Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Seeking Dr. Pangloss

It never ceases to amaze me how one of the strongest--and, actually, one of the most positive--of human characteristics is our inherent assumption that things should be better than they are. The negative side of that noble trait is that we are as a result constantly being hurt, angered, and frustrated when confronted by reality.

In 1759, François-Marie Arouet Voltaire wrote a little book called "Candide," in which the stalwart young protagonist is beset by an endless string of disasters, guided by his revered teacher, Dr. Pangloss, an utterly incorrigible optimist who assures Candide, with each successive disaster, that no matter how horrific things may be, "we are living in the best of all possible worlds." And Candide believes him!

I've spoken here before about my--and I am far from being alone--deep concern that human society is increasingly less humane: less about human beings as individuals than about making money and the search for power. It is ever-more-difficult to maintain a positive attitude when confronted with the mounting evidence to support this concern.

There is absolutely nothing worse than being made aware, often harshly, that we are utterly powerless to change, or even effect, our own destinies. It is little wonder that so many people turn their frustration into violence, and that so very many innocent people are subsequently made to suffer for things over which they have no control.

We are not only inundated with evidence or our own impotence, but consistently have our noses rubbed in it. If we are not directly exposed to blatant greed and injustice on any given day, there's ample proof of it all around us. I received two emails this morning from my publisher telling me how she had just gotten a 50-inch plasma TV from this wonderful site, giving the link and encouraging me to go to it. And while it was obviously and blatantly bullshit, the realization that not only had someone stolen her identity for this spurious and specious crap, but that people, knowing and trusting her, might actually be suckered into going to the site infuriated me. And she is absolutely powerless to do anything about it! ANYTHING!! The fact that people do this to one another without one single shred of conscience pushes me to the brink of despair. Yet the perpetrators of this outrage can rest in the smug certainty that they can do whatever they want to do to whomever they choose to do it, and the victim is utterly powerless.

This unconscionable disregard for other people is not limited to faceless spammers or corporations. I remember when I was working part time at a supermarket in northern Wisconsin. We closed at 9 p.m. and one evening a woman and her husband came in about six minutes before closing and began shopping. The woman took her time going up and down each aisle. At five 'til nine, an announcement was made over the loudspeakers that the store would be closing in five minutes. The woman was unfazed, and continued her casual browsing. At nine, it was announced that the store was now closed, and for any shoppers to please bring their carts to the checkout immediately. She totally ignored it. Finally, at about ten after nine, as she reached the end of an aisle closest to where I was waiting at the register with lava flowing out of my ears, she merely began to head up the next aisle. Her husband said: "They're closed. We're keeping all these people from going home." She merely looked at him and said casually, "I don't care."

Were it me, I would have simply locked up my register and gone home (or, preferably, gone over and shoved her cart up her ass), but the manager wouldn't allow it. (What, and lose $10 in sales AND alienate a valued customer we had never seen before and would most likely never see again?)

This woman was not unique, and even faced with absolutely unforgivable behavior such as hers, we overlook it when there is a dollar to be made.

Dr. Pangloss, I fear, was right, but with a bitter twist: we live in the best of all worlds possible to us until we can bring ourselves to create any better.

Until then, we are sheep, and will continue to meekly tolerate the intolerable simply because we do not have the guts/courage/will to speak and act in protest of injustice. Until and unless we not only realize that logic and human decency far outweigh greed but act upon that realization, we will suffer the consequences.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back...and bring a friend. Your comments are always welcome. And you're invited to stop by my website at, or drop me a note at

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Last Night We Climbed a Mountain"

A recent CBS Sunday Morning program featured a piece on nostalgia, and its value to our lives--a theme constantly returned to in these blogs. I find myself perhaps-too frequently going back in time through my long-ago letters to my parents, seeking the comfort of things and people now so long and heart-achingly gone. I am well aware that I now see my Navy days through a more rosy lens than I was wearing at the time, but because the experiences described were written down almost immediately after they happened, they are safe from the cloudiness of memory, which grows thicker with each passing year. And while it is fairly clear in the letters that I was, even while living them, able to appreciate aspects of my service days, their closeness in time prevented me from appreciating them more fully.

Here is one example.

1 April 1956

Dear Folks

Eight-fifteen on Easter Sunday, 1956—a holiday on the calendar only. The whole day has passed in that state of passive nothingness so many of the days do around here. Two months and six days and we’ll be on our way home. 133 days before my discharge.

Tomorrow we leave San Remo for Valencia, from where I hope to go to Madrid. But nothing is certain around here, so we shall see.

Last night we climbed a mountain. Lloyd, myself, and two other mess cooks were out wandering around when we ran into two American girls going to school at the Sorbonne in Paris. One was from Georgia and the other from Louisiana and they had just the syrupy-est drawls you evah did heah. We talked to them for awhile—they speak French with a Southern drawl, which is no mean accomplishment.

After awhile we left them, and Bader (one of the guys) said he knew a nice place “up on the hill.” San Remo is surrounded by “hills” that would stand out like sore thumbs in Illinois. We said OK, and he said: “We can either walk or take a taxi.” Only having about four dollars between us, we decided to walk.

So we walked—it wasn’t so bad at first. As we got into the older part of the city, where the houses cluster together and only grudgingly permit narrow streets, it got a little steeper. At last we came to the “suburbs,” where the houses are more scarce, but where the paths are hemmed in by garden walls. An occasional dim streetlight emits a bare light. The paths became very steep, and on the other side of the walls, the tall silhouettes of poplar trees stand black against a black sky. Now and then a dog barks, but otherwise it is deathly silent, with only the ghostly street lamps far apart.

We came, half dead, to a place where we could look down on the city, twinkling like scattered diamonds, with a necklace of light along the shore reflecting from the water. Out in the water was another group of lights, echoed in long shimmering lines, that might have been a small village on an island—it was the Ti. I could have stayed up there and just looked for hours.

When we finally reached the restaurant, 787 feet above sea level, we had a large plate of spaghetti (for only 50 cents).

Where I’d had trouble coming up, Lloyd had trouble going down—somehow, though the path twisted and turned and there was only one way down, we lost the other two, who’d walked on ahead.

Not wanting to come back to the ship, we went back to the little bar we’d visited every time we’d been ashore, to say goodbye to Maria and her folks. We stayed there for awhile, watching the Milan Opera Company do “Madam Butterfly” on TV, and returned to the ship at about 2300 or so.

And so to bed, after first sweeping down the office—which I am quite sure Boswell never had to do.


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Friday, December 25, 2009

And to All...

Taking the day off, but will be back on Monday. Hope to see you then.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Cards

I do not like to be reminded of how far short I fall of qualifying for sainthood, but the Christmas season provides ample evidence of my shortcomings. I got a beautiful Christmas card the other day, with a warm, hand-written note from a friend who has, over the past several years, endured more physical, emotional, and financial hardships than most people are subjected to in a lifetime. Yet she took the time and effort to reach out in a traditional gesture which is rapidly vanishing: real paper cards sent through the regular mail.

I have, I am almost ashamed to say, not mailed a Christmas card in years. I still have several boxes of cards on a shelf in my closet but I increasingly found that I inevitably put off starting to address them until the last minute. Then, considering that I always want to add a personal note (I am not very good at being brief) in each one--which requires the time for me to be sure my handwriting is even remotely legible--by the time I'm ready to mail them, it's too late for them to arrive by Christmas. And while it is niggardly of me to admit, sending 50 cards at 47 cents postage is not cheap.

So I, like exponentially-increasing numbers of other people, have resorted to sending e-mail greetings. On-line card sites like offer thousands of quite beautiful cards, most with some form of animation not available on a printed card, and the time normally spent on getting a paper card ready for mailing can be used for adding a personal note on each. There are of course drawbacks to e-cards, primary among them being that e-cards tend to be one-exposure events. They cannot be put on the mantle or a coffee table, and those intended for more than one person may not, by the nature of the confines of the computer monitor, be seen by more than the specific e-mail addressee.

Traditional paper cards also involve the comfortably familiar tradition of opening and reading the card, physically transporting it to be set out with other cards, where it will be seen at least peripherally every time anyone glances at the display. And finally, after Christmas, they will be seen again when they physically picked up to be either packed away or discarded.

That traditional Christmas cards should be joining the dinosaur on the track to extinction is hardly surprising considering the sea-change our entire culture is undergoing. I grew up in a world where the exchange of Christmas cards was part of everyone's social fabric, and you felt a strong obligation, if you got a card from someone to whom you had not already sent one, to get one out the same day.

Of course I was also raised in a world before Political Correctness became the 800 pound gorilla in the room...where the majority--meaning white Anglo-Saxon Christians--had relatively little contact with anyone who wasn't also a white Anglo-Saxon Christian. So of course it was "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays." There was, for all practical purposes, no Hannukah, or Kwanzaa (which didn't even exist until 1966). Just Baby Jesus and a manger, and the Three Wise Men. There were no atheists or agnostics--or if there were no one paid any attention to what they might think on the subject.

Not all of what has happened in our changing world is bad, but I fear that rather than freeing us, it seems to have restricted us to the point where we must be concerned with whatever we say, lest we offend someone.

I am a practicing Agnostic, but I find comfort in Santa Claus and the manger, and the star of Bethlehem because they were an integral part of my life. And while I don't send them, I enjoy getting Christmas cards (and calling them that). For I sincerely believe there is an overlapping of the secular and the religious...a zone in which warm memories and sincere good wishes far outweigh political correctness or religion.

So please, if you are kind enough to send me a paper Christmas card, don't be offended if I send you an e-card in return. Just remember that it isn't the method but the message that counts.


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Monday, December 21, 2009

Death and Practicality

We humans are an odd lot. The subject of the impending death of someone we care about is one of our culture's collective taboos, and we go to great lengths to avoid even thinking of it until it actually occurs. Even when we know someone for whom we are responsible is dying, we refuse to acknowledge it or make the most basic preparations for it, even when to do so would save untold stress and emotional trauma when the inevitable happens.

My current situation with my friend (and long-ago partner) Norm inspired this particular blog. Norm is dying. I hate even watching these words appear on my computer screen as I type them, yet the fact is inescapable. He has terminal emphysema (Thank you, Philip Morris! Kudos to you Liggett & Myers! Way to go, Marlboro!) and grows just a bit weaker with each passing day. Since his only functional brother lives a couple hundred miles away, and since I've always considered Norm family, I do the best I can to be there for him. Part of that involves my holding his Power of Attorney for health care.

The death of someone close to us, no matter how well we may think we are prepared for it, always comes as a shock. It is the worst possible time for those responsible for funeral arrangements to have to deal with them, and the ability to make rational decisions--especially about what the deceased would really want in the way of the elaborateness and expense--is severely limited. Too often a sense of...what? guilt?...misguided devotion?...leads us to be manipulated into being far more extravagant than logic warrants by a funeral industry which is, despite the number of caring people in it, and its almost universal denial, after all in business to make money.

We have been culturally conditioned to believe that the money lavished on last rites for a loved one is demonstrable evidence of and in direct proportion to how much we cared for the deceased. ("That funeral was a disgrace! Did you see that cheap casket? And after all Aunt Tilly did for them! She deserved far better!") And nothing I can say here will change that.

But the reality--harsh and cold as it may be--is this: the moment the individual makes the transition between being alive and being dead, that person is far beyond knowing or caring what happens to him/her. What is left is no more a person than an egg carton is eggs. The contents are gone. Granted, it should be treated with dignity and respect, but to spend $25,000 for a gleaming mahogany and brass casket which will, within days of being purchased, be either be sent immediately to a crematorium or buried in the ground forever? Come on, people! It is far better to show how much we care for someone while he/she is alive rather than go to unreasonable expense to place one empty shell inside another.

But I digress, as usual. Norm. When my mother was dying of lung cancer (Thank you, Philip Morris! Kudos to you, Liggett & Myers!), I made complete arrangements for her funeral a month before she died, so that when the time came, I was spared the additional trauma of making funeral arrangements. I have never regretted doing so. And now I've done it with Norm. I know, I know, to make funeral arrangements while the person is still living may strike many as cold, callous, or uncaring. But it is not.

Pre-arranging also allows time to resolve any unforeseen problems which might otherwise arise from not knowing what to expect. I was, for example, made aware that the power of attorney which gives me the right to make the arrangements ceases at the moment of death. Which means that had I not been aware of that fact until death had occurred, I would have absolutely no legal right to even call someone to come and pick up the body. At death, the remains become the responsibility of the legal next of kin. I was able to give the society contact information for Norm's brother and immediately called him to convey that information, and thereby undoubtedly saved both of us a considerable amount of anguish had I waited until Norm is gone.

Norm's will states that he wants to be cremated. So last week I joined the Illinois Cremation Society on his behalf. The cost to join is $50, and the subsequent funeral expenses are, on the basic level, far lower than they would be through regular funeral establishments. Everything is handled from the moment of death onward.

Pre-planning still involves making decisions, of course. There are any number of containers/coffins/caskets (with correspondingly escalating price tags), for example, to choose among. But the lack of pressure for an immediate decision allows practicality--such as the full realization that both container and body will be reduced to ashes in the cremation--to be taken into consideration. I therefore chose the most basic and least expensive casket, and feel sure it is what Norm would want.

There are an astonishing array of urns for long-term preservation of the remains (the ashes can even be compressed into something akin to a diamond that can be set into a necklace or pendant), with an equally astonishing array of prices. But since Norm wishes his ashes scattered, a permanent urn was not an issue. Were I making arrangements for myself, I'd just have my ashes put in a paper bag. What would I possibly care at that point? I was shown a couple of very simple containers for the purpose holding the ashes until the scattering. Costing $95 and $125, respectively, both were far more elaborate than I felt practicality dictated, and I chose the $95 one without feeling one whit of guilt or disrespect.

Every penny not spent on unneeded funeral ornamentation goes into the estate, from which a number of worthy charities will benefit. The less on the funeral, the more to the charities and to living people who really need it, which is exactly what I know Norm would want.

And having said all the above, and stressed the importance, logic, and practicality of making funeral plans before they are needed, I can still hear the disapproving "tsk-tsk" of hundreds of years of cultural indoctrination which tells us it is wrong for us to think of death until after it has occurred.

Cultural indoctrination be damned.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

A Night in Cannes

I never tire of my trips back through time, and am infinitely grateful that whenever I feel like doing so, all I need do is go to the stack of letters I wrote to my parents as a very young sailor. Please, come along on another jouney.

8 - 9 July 1956

Dear Folks

And then it was Sunday afternoon—and here I am, all wet-nosed and bushy-tailed, eagerly looking forward to the 35 days I have left in the Navy.

Last night I spent in the U.N. Bar, on Shore Patrol. There were two of us assigned to “keep the peace,” but they needn’t have bothered—that was the only bar in Cannes where the Shore Patrol outnumbered the sailors. The only excitement of the evening came during one of the times the place was fairly crowded. A bunch of guys came in to see the floor show, but they didn’t want to buy anything. The manager told them they’d have to buy a drink or they couldn’t stay. They were completely loaded anyway, but got highly indignant when the manager called off the show in the middle of a dance. Words flew hot and heavy, and we were asked to tell them to get out. Within two minutes, the place was swarming with Shore Patrol—chiefs, officers, and whitehats. Where they’d all come from I can’t guess. At last the insurgents left (calling the owner “A Communist; that’s what y’are; a Communist—won’t serve American sailors. Shore Patrol ought’a lock up the place”), and the Shore Patrol left, and all the other sailors left, leaving just the two of us and the five barmaids.

The “floor show” consisted of a belly dancer who came out in a grass skirt and a lei, and another dancer whose object was rather vague. Prices were terrific, I understand—beer was 275 Francs (about 80 cents). Fortunately, they closed at 12, and we got to come back earlier than the roving Patrol, who stayed out till three.

Cannes late at night is very pretty—the night was warm, and along the boulevard beside the sea, colored lights projected in and from trees and bushes—greens, pinks, blues. People strolled along, not at all in a hurry; out in the water the spangle of lights from an ocean liner glimmered on the water….

The next day was Monday, that being the way things went in those days, and as we look in on our hero, we find him hunched over his pen and paper after a long hard struggle with two sets of whites and an iron.

The movie for this evening is a Hollywood extravaganza called “The Cult of the Cobra” starring no one in particular. It deals with a voluptuous young woman (always good material for a movie) who has the rather annoying habit of turning into a cobra at the most opportune times. She runs (or slithers) about biting people until there is just her, the hero (with whom, as a woman, she is madly in love), and the hero’s girlfriend—of whom the cobra lady is not overly fond. I will not tell you who triumphs in the end, for that would spoil it for you, and I am sure you will want to see it next time it comes to your neighborhood nickelodeon.

One month from today I should receive my discharge, if all goes well. You must excuse me if my letters become wider apart; I honestly don’t feel like writing—no gloom, no nothing—it’s just that if I try to find something to do every single minute, the time goes by so much faster.

I’m sending off another roll of film today, most of it on the Riviera. By the time you get it, I should almost be home, so I’d rather you didn’t look at it. I’m not in it, anyway.

The first week I’m home we’ve got to go to DeKalb so I can pre-register. The first few weeks we’ll have to stick together like glue to make up for the two years I’ve been away.

It is comforting to look at the calendar and know I have more leave time accumulated than I could possibly use.

Tom Dolan loaned me a book of Aldous (“Brave New World”) Huxley’s short stories, and I am considering sending Mr. Huxley a shovel so that he can dig a hole and bury himself alive. If life is so terrible to cynics, why do they bother living it at all?

It is now ten minutes till nine. Above the office, in the barber shop, they are weight lifting. Every time they drop one, it is as though we were inside a bell tower at the stroke of midnight.

You will notice this letter has a 9 cent stamp. I’m desperate. Now to take a shower and then to bed.
P.S. Tell me, do you think Roosevelt really has a chance at a fourth term?

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hustlers I Have Known

Yeah, I know this is generally a pretty PG-rated blog, and I'm not about to go into lurid (though sometimes rather interesting) detail, but for some reason I had occasion to think of hustlers, and to be reminded that prostitution--nor, contrary to popular belief, anything else in the world--is not strictly the purview of the heterosexual majority. It is an integral part of the gay community as well as the straight, and I got to thinking about the hustlers I have known through my life. I've admit I've always been somewhat fascinated by them, though far more from a lifestyle rather than a business standpoint.

In the course of my travels through life, I've encountered a number of both male and female prostitutes and gotten to know--not necessarily in the biblical sense--a number of them, though none very well. Hustling, like female prostitution, is not a glamorous lifestyle conducive to making casual friendships. It is, in fact, by and large a hard and frequently dangerous life.

My Dick Hardesty mysteries is perhaps as a result peppered with hustlers, and Dick's partner Jonathan was in fact hustling when they met, as was another major recurring character, Phil Stark ("Tex/Phil").

While I was in the Navy, I encountered several "ladies of the evening," though only in passing and from a totally non-involved standpoint. You can't be a sailor without running into a number of them. But until I moved to Los Angeles in 1966, I'd never really been aware of their male counterparts.

A very close friend with whom I shared a house in the Hollywood hills was in his mid 50s when I met him, and he collected hustlers like some people collect matchbook covers--not always for the services they provided but because he was, as I became, intrigued with them as people. He was never judgmental and always treated them with respect. As a result, he developed several long and sincere friendships with them. When I first, in my middle-class, middle-west righteousness, asked him how he could frequent hustlers, he said simply: "When I want a hamburger, it is much easier to go out and buy one than kill a cow."

I have talked several times before about one of his hustler friends. Jimmy was in his mid twenties at the time and not only strikingly beautiful but one of the sweetest, most innocent people I can ever remember meeting. He was different from most hustlers I came across in that he did not become hardened over time. He realized he would not be hustling forever, and while I'm sure he never finished high school--he would never even try to play Scrabble--and his exact plans for the future were nebulous, he carefully put one-half of everything he earned from hustling into the bank, against the day when he, whether through choice or necessity, stopped hustling.

It probably wouldn't occur to most people that hustlers are just as prone to danger as their female counterparts...perhaps more so. I had a friend whose roommate hustled, and who went out one night to "go to work" as he put it, and never came back. They found his dismembered body in several Dumpsters around North Hollywood. His killer was never found. (The deaths of prostitutes, male or female, have historically and tragically warranted less attention and concern than "respectable" people.) I based the character of Billy in "The Hired Man"...a book about male escorts...around him.

However, certain hustlers can also be dangerous themselves. Gay men's fantasies often revolve around very masculine men, and many hustlers play on that fact. Most do it just as part of the game, but some play for real. Robberies and even murder of their clients by hustlers is not unheard of.

While I was editing In Touch for Men, I got to know a number of hustlers, many of whom applied to be models for the magazine and, because many of them were extremely attractive, we occasionally commissioned photo shoots for them. One I remember distinctly, and when we did his photo shoot, we did so at my home. He turned out to be the inspiration for the continuing character of Jared Martinson in the Dick Hardesty series. Though he didn't like to talk about himself, I learned he was exceptionally well educated. He was fluent in Russian and, I gather, had a degree in it (as does Jared).

And thus does a writer transfer parts of himself and his experiences into his work.

And why have I devoted an entire blog to a subject largely unknown or of very little interest, and possibly considerable unease, to most people? Because the world abounds in the different, the unusual, and the strange, and we owe it to ourselves to know a little something about as many variations on the human condition as possible. Even if one is not happy with what one discovers, knowledge expands the mind and perhaps gives us a better appreciation of our universe.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back...and bring a friend. Your comments are always welcome. And you're invited to stop by my website at, or drop me a note at

Monday, December 14, 2009

Guess What? More Spam!

And once again, the cesspool of my spam folder runneth over, and once again, my knee jerketh in response. Here are a few more choice bits of the spammers's art, cut and pasted exactly as I got them.

"HELLO, - Hello Compliment of the day to you my name is Garry Loopy finance manager Bank of Scotland, i am..." (...aptly named. And I was always under the impression Scotland was an English-speaking country. Obviously, from your note, I was wrong.)

"Burn all the Statues and their shelves - Nor turn aside to Yarrow..." (Uh, most statues are made of stone or ceramic or metal and don't burn, and if they're small enough to stand on a shelf, they're statuettes. But I'm definitely with you when it comes to not turning aside to Yarrow, whatever that's supposed to mean.)

あなたは何を育てる?大人のみが集まる農園 (Now, that's funny! I'll take two!)

"Order what your doc wont give you for Pain-or-Anxiety." (Wow, man! This is, like, fantastic! I stubbed my toe the other day, 'ya know, and my doc refused to prescribe Oxycodon or Percocet or Valium or anything that would really help. Please send me 4 bottles of each.)

"Google is paying my bills! I can't believe how easy this is...." ('Ya know what? Neither can I or anyone with the I.Q. of a baked potato.)

"Make it large nad stone hard." ('Nad?' And what made you think I was taking orders for one of my famous souffles?)

"View pics of local Christian singles!" (Praise the Lord! Where do I go for pics of local godless, they'll-all-burn-in-hell heathen singles?)

"your not old" (My not old what?)

"DEAREST, I AM MRS CYNTHIA ABDUL. I AM A WIDOW BEING THAT I LOST MY HUSBAND..." (Well, yes, Cynthia...that's usually a requirement for being a widow.)

"Twice seven consenting years have shed - In a strange Land and far from home...." (Oh, yeah! Cutesy crap like this always guarantees I'll be just dying to buy whatever it is you're selling.)

"Catherine S. From Rhode Island just received $590 today from google!"(Suuuuuuure she did. Hey, you wanna buy a bridge?)

"Be like Davd M. and earn thousands of dollars a month with google!" (David, meet Catherine and the 14,000 other people I've gotten spam from in the past week with these google pitches.)

Arnita Arlinda "En1argerPenis 3" in 6 Weeks, see myPenis pictures as proof." (Uh, thanks, Arnita, but I think I'll pass. And isn't Arnita a woman's name? Women have penises now?)

"Millionaire wants you to cash in!" (Take out the word "you" and you have the reason behind all spam.)

heidi lowe "C4 Work for Google! 40 - Thought you might be interested in this news article...." (Well, "heidi", other than the fact that the coding clearly says this is one of 4,000 pre-packaged "messages" you've bought a franchise to pass on, the fact is that no, I would not be interested in this news article, or the next piece of recycled garbage you try to foist off on me.)


New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back...and bring a friend. Your comments are always welcome. And you're invited to stop by my website at, or drop me a note at

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chewing on Tinfoil

Only those who have been unfortunate enough to actually chew on tinfoil can fully appreciate the title of today's blog. My mind being what it is, I found myself this morning making a list of some of the things which induce a similar reaction in me.

The endless Subway commercials featuring "just plain folks,"singularly and in groups, singing "Five dol-lar foot-longs" excruciatingly off-key and obviously under the impression that what they're doing is really, really cute.

Those who think they are really, really "cool."

Baseball caps worn with the bill in any direction other than straight forward (reason same as above).

Al Roker, weatherman, solemnly intoning "It's FOOT-ball Night in A-MAIR-IK-A!!!!"


Plavix commercials' final warning: "Just because you're feeling better doesn't mean you're not still at risk."

Extreme Home Makeover's Ty Pennington's "Goooooooood Morning, Whoeverinhellyouarethisweek Family!" and "Well, I guess there's only one thing left to say."

"...for well qualified buyers."

"No reasonable offer refused!"

"Every application accepted!"

"Emerging science suggests..."

"May help reduce the appearance of..."

"Everyone's talking about..."

"Call within the next three minutes!"

"Not sold in stores!"

Any Infomercial.





Anyone who presumes to speak for God.

"But wait! There's more!" ....which I'll get to at another time.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back...and bring a friend. Your comments are always welcome. And you're invited to stop by my website at, or drop me a note at

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


My friend Ursula raised sheep, sheared them, spun her own yarn, and had a simple loom on which she wove her own fabrics. The world used to work in much the same way. The distance between the start of something and the end was relatively short. People were never more than a few steps in either direction from the raw materials and the end product. But then the world began to move faster. And faster. And the faster it moved, the more things came between the start and the finish, and the further we were forced from one end of the process or the other until we all but lost track of where the start or the end was, or exactly where we stood between them.

And with not knowing exactly where we stood or stand we become increasingly confused. And with confusion comes frustration and with frustration comes anger. Our entire world has gone from Ursula's simple loom to one of those gigantic factories which spew out mile upon mile of a dizzying array of fabrics from machines than not one person in ten million can possible understand.

It is my sincere belief that the greatest single threat to humanity is the individual's increasing sense of powerlessness. As we become more and more dependent upon technology, our sense of control over our own destiny erodes. Every time we are put on interminable hold by some vast, faceless corporation, we are, despite their condescending and blatantly hypocritical assurances that we are very important to them, being clearly if wordlessly told that we do not matter. That we are human beings is utterly irrelevant to entities---ironically, entities which individual human beings have created---which think only in a language of bottom lines and market shares.

Is it, really, any wonder that people wander around with automatic weapons mowing down other individuals as faceless as themselves? We are dismayed by the violence rampant in our cities' ghettos and barrios and yet one of the things that defines them as such is the lack of opportunity or hope to escape them. And it is a regrettable aspect of human nature that it is far easier to simply spew out one's frustration in violence than to seriously apply one's self to doing something about it.

The old saying, "Those who cannot create, destroy" is tragically and increasingly true.

The growing gap between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated drives underprivileged young men into gangs which provide a sense of belonging they cannot find from the larger world. It's all a vast spiral moving faster and faster and sucking more and more people into a black hole of helplessness and hopelessness. Crime evolves from gangs comprised of frustrated, under-educated, under-employed young people who come together for some sense of belonging in a world they see as totally alien and alienating. They can find a pathetic sense of security and "superiority." Once in, it is nearly impossible to get out.

In an increasingly homogeneous culture, the more a group stands out from that culture, the more constrictive it is for the people within that group. Dress codes, sub-languages marking one as a member of a sub-group make acceptance by the larger culture harder. Large city gang members, with their swagger and their attitudes and their seemingly total disregard for the welfare of others, are an extreme example. We are desperate for the sense of belonging, of being special in a world more detached, remote, and aloof. We can reach out through our computers and our Twitters and Facebooks and My Spaces to contact faceless people we will never meet. "Networking" supposedly brings us together, yet it in actuality keeps us apart.

Children spend more and more time in structured, adult controlled "activities" than they do in simply being children. There's no time to go climb a tree when soccer practice is in ten minutes, or to sit on the grass and look up and find faces and castles in the clouds.

So are we doomed? I really hope not, but the scales are tipping, and not in our favor. There will always be games for children to play, and moments with friends and quiet, reflexive talk. But my sincere fear is that these things are luxuries available to fewer and fewer people, mainly because they don't realize such luxuries are available. One must think to be free, and why think when our entire world is increasingly willing to spare us the trouble?

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Monday, December 07, 2009

For We Are a Simple People

Just saw a news article on the foreclosure of yet another house built by the "reality" program, Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. Apparently there have been several foreclosures when the owners somehow manage to acquire a hefty mortgage as well as the keys to the house. Occasionally, the mortgage will be paid by the home's builder or some other philanthropic group or individual, in which much brouhaha is made; but apparently the family is saddled with the mortgage on an overly lavish mini-mansion.

This particular program is a perfect example of the subject line of this blog. We tend to believe whatever we are told, and almost never ask the most obvious of questions. Being simple can be a charming trait, but too often it is a very dangerous one. There is all too frequently too narrow a space between being simple and being gullible, and beyond gullible lies the predator-filled jungles of stupidity.

I think I've used Extreme Makeover, Home Edition as an example before, and I really don't mean to pick on it, but let's take a look at an average show, shall we?

The entire project, it is emphasized, takes place in the space of seven days, which is pretty good, since it took God six days to create the universe.

The show begins on a bus speeding toward the family to be featured on the show. The crew watches a video assumedly made spontaneously by the family, who are all included in the shot. Who took the picture? Does everyone have a video camera? Is it a requisite for being considered for the show? Someone in the bus is apparently kept busy peeling onions, for the entire crew, listening to the family's plight, have tears streaming down their cheeks by the end of the presentation. Ty Pennington, their leader, solemnly asks the rest of the crew if they think they can help the family out. I often wonder what would happen if anyone said "No"?

So the bus pulls up in front of the family's usually ramshackle and desperately in need of repair home.
The crew gets out and Ty, using a bullhorn I would love to shove down his throat, screams "Gooood Morning, Blefelenskewiczenhoffer Family!" and immediately the front door of the house bursts open and the family rushes out, jumping up and down and radiating utter surprise and stunned joy. Was no one upstairs asleep when the bus pulled up? Or in the bathroom? Or out in the back yard? Or at the grocery store? No, they had to have been clustered around the door so that by the last syllable of the word "family" they'd be rushing out to greet the crew.

After the unconfined joy settles down a bit, and everyone has hugged everyone else, Ty informs the family that they are going on vacation...immediately! No one had any plans for the day or the week? No one had to call the boss and tell them they weren't going to show up for work? On a couple of occasions, the family was told they were going to Paris--"Paris, France," lest anyone wonders what there is to do for a week in Paris, Illinois. Now, not only does the entire family have their bags packed, but they all have passports! (Well, doesn't every middle class family in Sheepdip, Nevada have passports? Several?)

So off the family....the family who half an hour before had absolutely no idea they had been selected for an Extreme Home Makeover....goes, and immediately, coming down the road, is an army of destruction/construction workers with bulldozers, cranes, and all sorts of heavy equipment. They immediately set to work demolishing the house. One might wonder, if one were prone to do so, and obviously no one ever does, what happens to the furniture. We know it must have been removed at some point because they like to put several cameras inside the house to film the demolition. But when? Did they just pitch it all out the window? The family's only been gone ten minutes.

What about house plans? What about permits? What about building materials and supplies? Obviously they just emerge out of a clamshell, like Athena.

And wham, bam, ziggity zoom, construction begins on a home for a simple family of five or seven or eleven that would make the Taj Mahal look like a squatters' shack. Fifteen foot vaulted ceilings! Domes! Towers! Minarets! Marble entry halls, elevators (in case one of the family has difficulty getting upstairs, which is almost always the case), walk-in wall-less showers, professional-chef kitchens!

And all the children are given designed-especially-for-them, utterly-impractical-within-three-years rooms: fairy castles and secret chambers and model railroad trestles.

And the construction is ruled over by a frenetic Ty Pennington, racing around like a madman while screaming into that damned bullhorn at every opportunity. Give that man a valium, for Pete's sake!

And the family returns and somehow the kids rush right to their own rooms (how did they know which room is theirs?) and euphoria reins. And after all the tears and expressions of joy, Ty Pennington says, with the deep, heartfelt sincerity which comes from having said exactly the same sixteen words at the end of every single show: "Well, I guess there's only one thing left to say. Welcome home, Blefelenskewiczenhoffer Family, welcome home!"

And then he hands them the keys. The mortgage, I assume, comes in the mail.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An Angel Blinks

...and fifty-four years come and go, and a much older--though not much wiser--Roger sits and looks over his own shoulder as he writes another letter to his parents, so very long ago.

2 December 1955
Nine-fifteen and another day shot (to paraphrase a quaint Navy colloquialism) in the posterior. I can’t get over the impression that every day spent in the Navy is a day lost. That isn’t fair, of course; without the Navy I wouldn’t be in Europe—which, surprisingly, has exactly the same type of air, land, water, and human beings as America. So let’s not say every day has been a total loss—just most of them.

An excellent example of the importance of each day may be gotten from the fact that I dated yesterday’s entry as the 30th of November. As a matter of fact, I even neglected to put down “November” and had to add it just now—after first writing December. Now you may see why my letters are addressed AN instead of N/C.

Replenishment today, and I got to watch none of it—instead stayed in the office and held a one-man field day. We were supposed to get aboard 218 tons—how many we actually got is a mystery. One full sling of provisions—about four tons, dropped off the transferring lines and into the sea, still neatly secured. Also lost were a group of movies we were sending to them, which will make them very happy, I’m sure.

Somehow, after the tallies were taken, we ended up with ten cases of rutabaga—you think my spelling is bad, you should see theirs. It took us a full five minutes to decipher it. Where it came from or where it went we don’t know, because no one had ordered it and no one has seen it since.

Always, during replenishment, there is the problem of a little fun-loving graft.. Usually most of the credit goes to the ship sending it over to us. They are supposed to give us, say, 10,000 lb. of steak. We only get 9,000. Where is the other thousand pounds? You guess. So we chalk it up as being lost over the side, or some such thing. Those replenishment ships are the best-fed vessels in the Navy.

And here on board the Mighty T last replenishment, the Engineering department managed to walk off with two cases of fruitcake, one case of assorted nuts, and several crates of oranges. They were caught—that’s the only way we knew about it. Otherwise it would go on our Lost at Sea report.

Today, though, we fooled them. Someone got away with three large crates—no one knew who it was. Later, the crates were found on the hanger deck behind one of the boats; it was three crates of vegetable oil.

Mail call today-one letter from Harry Harrison, the only NavCad buddy I still keep in touch with, one from Sandy Bonne, my cousin, and only one from home.

Payday is tomorrow, and will it ever be welcome! In my pocket at this moment I have 20 Francs and sixpence—a combination hard to beat, but for all general purposes worthless.

I’ve had a book of Shakespeare’s comedies on my desk now for weeks and just haven’t gotten around to reading it—not through lack of will, but lack of time.

Think I sold my small camera today. I hate to get rid of it. I get so childishly attached to this; hate to throw anything away. I’ve always been that way.

I, I, I, I, I—focus your eyes just right and that’s all you can see. Well, how else does one write an autobiography without them?

Taps, Taps—only 284 more times will I have to hear that.

And so (candle in hand) to bed….

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back...and bring a friend. Your comments are always welcome. And you're invited to stop by my website at, or drop me a note at