Friday, May 30, 2008

K'neesheshawna By Any Other Name

I like names, and find it interesting that people say “a name tells a lot about a person,” since the person carrying the name had nothing whatever to do with choosing it. There are books written on the meaning of names. Roger, for example, means “the spear carrier,” though I haven’t a clue as to how that came about. Granted I do a lot of windmill-tilting, but don’t think I’ve ever held let alone carried a spear.

First names, like dog breeds, tend to surge and ebb in popularity. Would you care to make a guess as to how many cribs and playpens full of "Brittany" there are out there at the moment as the "Ashleys" flood our school system? Boys names are a little less trend-driven, but consider “Lance”. Ethnic groups favor ethnic names. It used-to-was that just hearing a name revealed ethnicity. Rastus, Hymie, Sol, Reginald, Gino, Francis. But that has faded over time. Only, it seems, African Americans seem to go out of their way to give their children names which may well reflect their parents’ pride in being black, but may very well tend to haunt the kid for the rest of his or (most specifically, her) life if they have any hope of blending into the mainstream. Of course, Condoleezza Rice hasn’t done too badly for herself, but I do feel, overall, that in-your-face ethnic names are more detrimental than helpful over the long haul. (I am seriously curious as to how many of these names are based in history, and how many simply made up because they sounded exotic. I think of one of our insured when I worked for an insurance company: “Placenta Palmer”.)

For a confirmed Agnostic, I’m very fond of Biblical names and use them frequently for names of characters in my books…especially, I was rather surprised to realize, those beginning with “J”: Jonathan, Joshua, Jared, Jake (the only abbreviated Biblical ”J” name I am comfortable with, since I just can’t picture calling him “Jacob.”) I find I seem to prefer full names to contractions or nicknames, though obviously the first name of my main protagonist in the Dick Hardesty mysteries is a nickname for Richard. I have a good friend I’ve known for more than 50 years whom I…nor anyone else…would ever dream of calling anything but Franklin. The protagonist of my new Elliott Smith mysteries only allows one person to use anything but his full first name.

There’s not much one can do with “Roger”, though some people do occasionally call me “Roge” and I’m okay with that. Both my step-grandmother Anne and my dear friend Uncle Bob always called me “Roggie” and were the only people in my life to do so, I think. To my Uncle Buck, I was “Guggenheimer,” to my mom, I was “Punkin’” or “Beaner.” My dad infrequently called me “Butch”....probably a case of wishful thinking.

Many people use their nicknames throughout life: Chuck, Bob, Brad, Clif, Jack, Frank, Dick, Phil, Don, Rob, Rich, Tom, Mike—though I often tend to prefer the full name: Thomas, Michael, Robert . Most are variations on or contractions of their given name, but some, like my cousins Fat and Cork (Charles and Donald, somewhere in childhood picked up nicknames having no relation to their real names, and carry them through life.

In our egalitarian society where everyone seems to be on a first-name basis, it has reached the point where people who in fact prefer their full name to a contraction or variation or nickname—who prefer to be called “Benjamin” instead of “Ben”, for example—are considered a bit odd, or elitist. So I suppose it is not so much a case of what our names do for us, as what we do with our names.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On Being Strange

I told the story, in a much earlier blog, of working at my first just-out-of-college job in the customer service department of the Olson Rug Company, and receiving a letter from a lady who wanted the company to give her new rugs in exchange for “The Secret.” She had, she explained, offered The Secret to the Sheriff, but he was sitting on two chairs.

I fear this dear lady went a bit beyond the limits of “strange”, but every human being has his or her little idiosyncrasies and degrees of strangeness. It comes far more naturally to some than to others. While most do their best to hide them, I rather enjoy mine. At times I think I rather cultivate them, like hothouse flowers.

But as I was thinking of this topic, I realized that many of my strangenesses (like making up words like “strangenesses”) are directly related to my fascination with words.

I like to make up ditties which, like a spot of raspberry jam on a white shirt, tend to be nearly impossible to remove, cropping up randomly years later. Two which leapt to mind the minute I though of it involve my cat, Crickett, Cricketty Cricketty Crickett, Fell fast asleep in a thicket. Dreamed of a rose shaped like a nose and thought ‘When I wake up, I’ll pick it and Bozo, a marvelous yellow lab I had for only a short time before he was killed by a car: Bozo Bozo Bozo; punch ‘em in the no-zo. Make ‘em pay, then run away, ‘cause that’s the way it goes-zo. Why they should still be with me after so many years, I have no idea.

And I frequently find myself playing a strange word game of rhyming opposites, which I tie together by thinking of them as greetings, and which potentially has no end: “Hello, morning, hello, noon/Hello fork, hello, spoon/Hello here, hello there/Hello sofa, hello chair”…ad infinitum. I find I can play it until my mind grows numb (Hello smile, hello pout/Hello in, hello out…see what I mean?)

I enjoy figuring out how many words can be made from other words without repeating letters: I think I got at least 53 from the word “diplomat”, for example.

For the most part, my idiosyncracies affect no one but me, and I consider them totally harmless. I take an odd sense of comfort in them, and were I just to shut up about having them, most would not be aware I had them (perhaps yet another idiosyncracy: self delusion).

My mind’s tendency to resemble a downed power line, thrashing about and sending off sprays of sparks, provides me with both pleasure and frustration. As I finished the last paragraph…and there is a link between them, obtuse as it may be…I suddenly thought of a guy I met in Los Angeles. He was aboard the Andrea Doria when it sank, so I was fascinated by him. A nice looking guy, he had particularly nice hair. But I hadn’t known him for more than ten minutes when he informed me he wore a full toupee. Now, I never in the world would have known it had he not told me and still cannot figure out why he did. One would imagine people wear a toupee to hide the fact that they are bald. But why go to the trouble if you’re going to tell everyone you meet you’re wearing one?

So I guess it boils down to the fact that, as mentioned above, admit it or not, strangenesses and idiosyncracies are a part of human existence. And as long as we have them, we might as well enjoy them.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

A Day

Writing is a little bit like playing the requires constant practice and finger-limbering. Here's an example, for those who might be curious.

I sit cross-legged on the floor in the vortex of a category-four hurricane, watching the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years swirl by, and I catch the quickest of glimpses of flying debris: a cardboard fort I got for Christmas one year when I was about seven, a copy of Great Poems of the English Language from college, a ticket stub from a movie theater in Nice, France (The Golden Stag), a playbill for Me and Juliet, the first Broadway show I ever saw, the wooden cabinet my dad made (which I still have), a pair of flight goggles and a book on navigation from my Navcad days, pieces of the sofa Norm and I built when we first got together in Chicago, a couple of the stuffed animals Ray loved to collect, a jar of raspberry jam I made from raspberries I picked myself in the woods near Pence, Wisconsin, my grandfather’s pocket watch, the mesh mask form fitted to hold my head in place during my radiation treatments at Mayo…so many other things whipping past so fast I cannot identify them before they are gone.

Which brings us, more or less to today. Nothing particularly special about today, which is exactly what makes it rather special. Up at 5:30 to finish a blog I’d not had a chance to finish the day before since I was trying to get out the last of 300-plus personalized e-mails to people on my mailing list announcing a special pre-publication sale on His Name is John, the book I’ve been waiting to have released since last December. Watched the NBC morning news from 7 - 7:25, my morning ritual of V-8 juice, coffee, and chocolate covered donut broken by having run out of V-8 juice (and you thought your life was exciting), to the computer for various e-mail sendings and receivings.

Around nine, received the galley proofs for John which, my having waited for for six months to receive it, I am expected to go over and return to the publisher as soon as possible. Having to work both tomorrow and Sunday (well, you won’t be reading this until Monday), and not being able to carry my computer to work with me, I won’t be able to do anything at all on the galley until Monday…which I understand is a holiday of some sort. (Christmas? No, no snow. Easter? Groundhog Day? I have to search my mind to figure it out. But since every day is in fact a holiday for me, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just another day, as are all holidays).

Got about 20 pages into the galley (having to increase the size of the type by 150 percent to be able to read it…my eyes are getting worse and worse, undoubtedly due to staring at the computer monitor 10 hours a day). I’d probably have gotten further except that I am incapable of not checking my email every 30 seconds or so. Lots and lots of emails as a result of a minor tempest at one of the net lists I belong to.

Oh, yes, neglected to mention going out for coffee earlier, and stopping to pick up some V8 juice and a slice of pecan pie from my local Kentucky Fried Colonel. Not bad pie, but I buy it because one small piece has 460 calories, and I need all the calories I can possibly get, since I am eating less and less solid food. One can of Boost (which I really don’t care for, but again, I drink for the 350 calories) and a piece of the pecan pie provides more then 1/3 of my total daily calorie requirements. I understand Drunken Donuts offers a Large Frosted Something-or-Other that contains 3,127 calories (including the equivalent of 16 teaspoons of sugar).

And then I remember I need a blog for Monday, and I sit down and without backspacing once, I went from “I sit” to here without stopping. But you could never tell, could you?

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Friday, May 23, 2008


Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Russian silent film, The Battleship Potemkin is rightfully considered one of the finest films ever made. It chronicles the start of the 1918 Russian revolution, when the crew of the Tsar’s battleship, Potemkin, mutinied while at anchor in the port of Odessa. In what is unquestionably one of the most powerful scenes ever put on film, the citizens of Odessa gather in support of the mutineers on a huge flight of stone stairs leading down to the sea. The Tsar’s soldiers appear and begin firing into the crowd, slaughtering hundreds.

The images, once seen, the most famous of which is a baby carriage, the baby’s mother slain, bounding down the steps amid the carnage, are burned into the viewer’s mind.

I referenced the incident in my book The Role Players, when I have Jonathan and Dick’s ex, Chris, go see the film, and Jonathan, amazed, is assured that the massacre really happened.

And today I found out it hadn’t. Eisenstein made it up for his film. To discover that something one has believed all one’s life is not true is…to me at least…devastating (which may be too strong a word, but the most fitting I can come up with).

We’ve all experienced this feeling at one time or another. We all believe things which are not true. As children, fairy tales are real and we sincerely believe they are true…partly because we’re too young to know otherwise, but largely because our capacity for wonder helps protect us from reality. Fairy tales are true because we have yet to fully accept the concept of lies. We look to adults for guidance and to learn, and we believe what we are told is the truth. We grow out of belief in fairy tales…well, most of us do…slowly in the natural process of learning. Fairy tales always, always end happily, and good always triumphs over evil (and please don’t give me examples of when they don’t). That we have to learn, often by hard experience, that things do not always end happily and good does not always win over evil, hardens us.

I’ve mentioned before how I finally was forced to realize that there was no Santa Claus. I may have been one of the last kids on the block to have that particular illusion shattered, but I am still infinitely grateful to my mom for telling me in such a way that at least left the door open to the belief in the goodness of men.

But our beliefs are part of the foundation of our being, and to learn that something that we have believed in for years are not true (that all Presidents of the United States are fair, honest men comes to mind) can create cracks in that foundation. Most are unaware of them or just accept them. Unfortunately, I am well aware that, for myself, it is through these cracks that bitterness and disillusion seep in.

I suppose one answer to the formation of too many cracks is to question more; to not take everything we are told as gospel (and yes, there’s a double meaning there). I always think of one of my favorite sayings, which has several variations but is totally indisputable: “If a billion people believe something that is not true, that does not make it true.”

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Monday, May 19, 2008


Mark Twain pointed out that Man is the only animal that blushes…or needs to. Being embarrassed is one of Man’s odd little traits, and usually results from our being placed in a situation that challenges our self confidence. Therefore, those of us who don’t have much self confidence to begin with are particularly vulnerable to it. I find myself being embarrassed far more than anyone could possibly be comfortable with.

There are, of course, many degrees of embarrassment, from mild to severe. Mine sometimes surpass severe to excruciating. And I have the annoying tendency not to be satisfied with being embarrassed over the things I do, but for others.

Our beloved President regularly does things…other than putting his foot in his mouth with astoundingly stupid remarks…that make my skin crawl with embarrassment: his insistence on doing little dance numbers to show he’s “cool” and “with it” is a frequently-repeated example.
But sometimes my embarrassment on the part of others is considerably more benign.

I think I”ve told the story of how when my parents and I were in Hawaii, we took a boat trip up Hawaii’s only navigable river, heading for the famous Fern Grotto. Now, my mom and I were very much alike in many ways, one of which was the intense dislike of doing things simply because we are told to do them, but go along with it rather than stand out as being a party pooper.
Anyway, the gratingly effervescent guide (I think being effervescent is a job requirement), as we were gliding up the river, declared that it would be great fun for all the women on the boat to learn the hula.

Mom loved to dance, but she did not want to learn the hula. Still, she stood up with all the other women and followed the guide’s extended-arm, hip-swinging motions. I could see on Mom’s face that she hated it, and I was embarrassed for her.

I am frequently embarrassed for various performers who really are not very good at what they are doing, or for people who are, like Mom was, called upon to do something they really, really would prefer not doing.

A primary source of embarrassment for me, other than my total refusal to think before I say or do something I never would have said or done had I thought first, is in doing things I would truly love to do but can’t—such as anything requiring physical dexterity or grace. Probably the primary example of this is dancing. As I’ve said often, there is nothing more beautiful that watching someone who knows how to dance. But I simply cannot and will not do it (well, a slow dance with a good partner may be an exception).

At least I know the source for this particular problem. When I was about eight, I went to a birthday party of a girl in my neighborhood, and her mother announced that we would all now dance. Dance? I had never danced in my life! I was horrified. And when she started pairing up all the guests…all the worse, it was boy-girl…I was well-past embarrassed, and several stages beyond mortified. It was a truly horrific experience, and I’m sure it affected the rest of my life.
Like my character Dick Hardesty, I often have little voices in my head (no, no, not that kind of voices). One just chimed in: “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Roger, get over it!” I wish I could.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Something for Nothing

Of all the words in the English language, probably the most irresistible is “Free”. Tacking “Free” onto almost anything will elicit swarms of glinting-eyed, salivating respondents. Who can resist? It’s FREE!!!

While advertisers are often a particularly obnoxious breed, they are smart enough to recognize the power of…what was that word again? Oh, yes…FREE!!! (Exclamation points and Second-Coming typefaces only enhance the appeal.) Who among us, whose eyes have not long since glazed over in disbelief, has not seen the “FREE Credit Report!!!!” ads on TV. If you have the eyes of an eagle, you may be able to read the minuscule type saying: “Contingent upon enrollment in Whatever-in-the-hell-it-is”....which, if you’re foolish enough to take the bait, you find costs an arm and a leg to join. But, hey, the credit report is FREE!!

What store in its right mind would say “½ Off” on something when they can say “Buy one, get one FREE!!!”

The most odious of the current FREE scams doesn’t actually use the word FREE, but it is equally insidious. Banks are spending tens of millions of dollars boasting of their absolutely awesome new program wherein (and I know I’ve mentioned this one before) “We will round up your purchase to the nearest dollar and transfer the difference into your savings account!!” Oh Golly, Gee, folks!!! If I buy something for $9.99, this wonderful, generous institution is going to charge me $10.00 and put one whole penny into my savings account! (Yeah, that’s what I thought.) And the wonderfulest thing of all is that they are taking MY money from MY checking account and then magnanimously putting it in MY savings account! How can they possibly afford this generosity? Surely, they risk bankruptcy in their noble efforts on my behalf. And I do appreciate it, but if I want to transfer money from my checking into my savings, I’m really quite capable of doing it myself, thank you.

I may have commented on a recent version of the ever-popular Pyramid Scheme. I got an email from a friend whose mental facilities, until now, I had no reason to question. This was an offer of an absolutely FREE, top of the line laptop computer the manufacturer was giving away strictly for the word of mouth it would generate. All I had to do is send this same email on to ten friends and then within three days, I would receive in the mail a brand new laptop...FREE! (How they would know where to send it was not made clear.) And each one of the ten to whom I sent the note would presumably also receive a free laptop for sending it on to ten of their friends, and.........and oh, dear Lord, the fact that I even received such a stupifyingly obvious piece of illogic means that someone had to be buying into it! (If you will send me your email address and $4.50 in postage, I will email you a copy of this offer, which I’m sure is still good.)

One of my all-time favorite offers of this type was from some “Not Sold In Stores!!!” gee-gaw absolutely, positively guaranteeing me that my $25.00 (Regular Price $4,399.00) purchase absolutely, positively guaranteed that I would be the recipient of one of three fantastic prizes: A round-the-world trip aboard the QE2, a 2009 his-and-hers set of Mercedes, or a pocket comb.

And my friends are sometimes seriously concerned for the fact that I can be so bitter. I can’t imagine why.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Gullible's Travels

My inability to comprehend the workings of the world and the actions of its inhabitants is, as you may have noticed, a recurring theme here. I wander through life wide-eyed with disbelief at the boundless gullibility, curable ignorance, and outright stupidity of people who should know better...including me.

Every now and again, when I am in a particularly mentally-masochistic mood, I will glance quickly down the endless list of stupifyingly idiotic message titles in my Spam file before hitting the “delete” button. The other morning, among the dozens of guarantees of sexual potency, invaluable tips on how to make “her”—have you noticed, it’s always “her”?—scream in pleasure, offers absolutely guaranteeing to cure every disease known to man, and amazing ways I can earn $20,000 an hour working at home, there was one offering “uncensored” photos of Miley Cyrus, a young woman recently famous for something or other, and the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus who had one hit song several years ago. She has attained shock status by posing for photos for a magazine! Can you imagine? I know this only because I’ve been bombarded by it every time I turn on the TV. From what I have been able to determine (and the fact that I have even taken the time to “determine” it speaks poorly of me), the photos are largely innocuous. She’s posing with a lot of skin showing (now there’s a photographic first!), and in one photo she is seen lying in her father’s lap. (INCEST! DEGRADATION! SIN! SHOCK! HORROR! PUBLICITY! CASH!)

My immediate question, and one to which I have been seeking an answer all my life, is why I or any other biped on the planet, should give a hoot in hell? People are out there starving. AIDS is still rampant throughout the world. We are engaged in two simultaneous and endless wars fabricated and led by a president who has done nothing but lie to and mislead the American people for eight glorious years. Gasoline and food prices are steadily climbing. Our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling. People everywhere are suffering needlessly. But take hope: Brittany may get visitation rights for her kids.

And I am expected to give a shit about uncensored photos of Miley Cyrus? Oh, dear lord, it is to weep.

But we humans are experts at the old “Oh! Look over there!” method of avoiding problems. We eagerly distract ourselves with inconsequential garbage. Better, I guess, to stare in breathless fascination at one maggot than see the entire rotting corpse. (Oh, my, that did sound rather harsh, didn’t it? Bitter, even. I do apologize: it’s just that, despite mountain ranges of evidence that I am a fool to do so, I expect so much more from the world than it is willing to give. And once I allow myself to start contemplating egregious stupidity, it’s a very slippery slope.)

I suppose it is human nature to sit in a sandbox with a little pail and shovel and build our own little mountains rather than to go out and try to climb the real ones that are already there, just as it is easier for grown men to go absolutely apeshit over today’s “big game” rather than actually get out there and engaging in some sort of physical activity themselves. It is far easier to distract and delude ourselves by fixating on things which, in the overall scheme of life, mean little or, more often, nothing, than to put forth the effort to do something constructive. And by becoming totally enraptured with the lives of others, we can ignore the fact that we have so little control over our own.

And I, who take great if perverse pride in ignoring reality, have just realized that the Miley Cyrus Syndrome shows clearly that I am not alone in doing so. The difference between me and most other people is that I admit it.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

The Toddler's Creed

I came across one of my favorite poems…well, I assume it’s a poem though it doesn’t rhyme. I delight in it because it is yet another "story of my life." It’s attributed to a Dr. Burton L. Wright, and I’m sure Dr. Wright won’t mind if I quote it here:

The Toddler's Creed

If I want it,

If I give it to you and change my mind later,

If I can take it away from you,

If it's mine it will never belong to anybody else,
No matter what.
If we are building something together,
All the pieces are mine!

If it looks just like mine,

If it breaks or needs putting away,

As I’ve often said, I really do think that on many levels I never made it past the “Terrible Twos” emotionally. I am totally and irrationally jealous of anyone who has some ability, skill, or trait that I do not have but want. And when I say that often my chest will ache when I will see someone who I think is beautiful, I am quite serious. It’s an actual, physical response.

We all have to grow up, and for the most part—though with great reluctance and resistance—I have, though as you have undoubtedly noticed, I have clung, and still cling, desperately to the past. “Growing up” has always terrified and revolted me because to me “growing up” also meant/means “giving up”…losing forever the wonders and openness that make a child’s life so enchanted and exciting.

There can be only one “first time” for anything, of course, and we run through them quickly as children. Unfortunately, repetition of experiences tends to have a sandpaper effect, wearing away the intensity of the emotions each of those first-time experiences evoked. The all-too-inevitable result, for most people, is to forget how wondrous so many things still are. To this day, I can pick up a pebble on the beach and become totally awed just staring at it, thinking of how it got to the moment in eternity when I picked it up…where it came from, and how very, very long ago, and the odds that I would choose it to pick up over the billions of other pebbles, and what will become of it after I return it to the beach. If I throw it far out into the water, how long will it take it to return to the beach, and what will become of it in the gigantic scheme of things?

For me, the Toddler’s Creed is my view of the entire world.

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