? 5, 15,...uh....
The principle of “Speak/act first, think later” seems, unfortunately, to have become my mantra. I don’t know how many times I have had to go back to apologize for, clarify, or correct something I got wrong the first (and often a second or third) time. I know, I know…if I took the time to get it right the first time, I wouldn’t have to go back and redo it time after time. Sort of like being a “born again” Christian…once should have been enough.

I like to think…I hope…it is simply a matter of priorities. I suspect my mind is always asking itself: “How really important is this in the scheme of things?” and the answer is more often than not “Not very.” Memorizing numbers certainly isn’t that high on my list of important things. Nor is making my bed, or dusting, or putting things away if there is a chance that I might be using them again in the next week or so. There are far more important things to do, like writing books and blogs and gathering acorns for the coming winter.

I tell you this because I am quite sure I am the only human being in the history of the world to have experienced this annoying-to-infuriating condition, and there is a strong streak of perversity and need for self-flagellation in my character, and I have always hastened to lay out my flaws and imperfections before anyone else has a chance to do it for me.

Be grateful you have none.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Unforgiving, Follow-up

Even as I wrote the blog about the little man in the coffee shop, I was aware that many years ago I’d written a poem along the same lines, and was embarrassed, on looking it up and re-reading it, by the fact that I expressed exactly the same disappointment with myself both times, and that despite all the years between, I hadn’t changed.

I hope I’m not risking turning you away with another poem, but I think it complements the earlier blog, and points out our…well, at least my…tendency toward self-delusion when it comes to a desire to change:



She Might Have Been a Statue

She might have been a statue
as she stood there with her dog.
She gave no note as sunbeams
swept away the morning fog.
In her hand, a battered cup;
on her ragged dress a sign
which underscored the obvious:
it simply said “I’m blind.”
I watched the people passing by
as if she wasn’t there;
a sea of stylish outfits
and salon-sculpted hair.
She stood alone, impassive,
lost in some private dream;
an unseen, unseeing island
in a roiling, rushing stream.
And though the street was noisy,
I felt that I could tell
the sound of one coin in her cup
as clearly as a bell.
At last she signaled to her dog,
and they slowly moved away.
It seemed we’d both been on that street
much longer than a day.
I was overcome with anger:
I could not fathom why
no one had stopped to help her—
but neither, then, had I.
I don’t think I’m uncaring;
I hope I’m not unkind.
But one need not be sightless
to be completely blind.
And something deep inside me
was glad she could not see
how totally ashamed I was:
not of her, of me.
I took it as a lesson
from which I learned one fact:
it’s not enough to empathize,
one also has to act.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Unforgiving

[This is a repost of one of Dorien's blogs, but it seemed appropriate for the season.       -Gary]

My friend Gary and I went to a local coffee shop/bakery this morning. Standing in line by the glassed-in pastry counter, I was aware that the little old man behind me…unshaven, knit stocking cap pulled low on his head, long, shapeless brown overcoat…was making circular motions with one hand in front of the glass partition, saying “strawberry shortcake!” “Cinnamon buns!” I assumed he was talking to someone, but he was alone.

“Soup,” he said. “Soup, soup, soup. I’ll have soup.”
I didn’t turn to look at him, but couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t talking to me. I didn’t want to say anything unless I was sure. When I got to the cashier, a kid I know, I commented that he was lucky to be working inside, because it was cold outside.

“Yes, cold,” the little man said. I still didn’t know if he was talking to me, and felt like perhaps I should have said something to acknowledge him. But I didn’t.

When we sat down, the little man took a table near us, with his bowl of soup and the crust of French bread that comes with it. Head down, he ate quietly and quickly, not removing his coat.

A few minutes later he got up to leave and, as he passed our table, he paused. Neither Gary nor I said anything or even looked up at him. He moved on, and Gary, who was facing the front of the shop, said he paused at each table as he passed it.

I at first assumed that the man was one of the far-too-many sadly dysfunctional people who flow along the city’s streets like twigs and leaves and Styrofoam cups float along a swollen creek; the invisible people no one sees, or pretend they don’t see. He may well have been. But it suddenly struck me that perhaps he was simply hoping someone might say hello to him, or somehow acknowledge his existence, and I was literally overcome with sadness and guilt that I, too, had totally ignored him.

When I told Gary how I felt, he said, logically, that to engage people whose looks and/or behavior strike a jarring note in the orchestra of our daily life was to risk…something: awkwardness? An unpleasant confrontation? The fact is that we simply do not know how to react to people who stand out as being uncomfortably different from ourselves and those we are used to having around us.

So rather than risk discomforting and embarrassing ourselves, we pretend they don’t exist. We tell ourselves, often with complete justification, that the panhandlers we see on the street could get a job if they wanted one, or that if we give them any money, they’ll just spend it on booze or cigarettes or drugs, and probably nine times out of ten, we are right. But what of the tenth person; the one who really does need our help. How can we tell the difference?

I have nothing but contempt for those who impose on others out of laziness or a desire to get something for nothing, or who deliberately try to take advantage of people’s goodness, or will do nothing to help themselves. They should be ashamed of themselves, but of course are not. And they deprive those who really need a little kindness or assistance of either.

I don’t know anything about the little old man in the coffee shop, or what his story might be, or if he was talking to himself or perhaps to me in hopes that I might say something to him and make him feel as though he were visible. But I am nevertheless deeply ashamed of myself.

Why does this sort of thing bother me so? And why am I so relentlessly unforgiving of myself for not being who I think I should be? And the next time I encounter a similar situation, will I react any differently? I would like to think so, but, sadly, I doubt it.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Mind's Eye

We humans have two sets of eyes: the ones through which we view and interpret the physical world around us, and what we refer to with more accuracy than we usually acknowledge as “the mind’s eye.”

I take a childlike delight in looking at the world as some gigantic optical illusion, appearing to be one thing when viewed from one perspective and something totally different with just the slightest shift of focus. (Think of the classic drawing of the profile of the beautiful young woman in a stole which, with just a minor shift of the eye and mind, becomes an old hag in a scarf; of the one of another beautiful woman seated at her vanity, looking into a mirror which suddenly shifts to a skull.)

I’ve always held that there is a considerable difference between being “childlike” and “childish.” Anyone who has not lost the wonderful ability to “pretend” (and if you have, I feel truly sorry for you!) should try it, just as an exercise for the mind, and for the sake of finding new wonder in the ordinary. It’s easy enough to do. Start by just staring intently at a familiar object—the palm of your own hand, for example—as though you had never seen it before. Soon, if you concentrate hard enough, you realize you haven’t really seen it before, and the sensation is rather like being a space traveler discovering a new planet and a new species. Granted, this analogy may be a bit easier for me, since I’ve always felt like an outsider, and have always lived outside mainstream.

There are eyes of the mind as surely as there are the physical eyes in one’s head, yet we too often go through life with our mental eyes closed.

The next time you are in proximity to a baby, don’t just look at it; really look at it. Look closely at those tiny, perfect fingers and toes, that flawless satin skin, the brightness and wonder of the eyes, that indescribable scent as unique to babies as a new-car smell is to cars just off the showroom floor.

Looking out my window at the tall buildings lining Lake Michigan this morning, struck me once again how the city of Chicago is an endless source of wonder. Its skyline of towers, especially seen from the lakefront, is as awe-inspiring as the Emerald City of Oz. I still, when standing on the platform watching the arrival of an el train, am awed by it. A train, 30 feet above the ground, running through the heart of a city of millions of people! And the vast majority of local residents take it all totally for granted, and never give it a single thought. Returning to Chicago after a 40 year absence has given me a new appreciation for it, and seeing it through the eyes of newcomers or visitors is always a source of delight. Yet all cities are wondrous in ways their residents rarely appreciate.

I was having coffee with friends last year on one of Chicago’s main north-side arteries, Broadway, as a city truck drove by, stopping at every lamppost to install alternating American and Rainbow flags in preparation for the upcoming Gay Pride parade. When I first lived in Chicago, there was no such thing as a gay pride parade; the very concept that we could or should be proud was all but inconceivable. We were routinely harassed, discriminated against, and ignored by local government. Now the city actively participates in what is now its second largest annual parade, attracting in excess of a quarter million people of all orientations. No elected city or state official hoping for reelection would miss being seen participating in it. Every time I see the Rainbow flag it arouses the same type of emotional response in me as the American flag, and I am truly grateful not only to live in America, but to be a member of a community which is finally emerging into the full sunlight from centuries of fear and discrimination. How many others see it that way? To most, even to many gays, it’s just a parade.

Life, as they say, is too much with us. We find ourselves far too preoccupied with the familiar routines of just getting through the day, doing what must be done. But routines too often wear ruts in our soul. And by doing the same thing day after day we risk becoming no different than cows taking the same path through a field, eventually trampling a path whereon nothing can grow. But we’re not cows, and there is nothing at all to keep us, even busy as we are, from taking a moment to open our mind’s eyes to the world around us.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Monday, December 12, 2016

Ice Cream Social

My apartment building is holding an ice cream social today. Oh, dear Lord! Did my parents, Mom then 24 and Dad 22, realize on that long-ago November day, that their beloved and newly born son would one day be living in a subsidized senior apartment complex which holds ice cream socials for its residents? Is that the extent of the dreams they had for me? Is that the extent of the dreams I had for myself?

And please don’t fret: this isn’t going to be a long, lugubrious trek through the dark, impenetrable jungles of self pity. You’ll not hear the plaintive call of the exotic Poor-Poor-Me, or the haunting, far-off cry of the Oh,Woe echoing through the thick foliage.

In truth, I’m rather bemused by the whole situation, and the only real negative in it all is the realization of just what a snob I am. I do not attend building ice cream socials, or the occasional bingo game, or join in the bus excursions to various gambling casinos in nearby northern Indiana. I pass among the little old men and little old women in the lobby and in the halls, and I have absolutely nothing at all in common with them. I surely am not as old as they, or as infirm. I hold my head up high (figuratively, of course, since I can’t actually lift it high enough to see the floor indicator above the elevators). I am better than they, somehow (please do not ask for a detailed list of “how”…just take my word for it).
But I do have one great advantage over most of my aging peers, in that I, in a very real (to me) sense, am able to and do live in two worlds: the world in which my body is trapped and suffers the indignities of aging…over which I have relatively little control…and the world of my books, which provide me with a great deal of comfort and pleasure. And I can and do move freely between them. When one proves troublesome, I can quickly step into the other.

This arrangement is particularly valuable as the years pile up, since the world of writing is not subject to the same immutable rules as the world of the body. But, as with most things, there is a danger…one I increasingly realize…of retreating too far into my inner world.

A group of friends meets every day at a coffee shop a mile or so away, which provides good exercise in the walk, and I go more often than I normally would because my friend Gary, who lives in my building, enjoys it so. But my problem is that, aside from the fact that I really drink coffee more out of habit than true desire, I find that I have little or nothing at all to contribute to the conversation…which generally revolves around opera, in which I have an astonishing lack of interest. Still, I feel mildly uncomfortable with the fact that I do not have much to say in groups of any kind. I prefer to come home and write, which I realize only accelerates the withdrawal process a lot of people tend to go through as the years progress.

So, between paragraphs, I returned from coffee with the gang, and actually did say a bit more than usual, possibly because the conversation was not limited to opera. So perhaps all is not lost.

But I did not go to the ice cream social.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com:

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Pebbles

I live within a mile of Lake Michigan now, and it is a very pleasant lake. But it always strikes me, somehow, as being…well, almost subdued compared to the majesty of Lake Superior, only 17 miles from my former home in northern Wisconsin. I used to love spending hours walking along its deserted beaches, where you can sometimes go for literally hours without seeing another human being.

The first impression I always got, when standing on the shore within a few feet of the water on a bright summer day, was of blue: the incredibly intense blue sky dotted with cotton-ball clouds. Beneath the blue of the sky, the darker blue of the water, flecked with whitecaps and the white wings of wave-skimming seagulls and an occasional white triangle of a passing sailboat. And every now and then, where the sky met the water, I would see the small dark smudge of smoke from a cargo ship far off over the horizon.

But the shore held its own, more immediate fascination. Superior is not a sandy-shored lake, for the most part. It is more pebbles and small rocks of every shape, size, and color, almost all rounded or smoothed from countless years/centuries/aeons of shifting against and around one another. I wondered, if they could think and speak, what they would talk of.

Of course I was never able to walk along the shore without returning home with pockets laden with pebble-treasure picked up along my walk. Agates, conglomerates, striped, marbled, some with fascinating holes drilled into and sometimes through them. Had a large wave come along and swept me out into the depths of the lake I would surely have drowned, weighted down as I was. I still have a few jars of Lake Superior stones kept in water-filled jars because water brings out their color.

And each pebble, each stone, I passed, seen or unseen, was different from the millions upon millions around it. Even those with nothing to immediately draw the eye were unique…much like people. Like pebbles, most people are ordinary, indistinguishable, at first glance, from the millions around them. And like the pebbles, many are attractive, a few are beautiful, and some are nearly breathtaking. It is, of course, the most beautiful that get picked up and taken home.

There are more pebbles along a quarter-mile of Lake Superior beach than there are all the people who have ever lived since the dawn of time.

And for every pebble on all the beaches of the world, there are a million grains of sand.
And yet there are more stars in the sky than there are grains of sand on all the beaches and all the deserts on the earth.

I think about that as I, one man, unique among all others, wander along the beach under the vast blue sky and bend down to pick up one more shiny pebble.
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This blog is from Dorien's ebook of blogs, Short Circuits, available from UntreedReads.com and Amazon.com; it's also available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible.com: