Monday, December 29, 2008

Family Matters

Just before I went off to the navy, I gave my cherished wooden DC-3 model airplane to my cousin Tom, then probably around six years old. Tom is now the police chief of South Beloit, Illinois. He and his amazing wife, Cindy, have two children and four grandchildren. They just celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary. (My own parents were just shy of their 38th anniversary when my dad died.) I rely heavily on Tom’s knowledge of police procedures for verisimilitude in my novels. He recently told me he’d been reading my blogs and wondered why, after my having done blogs on my grandparents, aunt and uncle, I had not done one on the rest of the family. And so here it is.

In the mid-to-late 1930s my dad’s job was to train managers for newly-opened Western Tire Auto Stores in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana. Whenever a new store opened, we would move to whatever town it was in for the several months it took to train a permanent manager. The logistics of constant moves were bad enough without having to stumble over a very young boy at every turn. As a result, during the move and settling in period, I would be shuffled off to my beloved Aunt Thrya and Uncle Buck for a few weeks. They already had three sons....Charles (Fat), John (Jack), and Donald (Cork), thirteen to sixteen years older than I. But because I spent so much time with them, they were like brothers to me.

As the years passed and WWII came and went, Fat, Jack, and Cork all married. Fat and his wife, Shirley, had two sons, Jackie and Ronnie, four and eight years younger than I. Cork and his wife Nornie had four kids: Judi, Tom, Karen, and Dave; Jack and his wife Veda had no children. All the second generation kids grew up and went off and started families of their own and, as is the history of the human race, each new generation is like the ripples moving out from a stone dropped onto a calm surface: the farther away the ripples get from the initial drop, the harder they are to keep track of.

I’ve never made the distinction between first and second cousins: to me, they are all just “cousins” and I love and admire them all equally. All have done very well for themselves in their own lives: Tom, as I mentioned, is a police chief, Judi and Karen are/were nurses, Dave works in an atomic power plant in Mississippi.

I am eternally grateful to everyone in my family for their complete and unquestioning acceptance. As I’ve mentioned, I am the family’s only gay. They all knew it long before I told them, though it was a totally open secret. They all know Norm from our six years together, and when Ray and I came from California to drive around Lake Michigan, Jack and Veda had a family dinner for us, and Ray was simply accepted as my partner. Not one member of my family has ever for an instant made me feel unwelcome or as though I did not belong. I only wish every other gay and lesbian could say that.

Shirley, Fat’s wife, never missed sending me a birthday card until she died. Veda and Jack have been married for…it must be close to 65 years, now…and Veda has not missed a birthday in all that time.

My parents, Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck, Fat and Shirley, Cork and Nornie are all gone now, and I cannot allow myself to dwell on how terribly I miss them all. Grief is a deep and frigid ocean with a strong undertow which can sweep those who venture into it out into the depths to drown, so while I occasionally find myself standing on the shore, I never allow myself to go in the water.

If you have family, treasure them and love them and never hesitate to say how important they are to you. I hope mine knows.

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Friday, December 26, 2008


I’ve often observed…and my friends will readily verify…that I am not a slave to the gods of domesticity. Unlike one of my college roommates, who ironed his shorts, arranged his sock drawer by color, and was diligent to keep a sharp point on all 12 of his neatly aligned #2 lead pencils—I slipped a #4 in there one time and he had a fit (I don’t think it necessary to point out that we weren’t roommates for long)—I have a very casual attitude about most things which admittedly might somehow benefit by being kept in order or placed somewhere they could be found five minutes after putting them down.

I firmly believe Quentin Crisp’s observation that “dust doesn’t get any thicker after three years,” and can’t see much point in constantly vacuuming and dusting when things will only get dusty again by the next day. I started to read an article in the New Yorker four or five weeks ago, and take comfort in knowing it’s right there on the arm of the chair where I left it.

I wash dishes regularly, dictated more by the fact that I have broken all but three of my drinking glasses and don’t like drinking milk out of a cup, than by the joys of splashing around in a sink full of soapy bubbles. And when I do wash dishes, it is much easier just to leave them in the plastic drainer than to go to the trouble of putting them in the cupboard where I’d just have to turn around and take them out again.

Finding it increasingly difficult to close my refrigerator door, I did devote ten or fifteen minutes the other day to starting to clean out my refrigerator. I got about two shelves done before wondering if I might have any new e-mail, and in that time discovered enough mold in the 20 or so plastic containers I use to store leftovers to start a penicillin factory. (I’m really very good with leftovers. With food as with just about everything else, I hate to throw anything away. Now, even as I put a new container of leftovers in the refrigerator, I do not kid myself into believing that I’m ever actually going to eat the stuff, but I can’t throw it away just in case I might.)

I make my bed once a week (laundry day), or on those very rare occasions when I have a visitor. I really can’t see any point to taking the time to tuck and smooth and plump the pillows and carefully fold down the top of the sheet over the top of the blanket. Hey, this isn’t the Holiday Inn and I’m just going to get back into bed after 15 hours or so, so why bother?

I keep a laundry basket in my front closet, and I use it every Friday morning when I go to do the laundry. I just scoop all the clothes off the foot of my bed and off the chairs where I’d removed them, throw them into the basket, and I’m set to go.

However, my one homage to domesticity is that I do take the garbage out every single night, to the great dismay of the cockroaches which previously used to hold conventions under my kitchen sink before I began the nightly dumping practice.

And I do pick up Kleenex and paper towels from the floor within an hour or so of their falling there, and at least three times a day I scoop the mounds of Kleenex from the top of my desk. (At least, I think there is a top to my desk…I seldom actually see it due to the bills, receipts, notes, letters, empty torn envelopes, etc. which magically appear with absolutely no action on my part.)

But I do not consider myself a slob. I like to think of my apartment as I think of myself: “lived in.”

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Monday, December 22, 2008


I was watching a commercial for a new yet-to-be-released movie I had never heard of, and was amazed to learn from the voice-over…done by someone who obviously had far too much coffee before coming to work…that “Everyone is talking about it!” They are? Where have I been, under a rock?

Ah, hyperbole! It is wielded like a sledgehammer by the bottom-liners (who are far too often also bottom-feeders) who have taken over most of our society to exploit the gullible and turns the trusting into cynics. The result is that hyperbole has almost eliminated our ability or willingness to believe anything we’re told.

Hyperbole dictates that no adjective can be used unless it is a superlative. Nothing can be described as pleasant or enjoyable or merely good, it must be SPECTACULAR! All TV and radio sales pitches must be delivered with an enthusiasm with overtones verging on hysteria, and the faster and louder the delivery, the more effective it apparently is in convincing people that they simply cannot live without whatever is being touted.

Have you ever seen an ad, anywhere, suggesting that you to take your time and think it over before you buy? Hardly. Advertising is based on the same basic motivational principle as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Don’ think: ACT!

You must “call within the next twenty five seconds” to qualify to shell out your money for some schlock bit of crap you don’t need or really want. (Does anyone…anyone…think that if you call an hour later they are going to refuse to sell it to you?) This same wonderful item, you are breathlessly assured, retails for 10 times its “One Time Only Special Sale Price.” And the fact that they usually throw in several other (“And Wait! There’s More!”) auxiliary useless gee-gaws clearly shows that they realize that if the product was any good, they wouldn’t have to throw in all the extraneous garbage to get you to buy it.

Hyperbole fuels the seemingly ubiquitous Home Shopping Networks which offer up unneeded items 24 hours a day and, worse, those stupifyingly inane infomercials which hire hordes of obviously mentally challenged people to sit in the “audience” to ooh and aaah and applaud wildly in response to every patently absurd claim.

Have you noticed how many advertisers take great pride in announcing that whatever they’re touting “is not sold in stores!” Logic—sorely lacking in the wonderful world of sales—clearly says that if something is not sold in stores, it is because the store doesn’t want it. I think this is known as “turning lemons into lemonade.”

When I first lived in Chicago there was a cheesy furniture store chain which regularly bought full page ads in all the papers announcing their GIGANTIC PRE-GROUNDHOG DAY SALE! which was followed the day after Groundhog Day with their GIGANTIC POST-GROUNDHOG DAY SALE! They probably did the same with National Pickle Week, but I can’t recall.

There was, when I lived in L.A., a place called “World Appliances,” which I grudgingly appreciated for its sheer chutzpah and creativity, since it gave them the right, in every ad, to boast that they had “World’s Lowest Prices!!”

“Save Big Money!” “Piled High!” “....and comes with a Certificate of Authenticity!” “While Supplies Last!” “Everything must go!”

All of which just goes to prove H.L. Mencken was right in saying “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

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Monday, December 15, 2008

De Profundis

One time in college, during my sophomore year, a girl I didn’t know very well said to me: “You know, Roger, you really are a pompous ass.” I don’t remember exactly what had provoked the observation, but I do remember that rather than being insulted I was actually rather flattered. It had never occurred to me before that anyone might consider me being anything other than totally bland.

I have subsequently realized that I do have something of a tendency toward pontification, soapbox oration, and not-infrequent melodrama—which I suspect may have occurred to you from reading these blogs. And that I find endless fascination in this odd mixture of arrogance and insecurity allows me to ramble on (insecurity) and try to figure out just what makes me, you, and humanity in general tick (arrogance).

The fact of matter is that, like most people, I do have very strong feelings on a number of subjects, but unlike many, I have no hesitation in voicing them. That by doing so I risk being considered somewhat daft—a word seldom used nowadays, but I like it—certainly doesn’t slow me down. In the sincere belief that while you are probably too busy with your own life to devote too much time to frivolous thought, you might be willing to indulge them from time to time in my company. I do try to be careful to point out that I cannot speak for anyone other than myself, but part of me is quite firmly convinced that we all have much more in common than we generally acknowledge, and therefore when I talk (and talk, and talk...insecurity) of me, I am to some extent talking of you (arrogance). Since I am always delighted to learn, through comments I’ve received on these blogs, that other people do finding bits of themselves in my thoughts, it’s merely an extension to think you might do the same. I take great comfort thinking that we are not quite as isolated as we might assume we are.

My trips into pseudo-profundity and melodrama are definitely related to my constant awareness and appreciation of life. Melodrama is rather like zooming in on a photograph…it brings out details otherwise overlooked or ignored. My life-long fascination with disasters, from the Chicago fire to the San Francisco earthquake to large ship sinkings to 9-11, stems not from the human suffering they produce, but for the all-too-rare nobility and unity they almost inevitably bring out. This selflessness and unity, demonstrated in countless individual stories of courage and braveness, are to me evidence of what humanity really could become if it tried a bit harder.

The world…our society, our culture, our race…is a mad whirlpool of contradictions, of good and evil, of kindness and cruelty. I have always taken comfort in the thought that we so concentrate on the bad things in life simply because all the good things are so common as to go without comment. Love and kindness are the accepted and expected norm against which hatred and cruelty are measured, and the fact that we are shocked by them speaks to the fact that there is indeed hope for us all. Our media bombards us with so much evil and tragedy and bad news that we tend to be blinded to the good. There are far more puppies and kittens and babies in the world than axe murderers, yet it is the axe murderers who make the headlines.

So I get up on my rickety soap box and orate and wave my arms and pontificate in hopes that somehow, somewhere, some way, I might make the tiniest bit of difference in someone’s life. I say “in hopes” because, in the final analysis, hope is our salvation.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Butterflies and Skipping Stones

Considering the number of things that fascinate me, you’d think I’d be a lot smarter than I am. But my intellect is more the butterfly or skipping-stones variety, flitting/skipping from one fascination to the next without taking the time to really explore any one thing in any great depth.

This morning, in the period between being totally asleep and fully awake, I was thinking/dreaming of the interobang. I love the interobang, though it is very seldom seen—more or less doomed by the simple fact that it came along after the invention of most typewriter and computer keyboards and its limited usage even if there were keyboard room for it.

The interobang, as you probably know, is a combined question mark and exclamation point, for use in cases where a sentence can be either a question or a statement, generally of incredulity, such as “You’re kidding me!?”

And from the interobang, I flitted to the fact that the shortest words in the English language are “a” and “I” which are both, in themselves letters, though “I” has to be capitalized to qualify. And then I moved on to the fact that many words are pronounced as letters of the alphabet: bee, see/sea, gee, I/eye/aye, Jay/jay, Kay/quay (Jay and Kay are only letters that are also names), el, oh, pea/pee, cue/queue, are, tee/tea, you/ewe/yew, ex, and why (fudging a bit on this if you pronounce the “wh”, which most people don’t).

Which, of course brought me to a favorite fact, that there are sentences which can be spoken but cannot be written—as in the plural of multiply-spelled words. You can easily say “there are three (to/two/too or you/yew/ewe or I/eye/aye)s in English” but you can’t write it down without spelling out all the variations.

English, I have heard, is one of the most difficult to learn of all languages because it is so flexible, and there are more exceptions to rules than there are rules. The prefix “dis” (disassemble, disagree, disappear, disloyal) generally means the opposite of the stand-alone word it’s attached to. Yet I’ve never heard of anyone being “gruntled” or of an “aster”…though there are some interesting possible links in words like “disgrace.” The same is true of the prefix “in” (incredible, inedible, inappropriate, indecent) which can lull you into a false sense of security until you come across a word like “inflammable”, which means exactly the same as “flammable.”

Where words come from, and the relationship between words is endlessly fascinating. It’s amazing how little thought most of us give to them. I don’t know how many times I’ve used the example that the word “breakfast” literally means “break the fast of the night,” and how over the course of time words lose their clarity through mispronunciation (“president” was, I’m sure, originally pronounced “preside-ent”, which is the exact definition of the word: the president presides over the nation).

I know my more educated friends, upon reading this, will probably jump all over it, pointing out innumerable errors, misconceptions, etc. To which I reply, with all due respect: “Tough.”

The accuracy of my beliefs and assumptions aside, the fact remains that in response to the old “if you were stranded on a desert island, what one book would you take” question, my answer would be “an unabridged dictionary.” Every word of every book ever written or ever to be written is in there. The fun would be in knowing what every word means, and in putting them all together again.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When a Spade is not a Spade

Of the many things I loathe, abominate, hate, abhor, despise, and generally dislike, forced euphemisms are high on the list. What is there about human nature that we go to such astonishing lengths to avoid calling a spade a spade? I know that probably sounds odd coming from someone who is so disassociated from reality as I, but there are limits, even for me.

My cat, Crickett, is nearing the end of her days. I know it and, damn the concept of “pathetic fallacy”, I believe she knows it, too. She is now between 16 and 17 years old and has developed cancer at the site of a rabies injection. (I was not aware of it, but the vet says this is very common in both cats and dogs, and for that reason she avoids giving rabies shots whenever possible.) Once well rounded and sleek, Crickett is now little more than skin, bones, and fur, though I feed her a special high-calorie cat food and baby food, and have started giving her the same Boost-type supplement on which I largely subsist. I also give her two drops of pain medication every three days, on the vet’s orders. To me, the most solid evidence I have that she is aware of something is that for the first time in her life, she has taken to lying in my lap while I am watching TV at night. She is not dead yet, but already I grieve for her.

I hate to think that she is in pain, though she surely must be. She has developed a very noticeable limp on her left rear thigh, but she still lies down on that side. It is the matter of degree of her discomfort that I do not know and which bothers me the most. A friend asked if I would consider “putting her to sleep,” a euphemism even more objectionable than “putting her down”. I said no, I would not consider killing her…which is Realspeak for the euphemisms…unless and until I had evidence of real pain, which I do not have at the moment.

Our society has always used euphemisms for death. “He passed away.,” “He crossed over”. Bullshit! He died! I understand that some people find comfort in them, but come on…! (And I'm the one with reality problems?)

Anything relating to sex has, especially in America, been neatly coated in euphemisms. The 1953 movie, The Moon is Blue, is the first time the word “pregnant” was ever spoken in an American film? Throughout our history, women were never pregnant. They were “with child” or “in a family way” or “expecting.”

Euphemisms do have some benefit in providing a buffer for words which could well be considered cruel. Thus overweight people were not called “fat,” but “big-boned” or “hefty” or “zoftig.” “Obese” and “morbidly obese” only came along later, as political correctness began to take over our culture.

Today, however, being “politically correct” has gone beyond all logic; euphemisms are spreading into every area of society like germs in a sneeze. People are no longer deaf or blind. They are “hearing impaired” or “visually impaired.” Short people are no longer short, they are “height challenged.” Governments are particularly fond of euphemisms, apparently in hopes that the public is too stupid to know what the pretty words really mean. In war, the slaughter of innocent civilians during an air strike is merely “collateral damage.” Foes are not assassinated, they are “terminated with extreme prejudice.” Criminals are no longer suspects, they are “persons of interest.” And the list goes on to and beyond the horizon.

Like fire, euphemisms make a good servant but a bad master. We could use a few more servants and far fewer masters.

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Monday, December 08, 2008


I think if I were to be a flower, I’d be an Impatiens. I’m not sure I know what an Impatiens looks like, but I do like the name, since it reminds me of one of my most outstanding characteristics: impatience.

I’m sure it all stems from the fact of my raw-nerve awareness of the passage of time, and that every instant spent other than in doing what I want to do is time which will never come again, and brings me one instant closer to the moment when my mind, trapped as it is in a mortal body, will cease to function and all that will remain of me is what I have managed to put down on paper.

I know that there is much to be said for the joys of quiet contemplation, but I’m largely incapable of it. I’ve mentioned before that I simply cannot do nothing. I cannot sit on a park bench on a sunny day and just enjoy the act of sitting and being part of nature. I’ll be a part of nature soon enough, and enjoyment will have nothing to do with it. Even when looking up at a blue sky filled with puffy clouds, I can’t be content with just observing: my mind insists on searching them to find faces and sailing ships and tanks and fish.

I have never in my life begun a project involving physical labor which, ten minutes into it, I wish to heaven I had never started, and I too often, as a result, end up with a slipshod result simply because I was too impatient to take all the time to do it the way it should have been done.

When I go to bed at night, I look forward to dreaming, even if I can’t specifically recall the dreams the next morning, and should a night pass without my awareness of there having been dreams I feel cheated. I’ve been told, and firmly believe, that death is very much like a deep and dreamless sleep. Well, like being a part of nature, I can wait. And in the meantime I prefer lots and lots of dreams, thank you.

I am terrible at waiting. If I have to schedule an appointment, I want it to be scheduled for no later than the time it takes me to get from here to there. Sitting in a waiting room without a book or magazines is torture. Telephone calls which involve my being put on interminable hold by mega-corporations who lie through their teeth when they soothingly reassure me, every 30 seconds, that all their operators are still busy with other customers and that my call is very important to them send me into apoplectic fury.

My impatience has gotten me into more trouble, over the years, than I can possibly remember, let alone recount. I constantly say and do things that, on reflection, I wish I had not done or said, but I simply do not/cannot have the patience to think things out before I react. I tend to be one gigantic knee-jerk reaction.

Often, of course, time does not allow for patience. How often have we, ten minutes after the fact, come up with a really brilliant retort to something someone said, which left us at the time merely muttering something inane or stewing in silence? That’s one of the good things about writing: I control the time in my characters’ world. I can eliminate the gaps between the comment and the retort, and therefore be far more clever than real-time permits.

I’ve been told endlessly that I should practice patience, and I really should. But I just don’t have the time.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Stupid Questions

I love stupid questions. They always bring me up short, as though I’d run headfirst into a concrete wall at full gallop. I often have to go back and listen to the question again, since I couldn’t believe it the first time.

Television news often has a monopoly on stupid questions, and I have spent hours pondering just what sort of answer they might possibly have been expecting to inevitable (and utterly pointless) questions such as: “Tell me, Mr. Jones, exactly how did you feel when you found your wife and six children had been bludgeoned to death and run through the Cuisinart?” Do they really expect Mr. Jones to say “Oh, I just had a good laugh, poured them down the drain and went out to dinner”?

The degree of the stupidity of questions from reporters seems to go up exponentially depending on the number of reporters present. I especially love it when somebody is being hauled into court through a mob of reporters, who wave microphones and hop up and down and all but pee themselves in the general quest for truth. “Did you do it, Joe?” “Where did you hide the body/money, Joe?” Why bother with a trial at all? All we have to do is get Joe to say: “Sure, I did it; look under the tulip tree in my back yard.”

Why do they insist on asking the accused killer’s sweet little old mother if she thought he did it? What are the odds that she’ll say “Of course he did it! String him up!”

For a very brief period I was fascinated (the kind of fascination usually reserved for the Reptile Room at the zoo) by that TV show with Pat Sajak and Vanna White, where contestants politely request letters or vowels (I'm constantly amazed that some of them can tell the difference) to fill in the blanks in a well-known phrase. My very favorite was one in which everything hinged on only one remaining letter in the nearly-completed phrase “Once Upon a _ime”. The contestant studied it carefully and said: “May I have a ‘D’, please?”

I enjoy asking my own stupid questions in response to stupid commercials. (“The number to call is 665-0023! That’s 665-0023! Just call 665-0023 now! 665-0023!” To which I always ask: “What was that number again?”) And that infuriating whatever-phone-company-it-is with the guy asking: “Can you hear me now?” I always cup my hand to my ear, squint at the TV, and shout “What?”)

Among generally asked stupid questions are: “You wouldn’t lie to me would you?” “Can I trust you?” “Do you like my new nose ring?” and “I don’t look my age, do I look?”

I’m not the only one who is aware of stupid questions, and I’ve always been grateful to whoever first asked: “But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

But of all the contenders for the world’s most stupid question, I think the winner, hands down, is the old classic: “Have you stopped beating your wife?” There’s nothing like a simple answer, I always say.

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