Monday, May 21, 2007

The Lake

Mom and Dad at the Lake, circa 1965

We began going to Lake Koshkonong in southern Wisconsin, about 70 miles from our home in Rockford, sometime during World War II. Some friends of my parents from the Moose Club, the Olsons, had a cottage there which they rented out. We subsequently began spending our summer vacations there, in a small compound of four lakeside cottages all owned by people from Rockford

Lake Koshkonong is formed by the Rock River. It is about 2 miles wide and 9 miles long and very shallow…perhaps 20 feet deep at its very deepest point. We could wade out from in front of the cottage for a good block and a half without the water reaching our shoulders (and I was not very tall at the time). The bottom was also very, very muddy, and the water was muddy brown.

It could also be deadly. Being so shallow, the winds could quickly whip it into a froth of whitecaps. The last cottage in the row of four belonged to the Skinner family, whom we knew well. One evening, they and a group of friends decided to go across the lake for a fish fry. Nine people crowded into the 16-foot boat, and on the way back the winds rose, the boat was swamped, and seven of the passengers drowned. Their cottage was sold shortly thereafter to the Fines, a very nice elderly couple from Chicago.

When the cottage between the Olsons and the Fines also went up for sale, my parents bought it. It was small…only two small bedrooms…but it was jerry-built pleasant and had a lovely curved stone fireplace. The people who built the place had carefully gone all around the lake collecting different colored stones for it. And somewhere along the way, someone then painted it white.

While I was in college, my “gang” of friends would frequently come up for weekends, during which we’d sing college songs all the way up and back, water ski and sunbathe during the day while we were there, and play charades, cards, and board games at night. And thinking of those days as I write, I feel the sweet ache of intense nostalgia.

One of these weekend excursions was during rehearsals for a play, and several of the cast members came up, ostensibly to rehearse our lines. When we returned, David, one of the guys who couldn’t make it asked how it went, and with the spontaneity of college kids, a tale developed—with each of us who’d gone contributing a piece of the story—of a weekend from hell. My parents, David was told, were religious fanatics of the most fundamental sort. My mother, he was told, had spent the entire weekend doing nothing but quoting scripture and tatting an altar cloth. My father had insisted on loading us all into our boat and taking us around the lake to distribute religious pamphlets. It wasn’t fair to David, of course, but it was great fun.

My parents came down for the play the closing night, and I told David that I wanted to be sure he met them, though he was less than thrilled by the prospect. Just before curtain, one of the girls who had been up for the “weekend from hell” came in to the dressing room to report that she’d looked out into the audience and that my parents were there. “Your dad must really be mellowing,” she said. “He’s not wearing black.”

After the show there was a cast party to which friends and family were invited. Dad was, by pure coincidence, wearing a dark grey suit. I’d told him of the story we had given David, and the first chance I got, I went to bring David over to meet him. Poor David had been totally traumatized by this point and didn’t know what to expect, but he reluctantly came along.

“David,” I began, “This is my father…,” at which point my dad, poker faced, raised his hand in benediction and said solemnly “Peace, David.”

It is one of my fondest memories of my college career.

I miss my dad.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

His Eye is on the Sparrow

Anyone’s death saddens me, but I fear some sadden me less than others. The death of Jerry Falwell is a case in point. I was frankly amazed to think he managed to live as long as he did without a brain, heart, soul, or conscience.

Mr. Falwell fell into the class of individuals who truly terrify me: those who dare to presume to speak for God. And that so many good, decent people sincerely believed every word the man uttered saddened and depressed me more than I can possibly say. (I was surprised to learn, via Mr. Falwell, that I was largely responsible for the deaths of everyone on September 11, 2001, that I live a depraved, ungodly lifestyle...that I am an abomination in the eyes of God. On reflection it is quite probably this still-widespread notion among many fundamentalist religions that is the reason I am an Agnostic. How can I believe in a God who does not believe in me?

I truly consider myself to be a fair, honest, and decent human being; only one of more than 20 million other fair, honest, and decent members of the gay community, which has been one of Mr. Falwell’s primary targets throughout the years. He continually issued moral judgements,declaring--with no logic or basis in fact--us to be depraved, sinful, and generally unworthy. He was, in my opinion—and yours may well vary—the very worst type of bigot: one who preached intolerance, bigotry, and hatred while claiming to be a Christian. As so many people have pointed out, his Moral Majority was neither. How he or his followers could possibly justify such basic tenets of Christianity as love, the Golden Rule, casting stones, or judging others with the venomous intolerance which was Falwell’s stock in trade is beyond me.

The shortest paragraph in the bible is “Jesus wept.” And I truly believe that would have been Jesus's reaction to Mr. Falwell’s usurping and distortion of His message.

Even though I am, as I said, Agnostic, I do hope there might be a heaven so that, upon arrival there, Mr. Falwell would find exactly the “welcome” he so richly deserves. I’d love to see the look on his face.

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Monday, May 14, 2007


Nick never knew his father, though his drug-addict mother named her son after him. His name was Nicholas, and the fact that she deliberately misspelled her son’s name as “Nickless” was only the first indication of his fate.

While still very young, he was taken from his mother and placed in the Foster Care system, where he was passed from foster home to foster home like a bowl of potato salad at a picnic. His last ten years in the system was spent with a former marine drill sergeant who continually sexually abused him.

Whether he aged out of the system or ran away is not clear, but he wound up basically on the streets. No real education, no idea of how to behave in the society to which most of us belong and take totally for granted, he drifted. His few friends tended to be other lost souls like himself who simply existed in any way they could.

He was, not surprisingly, frequently in trouble with the law.

I was living in northern Wisconsin when I met Nick through a friend from Milwaukee, who had picked Nick up one evening while hitchhiking. Nick was living with a fellow lost soul he referred to as his “brother,” and the “brother”’s girlfriend. They spent their time smoking pot and dreaming the dreams of the lost.

He did whatever it took to survive, and worked at menial jobs wherever and whenever he could, but never for very long at any one place. And of course when each job ended, it was never his responsibility. Responsibility was not a word in Nick’s vocabulary.

My friend took Nick under his wing and asked if Nick might stay with me for a while, to try to break him free of those chains to his past, and I agreed.

Nick was around 23 at the time; a tall, handsome and basically good young man who, like an abused animal, trusted no one, and his entire life experience had proven him correct. But of all the things that had been denied him, from the day he was born, the greatest by far was the feeling of being loved for anything but his body. He revealed himself only through his drawings, which he kept in a tattered notebook. He carried a sheathed knife in his belt and it was with him everywhere. When I arranged for him to apply for a job at a local supermarket, he wore the knife. He did not get the job.

Even in a small area like the one in which I lived, he managed to find others like those he had left behind in Milwaukee and soon got into the pot habit—it was, after all, a form of escape from a world he simply could not relate to and did not understand.

On the verge of being arrested yet again, Nick returned to Milwaukee…where he subsequently was jailed yet again. With absolutely no other realistic options, and without far more help than is available, Nick defines the term “lost soul.” He is so deep into the dark forest that I fear he will never find his way out.

When I think of Nick, and of what he could have been had someone…anyone…taken the time to care for him, to love him as any child should be loved…my heart truly aches

I wrote a poem about Nick, called “The Broken Child.” If you might be interested in seeing it, just drop me a note.

So why have I told you about Nick? Simply because those of us blessed with all the things of which Nick was deprived simply do not comprehend just how fortunate we are. We too often are so consumed with our own petty problems that we cannot appreciate what we have.

Nick is the candle I hold up in the darkness of my own self-absorption. I hope he can somehow, someday, find his own light.

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Friday, May 11, 2007


The shore of Lake Superior is magnificent in summer…endless miles of pebbly beach where one can walk for hours without seeing another person. But on a warm summer’s day with no wind, there is a reason why there are no people. To walk there then is to guarantee being enveloped in a literal cloud of tiny, swarming insects I assume are gnats. The locals call them “noseeums”. And their effect can be maddening.

Problems are like noseeums. One or two at a time and they can be shooed away with relative ease. We all have them, all the time

But today is a Lake Superior lakeshore day. Why, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

My friend Norman is being released from the hospital today and, to save the $400-plus expense of ambulance transportation, it was agreed that I could pick him up and take him from the hospital to the nursing facility where he’ll remain during the period covered by Medicare post-hospitalization recovery period.

But in order to let me transport him, he needs the oxygen tank from his apartment, which I arranged to pick up this morning before going to get him.

At 8:30 last night he called to say that they needed the oxygen tank immediately, in order to be able to check it out. I hate going out at night because I am never sure of being able to find a parking place when I return. But having little choice, I went down to my building’s parking lot to get into my car.

But my car was not there. I was positive I’d left it there, though on rare occasions I will leave it for up to a day on the street. But I was positive I’d parked in the lot, and even remembered where. It was not there. I walked up and down the entire lot three times, then walked up and down the street in front of my building another two times. No car.

I called the police to report it stolen. Not having driven it in over a week, I had no idea when it could have been taken. They asked for my license plate number, which of course I could not remember (I’m very good about forgetting things under pressure). I looked everywhere through all my papers for the plate number and finally found it. I was told the car had been towed.

Since I have a parking sticker, I could only imagine I had somehow parked it on the street. Surely they would not have taken a stickered car from a sticker-required lot.

So this morning, first thing, I began trying to find out exactly where my car was and how I could get it. I made no fewer than seven phone calls. The police gave me a number. I called it. They did not have the car. They gave me another number. I called it. They did not have the car. They gave me a number. I called it........well, you get the idea.

Finally…finally…I found it, in a city impound lot so far away from where I live I was surprised that it is still in the City of Chicago. To get there by public transportation will take well over an hour, I”m sure.

When I called Norm last night to tell him I’d be unable to pick him up today, he suggested I go and get his car, which has serious front-end-wobble problems.

So now, when I finish typing this gnat-filled note, I shall take the elevated over to Norm’s condo (half hour plus), get his car and his oxygen tank, go to the hospital (fifteen minutes), wait until they officially release him (half-hour to an hour, probably), take him to the nursing home (20 minutes), return his car to his condo (25 minutes), take the Red Line downtown to the Blue Line, get off at Western and take “a bus”–they didn’t specify which one–to the impound lot, where I shall hand them $275, eyes welling with tears of gratitude that they don't charge--as they well could(who could stop them?)--$1,400, and they, with luck, will hand me my car.

On pondering why they had towed my stickered car from the sticker-required parking lot, the only thing I can think of is that the stickers might have an expiration date…something, of course, no one ever bothered to tell me.

Oh, the fun we have.

They’re just gnats, and they’ll all be gone tomorrow. But for right now…

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Whenever I make the mistake of turning my back on my mind for ten seconds, it inevitably goes running off wildly in all directions.

I was waiting for a bus the other day when a very short, balding little man with a horseshoe of white hair around his pate and an absolutely huge pot belly walked past carrying a briefcase. My immediate thought was: “I am May-or of the Munch-kin Cit-ty”. Go figure.

From there I for absolutely no reason thought of a place called “Preview House” in Los Angeles. People would stand out on busy street corners and offer you free tickets to see and rate TV pilots. I made the mistake of taking one.

Preview House was a very nice theater, with each seat having a small hand-held control unit with a dial and ten numbers, with which we were to record our reactions. Once everyone was seated,, an unctuously hale-fellows-well-met M.C. (or whatever it was he was supposed to be) appeared on the small stage in front of the screen to welcome us and say that we would be seeing two prospective pilots on which the networks would like potential audience reaction before scheduling them in prime time. To enhance the verisimilitude of the TV-watching experience, he advised us they’d also be showing some new commercials as well, and that we should rate them also. He gave us detailed instructions on dial-turning, which he apparently assumed most members of the audience would find difficult to grasp. The houselights dimmed and, the commercials began. Lots of commercials: it seemed like ten or twelve of them, and we all duly rated each one. Finally the first promised TV pilot began.

It was obvious from ten seconds in that this was not only the most God-awful television program ever recorded but that it had, in fact, been recorded some ten to fifteen years earlier. But there were the requisite “commercial breaks” for another endless string of commercials. I was amazed that no one got up and left the theater after the first fifteen minutes of the show. I guess, like me, they were thinking the second pilot would be better.

If possible, the second show was even a greater stinker than the first. At last it was over, and I and everyone else rose in great relief. But the M.C. hurried back on the small stage looking distraught, and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I am horribly sorry to tell you this, but there was some malfunction with the equipment recording reactions to the commercials, and we’ve lost it all. We feel terrible about this, but could I please implore you to watch them again?”

I suspect that the doors were locked had anyone actually tried to leave, but the guy was so very sincere and gave the impression that if anyone didn’t want to help him out, here, he might well lose his job. So we all sat back down, watched the 30 or so commercials again, and re-entered our reactions to each one.

Thanking us profusely for our cooperation, the M.C. bid us a good night.

Six months later, a friend who had never experienced the joys of Preview House said “Hey! I got us free tickets to Preview House! Let’s go!” So, against my better judgement, I went.

Need I tell you that we were treated to exactly the same execrable pilots, though of course the commercials were different. When it ended, everyone started to get up, but I did not. I knew what was coming. The M.C. appeared and said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m horribly sorry to tell you this, but....”

For you see, boys and girls, the entire purpose of Preview House was to help advertisers determine which commercials worked and which didn’t. And by forcing us to sit through them twice, they were able to tell whether our opinion of the product being touted may have changed...hopefully improved by seeing it more than once.

I gave each commercial the lowest possible rating the second time around. I don’t think they cared.

I never went back to Preview House, but if you ever get to Los Angeles, watch for someone on the street passing out free tickets.

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