Monday, January 26, 2009

The Cutest Thing!

I see...after I wrote what follows...that this is my second time round on this subject, so I hope you'll excuse any mild sensation of deja vu. But there are so many egregious examples, I feel it is a subject which deserves occasional revisiting.

I love cute. Puppies, kittens, and babies epitomize the word. But I loathe, with every fiber in my being, “cute”. A six-year-old girl being a six-year-old girl is cute. A six-year-old girl powdered, primped, rouged, and lipsticked to look like some tart-in-waiting for a “Little Miss Cutesy-Pie” pageant” is—through no fault of the poor kid—more than mildly repulsive, and I would be in favor of hauling the parent(s) into court and charging them with child abuse. Childhood is short enough as it is; to be robbed of it by some glory-seeking “doting” parent and paraded like a prize heifer at the county fair is nothing short of criminal. Yet the domineering parent(s) invariably and vehemently swear that “Oh, no; it’s her idea. She does it because she loves it!” Right.

The difference between cute and “cute” is the difference between charm and cheese, between sweetness and condescension. I enjoy the CBS TV program, Sunday Morning. But for some incomprehensible-to-me reason, one of their regular reporters, Bill Geist, has cornered the market on the cloyingly “cute”. With very few exceptions, every one of his pieces, abetted by his smarmy delivery, is designed to grab viewers by the throat, throttle them to within an inch of their life while screaming: “Isn’t this CUTE????” No, it is not. Bill Geist on, television off.

TV sitcoms rely on “cute” the way they rely on laugh tracks, in a pathetic attempt to convince you that the show is far, far better than it actually is. Shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos”(if the title is true, it is an indication that the End is near), too often depend on staged incidents designed with the utmost calculation to produce an “isn’t that funny/cute?” response. The results speak for themselves

TV commercials are notorious offenders. While Budweiser, for example, has come up with some really wonderful and sometimes charming commercials, I still have a gag reflex every time I think of their “Wha’sss Uhpppppppp?” ads. And if I hear “Meet Erica....Grand Pubah of Pasta” one more time….

One problem with “cute” is the perpetrator’s belief that if it was cute the first time it is done, it will be equally cute the 10,000th time it’s repeated. Al Roker, NBC’s weatherman on the Today show sends me reaching for the remote every time he announces, in a fake ultra-macho voice,“It’s FOOT-BALL night in A-MARR-ICA!” Please, Al…please NBC…enough already!!

There is a very sharp, to me, line between cute and “cute,” though it’s hard to describe. I think a lot of it lies in the intent and the application. Anne Geddes’ famous photos of babys posed in peapods or flowerpots are utterly charming, as are William Wegman’s photos of his Weimeraners dressed and posed as humans. There is thought and planning in both Geddes and Wegman’s work, but the key to their success is they know how to present it without destroying it.

Plunking a baseball cap sideways on a toddler’s head in an attempt to be just the cutest thing leaves me cold. And adults who resort to this practice in order to show how “cool” (read “cute”) they are make me want to grab the hat off their head and slap them silly with it.

There are few things harder to fake than charm and cute. And one man's "cute" is another man's nausea. For me, it's simple. It's like the famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009


One of the relatively few advantages of growing older is that the higher you climb on the hill of time, the more you can see when you look back over the things you have witnessed.

I was born fourteen and a half years after the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War I; eight months and eleven days after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first swearing in as President, and in the darkest days of the Great Depression. I had just turned eight when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and remember listening to President Roosevelt’s declaration of war. I was eleven and a half years old when he died. (Because I was too young to yet realize the importance of history, my primary concern was unhappiness that, for three days following his death, all regular radio programming was cancelled, the radio playing nothing but music, forcing me to miss out on my favorite radio kids’ shows.)

I was raised in a world of iceboxes and Dixie cups ice cream, of three cent postage stamps and twice-a-day mail delivery; of black and white movies with newsreels and travelogs and cartoons and 10 cent bags of popcorn. Railroad trains were pulled by steam engines, and there were no interstates or four-lane highways. Cars had running boards. Laundry was washed either by hand or by machines with wringers. Wet clothing was hung outdoors because driers hadn’t been invented yet. To call someone, you picked up the phone and, if someone else was not alreeady talking on the line you shared with one or two other families, asked the operator to connect you to the number you wanted (“Forest 984”; “Central 255”.) The rotary dial came considerably later.

During the war, gas and food were rationed, and required ration stamps. I remember paper drives, Victory bonds and victory gardens, blackouts and air raid drills (though I lived in the heart of the country). My parents had a small grocery store, and on those very rare occasions when they were able to get a box of Hershey bars, they were kept under the counter and distributed like gold nuggets to only their best customers. And WWII was followed by the never-declared Korean War, the Cold War, and Vietnam.

Fully 2/3 of the population of the world alive at the time of my birth are now dead.

I was born into a world so far different from our current one as to all but unimaginable to most of those alive today. It was a world with no computers, no television, no cell phones or ipods, no drive-by shootings or road rage or school shootings. A world where anyone traveling from America to Europe did so by ocean liner because there was no commercial trans-oceanic air service. Up until the mid-1960s, when you did travel by airplane, it was a Sunday-best occasion, and men always wore suits and ties. Diseases all but eradicated from today’s world—diphtheria, smallpox, polio—regularly claimed tens of thousands of lives. Hospital patients were anesthetized with ether dripped onto a cloth cone held over the patient’s nose and mouth. Even penicillin was not discovered until WWII. A diagnosis of cancer was a death sentence.

I served in the U.S. military at a time when, as a Naval Aviation Cadet stationed in Pensacola, Florida, a black serviceman could be asked to move to the back of the bus to let whites sit down. And now we have a black president.

I witnessed the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King; man’s first landing on the moon, school desegregation, the civil rights movement. Governments and nations rose and fell, as they have throughout time.

Each of us has our own hill of time, and the future is a thick blanket of clouds obscuring the top so we cannot see just how much more hill lies ahead of us. I hope my hill is a very high one, indeed. As may yours be.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Left Brain, Right Brain

Among the infinite number of things which fascinate me is the working of the human brain, and the division of basic functions between the left half and the right half. Most people tend to be either “left brained” or “right brained.”

I did a Google search on the subject, and one site offers the silhouette of a dancer turning. The key is for the viewer to tell which way she is turning: clockwise or counterclockwise. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that she was turning clockwise and, even though the text said that by concentrating, I could get her to change directions, I could not. So that, according to the test, indicated that I was a “right brain” person. I just went back to look at it again, and she was turning counterclockwise and stare and concentrate as I might, I could not get her to reverse direction.

The right side of the brain deals with feelings, imagination, appreciation and belief. That’s definitely me.

The left side of the brain deals with logic, details, facts, words and language. That’s definitely me, too. So which am I?

Google is rather like the dictionary in that it is nearly impossible for me to pick one option without going from one to the next. One included a 20-question test to determine if one is left-or-right brained. According to my score, I am right-brained without question. So where does that leave my left-brain words and language foundation?

I’m definitely far more word-oriented than I am visually oriented, which is why I am really not very good at physical descriptions. I admire writers whose physical descriptions of characters and settings paint vivid pictures. I wish I had that ability, but I do not.

Fortunately, one of the other sources I checked out espoused the belief that some people are whole-brained, and I think I should go with that one.

The loss of speech is common among stroke victims. But there are conditions in which a victim can speak and can recognize an item but be unable to say what it is. Shown a pencil, they cannot name it. But when the pencil is put in their hand, they can. Fascinating.

I’ve seen TV programs where for one reason or another…some severe forms of epilepsy or physical injury, for example…it is necessary to physically detatch the two halves of the brain, and in some severe cases, to remove one half entirely. Astonishingly, it is possible for the side unaffected to slowly take on all the responsibilities and functions of the other half.

While, as an Agnostic, I do not know if there is a God, and I definitely do not subscribe to the Judeo-Christian portrayals of Him as having any physical resemblance to the human form, I must acknowledge that there is simply too much wonder in the universe—too much order in chaos and too much chaos in order—for there not to be some force behind it.

I’ll let you know as soon as I find out. Promise. But I'm in no hurry.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I do apologize for my tendency, in these blogs, to start out in one direction and end up in ten others, switching subjects so abruptly and swiftly as to risk mental whiplash. But that’s the way my mind works, and I can do very little about it, try as I might. So here we go again… Be sure your seatbelt is firmly fastened.

As you may have noticed, one of the most frequently recurring themes of these blogs is “things I simply cannot understand.” There really doesn’t seem to be an end to them, to the point where I sometimes wonder exactly how I manage to get through an average day.

This morning’s news had a piece on Scientology and its apparent belief in reincarnation. In this case, it’s not only that I don’t understand it, but that I can see absolutely no point in it. What possible advantage is there in having one’s soul go from one body to the next if there is no memory of who you were originally? I know, there are some fascinating Bridey Murphy stories of people who vividly recall their past lives, and people like Shirley Maclaine who sincerely believe they remember past lives. But have you ever noticed, in those instances, how often the past life was as a general or a famous or rich person, and how seldom they were just ordinary people?

No, if I can’t remember in the next life what I was in this one, I’d just as soon skip it, thanks.

My lack of understanding of those things which seem to be easily understood and practiced by just about everyone with the IQ of a mashed potato inevitably leads to intense and unending frustration. Why can’t I understand?

Owners’ manuals, assembly instructions and all other forms of materials designed to make things easy never, ever are. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more than three paragraphs into a set of simple “insert Tab A into Slot B” instructions without becoming totally confused, and my frustration turns to fury at myself for my stupidity.

Were I suddenly to be the last man on earth and had to depend totally on myself for survival, I sincerely doubt I’d last the week. I occasionally watch those TV shows featuring individuals dropped in the middle of the desert or a rain forest or somewhere without internet access, and watch in awe as they effortlessly construct a three-bedroom home out of twigs and leaves, or prepare a gourmet meal of tree snakes and dung beetles…often without bothering to kill them first. Again, no thank you.

I recently needed to file a copyright on one of my works, so I went to the U.S. Copyright Office site on the internet and downloaded the forms and instructions. Well, that was an exercise in apoplexy, I can assure you. The “simple” instructions could have been written in Urdu for all the sense I was able to make of them. They are still sitting here, somewhere, on my desk.

Granted, much of my problem lies not with my stupidity, upon which I fall far more often than is really necessary, but on my ability to really concentrate, and to keep the slightest speed-bump in the road from sending me careening off over a cliff. What are speed bumps for everyone else tend to be craters of the moon for me. And as a result, I rely far too often on the kindness of friends with infinitely more expertise and patience than I to do things for me.

On the toolbar at the bottom of my screen there has always been a little “zoom in/zoom out” icon which enables me to enlarge small type. It has vanished. I know it has to be there somewhere, but I have absolutely no idea where it has, or where to look for it or how to get it back, and it has been driving me absolutely insane with frustration. Help? (The defense rests.)

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Monday, January 12, 2009


The U.S.S. Ticonderoga (CVA-14) at anchor off Naples Italy (Dec. 1955 or Jan. 1956)

Liberty boats pull up to Fleet Landing, Naples. The Ti, too big to dock at most ports, anchored in deeper water.

Shortly after I started putting up my “A World Ago” blog (, which details, via letters to my parents, my adventures in the U.S. Navy from 1954 to 1956, I heard from Con Filardi, a former shipmate aboard the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (CVA-14), who I’d not known at the time. He’d stumbled across my blog, and we’ve since established a friendship we never could have had aboard the Ti because he was an officer and I a common seaman, a latter-day Icarus fallen from the skies of the Naval Aviation Cadet program.

While I have some great movies of some of my adventures, I didn’t have a still camera and therefore don’t have all that many still photos of my days aboard the Ti, which were, on reflection, among the most memorable of my life. Con, however, took a great many still shots, which he has been kind enough to share with me. He recently found many more in storage, and sent some to me, including the two accompanying this entry of the Ti at anchor off Naples Italy, probably in November 1955 or January 1956. I am deeply indebted to him. The instant I saw these two photos, I experienced an amazingly powerful bittersweet mixture of joy, anguish, loss, and longing impossible to put into words. It was as though some invisible hand had reached through my chest and grabbed my heart.

To know that the instant those photos were taken, I was there, somewhere on that ship—probably in the commissary office with Nick and Coutre and Chief Sewell—, going about my business, utterly unaware that photos were being taken that I would be looking at 53 years later made me so acutely aware of wanting to be there, physically, again, a 22 year old kid. Foolish as it may be to hear, or even to say, I miss it so much it hurts.

Primitive tribes believe that a photograph captures the soul of a person being photographed, and that second of time in which it is taken, and holds it forever. The Ti is long and sadly gone, but at the instant shown here, she is alive and vibrant, and I am one of the 3,000 men living within her.

There is much to be said for being a hopeless, unredeemable romantic. But it comes with a high price, and I pay it every time I allow myself to dare to yearn for something or someone from my past. And even now, when I am having a wonderful time I am acutely aware that it will not/can not last forever, and that it soon will be the past, and that, even before it is gone, I will miss it.

Nostalgia requires distance. The Ti and my Navy days were not nearly so important to me at the time I was experiencing them. While I was actually in the service I hated it and couldn’t wait to get out. The last several months I would wake up every morning and, as soon as my feet hit the deck, say “I hate the Navy!” I was very young and it never occurred to me that time would change my perspectives. The young, especially, have difficulty in being able to see the forest for the trees. They’re too busy absorbing experiences and are too close to them to be able to get a perspective on them. I know I could not fully appreciate, at the time, just how lucky I was to have been able to see worlds I’d only dreamed and read of. Not that I wasn’t thrilled by the adventure at the time, of course…a kid from Rockford, Illinois finding himself in Paris, Rome, Naples, Cannes, Beirut, Istanbul. But each day required my full attention. It takes time to blend them together and provide an overview. It is only as we climb the hill of time that we are able to look back over where we’ve been and be awed by the view.

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Friday, January 09, 2009

Laziness & Priorities

Okay, there are two ways to look at it: either I am incredibly lazy—a lifelong condition—or I simply have a different set of priorities than most. I think I prefer the latter alternative. I have never sufficiently applied myself to anything. My school report cards were often accompanied by notes to my parents to the effect that “Roger could do much better, but he just doesn’t apply himself fully.” In college, I found it much more important to take full advantage of just enjoying the experience than in devoting as much time as I really should have to my studies. I averaged mostly B’s, but probably could have upped several of those to A’s if I had, as they say, applied the seat of my pants to the seat of a chair more diligently.

When I became a Naval Aviation Cadet, this tendency nearly got me killed on more than one occasion. On one night-flying exercise, several planes were sent up at the same time to practice formation flying. We were instructed to climb at a certain set speed, and to descend at another set but different speed in order to keep an exact distance between planes. I promptly forgot which was which and descended far more rapidly than I should have—a fact I did not realize until I saw the wingtip lights of the plane descending directly ahead of me getting larger and larger, faster and faster. I pushed the control stick sharply forward, and looked up to see the plane which was supposed to be ahead of me soaring directly over my head. I pulled back the throttle to slow down, and managed to get back into my proper position, but it scared the hell out of me, and rightly so.

I waste an inordinate amount of time going back to check things which I should easily have remembered. I’m copying a list of numbers, say, from one window on my computer to another. 5, 15, 31, 12, say. I look at them carefully and say them over as I look at them: 5, 15, 31, 12. I close out that window and go to the new window where I want to type in the numbers. 5, 15, 44, uh.....Back to the first window. 5, 15, 31, 12…5, 15, 31, 12…5. 15, 31, 12. Back to the window I want to put them. It’s been all of, what, three seconds? 5, 15,....uh.....

The principle of “Speak/act first, think later” seems, unfortunately, to have become my mantra. I don’t know how many times I have had to go back to apologize for, clarify, or correct something I got wrong the first (and often a second or third time) I know, I know…if I took the time to get it right the first time, I wouldn’t have to go back and re-do it time after time. Sort of like being a “born again” Christian…once should have been enough.

I like to think…I hope…it is simply a matter of priorities. I suspect my mind is always asking itself: “How really important is this in the scheme of things?” and the answer is more often than not “Not very.” Memorizing numbers certainly isn’t that high on my list of important things. Nor is making my bed, or dusting, or putting things away if there is a chance that I might be using them again in the next week or so. There are far more important things to do, like writing books and blogs and gathering acorns for the coming winter.

I tell you this because I am quite sure I am the only human being in the history of the world to have experienced this annoying-to-infuriating condition, and there is a strong streak of perversity and need for self-flagellation in my character, and I have always hastened to lay out my flaws and imperfections before anyone else has a chance to do it for me.

Be grateful you have none.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

'But Thee and Me'

I know you’ll want to write this down, so if you want to run and get a pencil, I’ll wait. Got it? Okay, here it is: People…are…strange. You might want to needlepoint it on a sampler.

Being a little strange is part of being an individual human being. We all have our own quirks, some of which we recognize in ourselves, but more often that others recognize in us. Some of us go out of our way to cultivate our differences, others try very hard to hide them.

There are three basic categories of strangeness: those…probably the majority…who are strange by nature, those who are strange by nature and design, and those who manipulate and exploit their strangeness. There are as many types of strangeness within each category as there are wildflowers on a Nebraska prairie in May. Most still fit into the broad category of garden-variety strange, ranging from those who iron their underwear and arrange their sock drawer by color to those who wear aluminum hats to prevent the F.B.I. from reading their thoughts. They largely go unheralded because they are as a rule content to keep their strangeness largely to themselves.

The “ordinary strange” seldom can be spotted in a crowd; it is the latter two groups that draw the most attention. Fads and fashions are a common way the second group cultivates their strangeness. “In” fashions, hairstyles, piercings, tattoos, wearing baseball caps at the cutest angles…all are ways to stand out. People flock to these trends, with the result that they all end up looking exactly alike and must go off in search of the next trend or fad.

The third group combines natural strangeness with calculation and purpose to achieve their own goals. Many if not most of the “famous” people throughout history fit this category. Artists —writers, painters, musicians—are generally strange, though many seem to work particularly hard at it. Salvador Dali, Picasso, Liberace, Ernest Hemingway, Andy Warhol, are only a few.

It’s when strangeness includes the “control factor” that strangeness passes from charming to weird, and far too often to dangerous. These people often use their strangeness to deliberately exploit stupidity and hatred to gain attention and power: Anita Bryant (remember her? No? Good!), Jerry Falwell and his ilk, etc. And when strangeness segues into weird that it becomes a cause for concern. And when this is mixed with megalomania and arrogance we get the truly frightening likes of Idi Amin, Atilla the Hun, and Adolph Hitler

I enjoy the unobtrusively strange; people with harmless little quirks which set them gently apart from others. As long as one’s strangeness does not impose negatively on anyone else, it lends both spice and charm to our lives. I still remember, from the first time I lived in Chicago, the little old lady who walked past my apartment building frequently. She had to have been in her 80s st the time, and was thin to the point of being gaunt. She always dressed as though she were going to the opera: long, white—or black, depending on the season—dress, elbow-length gloves, high-heel shoes, large-brimmed white hat with a red or black cabbage rose, pancake makeup with bright red lips and a toy-soldier circle of rouge on each cheek. Though I never had the chance to speak with her, I remember her fondly after all these years.

I’ve always been fond of the old Quaker proverb: “All are strange but thee and me…and I have my doubts about thee.” Hey, if the shoe fits…

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