Friday, February 27, 2009


I am buying a laptop computer to take with me to work at my prestigious and high paying part-time job behind the information desk at a nearby shopping center, a once glorious old one-screen movie palace gutted like a Halloween pumpkin and remade into a multi-level shopping mall (with a six-screen cineplex on the top floor). My job consists of sitting there every Saturday from 2-6, and every other Sunday 12-6, validating customers’ parking tickets and pointing the way to the bathrooms (“Every floor but this one, far right corner”) and the movie theaters (“Level four. Elevators or escalator.”)

There is also a Bally’s gym (“Down the hall, all the way in the back. Two elevators. Get off on level seven”) which does, admittedly, provide lots of eye candy, but even I can only see so many buffed and beautiful young hunks before my eyes glaze over.

So I generally spend my time reading or doing crossword puzzles. I”ve always mildly resented not being able to do anything constructive with my time there. Having the laptop will allow me to actually get some writing done.

One of my co-desksitters is a devotee of the type of gushing celebrity-fan magazines which, in their cloyingly unctious oohing and aahing over every belch the latest famous-for-being-famous sensation makes, induce projectile vomiting. To admit that I sometimes, in an incomprehensible burst of self-loathing, actually force myself to thumb through the glossy pages of tens of thousands of the Beautiful People busily being beautiful. One of these abominations has a regular feature called, with a stupendous degree of condescension, “The Stars are Just Like Us”, featuring celebrities caught in unguarded moments by the paparazzi. “They hold hands!” (A photo of some utterly fabulously famous hunk and bimbo—neither of whom I recognize, actually walking down the street—just like real live people!) “They eat ice cream!” (Through-a-long-distance-lens of another utterly fabulously famous hunk and bimbo eating ice cream cones.) And, looking at the photos, I find myself ooing and aahing and overcome with envy and dreams of Hollywood fame and fortune. And to think, these gods and goddesses actually do the same things you and I do! It’s....ohmygawdIcan’tbelieveit…absolutely astonishing!

My coworker’s fascination with how the rich and famous (to whom and why they’re famous is not always clear) live extends to a British magazine to which she must have to subscribe, called, I believe “Hello!” (Catchy name, what?) “Hello” is an outsized publication dealing with the lives of British upper-upper crust, and varies from its American counterparts mainly in that not all the people in it are gorgeous. But they have so much money, they don’t have to be. The pages are packed with exciting stories of royal teas and horse racing at Ascot and apres-polo receptions. The most current issue has a totally fascinating account of the Earl of Effingham-Slough’s engagement to Pamela Upston-Brandewyne-Smythe. And…can you believe it?…she’s a commoner! True, her father does happen to own half of Scotland, is listed in the Fortune 500 (he’s number 3), and controls several hundred offshore oil wells, but…he is not titled. The Earl is widely lauded for his democratic selection of a wife.

And the most astonishing thing of all is not just that perfectly good trees were cut down to produce the paper on which this excrement is printed, but that people actually buy these rags. Contemplating how utterly devoid of interest their own lives must be to force them to seek some semblance of a life in a tawdry magazine is enough to make one weep…well, me anyway.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Body Snatcher

There is a scene at the end of the l956 film, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in which Kevin McCarthy is running down a line of stopped cars in the rain, pounding on the windows, warning people of the invasion of the body snatchers. No one listens.

I know how Kevin felt. Time is stealing my body, and I am…we all are…helpless to prevent it. The theft is diabolically slow, apparently to keep us from being aware that it is happening, but Kevin and I are aware. I watch it with the horrified fascination of watching footage of people leaping from the doomed World Trade Center.

That it is “all a part of growing older” doesn’t work for me. That it is “just the way life operates” is so flimsy an explanation as to be discarded out of hand. The fact that we all age and are all robbed of what we once had does not make it right, nor does it mean we should just meekly accept it. Of course Time will win in the end. It always does. But I for one am not going without putting up one hell of a fight.

I have been chronicling the details of this theft endlessly in these blogs, to the point that I am sure you are tired of reading about it. I remember a guy I served with on the Ti, whose parents had been killed when their car was hit by a train. It was all he talked about, though they had been dead for many years. There seems to be something in a great many of us who are incapable of letting go of the past (let’s see, who do we know who is a prime example of this?). For us, the past is a huge old tree to which we lash ourselves against the hurricane winds of time. It worked for John Hall and Dorothy Lamour in the 1936 movie “Hurricane;” why can’t it work now?

To recognize a problem is, unfortunately, not to make it automatically go away. I dwell on aging largely because I cannot comprehend why it is happening. It shouldn’t be happening. It can’t be happening. To everyone else, maybe, but not to me! How the hell did I suddenly find myself in this Bates Motel mansion of a body? I constantly have to resist the temptation to grab people—especially young people—by the shoulders and shake them until their teeth rattle, shouting “Look at me! This isn’t me! I’m 20 years old, fer chrissakes!”

And even as I in effect criticize my body for increasingly failing me, I feel guilty. It doesn’t deserve it. It’s really been a very nice, eminently serviceable body. Maybe not a Mercedes Benz of a body, but certainly a Toyota Corolla, and it has served me wonderfully well all these years. It’s not fair for me to suddenly disown it, or criticize it. It can’t help what’s happening to it, and I feel terribly sad for it. And just as I bought my 1978 Toyota Corolla—probably the best car I ever owned—off the showroom floor and drove it for 12 years with an absolute minimum of problems, so has my body served me well from the day I was born up until my bout with cancer in 2003. It’s still serving me amazingly well considering all it’s been through, but I can’t help but look at newer models and wish I had one. Ah, we fickle mortals.

You will note, ladies and gentlemen, how in an amazing display of non-linear thought, we have, in one short blog, somehow managed to carom from Time being a body snatcher, through 1960 and 1936 movie references, to comparing bodies to cars. And you will note that at no time did my fingers leave my hand. What can I say? It’s a gift.

But much as I rant about the various cruelties and unfairness of aging, I am reminded of two little bits of wisdom which we all too often ignore: first, life is often described as a roller coaster…and nobody rides free. There is a price to be paid for the luxury of growing older. Second (and you might want to write this one down): The only people who are as young as they used to be are dead.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Controlled Mind

“Beat me! Beat me!” cried the masochist.

“No!” replied the sadist.

Don’t ask where that came from. Like a disproportionately high percentage of my thoughts, I couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t thinking of masochism or sadism (who does?). It was just there. It seems that whenever I’m not really concentrating on something specific, like brushing my teeth or writing a book, I have very little control over where my mind goes, or why.

I’ve often said I write these blogs to demonstrate that you and I have a lot more in common than you might think. And yet perhaps I’m deluding myself. Maybe it’s just my attempt to not feel quite so isolated from the rest of humanity as I sometimes do. I can’t imagine that your mind can be quite so chaotic. I always picture everyone else (which of course includes you) as being in far more control of their minds and their lives than I, and find evidence of that fact just about everywhere.

To everyone else—to you, as I imagine you—, the mind is a smooth-running machine: thought A to thought B to thought C. To me, it’s a vast pin-ball machine with me being the little silver ball caroming wildly from one thing to another.

I truly admire those people…no doubt you’re one of them…with almost total control over their minds and their lives; who see an objective at a distance of a year, a day, or an hour, and march straight toward it, totally undeterred by the maelstrom of distractions I find endlessly swirling around me.

I pass people on the street and look at them and know they are not like me. I can clearly see that they know what to do in any given situation. They never make stupid mistakes, or say stupid things they wish they hadn’t. They never get upset by petty or silly things. They have controlled minds, and part of me envies them for it, and part of me is terrified by the idea.

I suspect I associate a controlled mind with a lack of freedom. As annoying as my mental pin-ball gane may occasionally be, I also delight in its randomness; in the constant surprises it provides.

The problem is that each of us goes through life locked within ourselves, filtering everything through our own experiences, and reacting according to them because we can only observe others. We cannot be them. We live among five billion other people, yet only have one true point of reference—our own. And we almost never stop to realize that each one of those five billion is also living individually within themselves. So all five billion of us assumes that it is a matter of “me” being here and everyone else being there, sharing some secret bonds “me” cannot understand.

The lack of a controlled mind is one of the reasons this particular “me” gets so little constructive done. I seem incapable of preventing my mind from coming up with out-of-nowhere thoughts. (A case in point: my mind just flashed to a stack of celebrity rag magazines I had the misfortune to thumb through at my part time job, and set me to wondering how or why actresses and models …female models…seem to think that posing with one hand on a hip makes them irresistibly sexy/seductive? Surely there must be a reason, or they wouldn’t do it. A man posed like that would be considered…well, you know. It must be one of those “you’ve got to be straight to understand” things. There are a lot of those.) And, to quote Linda Ellerbee, so it goes.

So, since you have a controlled mind and I do not, I guess we’re not as much alike as I thought.

Or are we?

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Friday, February 13, 2009


Have you seen the commercial where the frizzy-haired blonde goes through the checkout lane, looks at her receipt in amazement, then runs from the store with her packages, yelling “Start the car! Start the car!” to her befuddled husband. She jumps into the car, they drive off, and she whoops with glee. Why? Because she thinks the store undercharged her. What a role model! Shouldn’t she have said something to the clerk? Don’t be silly! There’s nothing like cheating someone to really make your day, I always say. And if you run into anyone foolish enough to think cheating is wrong, just point them to that ad.

And I love the series of ads featuring various couples standing in their front yard saying “We owed the government $417,312 (or $20,000, or $6,918) in back taxes, but thanks to Screwem & Sons, we paid only $3.20.” Way to go, folks. How in the hell did you manage to get so far behind in the first place? Ever consider cutting back on your spending? (What? When you can in effect cheat your way out of your responsibilities? Nonsense!)

I know, I know…we all cheat in some way or another. We all fudge a bit on our taxes. Few people are noble enough to be totally honest in matters where to do so will cost us more money than we think is right or fair. There’s no harm in it, really. Is there? Anyone who rigidly obeys every law…many of which are ridiculous to begin with…is looked upon with mild scorn.

Being misleading is a form of cheating, and is, to be honest, the foundation of the advertising industry. We’re totally used to the fact that only one tenth of one percent of what we’re promised in ads actually fully lives up to that promise. (The photos fast food chains use for their “Double-Triple-Piled-High Burger bear absolutely no resemblance to what you’re handed if you’re foolish enough to go and order one.) The art of advertising photography is completely built on misleading prospective buyers. Ice cream is really lard, milk is watered-down Elmer’s glue, coffee is tea, and those little bubbles of freshness along the inner rim of the cup are created by using soap. The explanation that many foodstuffs do not photograph well…real coffee photographs like crankcase sludge…and that real ice-cream would melt under the heat of the lamps necessary to light it makes sense. But it’s still cheating.

Seen or heard those ads which say: “Emerging science suggests that Blexaplus-D may help reduce the signs of aging” or whatever. Now, that’s not cheating. They’re telling you the partial truth, but in a way which equals cheating. Look at it again. “Emerging (not established) science suggests (doesn’t say for sure) that Blexaplus-D may (not will) help (not completely do the job) reduce (not eliminate) the signs of aging (not aging itself).” Wonderful. I’ll take ten bottles/jars/tubs/tubes, please.

Loan companies engage in an oblique form of cheating those in debt. It’s cheating by omission, in not revealing what admittedly should be obvious but is not to those who don’t bother to think before acting. They’re more than happy to lend you money to pay off overdue bills, but they neglect to mention that not only will the bills you got behind on keep on coming each month, but you will have the additional burden of paying off the loan. Well, I’m sure you can take out another loan to pay off the original loan. It’s a vicious circle.
And each day we must carefully tiptoe our way through a maze of double standards, hypocrasy, contradictions, half-truths and outright lies. Is it any wonder we have a hard time coping?

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Monday, February 09, 2009


People are fond of referring to life as being a puzzle. I do it frequently myself. My mind, seemingly wired to think in analogies, zeroed in on that one this morning, and I reached the conclusion that each of us is like a single piece in the gigantic jigsaw puzzle of life. The problem is, we can’t see the whole picture. I visualize myself as being somewhere in the upper right-hand corner, probably a piece of the sky with maybe just the tiniest hint of…something…along the bottom. I’m not vain enough to think I’m a corner piece, and I know I’m not a part of the border: some part of me would have to be straight for that. So since I’ve always thought of myself as not really being part of the mainstream, I’m just content to hover above it all by just being a part of the sky. Though I do wish I knew what that tiny element of…something…was.

While I have no idea what the picture is—an Edward Hopper would be nice—it is undoubtedly not a simple one. A Van Gogh, maybe, or a Winslow Homer, or a Bruegel, or a Bosch. My primary concern is that it made some sort of sense, but my somewhat cynical side says it is more likely a Jason Pollock, or one of those maddening stacks of pencils.

The more I think about the analogy of everyone being a piece in the jigsaw puzzle of life, the more I like it. Every one of us is, after all, different from everyone else: different size, different shape, different color, and each has our own unique place in the puzzle. For those people—probably the majority—who naturally feel part of some larger group—circles of friends and family and organizations, and nationalities and ethnicities—the concept of being a piece of a much larger puzzle probably does not resonate as loudly as it might with the disenfranchised. For those who feel alone, isolated, unwanted, and disconnected from the rest of humanity to realize that they are each a piece of a gigantic puzzle which would not be complete without them might bring them some comfort. It’s not so important for us to know exactly where in the puzzle we fit, or what our individual piece represents, as it is to realize that we do have meaning and purpose, even though we might not know specifically what it is.

Our ability to question—to wonder what the picture is on the box in which all the puzzle’s pieces come—is one of the primary advantages over all other creatures on this planet, yet our ability to ask far outdistances our ability to find answers.

While I am a confirmed Agnostic, I do have to admit that logic dictates that this giant puzzle didn’t just evolve out of nowhere, and that a certain perverse sense of humor is involved in presenting Mankind with so very many questions and so very few answers. Being part of a picture we cannot see is one of these little perversities.

But in the end, our questions about the puzzle of life boils down to the situation of a dog chasing a car: what would he do if he caught it?

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Blank Pages & Telephone Poles

I enjoy blank-page days, when there is nothing that absolutely has to be done, no specific obligations to be filled, nowhere I have to be at a certain time. I’m writing this on such a day…a pensively overcast day during which snow is promised but is unlikely to be delivered. Even if it is, the prospect of the forecast 3-6 inches pales beside memories of snowfalls in northern Wisconsin which can easily bury a car to its hood. (One winter shortly before I left, a row of garages fronting the highway were completely buried under the combination of accumulated snowfall and drifts pushed up by passing snow plows.)

And very much like blanketing snowfalls, the beauty of blank page days doesn’t last very long. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, man seems incapable of leaving a blank sheet of paper or blank computer monitor blank. Just as we seem to have a compulsive need to get out there and leave our footprints in the snow, we seem driven to fill up any pristine white space with words with black squiggles and strokes to show we’ve been there. A blank-page day seldom stays blank very long, and having crammed as much into it as possible, we turn to the next blank page to repeat the process.

Looking back upon the reams and reams of my own once-blank-page days, now far more black than white, I sometimes wonder how many of them I would go back and either rewrite or erase if I could. Quite a few, I’m sure, and with far more rewrites than erasures. But unfortunately, time is a one-way street and we only move through it in one direction…physically, at least. (You may have noticed my fondness for metaphors and similes, which I tend to treat as ingredients in a tossed salad.)

The classic cliche of the forest and the trees is, however, apt here. We seem incapable of things clearly until they are past and cannot be changed. Perspective requires distance, which the state of “now” does not allow. The fact is, as—duck! Here comes another—that on the train of time, all seats face backward. Days, like telephone poles, fly past the window, and can only be seen in detail in the time between their passing by and their rapid retreat into the past.

It would be nice if we could take more time, with each blank page, to consider more carefully what we’re going to write on it, and the way we write it. But we don’t. And inevitably, as we look back on what we’ve written from the perspective of two or three intervening days or years, we too often tend to shake our heads and think “Now what in hell led me to say that?”…or “Why did I say it that way?”

We rush through our days as though we were being pursued, and then spend far too much precious time backtracking and either regretting what we’ve done or trying to redo them. A friend used to joke: “I always have to take you everywhere twice…the second time to apologize.” All too true, I fear. It’s the same way I feel about “Born Again” Christians: if they did it right the first time, once would be enough.

But we are seldom allowed—or allow ourselves—the time, opportunity, or the luxury, when faced with a new blank-page day, of preparing what we will write in advance. Life just comes upon us and zips past us by far too rapidly, like the telephone poles outside the train window. But it is to the credit of the human spirit that, even as we know we will not do so, we face each new blank-page day with the hope of writing something great, or at least of posting an interesting note on the passing poles.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

Remember Logic?

How is it that only you and I remember logic, and common sense?

Admittedly,I sometimes have a hard time differentiating between the two. Apparently there is one, since so many people deride logic, though few argue against common sense. Bewailing their loss seems to be one of the topics to which I return often, but I think that is due to my sincere concern that in our world, logic/common sense are following the path to extinction like the wooly mammoth and the dodo, and only by constantly sounding the alarm may we keep it at bay. But I'm not optimistic.

I just hit the “delete” button on the 359 or so spam messages received since last I checked (fifteen minutes ago?), and while I have trained myself never to even look at the subject lines, I couldn’t help note the top one: “Can you work today? Earn $225…” Please, Lord, who on the face of the earth with the intelligence to be able to read those words can possibly, possibly believe that someone will pay someone else (whom they don’t know from Adam) $225 a day, unless they’re looking for someone to rob a bank? Is anyone…anyone… naive (and I am being charitable in my choice of words, here) enough not to realize that this same message is appearing on millions of computers across the world, and to wonder what kind of work might be involved, and why they would need to go on the internet to find someone willing to work for $225 a day? Just open the door and yell…you’ll have more people than you know what to do with.

And yet every one of the billions and billions of spam messages is based completely on the lack of logic or common sense.

Advertising in general tends to be based on this same assumption: that no one will ask questions. Oxy-Clean can remove every stain known to man? Okay. The guy who touts the crap by screaming at the top of his lungs wouldn’t lie, would he? I mean, he’s obviously excited by the product’s wonders. I’ll just go along with him. (And if I act NOW I can double my order for the same price!)

Politics and religion are two egregious examples where lack of logic and common sense is king. Currently making the cyber rounds are a number of photos of Barack Obama with beleaguered Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich—irrefutable proof evidence of some sort of sinister if unspecified conspiracy or other. It never seems to occur to the people who promote this garbage that as a senator from the state of Illinois, Obama might…just might, I say…have had occasion to be in the same room or at the same event as the governor of the state he represents, and by some remote possibility, to actually be photographed with him? Nonsense. It’s undeniable proof that something pretty fishy is going on, and that Obama is tarred with the same brush as Blagojevich.

Fundamentalists routinely (I almost said “religiously”) engage in “selective interpretation” of the Bible, using only those passages which suit their purposes and totally ignoring others. “Homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord” has been trampled into the ground by spittle-lipped zealots, who totally ignore bans on eating shellfish, casting the first stone, loving thy neighbor as thyself, etc.

The Jews control the world! Gee, then why did six million of them die in WWII? The “homosexual agenda”....I’ve never, ever figured that one out. Homosexuals lust after young boys! Ah, I see. And do you, as a heterosexual, lust after young girls? Could you explain the difference to me, please? Guns don’t kill people: people kill people. Love that one.

I understand a few colleges offer courses in logic, but none in common sense. Perhaps they should. Before it’s too late.

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