Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Do Unto Others

Why is it that the simplest and most natural questions always seem to be the ones with the most complex answers —or no answers at all?

I’ve often wondered why the Golden Rule is so widely praised but so seldom practiced. It’s like that old saw: “What is there about ‘NO’ that you don’t understand?” What is there about “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” that makes it such a difficult concept for so many people to grasp? Is there some sort of species-wide dyslexia which forces so many to read that simple sentence as: “Do unto others as you would have done unto them”?

It’s not a matter of religious belief: agnostics, atheists, and members of all religions give lip service to it. I sincerely believe and have always felt that within those ten simple words lie the solution to just about every moral issue facing mankind.

Given that on the “animal, vegetable, mineral” chart, human beings genetically fall into the “animal” category, and as such are subject to tens of thousands of years of behavior similar to any other animal, it’s not easy to quell these instincts. Kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. Survival of the fittest. One would assume that after about five thousand years of struggle toward civilization, our more advanced brains might have put us further ahead of jungle predators than we seem to have come. We are civilized in theory, yet far too often not in practice.

We still strongly demonstrate all the positive—and negative—attributes of the herd instinct. We too often blindly follow whomever bellows loudest simply because it is much easier, and often safer, to be a follower, even when the leader is totally wrong. (The saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is amply demonstrated by looking no further than the heads of our own government.)

In our daily lives, as individuals, we struggle with the same genetic imperatives; someone crosses us in some way, and our knee-jerk reaction is to lash out in some form. We respond to real or perceived rudeness with rudeness. We are so concerned with our own agendas that we are often totally unaware of the reactions our actions trigger.

I live in a large apartment building and, especially in the elevators, always try to acknowledge my fellow riders. But sometimes I don’t for one reason or another, or sometimes when I say “hello” I will be greeted with stony silence. And just as there may be good reason for my lapse, I have to acknowledge that there may be a very good reason for their lack of response—they didn’t hear me, they were preoccupied, they were having a bad day. In any case, I have no excuse for any negative reaction on my part. So I really must try harder to practice what I preach and treat everyone the way I would like to be treated, even if they do not respond in kind. Turning the other cheek isn’t always easy in every instance, but there are so very many instances when it really doesn’t take that much effort. And there is a certain comfort and even an odd ego stroking in knowing one has behaved better than someone else. Almost makes me feel a little…well, superior. Survival of the fittest, you know.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I am not a scientist. I am a humble, simple man who has come upon the answer to the underlying cause of a scourge sweeping the adult heterosexual male population and has been largely ignored—as was AIDS in its early years—by the scientific community.

I speak, of course, of the devastating, heartbreaking, family-destroying condition known as “erectile dysfunction”, of which not one person in a thousand had ever even heard until only a few short years ago, and which today rages unchecked. We all owe a great debt to our nation’s ever-vigilant and altruistic drug companies, who loudly sound the alarm in the form of several thousand television commercials bombarding us every waking hour, offering desperately needed help to millions.

And yet, the cause of “E.D.” as it is also known, is astonishingly clear. It is, in fact, laid out plainly in the commercials themselves, and I cannot comprehend how no one but me seems to have realized it..

So please bear with me, listen carefully, and do not dismiss me out of hand before giving serious consideration to what I am about to reveal. (You may want to take a firm grip on the arm of your chair.) Are you ready?

The single cause of erectile dysfunction is the wearing of a wedding ring!!! I swear!!! Perhaps it’s the metal or something…I don’t know…perhaps it cuts off blood flow to the genitals (?)…but all I ask is that you observe what I have observed: in every single TV ad addressing the problem of erectile dysfunction, the sufferer is wearing a wedding ring! Every single one!!I challenge you to prove me wrong!!

We have all seen that absolutely delightful commercial which I never tire of seeing even after 14,642 exposures, where six or seven guys are having a grand old, good-ole-boy time strummin’ guitars and pluckin’ bases and whatevers and joyfully singing “Viva Viagra” (a catchy tune, but I can’t help but think I’ve heard it before somewhere). Well, my friends, observe carefully: every single one of those men is wearing a wedding ring!! Coincidence? I think not.

How else can you explain the fact that while the number of afflicted heterosexual male adults seems to grow every day, I have not seen one single reported case of a homosexual adult male so affected. And why do ads for acne cures, for example, never involve the prominent display of a wedding ring? Simple: because wedding rings are obviously not the cause of acne. And there is strong evidence that the wearing of a wedding ring may be a contributory cause of many other adult diseases and ailments. Just note the number of wedding rings prominently displayed in commercials for arthritis, sleeplessness, sore backs, coughs and colds and any number of other illnesses!

There is an old saying that “there are none so blind as those who will not see,” and for some inexplicable reason, the medical community has chosen to totally ignore the 800 pound gorilla in the waiting room, solution in hand (as it were).

If you still doubt me, this evening, as you watch TV, take a pad and pencil and, when any commercial dealing with adult afflictions comes on, jot down the disproportionate number of sufferers wearing a wedding ring. Then write or call your elected representatives and demand legislative action banning the wearing of wedding rings…and all other rings, for that matter. Our nation’s health is at stake!

My job here is done. I have proven my case beyond the shadow of a doubt. The rest is up to you.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Holding On

Chocolate covered donuts are a staple of my diet, partly because I like them, partly because they are easy to eat and do not require a lot of saliva for processing while chewing, and partly because each one contains 350 caloriea and I need all the calories I can get.

During my last trip to the store, they had the donuts on a “two for” sale, so I bought two boxes, planning to put one in the freezer until needed.. However, when I got home I discovered that there was absolutely no room in the freezer. More than once, I have opened the freezer door to have half the contents cascade out all over the floor, like Fibber McGee’s closet. So today I am determined…determined, I say…to take a large garbage bag, go through the freezer, and throw out everything I know perfectly well that I will never use. The problem is that it is all perfectly good food (well, some of it has been in there for a year or two, granted, but…) and throwing away anything that might possibly be used is totally anathema to me. If I had someone I know would like to have it…, but I don’t.

I’ve mentioned before all the things I have which I refuse to get rid of. There’s my Navy pea-coat, the sports jacket I am wearing in my NIU senior yearbook photo, the pair of NavCad sweatpants with “Margason” stenciled across the backside, several sweaters I bought while living in Chicago the first time, or in L.A.

The pajamas I put on every morning were purchased back around 2001, for wearing while I went to the hospital for repair of a para-hyatal hernia. The elastic on the pants gave out a couple years ago and are now secured with a safety pin; you can read a newspaper through the fabric at the elbows. Why in the world can I not bring myself to throw them away? That is a rhetorical question, since there is no answer.

The blanket on my bed has a hole in it from God knows where, and the silk-or-whatever-it-is edging along the top and bottom hangs on by a few threads, drooping down to the floor on the bottom side. But I can’t throw it away…it still keeps me warm, which it was meant to do. How can I throw it away? “Waste not, want not” is a saying I do not take lightly.

And somehow—I as usual have absolutely no reason why—all this is tied in with my inexplicable sense of loyalty to these things. They have served me well; how can I be so cold as to just pitch them when they are no longer as young as they used to be. Neither am I, and I would hate to be just cast aside because of it, though this is largely how I find myself being treated by much of society.

While doing laundry the other day, I noted that all five identical pair of pants I wear constantly (rather like Little Orphan Annie with her red dresses) are becoming more and more shoddy and threadbare. They are approaching the state of tatterdom where I simply will not be able to wear them out in public anymore. I should just go out and buy five more identical pairs . But will I? I won’t hold my breath. I find shopping for clothes a huge exercise in frustration, since I can stand among endless racks of thousands of pair of pants and not find a single one I like, let alone well enough to buy five of them. And what to do with the old pants? Throw them out? I never throw anything out if it has one more possible wear left in it (rather like an empty toothpaste tube…if you squeeze hard enough, there’s always one more brushing’s worth in there). Besides, to throw something out is a form of ending, and we all know how I feel about endings.

Be glad you’re you.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Looking Down, Looking Ahead

Among humanity’s seldom-used gifts is the ability to find something positive in just about every negative situation. It often takes a lot of effort, but it’s possible.

Take, for instance, my oft-decried head-bent-forward condition, with the result that I spend much of my time staring at the ground while walking. Not good for noticing people approaching or taking in much of my surroundings, but I do find a lot of pennies. And I pick them up, too, often to the mild chagrin of whomever I’m walking with. And this morning, I followed a trail of blood from the corner of Halsted and Wellington two blocks to the Illinois Masonic Hospital’s emergency room. There was a considerable amount of it, individual drops but a lot of them, many of them in clusters at intervals of several feet. I was…and am…of course very curious as to the story behind the drops; a story I’ll never know.

And had I been able to walk like normal people, focusing on everything ahead of me, I may well never have noticed the trail.

The other day, while standing on the wide sidewalk in front of a store, waiting for something, I noticed a very small insect, marching with apparently great determination, across the concrete, which must have seemed an enormous distance to something so very small. Not knowing the acuity of an insect’s eyesight, I wondered if it could even see the end of the concrete ahead of it. I had the mental picture of someone walking across a seemingly endless dessert, and wondered if it got thirsty on the way, as well as how it ever got there in the first place.

Last week, while returning from a two-and-a-half-hour walk through Graceland Cemetery, one of Chicago’s oldest and most historic—and possibly the subject of a future blog—Gary and I were just getting ready to walk into the Addison el station near Wrigley Field when we were approached by a TV film crew from WGN News. They wanted to know our opinion on the fact that, as a result of state and local budget problems and partly because of the State of Illinois decreeing that senior citizens could ride public transit at no cost, plans are underway to increase the fares paid by everyone else. (I’ll leave the speculation of how they possibly knew we were seniors to another time.) They asked if we thought it was fair, and we both replied that while we could easily afford to pay to ride, many seniors would find it a true hardship. The woman doing the interviewing concentrated mostly on Gary, of course, since he is better spoken than I and his speech is far more intelligible.

At any rate, we were on the 9 o’clock news: a first for me, and probably as close to my 15 minutes of fame as I’ll ever get.

Just to keep you posted, between the writing of the above and this as-I-write minute, I had an appointment with a spinal surgeon, to see if something might be done to bring my head back to a more normal position. Several x-rays were taken, and it was determined that I have three vertebrae affected by arthritis and tilting forward. However, he believes it is the rock-hard muscles in my neck that are the major problem, and that if we can find some way to relax them, much of the problem might be resolved. So we are going that route, which includes a neck brace, possible Botox injections to relax the muscles, and spending as much time as I can lying on my back without a pillow which slowly forces my head and neck into a more normal position. We shall see, but I’m feeling very positive. Positive is nice.

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Monday, October 13, 2008


In case you may not have noticed, I’m very big on fantasies. Most of us have a small pool of fantasy into which we gaze longingly, like Narcissus. My pool, however is Olympic-sized and I don’t merely gaze into it but splash around in it constantly. It is, in fact, my primary form of mental exercise.. Truth be told, I spend more time indulging my fantasies that dwelling in the real world. But, again, that’s why I became a writer.

I have an appointment coming up later today (the day this entry appears) with a spinal surgeon to see if something might be done to in any way reverse the effects of whatever it is that is causing my head to tilt forward…a glacial-paced progression I fear is ongoing. The process at first was so slow that I didn’t notice it, and when I did, there was nothing I could do about it, if there had ever been a time when I could. I tried wearing a neck brace, but that didn’t last long— partly my own fault since I found it bothersome to wear for one hour twice a day.

I should have been alerted to the problem when, not too long after my release from treatment at Mayo, it was discovered I had developed a bone spur on one of my vertebra at the base of my neck—undoubtedly from the radiation. (My local oncologist, at a small, remote hospital in the Great North Woods, casually informed me I had cancer of the spine. Whatever possessed him to reach that conclusion, which was almost immediately proven totally wrong, I will never know; but I do know my faith in him sank so precipitously it is now somewhere in the mud at the bottom of the sea.)

Anyway, remembering the bone spur just now, I did a full Gainor high-dive into my Pool of Fantasy. A little indisputable self-diagnosis, unencumbered by any medical training whatsoever, determined that the bone spur has grown, thus forcing my neck forward and down, and that all the spinal surgeon will have to do is remove the spur and all my vertabrae will come back into line and I’ll be able to lift my head high enough to drain a can of pop, and turn it more than 10 degrees in either direction, and maybe gain 8 pounds and shed 15 years and be as I was before all this happened. (I know, I’m in the deep end of the pool here, but so what?)

And even if this particular fantasy proves to be merely that, as it quite probably will, it provides me with a great deal of hope and comfort until reality, that bull in the china shop, sends it packing.

Fantasy, in fact, is hope. It enables us all to do and be—if only in our minds—those things which we so desperately want and probably can never have. I see no harm in it, and a great deal of solace and pleasure. Fantasy is a cluster of bright, helium-filled balloons to which the small child in each of us can hold tightly, and in which we can take infinite delight. We can totally ignore the thin string which tethers us to reality.

I see a distinct danger in the fact that increasingly, in today’s culture, our fantasies come pre-packaged and bar-coded; that our own imaginations are being replaced by dreams based upon a wide array of commercially-available products. As with so many things in life, it is easier to simply take what is handed to us rather than bothering to create our own.

But I’m probably being too harsh, as usual. I watch the wonder in the eyes of small children at the zoo or in a toy store and hope against hope that the wonder of the new will blossom into the wonder of fantasy. I know it won’t happen for many…perhaps most. Reality will stomp that out of them far too soon. But for some…

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Sky is Falling

Oh, dear. I really try to be upbeat; to see the better things in life. There is of course an infinite number of good and positive things to talk about: gratuitous kindnesses and stunning bravery and kittens and puppies and the smell of baking bread. This is the way life should be, and the fact that it is not so to the degree that I want and expect it to be casts me and other frustrated romantics like me into the role of snarling curmudgeon. All the good in the world is still offset by the infuriatingly incomprehensible and stupid things we humans insist upon doing to one another.

As a species, we have struggled for several thousand years to improve ourselves; to use our unique gifts to rise ourselves up and reach our potential. But in the careful creation of our society and our culture, we have created a Frankenstein’s monster in that what we have created is now threatening our very humanity. The old adage that “fire is a good servant but a terrible master” increasingly applies to our society, which is increasingly taking on its own power to the detriment of those who created it.

The bible was railing against Mammon a couple of thousand of years ago, and we all know how effective that was. Of all human emotions, the one that most strongly rules our society today is greed.

As recent events in the financial markets have proven, our entire world is built upon and is increasingly fueled by money. There is a growing gap between individual human beings and the culture in which we live…and which we, of course, have created. And as this separation continues and grows, guess which of the two elements, humanity or culture, forges ahead and which increasingly lags behind?

This morning I saw a news item saying that there is a new generation of parking meters which, the minute a car pulls away from it, flips back to zero so that the next car can’t use the remaining minutes! Oh, dear LORD! Just how cheap and moneygrubbing can we get? (This is a rhetorical question, since all any of us need do is look around to see ample evidence of the answer.) People are dying of disease and hunger, global warming (which of course is a myth as our beloved leader tells us), wars, poverty, unimaginable suffering and deprivation, and we spend money on designing a parking meter that will make the city using them an extra nickle?

And the most maddening thing, for me, is the knowledge that all my ranting, and raving, and arm-waving, and jumping up and down, and screaming at the top of my lungs does absolutely no good. It’s yelling into the hurricane, of trying to leave footprints on water. There is no worse feeling than that of helplessness and absolute lack of control.

Quite likely the sky is not actually falling. Somehow we have managed to muddle from disaster to disaster, calamity to calamity…always with the clock at one minute to midnight, always with Armageddon just around the corner, and we have somehow survived. Thus far. It’s almost enough to make me concede the existence of…something pulling the strings, writing the rules we cannot possibly understand. Whatever it is is not the benevolent, loving God of Sunday school, however, but a capricious, often petulant, totally unpredictable entity which takes delight in playing cat to our mouse.

So the sky may not, indeed, be falling. But it’s coming closer every day.

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Friday, October 03, 2008

Change and Endings and Memory

The recent awareness that my cat, Crickett, who is between 16-18, is failing rapidly and has very little time left to her set me off on a little philosophical jaunt about endings and change. I was a little surprised to realize that there can be change without endings, but never endings without change.

Resistance to change seems to be wired into the human psyche, probably as some sort of primordial built-in braking system to keep us on the same general track as a species and prevent us all from individually spiraling out of control in an eternal frenzy of change. Our present is made of our past, and our past provides us with stability and the foundations of who and what we are, both individually and as a race.

But change is absolutely necessary for any forward movement, and it is not so much change that I object to as it is endings, which are generally an integral part of changes. Change involves the opening of doors to our future, and often, especially on an individual-human-being level, closing doors to the past which can never be reopened. Death is the ultimate door closer, and the source of our greatest pain.

Memory, another of Mankind’s unique traits, can be both a blessing and a curse. Memory ties us to and roots us in the past. It is a gigantic storehouse of emotion, the strongest of which is love. But once something is moved into the storehouse of memory, it is lost to the world of now.

Man is a greedy creature. Once blessed with love, he is reluctant to give it up. He may pay lip service to the fact that love is not a gift but a loan. The response to losing someone or something one truly loves is sadness, grief, and an indescribable resentment for its having been taken away. It is not enough to merely be grateful for having had the love at all; we despairs over its loss and, like a little child, want it back. “If I had it once, why can’t it be mine forever?”

Memory is the mind’s eye. We need only close our physical eyes to open the eye of memory. Yet we are terribly myopic when it comes to the future and refuse to see what we do not wish to acknowledge: that time is a collection agency, and it will be paid.

Which brings me back to Crickett. She has been with me for many years, but her time, as is time for every living thing, running out. I am trying, rather belatedly, I fear, to give her the attention she has always demanded but I have been too busy with my own interests to give her. I want her to know she is loved and that I appreciate her sharing her life with me. She is still alive, so I still have some time to make up for all the past years of benevolent neglect. The door is still open, but I know it will soon close, and Crickett will pass from the tangible now to intangible memory.

But Crickett is not human. She is a cat. My love and concern for her cannot possibly be compared to the love of one human for another. My mother, my father, my aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck, my remaining cousins, my close friends to all of whom I owe so much and upon whom I depend so strongly…how can I dare equate love for them to love for a cat?

Easily. Love doesn’t come with set values or limitations: it is neither quantitative nor qualitative; it simply is. Had I to make a choice between Crickett or my mother, there would be no question, of course. But I do not have to make such a choice. Love is love.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go pet Crickett. While I can.

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