Friday, March 28, 2008

Dust Bunnies

While standing in line waiting to be born, I was issued the standard grab bag of talents and traits given to all those about ready to enter the world. On opening it, I found devastating good looks, a rapier wit, rock-solid self confidence, and infinite patience. Since I hadn’t been born yet, I had no idea of what use these things could possibly be, so I traded them to the kid behind me for a peanut butter sandwich.

Patience, one of the virtues I subsequently never had, is a great asset for anyone, and particularly for a writer. But it has always been terra incognita for me. I can’t go two hours without getting antsy to get to the computer to write. Far too often, what I do write when I get there is not what I hoped/intended to write, and I don’t have the patience to make it so. I ramble on (really? I’m sure you never noticed!) and the result ends up resembling the contents of a vacuum cleaner bag. Let’s face it, folks…I write the equivalent of dust bunnies.

Just as there is a difference between having no luck and being unlucky, there is a difference between having no patience and being impatient. Writing a book is somewhat different from writing a blog in that books by their very nature and length demand more time. But the impatience factor is always there. When I am writing a book, I can't wait to get to the next page to see what will happen next. When I finish writing a book, I can't wait to get started on the next one. And the waiting period between sending the finished book off to the publisher and seeing it in print never fails to drive me to distraction.

Lately this has become a major problem for me, since I currently have three (count 'em...3!) completed manuscripts sitting in the publisher's pipeline waiting for release. That I am not the only pony in the publisher’s stable, or that they are working as fast as they can, means absolutely nothing to me. The book is written. I want a printed copy in my hand, now.

Partly because of wanting to avoid even thinking about my impatience with my publisher, and loath to do what I should be doing—working on my current book—because to do so would just add another log into the already existing logjam, I keep busy vacuuming these little dust bunnies from the many corners of my mind.

And dust bunnies beget dust bunnies. I am constantly bemused as to why I am so driven to capture and preserve them. Who, after all, can really be expected to care, other than me? If I were able to put down every single second of my life, who, after all, would have the time to read it, even if they had the desire to do so?

I guess it all stems from and goes back to the keystone of my psyche: my desperation not to be forgotten…not to be just another weathered tombstone in the incomprehensibly vast cemetery of time. So I gather me dust bunnies while I may, for old time is still a’flying, and hope that someone, somewhere, might see in them a vague likeness of themselves, and wonder who this strange man may have been.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Spelunker's Rope

Cave explorers often tie themselves to a rope affixed near the entrance to keep themselves from becoming lost or disoriented as they move deeper into the unknown. I’ve always done essentially the same thing, except that my rope is a string of belongings which anchor me to the past and keep me from feeling too alone or afraid of the dark.

Aside from large framed photos of my grandmother, grandfather, uncle Buck, and a painting of my mom I had done in Naples (that one’s a double-link: to my mom and to my Navy days), there is a large framed picture of mom when she was around 2 years old. The glass was broken when I moved to Chicago, but I still keep the picture behind the sofa, planning to have the glass replaced one day. I have no wall space to hang it, but....

In my living room I have a comfortable chair which my mom bought when she moved to California in 1970, plus two wooden end tables she got at the same time. They came as an unfinished kit, so she varnished them and put them together herself.

In my bedroom is a dresser Norm and I bought at Goodwill and refinished shortly after we moved in together in 1958. On the wall directly beside me as I write is a copy of a large Etruscan fresco I bought around the same time.

I have pocket watches belonging to my grandmother and grandfather, a cocoa set belonging to my grandmother, a 100-plus-year-old fruit bowl belonging to my step grandmother, my mom’s set of Fostoria crystal goblets, a set of cordial glasses she bought in the 1930s, a small carved wooden head Dad bought for Mom while we were in Hawaii in 1960; two carved wooden buddhas I bought for Dad in Gibraltar; a beautiful fired clay head made by a hustler friend of my dear friend "Uncle Bob" from Los Angeles..... I have a pair of sweat pants with “Margason” stenciled across the rear end from my NavCad days, and a monogrammed vermouth glass I stole from the Istanbul Hilton hotel. And near my bed are two small Chinese figurines I hand painted while I was in high school, and stuffed animals from my days with Ray. (Hmmm...does the word “obsessive” ring a bell?)

I’m sure many people view all this as foolish. That’s their right. My right is to ignore them. Everything I have has a history and a story which tie me to it and therefore to the past, and I find great comfort in that.

I know there are entire philosophies which believe putting too much importance on “things” is unhealthy, not to mention extremely cumbersome and confining. I suppose they have a valid point.

My dear Uncle Bob, in his later years, held to this philosophy that having nothing is the key to true freedom---which is one of the reasons he gave me the sculpted head mentioned above. I always stood in something akin to awe of Uncle Bob, but while I could respect his belief, and others who share it, it is totally incomprehensible to me. He often would say “Well, Roggie, when you’re dead it won’t matter, will it?” And he had an indisputable point. But I ain’t dead yet.

Oh, look: there’s that fossilized snail shell I found while walking along a railroad track in Chatsworth, California. I was working with Keith and Iris at the porn mill at the time, and I just decided to go out for a while during lunch. And…


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Monday, March 24, 2008


There I am...right there!…standing on the left wing of a bright yellow U.S. Navy SN-J trainer (number 233) in my brown one-piece flight suit, watching a sailor in a whitehat and blue workshirt with the sleeves rolled up fill the plane’s tank with aviation fuel. When he’s done, I bend down to put the cap on the tank, then climb into the cockpit. My instructor joins me, sitting in the seat behind me. I start the engine, taxi down the runway, and the buddy to whom I’d given my camera catches me taking off.

And there I am…right there!…see?…in my dress blues standing under a row of bougainvillea in downtown Pensacola, hands on hips, staring into the camera.

And there, wrapped in a towel with my NavCad friend Harry Harrison on Pensacola Beach. We went out for pizza and beer later, and the jukebox was playing “Unchained Melody” and to this day I cannot hear that song without being there again.

And I had absolutely no idea, at the instant those films were shot, of what I would be doing twenty minutes from that time, let alone that I would be watching them 56 years later with a sense of longing so palpable my chest actually aches.

The occasion for this almost dizzying tidal wave of nostalgia was the viewing of a DVD I just had made from a VCR, which was in turn taken from 8 mm movies of my time in the Navy. And the longing is mixed with the agony of the fact that I did not realize at the time just how beautiful (relatively, of course) I was, or that I would not always be so young.

I don’t think I have ever met anyone more obsessed with time than I. It’s inexplicable, really and the fact that I truly believe that every nanosecond of time is still there, somewhere, and that we relive them time after time after time, on some endless cosmic loop. So that should give me comfort. But it doesn’t. I want to be there on the wing of that plane, and under that bougainvillea and on that beach with Harry NOW!The fact that I am, somewhere, doesn’t help me at this instant.

A recent blog entry centered on the Seven Deadly Sins, and right now I am totally consumed with Greed…greed for what I once had and no longer have; a greed so consuming that even the belief that time is constantly repeating doesn’t help.

It’s sort of like being on a roller coaster ride. Even knowing that I will be riding the same coaster again and again throughout eternity doesn’t prevent me from being aware that this ride is inexorably coming to an end. I don’t want it to end but I am not quite so foolish as to think that stomping my feet and pouting will push that end one inch or one second further ahead than it is fated to be.

Though I know full well I won’t, I’ll just have to learn to settle back, enjoy however much of the ride remains to me, and know that somewhere, sometime, somehow, I am stepping yet again onto this roller coaster just as I stepped onto the wing of that plane so very many years ago.

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Friday, March 21, 2008

Seven out of Seven

I was checking out the Seven Deadly Sins this morning—I hope you know me well enough by now that you know better than to ask where that came from—to see if they are listed any particular order of sinfulness. Apparently they are not. However, I was a bit surprised—its having been so long since I last checked them out—to find that I am or have been at one time or another, guilty of every one of them.

In case you might have forgotten, they are: lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, anger, envy, and pride.

Lust? Oh, my, yes. The problem with lust is that it is best when reciprocated, and the passing years tend to rob one of the chance for reciprocity. Every time I see a beautiful guy, my chest still aches with longing, but the only result is frustration.

Greed? Yep. I am, as noted several times in these blogs, insatiably greedy for approval and praise. But again, greed is one of those things that tends to be tempered by reality over time. I am always greedy for more money, but know that’s not likely to happen. So I can deal with greed fairly well by simply ignoring it.

Gluttony? Once, but no more. I always associated gluttony with greed, and in a way they are related, but gluttony is limited to food, but my bout with cancer effectively robbed me of both the desire (nothing tastes the same, and certainly not as good) and the ability to eat nearly enough to qualify for gluttony.

Sloth? Alas, yes. If procrastination is a form of sloth, it’s pretty high up on my list. I’m really very good at finding a million things to keep me from doing what I should be doing.

Anger? Uh, if you’ve read any of these entries I think it’s fairly obvious that I am totally at the mercy of this particular sin. I have turned anger into something of an art form, and often go beyond mere anger into outright rage and fury over far more things than I should. But until the world is what I want and expect it to be, I don’t see any improvement in my anger management abilities.

Envy? This is the one of which I am probably most embarrassed. (I actually take a perverse pride…coming up…in some of the other sins). Just as I frequently ache with lust for the unattainable, I far too often ache with envy over what others have/do that I do not. I do not read nearly as much as I should because I become so terribly envious at how well other writers write. I slide into the bottomless depths of envy and despair when I see people with incredible talent in any field, and when that talent is compounded with beauty, as it is in singer/actor John Barrowman and far too many others to count, the ache matches and possibly even surpasses that created by lust.

Pride? This is a strange one, for when it comes to pride it is so often and thoroughly mixed in with self deprecation, insecurity, and a dash of greed, that it’s like a blender set on “puree”. But the fact is that I am extremely prideful. I have formed my own concepts of dignity and will go to any lengths not to violate it. I am proud of who I am, even though I would like to be many things I am not. I am proud of my writing. But probably one of my greatest areas of pride is in my refusal to acknowledge the hegemony of reality. It may be a silly pride, but it is very real to me. And, finally, no matter what, I am a survivor. And I take great pride in that.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Days of Our Lives

“When is the last time you had pneumonia?” the speech therapist asked after I had completed a video-x-ray test of my swallowing.

“ never,” I replied.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “You are constantly aspirating liquid when you swallow. You’re what is known as a silent aspirator. Luckily, you have a strong cough reflex when you do cough.”

Well, that was encouraging, I thought. I’d gone to see her because I had a test scheduled while I was at Mayo on my recent visit, but the person who was going to perform the test had a family emergency and had to cancel, so I arranged to have the test done at my local hospital.

And the upshot of all this? The solution? The cure? Well, according to the therapist, I am to mix a tasteless thickening agent into everything…that’s everything…I drink: coffee, milk, water, soda, soup. Not only that, but I was instructed to drink everything using a teaspoon, not a cup or glass. 1 teaspoon of thickened liquid. Swallow. Cough. 1 teaspoon of thickened liquid. Swallow. Cough. Right.

I can see myself going out for coffee, carrying my cannister of thickener, leaving my cup on the counter and grabbing a teaspoon. Measure out the thickener, stir frantically to be sure it dissolves. 1 teaspoon of thickened coffee. Swallow. Cough. 1 teaspoon of thickened coffee. Swallow. Cough. The fact that it will take me three hours to consume one cup of coffee won’t really matter, because after five minutes of sip-swallow-cough the entire place will have cleared off, leaving me sitting alone at the table being glared at by any of the staff who were unable to leave with the others.

And no ice cream, which is thick going into the mouth but melts into a very thin liquid which easily flows down the windpipe. And no Jello, which is fine with me since I don't like it anyway.

Doesn’t all this seem like tons of jolly good fun? No, it does not.

But I will do my best, mainly because while I have never had pneumonia, I do not want to get pneumonia. So I will compromise. I will put the thickener in everything I drink, but to hell with the teaspoon. I’ll just take very small sips. As for the coughing after every single swallow, I won’t count on it only because my eating habits already test the mettle and the patience of my friends. To put them through an endless coughing binge would be simply too much.

Either that, or I can simply refuse to drink anything in public, which means I can’t eat anything in public either, since I can’t swallow any solid food without washing it down with liquid.

Donations are now being taken for the construction of a gigantic marble statue in honor of my eternal…but always noble…suffering. I’ll use John Ceda of the World Wrestling Federation for the model (no one will know it isn’t me), and will pose him, in a loincloth, atop a boulder, head raised dramatically to heaven, face incredibly brave in sorrow, with the back of one hand against his forehead, ala silent screen vamp Theda Bara at her most emotive best.

Oh, well.

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Friday, March 14, 2008

Laughter Revisited

One thing I never have to concern myself with is a lack of things to concern myself with. They just sort of appear, like bugs on the windshield of a speeding car on a summer night. I was thinking again (I think I might have done an entry on it some time ago)about the fact that I don’t seem to laugh nearly as much as I used to, and that I miss it. Laughter is one of life’s greatest underrated pleasures.

I don’t think it’s a matter of things not being as funny as they once were, though a case could be made for that argument. Perhaps it’s just that humor is a personal thing, and one’s degree of appreciating and responding to it changes as one gets older. Things that send a five year old into peals of uncontrollable laughter don’t seem quite so funny when one is ten. Fart jokes, all the rage in high school, lose their charm over time, and that is largely due to the familiarity that comes with repetition. The funniest joke you’ve ever heard loses some of its edge by the fifth time it’s told, and by the twentieth it’s stale beer.

Nevertheless, I do miss laughing like I used to: the kind of laugh that scrinches up your face and leaves you gasping for air: the kind of laugh that lasts so long your stomach hurts. They still come along from time to time, but with each passing year, one is exposed to more and more things, and more and more of them are repeats or variations of things you’ve seen or heard before. A good laugh sneaks up on you from behind and yells “BOO!”: when you can see it coming from a block away, you’re pretty inured to it by the time it arrives.

I can still recall the source of one of my best and longest laughs: It was a (Mad Magazine?) spoof on high school yearbooks. In the section devoted to class photos, there were the usual, typical photos we’ve all seen a thousand times, each student’s photo about 2 x 2 ½ inches, perhaps 24 to a page. A page of Seniors, a page of Juniors, two pages of Sophomores…all typical of annuals. Then turning to the Freshman, there were what looked to be 10,000 tiny, 1/4 x 1/4 inch thumbnail shots. I went into hysterics the first time I saw it, and it still makes me laugh just thinking about it.

And of course, each of us has our own type of humor: things I find laugh-out-loud funny, you may stare at blankly…and vice-versa. Books have been written on what people find funny, and why. Mine tends to lean toward the totally unexpected, out-of-left-field slap up the side of the head, like the freshmen’s page in the year book spoof. But I also go equally for humor that creeps up slowly, as is epitomized so often by covers of the New Yorker magazine. These are seldom guffaw-inducing, but they are incredibly satisfying. An example of that type of subtle humor is also epitomized for me in another New Yorker cartoon of a vase on a table under a mirror. The vase has two daisies: the one facing out into the room is totally wilted; the one turned to the mirror is picture-perfect.

Some humor escapes me totally. I never, as a child, found The Three Stooges—or slapstick in general— to be remotely amusing. I never cared much for Bob Hope, either. Maybe, again, it’s a matter of preferring to have it sneak up on me; to have to think about it for a split second or two.

Scientific studies have shown the therapeutic benefits of laughter, and some even claim that the simple, physical act of smiling—even forcing yourself to grin when you don’t feel like it—has definite health benefits.

It sometimes seems that humor is similar to our planet’s other dwindling resources: and that nothing is funny any more. But it’s still there, if we take the time to look for it, and it is worth all the gold in the world.

I’ll close with a story I’ve told before, of the teacher who asks her class to write down their favorite sounds, and one little boy replies: “My mother’s laughter.”

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The Bramble Patch

Having gotten back from my 6-month "all's well" checkup at the Mayo Clinic on Friday afternoon and realizing I had to have a blog for Monday (today), I set out to write one. I do not like deadlines...I'm rushed enough even under the best of circumstances.

But I thought I'd check my email before starting, hoping something there might spark an idea for a subject. And sure enough,after finding buried among the mountain of email that had accumulated in my three day absence, a very nice and totally unexpected note from a woman who had read and enjoyed one of my books. I was, as always, elated by it: I love nothing better than hearing from a reader, and it set me to thinking of the value of praise.

So off I set to do a blog on praise and the risk of becoming dependent upon it. But then suddenly it was Saturday, and I had to work both Saturday and Sunday, which for all practical purposes shot huge holes in the time I had to do anything else. So I set the blog aside, confident that I would get to it and finish it Monday morning, which it is now.

But as so often happens with these blogs, and given the fact that my mind too easily wanders off the path I set for it, when I resumed writing it this morning, I found myself talking of greed and gluttony and quite probably, had I continued writing, would have wandered even further off into the brambles.

The trouble with wandering off the path is it is often impossible to find my way back again. So the more I typed, the more tangled I got up in the brambles of my thoughts. And, of course, the perversity of my mind kept reminding me that it was getting later and later and I still hadn't finished and I had to finish and.....

So finally, as not infrequently happens, I just threw my hands up and decided that there was no way I was going to be able to have a blog for today. And so I sat down to explain why there would be no blog today, and here we are.

I promise to have a blog entry for Wednesday. Really, I do. Honest.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

The Ways of the World

We are born into a world in which everyone is our peer, or older. Imperceptibly we are subject to the rising tide of time. Minutes become hours become days become months become years. More and more people are younger than us, but we seldom notice, because our peer group remains vast. But as the tide rises higher the more perceptive among us slowly become aware that entire generations of people older than we are no longer there. Our awareness of mortality is only peripheral at first…a family acquaintance, an older distant relative, perhaps a grandparent. Inexorably, mortality comes closer. Still we largely ignore it.

If we stop to think of it—which most of us seldom do—we will notice that our peer group is beginning, again imperceptibly, to thin out. The first deaths of those close to us create gaping holes in our soul, which, if it could be compared to a block of cheese, with subsequent losses more closely resembles Swiss than cheddar.

But the purpose of this entry is not to cast a pall of "Geez, I'm gonna die", but to point out something very few of us ever think of.

Human beings are a gregarious species, and not meant to be alone. As we age, we move—either by choice or from being subtly forced—out of the mainstream. From the time of puberty, sex plays an important role in our lives. It's rather like a fun club to which everyone belongs. But as we age and become physically less attractive in a society which is pathologically devoted to youth and beauty, unless we are lucky enough to have a life partner, we are no longer welcome in the club. The desire, the longing, may still be there, but the practical possibility of exercising those longings and desires all but vanishes as we, ourselves, become increasingly invisible to those around us.

This isolation is not limited to sex. Many other basic human needs—for friendship, affection, and love, remain as strong as ever as their realization becomes more remote. Yet if we are aware at all of the elderly other than those within our immediate families, our response to them tends, even among the well-meaning, to be condescension: and there is nothing more degrading and insulting than condescension.

Granted, many old people seem to revert to a form of childhood, to be confused by things which have not always been a part of their lives, to be hesitant to make their own decisions, or to need help with things they, as young adults, could have done without a moment's thought. But I suspect a large part of it has to do with the fact that these problems result from the sense that they are no longer considered to be viable, worthy, capable people. They retreat within themselves because it is made far too clear to them that they are not wanted or needed by the rest of the world.

Kindness and courtesy cost nothing. We all know how much it means to be given a smile when it is really needed. But the older we get, the fewer people there are able…or, let's face it, willing…to take the time or effort to do so. Have you any idea how much a casual touch on the arm or a hug can mean to someone who has almost forgotten what physical contact with another human is like?

"For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee. ..." John Donne

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