Friday, April 30, 2010

Glimpsing Dr. Pangloss

I'll be going in for hernia surgery in a week or so. No big deal. I'll check into the hospital in the morning and be going home in the afternoon. No long, invasive scar to heal; only a couple tiny incisions which they make to be able to pump air in to create a cavity to work in and a couple other equally small holes for a tiny camera and whatever tools are needed to put in a small mesh over the tear (which is, after all, what a hernia is), and that's it. Like changing spark plugs in an old car.

The advances we have made toward a Panglossian future in human health are, when you come to think of it, nothing short of astonishing. We're not there yet, by a long shot, but take a look at a partial list of diseases which have all but been eradicated in the span of just my own lifetime: polio, small pox, scurvy, scarlet fever, tetanus, typhoid, diphtheria, whooping cough, cholera, malaria, measles, mumps.

When I was a child, measles, mumps, and whooping cough were just part of growing up, and nearly everyone had at least one at one time or another. The Black Plague was something we read about in books on the middle ages. But polio was a very real and terrifying scourge that swept the nation every summer. Deadly outbreaks of small pox, scarlet fever, typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, and malaria were common, and tens of thousands of people died every year from them. When is the last time you even heard one them referred to in other than the past tense?

It all started with the discovery of vaccines. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention searched historical records dating back to 1900 to compile estimates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths for all the diseases children are routinely vaccinated against today. In nine of the diseases studied, rates of death or hospitalization have declined more than 90 percent, and in the cases of smallpox, diphtheria and polio, by 100 percent.

In only a very few diseases–hepatitis A and B, chickenpox and shingles–did deaths and hospitalizations fall less than 90 percent, and the vaccines for them are all relatively new (the one for chickenpox wasn't adopted nationally until 1995).

Medical procedures and treatments have also made astounding progress. Up through the 1920s and 1930s, a diagnosis of cancer...any form of cancer...was tantamount to a death sentence. (The same was true in the first few years of the AIDS epidemic.) Had I been diagnosed with tongue cancer as little as 25 years earlier than I was, my chances for survival would have been slim to none. A co-worker developed it in the 1970s--the first time I'd ever even heard of tongue cancer--and despite everything medical science could then do for him, he died a horrible death. And even though the treatment I received in 2003 saved my life, treatment methods have been modified to prevent or lessen some of the life-altering side effects I experience. Thanks in part to a study I was entered into, it has been discovered that tongue cancer can be caused not only by tobacco products (smoking or inhaling second-hand) but by the same HPV virus that causes cervical cancer in women. Now, tongue cancer patients are routinely tested for the presence of the HPV virus before setting up a tailored-to-the-cause treatment program.

There are still battles raging against a multitude of diseases and afflictions from cancer to heart disease to ALS and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's and AIDS, and we are far from Dr. Pangloss's "best of all possible worlds." But slowly, painfully, we are making progress. Looking ahead to how far we have to go can be discouraging in the extreme, but looking back at just how far we've come in a relatively short time should give even the most despairing a small ray of hope.

But what can we as individuals not directly involved in medical research do to speed the process? Admittedly, not much. But next time you see one of those little "donation" canisters sitting on a store counter, take a second to fish out whatever change you have in your pocket or purse and drop it in. You'll never miss it. Just remember that every tsunami is made up of individual drops of water.

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, April 28, 2010

Spare Me!

Survivors of a tornado in a small southern town were interviewed on national news. One of those asked to relate his experience was a man who had been working in his church when the tornado hit. He said he had hidden under a table as the building came down around him. He then launched into an interminably long praise of "the Lord, who saved me from the demon Alcohol and Satan's power in 1970" and whose loving arms were the only things that saved him from the wrath of the tornado, and that all praise be to God and.... Why the interviewer didn't cut him off after a full minute of "Praise be to the Lord" is beyond me.

I am glad the man survived the tornado. I really am. And that he has strong religious convictions is admirable. But please, please, spare me the excruciating embarrassment of lengthy exposure to beliefs I do not share.

There is nothing wrong with having strong beliefs and wanting to share them with others--as long as the others are willing to listen. A respectful exchange of ideas is the basis of any discourse. But the words respectful and exchange are alien concepts to proselytizers, who are bound and determined to change your way of thinking on a subject whether you want them to or not. We've all been approached by religious zealots and people trying to sell us something we're not interested in buying. Proselytizers take full advantage of the fact that most of us put up with them because we are too polite to be rude. (My late, dear friend Uncle Bob used to delight in visits from Jehovah's Witnesses and squeaky-clean, white-shirt-and-tie Mormons, who he would invite in and try to convert to Druidism.)

TV literally teems with politicians, pitchmen, and self-appointed pundits who know far more about what is good for you than you do, and who spew their toxic waste over anyone within hearing or viewing distance. Entire networks are devoted to them. But at least on TV, relief is but a remote control button away. It's the face-to-face encounters with utterly insensitive boors who haven't the slightest interest in what you might believe or be willing to consider. That you have the right to your own opinion is totally irrelevant to them.

One of my a-few-doors-down-the-hall neighbors is what I like to refer to as an Obama-is-the-Antichrist Republican. Absolutely nothing our president...his president, too, by the way...does is not an obvious conspiracy to turn this nation over to the minions of Satan. I dread being cornered on an elevator with him. He knows I do not share his views and am in fact strongly opposed to most of them. Yet he insists on going on and on and on and on spewing vitriolic hateful garbage, not one sentence of which has a shred of logic.

If you have been following these blogs, you know that I have one or two rather strong opinions on a number of topics I am truly convinced should be shared by everyone else in the world. But I feel free to rant and rave because I know that if I say anything with which you strongly disagree, you will probably just stop reading...which is exactly the way it should be.

I may not agree with your views on any given topic; I may in fact vehemently disagree with them. But I would never try to deny that you are entitled to have them, or have the gall to demand you change them to echo mine.

I learned long ago that there is no point in arguing with a brick wall. Brick walls have every right to be brick walls. However, the right to a strong belief should never be confused with the right to impose that belief on others.

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, April 26, 2010

Aunt Thyra, Redux

The power of "family" and the influence individual members of it shape our lives. My mother was—not surprisingly—undoubtedly the person who had the most influence on my being who I am today. But in a way, I was more fortunate than many by being blessed with a “second mother,” my Aunt Thyra Fearn, who holds a place in my heart very close to Mom. When I was very young, my dad’s job required a lot of moving around from city to city, and each time my parents had to move, they would ship me back to Rockford to stay with Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck until they got settled in. Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck had three boys of their own, 12, 14, and 16 years older than I, and they were as close to brothers as I ever got. Though I would never have told my father, I always considered myself more a Fearn than a Margason.

Charles (“Buck”) Fearn, Mom’s brother, was 9 years older than she, and when he returned from WWI and married Thyra Cederland, Mom was intensely jealous of her for having stolen away her adored brother. But that passed quickly, and they grew to be as close as sisters.

Aunt Thyra was a typical woman of her time. She never worked, staying home to cook and clean and take care of the family and later become a full-time grandmother and great grandmother. She never learned to drive a car. She was always heavyset, but had a very pretty face, and she always smelled of talcum powder or Estee Lauder perfume, and she treated me with as much love as her own sons. Her hugs, which she gave freely though she was not otherwise overly demonstrative, were priceless.

Every Christmas Eve, we would go to Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck's house or they would come to ours and every single Christmas from the time I was about 5 on, Aunt Thyra would bring me a jar of olives. A strange gift, but she knew I loved them, and they were always special, coming from her. It was another special bond between us.

I clearly remember, though I have no idea why, that when she came to visit, she would always put her large black purse on the floor beside her chair. Memories do not need logic.

On December 7, 1941, my folks and I sat in the living room of Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck’s house and listened, on a grand old console radio with burled wood cabinet and doors and a yellow dial that showed the stations (and which is still in the family), to news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was our 9-11, and the effect on the nation was even greater. The next day we were back around the radio to hear President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. And as we listened, Aunt Thyra could not help but look from one of her sons to the other. All three were soon taken away by the military: Charles (“Fat”, who wasn’t), the eldest and just married, and Jack, the youngest, were drafted while Don (“Cork”) enlisted in the Marines. (They would all return safely, but no one knew so at the time.) Three small blue-star flags were placed in the front window of Aunt Thyra and Uncle Buck’s home.

Aunt Thyra joined several women’s groups doing whatever she could for the war effort, and the years passed and the war ended, and the boys came home.

Uncle Buck, who had been a heavy smoker all his life, developed cancer and died in 1953, at the age of 53, and Aunt Thyra continued on without him. Remembering now how Uncle Buck’s death devastated me and my mother, I can only imagine what it meant for Aunt Thyra. She never complained, never asked for sympathy; just went on with her life and devoted her time to the growing number of grandchildren.

When my own mother came down with lung cancer, having moved from Rockford to be near me in California, Aunt Thyra, who had never been on an airplane and had always expressed a deep fear of flying, got on a plane to come out to spend some time with Mom before she died. And she, Jack, Fat, Cork, and their families were waiting when I returned Mom’s body for burial beside my dad. I’m not sure what I would have done without them.

I don’t think Aunt Thyra graduated from high school, and she wasn’t particularly well read or worldly, but she more than made up for any lack in the quality of her unconditional love. After the death of my parents, she was my rock—the one remaining sturdy thread connecting me to all the love of my childhood.

And then one day in 1976 she suffered a heart attack and, rather than calling for an ambulance, called for Jack to come take her to a doctor. Jack, knowing Cork was closer and could get to her quicker, called him. Cork found her dead on the bedroom floor, where she had been putting on a pair of stockings. She would never allow herself to die less than a lady.

Life is never easy, and as we grow older, we lose more and more of the people who were part of the very foundation of our lives. Most of my foundation is gone now, washed away by time. And to this day, I grieve for all those members of my family who have meant so much to me. I miss them all terribly. There is no scale on which to compare grief, but if there were, I think, it would weigh most heavily, I think, for my mother…and Aunt Thyra.

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, April 23, 2010

Things, Again

The dictionary lists several meanings for the word "things," but for the purposed of this blog, I'm using the one referring to possessions. People have three types of possession-things: things we have because we need them, things we have because we want them, and things we just have for no particular reason. The only exceptions seems to be those who live in total, abject poverty, and those devoted to the monastic life.

Having spent more than 50 hours working at Norm's condo (I have to keep track as part of my being executor of his estate), going through his things, organizing them, and trying to find a way of disposing of them, I realized once again just how addicted we all are to...things. And being in the position, with Norm, of standing somewhat removed from his things, it is clear that the last two of the three types of things are by far in the majority. These are things we do not really need regardless of how much we may have wanted them when we got them, things we no longer use and never will use again, things we come across in our closets and dresser drawers that we'd totally forgotten we have.

Just about everyone I know has an "everything drawer" somewhere, usually in the kitchen, into which we toss things we don't know what else to do with but think we might conceivably need at some future point: keys to locks seldom used or lost (but which we're sure will show up at some point), somebody's business card, matchbooks, perhaps an ashtray just in case a smoker comes by, a "church key" (bottle opener), and a wide assortment of unidentifiable objects, usually small pieces of something we meant to repair or get to one of these days.

But in truth, for many of us our entire home/apartment is in effect a large "everything drawer." And as the years go by, more and more things are tossed into it.

I live in a small, one-bedroom apartment. I have no fewer than 12 bath and hand towels, and I'm not that dirty. Even were I to have overnight guests, I couldn't accommodate more than two, and I do laundry every week. So why do I have so many towels? Oh, and the other day at Norm's I came across a couple of really nice, big bath towels which I of course brought home to add to all the others I already have. Why? Did I want them? Yes. Did I need them? No. Will I soon forget I have them? Probably.

My closets are full of clothes I haven't worn in years, and probably never will. Yet whenever I determine to clean out a closet, I'll come across shirts or pants or jackets that I'd forgotten I had. ("Oh, that's where that went! I'll wear that next week, for sure!" And I don't throw it away, and I don't wear it, and it sits there until next time I determine to clean out the closet.)

My bookcase is overflowing with books. A couple of them I've never gotten around to reading but hope to. Several of them I've read more than once and plan to or may well read again at some point. But I'd say the majority are books there are ones I've read once and will never look at again. And I do give them away on that rare third-or-fourth blue moon that I get around to clearing out the bookcase. But bookcases are amazing things in that, having been cleared out, magically tend to refill themselves in short order.

Now, there are two distinct sub-categories of "things": those which really matter and those which don't. I've spoken often before of my total inability to get rid of those things which have some special significance to me...which are tangible bridges to the past and to the people I associate with them. I've said several times that I would never, on my own, have purchased the small art-deco display piece--a woman with a 1930s hairstyle and wearing a 1930s negligee--draped with a 1930s bakelite necklace--Ray bought for me as a gift because I'd once mentioned to him that I liked art deco. But it is one of my most treasured "things" simply because it came from him. And it stands on another of my most-prized "things," the battered old dresser Norm and I bought and refinished somewhere around 1960. Together, they represent a tangible combination of memories of loved ones lost but never gone.

Were a fire or some natural disaster to destroy my apartment and everything in it, as tragically happens frequently to others, would I be able to survive? Of course. I realize that the true value of almost everything I treasure most derives primarily from the memories I associate with them. And I know that memories remain long after the thing or person with whom they are associated are gone. But it is far better to have the both the memories and the ability to physically touch those things which are the doorknobs to open the door to the past.

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, April 21, 2010

Important Calls

That we humans are an odd lot will come as a surprise to almost no one, but I never cease to be dumbfounded by how deeply ingrained idiocy is in our culture. We are lied to so constantly, egregiously, and universally that you'd think someone (who, exactly, is not clear) would do something about it.

I've spent a minimum of 40 minutes in the past two days trying to reach the cable company to discontinue service to my dead friend Norm's condo. I was told that "due to an unexpectedly high volume of calls" my call could not be answered immediately, but that my call was very important to them and that I should remain on the line for "the next available" service representative, who would be with me shortly. ("Your estimated wait time will be...ten minutes," I was informed.)

Okay, now since this is the very first time I had ever heard this spiel, and I'm sure you have never encountered it, let's take a look at the number of...let's call them "slight misrepresentations" presented in that encounter:

"An unexpectedly high volume of calls"? They're a major corporation...they can't have figured out what time of day the most people will be calling in, and arrange to have extra "service representatives" on hand during those times? The answer is they know perfectly well when peak calling periods are, but given the choice of their spending an extra nickel to have more staff on hand or letting you sit there cooling your heels until the two operators on duty finally work their way down the pile to you, take a wild guess as to which way they'll go.

Anyone who labors under the delusion that their call is, as they are told no fewer than 30 times in the course of a 15 minute on-hold wait, "very important" to a corporation is close to being certifiable and should not be allowed around sharp objects. My call...your call...doesn't mean squat to them. In fact, they'd vastly prefer you didn't call at all. Sticking us on hold until they deign to get around to talking with us is their subtle way of letting us know that. They know that you are an annoying whiner only calling about some petty little problem they could not care less about, but that will undoubtedly inconvenience them in some way.

Corporations are experts in the art of smiling condescension. They operate on the principle that customers exist only to feed the corporate coffers, and that they--the customers--will blindly accept any patently insincere indication of concern for their petty problems with undying gratitude. We sit on hold for 45 minutes like baby birds in the nest, beaks gaping, waiting patiently (or not...they don't care) for Momma Bird to come stuff some regurgitated worm into our gullet.

How many pieces of junk mail do we receive with a boldly stamped "Important Notice Enclosed"? How many TV programs enter a commercial break with "We'll be right back after these important messages." Important? To whom?

And just what can we do about all this? What recourse do we have? The answer, of course, is almost none. And we are so indoctrinated to simply accept the unacceptable that we say nothing. As far as bureaucracies--political as well as commercial--are concerned, we as individuals are as inconsequential as an individual grain of sand. Which does not prevent me from, if feeling particularly provoked, demanding to speak to a supervisor to express my unhappiness. I fully realize I am engaging in an exercise in futility, but I do it anyway. And who knows? If more people did the same (which we both know they won't)...if, mind you..., well, have you ever seen what a sandblaster can do?

I would like nothing better than to sandblast that condescending smile off those collective corporate/bureaucratic faces. It's a nice thought.

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, April 19, 2010

Words Spoken, Words Written

I went to lunch recently with a group of former co-workers. It was nice to see them all, and the conversation was spirited. Let's make that "their conversation was spirited." I mostly just sat there, saying nothing. They were all bubbly as freshly-poured champagne and I felt like stale beer. I listen to conversations but almost never have anything to contribute to them.

Our ability to communicate is one of the things that separates us from the other animals. Humans generally employ two basic forms of communicating: oral and written, and the majority of us are fairly equally adept at both. Unfortunately, like with everything else in my life, I am not in the majority. I start to speak, realize I'm not saying what I want to say or meant to say, or realize after I've said it that I meant to add something in mid sentence. But once out of my mouth, that's it. No re-do's. No edits.

Writing is a different thing entirely. When I write, I can--and do--go on and on to the point that it's hard to shut me up. But that's just it: there is no one to shut me up. I can say whatever I feel like saying whenever I feel like saying it and if I want to stop in mid sentence and contemplate my navel for ten minutes before picking up the next word, I can do it...and no one will know. I can think of what I want to say before I say it, and if I don't like what I've said, I can go back and change it. Because written words are not "time sensitive," they can be changed at leisure any time before sending them on their way, and when they appear in print they give the hopeful impression of flowing smoothly and effortlessly, without pause or interruption. Writing allows options simply not possible in verbal speech. With some effort I can appear, to someone reading my words, to be alternately (or simultaneously) wise or witty, fey or profound. When I write, I can be the life of the party, hoping the reader will not notice it is a party of one. Switch me to verbal communication involving more than one other person and all bets are off.

In social situations, where verbal communication is required, I rate an overall 3 on a 10 scale. The only subject about which I feel remotely qualified to talk is myself...which you may already have noticed. If I do get up enough courage to lob a poorly-phrased conversational grenade into a crowd, there's usually a dull "thud" as it hits the floor, a brief moment of utter silence, and then everyone resumes where they left off. (One of my favorite cartoons, with which I identify totally, shows a group of men sitting around talking. One is saying, "Well, look, we're four intelligent guys...five, if you count George, here." Guess who sees himself as George?) The more I can limit myself to written communication, the better off I am.

Writing provides a degree of insularity--a protective cocoon, if you will--being in a situation where I have to depend on speaking does not. I have always been pretty insular. I do not really know--nor have I ever known--how to live easily in the "real" world outside my own mind, and for the most part am seldom really very comfortable there. But mental insularity and physical insularity are two very different things. I can get along fairly well when communicating in writing. But when physical activity is involved, I tend to go right back to Square One. Any time I am faced with a challenge requiring even the most elementary degree of physical dexterity, or the manipulation of anything involving technology or moving parts, I'm doomed. Since neither talk nor writing is much help in tasks requiring physical action pretty much condemns me. I've often said that were I the last human being left on earth, I wouldn't survive longer than a week.

My abilities to communicate in writing form perhaps the strongest cord keeping me from feeling totally disassociated from the world and those around me; that and my ingrained belief that you, too, at some level inside your own mind and/or at one point or another in your life, harbor or have harbored similar feelings. The real primary difference between me and everyone else, then, is that I am simply more openly aware of my sense of isolation than others, and have no hesitation in admitting it. I am fascinated...obsessed...with those tiny details of what makes us human. Standing off to one side of the mainstream perhaps allows me to see things others swept along with belonging to and being a part of the world may miss. I enjoy writing about things it apparently never occurs to other people to pay conscious attention to, or which they prefer to keep to themselves.

So I shall continue to use the written word to present myself as some laboratory-specimen frog spread out on the dissecting table, hoping you might take a look at my exposed nerves and organs, and recognize our similarities.

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, April 16, 2010

In the House of Cancer

I received a routine letter today from the Mayo Clinic and was reminded that this coming June 3 marks the seventh anniversary of my diagnosis of tongue cancer, and there are no words that can possibly express how grateful I am to still be alive, and cancer-free.

I was admitted to Mayo--without question one of the best hospitals in the world--within days of the diagnosis. Upon arrival, I determined to keep a daily journal of my progress. I didn’t really get that far into it...I was a bit less than peppy there for awhile. But today's letter prompted me to look for what I had written, and I came up with one short entry, a little more than one week into my seven-week radiation therapy schedule, that I thought I’d share with you.

Wednesday, 11 June, 2003

Odd how we go through life automatically assuming that the way things were yesterday and the way things were the day before that and the year before that is the way things will always be. And when confronted by the reality that this is not a universal truth, it shocks us to the core.

I had no idea, when I arrived here, how profound the problem of eating would be. Eating is more than a chore. It is a struggle. Chewed food becomes a thick, tasteless paste (imagine a mouthful of crackers and peanut butter, but totally devoid of taste) which sticks to the roof and sides of the mouth, to the teeth, to the gums. Even accompanying each swallow with a drink of water is not satisfactory. Incomprehensible to those fortunate enough not to have experienced it.

I was just in the communal dining room [of Hope Lodge, run by the American Cancer Society, which provides free housing to cancer patients] trying to have dinner—cheesy potato soup, 240 calories, two slices of toast, water. Ate about half of the soup, one of the slices of toast. One of the other residents came in to join a group at a nearby table, and when someone asked how he was doing, he proceeded to tell them. A long, gothic tale of removed esophagi and recreated stomach and tubes running thither and yon into and out of his body. Did I mention I did not finish dinner?

I’ve become obsessed with calories, since I do not dare lose any more weight (only 8 pounds, but that’s not good) [I entered Mayo weighing 185; I left weighing 145. Cancer is a highly-effective weight-loss program, but I wouldn’t recommend it]. Stopped at Dairy Queen, where one of the staples of my diet has become a hot fudge sundae with marshmallow topping. I asked if they had a nutritional chart, and they did. I see that I will be switching from the sundaes to malts and of which has 900 calories.

Which, of course, opens the door to the possibility of diabetes when the bulk of one’s calories come from sugars. Sigh. Life ain’t easy, kid. Still, no matter how I bitch and moan, I am far better off than a great many people here.

At one of my appointments today, in the waiting room with his mother was a little boy about 7 years old. Totally bald, hooked to a portable machine which he kept on a chair next to him, and from which a tube ran under the waist of his shirt. Seven years old! He had the mildly lost expression of someone waiting for something, and I fear it was not Santa Claus.

Now, nearly seven years later, whenever I am tempted to feel sorry for myself, all I need do is to remember that small boy, and though I am a confirmed Agnostic, I pray to the little boy's God that he, like me, made it.

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, April 14, 2010

Recherche du Temps Perdu, Part II

16 July 1956

Dear Folks
This morning, at 0115, the last liberty boat pulled away from the fleet landing at Cannes and, with a salute to Marc and Michel—who stood behind the Shore Patrol barricade waving, we left France.

As the Ti moved out, about 0800, I went topside to catch a last look at the ruins where we’d had so much fun. I really hated to leave Cannes, and will always remember it.

Going ashore yesterday afternoon, the water was so rough we were almost an hour late. When we got to the ruins, Michel was the only one there. The water, usually sheltered by the squared U formed by the jetties, was washing over the landing, while small geysers shot up from holes in the floor. We made our stand on a flight of bombed stairs, which led nowhere. Michel hadn’t been in the water, as there was quite a bit of debris floating around, and the usually clear water was milky-grey. He produced from under his folded bluejeans the bottle of champagne and a bottle of red wine, which he took and placed in a water-filled pothole in the landing floor.

Marc soon came along, as did Phil, Tom’s buddy. Guntar and Yoakeim (correct spelling—I asked Marc) never did show up. Michel was anxious to drink the champagne, and kept suggesting it every two minutes. Finally we gave in, and polished it off in a short time. Tom had brought a blanket, which we spread over a landing on the steps, and Phil brought a radio, but didn’t change into his swimming suit since he thought the water was too rough to swim. Every now and then an especially big wave would hit the other side of the jetty, and cold spray would fly all over us.

Phil left after awhile, and Michel and I walked six blocks (in our swimming suits) to a small delicatessen, where we bought some bread, small cakes, and dried apricots. When we returned, we opened the bottle of wine, and lay all curled up and overlapping (the stair landing wasn’t big enough for four people) like a bunch of snakes. We began singing songs (“C’est si Bon”; “Hi Lili,” “Allez-vous-En,” “Brigadoon,” etc.)—Michel and Marc in French, Tom and I in English.

Tom got to feeling pretty well on the wine—he drank most of my share because I didn’t care much for it--and he and Marc bundled up in the blanket and tried to sleep. Michel and I sat on the steps, comparing feet and exchanging names of various parts of the body.

Later we decided to go swimming. As I’ve said, water was washing over the landing where we’d laid the previous two days, and out at the end, where the landing wound around the end of the jetty, the waves washed across two feet high. Nobody wanted to be the first one in so, holding hands, we all made a dash for it and jumped in. Either the water was warmer than it had been, or we were more accustomed to it, but anyway it was quite nice.

Michel wanted to go out to the end of the landing and lay down, letting the water run over him, which he did. I went with him, but Marc and Tom decided to stay farther down toward our stairs. Michel laid down, and I was standing over him, when a huge wave, about three and a half feet high, swept over the edge of the landing. I was knocked off my feet and washed over the side into the water, bruising my ankle and skinning my elbow. Anyway, it was fun.

We laid around the rest of the afternoon, and about six thirty decided we’d better go and eat. I suggested we go to the little bar we’d gone to the first night, so off we went, leaving our ruins while long shadows stretched off in front of us.

Since it was such a long walk, we thought we’d take a bus. In Cannes, the busses all leave from one place and do not, I don’t believe, stop at each and every corner.

We got off about two blocks past the bar and walked back, past a large orange apartment building where several little boys and girls waved at us from the walled front yard.

For supper, we had chicken soup again, salad, and steak, which Helen, the proprietess, went out and got for us. That, plus one bottle and six glasses of wine, a huge loaf of French bread and two lemonades (for me, since I didn’t like that wine either and was thirsty), and a desert made from fresh plums, came to a grand total cost of 3200 Francs ($6.00 for four of us).

We stayed there until about ten o’clock, drawing caricatures and joint-project sketches on the paper tablecloths.

When we left the restaurant, we walked down to the sea—the beaches were all deserted, and the moon spread across the water in a wide, silver path. The waves washed against the sand as they’ve done for millions of years, unseen and unheard. We walked along in the sand, while cars rushed by on the raised highway not half a block from the water. I wrote our names in the sand and a large wave came up and washed them away, getting my feet wet.

By the time we reached fleet landing, it was eleven o’clock. We were hoping boating might have been secured, but we could see a bunch of white-clad bodies and knew it hadn’t. Marc offered to buy us one last drink, so we hurried back into Cannes and up an alley to their favorite bar.

Behind the polished brown bar, which ran along the right-hand wall, a bar-room mirror reflected a large bunch of gladiolas, doubly bright because of their more colorless surroundings. In front of the gladiolas stood a woman who might just have stepped out of a French comedy—heavy set, with kept-in-check brown hair that looked like it would love to fly all over the place but didn’t have the nerve. Her cheeks had just enough rouge to heighten the effect; thin, penciled eyebrows which looked comfortably out of place on her large face. Her gestures, the way she talked, and her expressions as she described some hilarious episode to a customer in French, made it no less funny for us. She was fascinating.

Unfortunately, the mood at our table was not as festive as it might have been. Tom and I kept eyeing the clock on the wall as it edged closer and closer to 12 o’clock, when we must be back at the landing or turn into pumpkins.

We all exchanged addresses and promises to write, and Marc asked “How you say in English ‘Triste’?” Triste means sad.

We walked back to the Fleet Landing and stood around, not saying much. The French police came and rounded up a group of Algerians who were peddling rugs and scarves to the sailors.

Next year both Marc and Michel must go into the army, to be sent to fight in Algiers, to try and keep hold of France’s fast-dwindling empire.

Boat after boat came and went. We waited as long as we could, until at last everyone was gone but us. We shook hands all around, and got into the boat.

“…and, with a salute to Marc and Michel, who stood behind the Shore Patrol barricades waving, we left France….”

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Recherche du Temps Perdu

My current dream of returning to Europe after more than 50 years prompted me to go yet again to the letters I wrote to my parents at the time. I'm sure I've posted this at some point in the past, but I hope you will indulge me in this two-part blog (today and Wednesday), and understand, in reading both entries, why the proposed trip is so important to me.

14 July, 1956

Dear Folks

The last three days have been a sort of star-spangled climax to my European tour. They have been more like a vacation; for two days I laid on the Riviera, soaking up the sunlight and swimming in the glass-clear water. But the best part of it happened like this….

Tom Dolan and I decided Thursday to go ashore and go swimming, just so we could say we’d been swimming on the Riviera. Neither of us wanted to go to the “Plages Public,” where the sky is all umbrellas and the sand is all people, so we began walking up the half-moon seafront toward Nice.

We had seen, while bicycling, the ruins of a fort with extensions out into the water, and thought we’d stop off there. These ruins are about halfway up the crescent, just past the cement sea wall which sweeps along most of Cannes’ waterfront. At the end of the concrete pier, covered with flagstone, steps lead down to a landing, evidently used at one time for small boats. Four young guys were already there—all of them between twenty and twenty-three.

“Hello, boys—come on down” one called, and then began yodeling (he did it very well). We couldn’t figure out what they were (nationalities, that is), for they spoke two different languages and English.

We found out that two were Germans, and two were French. Since the French didn’t speak German, and the Germans didn’t speak French, they “conversed” in English, all of them knowing at least a little of it. One of the Germans (the one who yodeled) spoke quite good English; his name is Guntar (Goon-tar). The other’s German name is unspellable, but it is pronounced “YO-hah-kiem”; he looks typically Bavarian—blondish hair, blue eyes, and a fascinating way of speaking German. Tom also speaks German, so they got on well right from the start. The Frenchmen’s names are Marc (“Mahk”) and Michel.

All of them were campers—Guntar and Yohakiem hitchhiking from Munich, Germany; Michel and Marc came the same way from Paris, where both work. Yohakiem likes Americans because “there are many American soldiers in Munich, and they fight a lot.” Guntar was part Swiss (i.e. the yodels), and learned English from the American soldiers around Munich.

Marc is a bartender in Paris, and Michel works just outside Paris, though what he does I don’t know—he is the Junior Champion Skin-Diver of all France, as we soon discovered without anyone telling us.

We spent the afternoon talking (many gestures; “compre?”, “understand?” and such), swimming and generally fooling around. The water beside the landing is about twelve to twenty feet deep, and you can see every rock on the bottom. One of Marc and Michel’s favorite games was throwing a water-filled bottle in, letting it sink to the bottom, and then diving down after it—they never missed. Another trick was to dive down, pick up a large white rock, and walk across the bottom with it.

Oh, I forgot to tell you how one changes into and out of a bathing suit on the Riviera! One carries along a towel, naturally. When wishing to change, sometimes in the middle of the beach, one wraps the towel around one’s middle, like an apron. The trick is in fixing it so it won’t fall off, which might prove embarrassing. Then simply remove your pants (or skirt) and slip on the bathing suit. Remove the towel, and Voila! Oh, these French are clever, I tell you

Guntar wandered off to pick up sea shells and look for crabs (“for souvenirs”); Yohakiem, in his plastic bathing suit, slept. Marc, Michel, Tom and I splashed around, jumping off the edge of the pier where it came out and covered the landing.

Marc and Michel wore identical red-and-blue male Bikinis; I wore the old pink boxer suit I bought in Pensacola.

About sundown we all went to supper at a little place miles away Tom had found a couple days before. Guntar was wearing Levi’s and cowboy boots, with a wide leather belt embellished with cows and brands. Yohakiem wore shorts—which made him look more Bavarian than ever—and sandals. Michel and Marc wore Levi’s and moccasins. Tom and I wore sailor suits.

The bar—which was rather out of the way—was a small, old-ish place with large, small-paned windows. The lady who owned the bar speaks seven languages, and was very friendly. Actually, it is not a restaurant, but if you want something to eat, she will run out and get it. We explained that Marc, Michel, Guntar and Yohakiem were probably on a low budget and asked her advice accordingly. She suggested an omelet, some ham, chicken soup, and salad. Her husband ran out and returned with a head of lettuce and some carrots, fresh from the garden. The soup was delicious—a large bowl, with noodles. The ham and omelet were also very good, though the omelet was a little underdone for my taste. We also had a glass of wine and later a large bottle. Total price for the meal and wine? 2,500 Francs ($8.00 for 6 of us.).

While waiting for dinner, and afterwards, everyone began doing stunts—Guntar yodeled (he is very good), Tom did the Charleston, Marc and Michel did balancing tricks with chairs (i.e. holding one’s body at a 90 degree angle in the air while holding onto the arms of the chairs). Guntar tried—unsuccessfully—to swallow burning matches. He is really a natural comedian, though he doesn’t mean to be.

After we left the bar, we walked arm and arm down the street, singing old German war songs.

A grand time was had by all.

(Part II on Wednesday)

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Friday, April 09, 2010

The Candle

Please believe me! I do not want to become a bitter old man muttering oaths under my breath and swiping at passing children with my cane. But I am sincerely growing increasingly concerned about how bitter I am becoming. I don't want to turn into a nasty curmudgeon people cross the street to avoid. But it's like being in quicksand: the harder I try to free myself, the further in I sink.

Perhaps it is just that bad things weigh more heavily on the mind and sprit than do good things and tend, with every passing year, to become more and more the consistency of hardening concrete.

How can I escape being aware that we are becoming a society utterly consumed by a pathetic fascination with the rich, the beautiful, and the famous? Our worth as individuals--often in our own eyes--is measured against those three criteria. A "celebrity" suffers a hangnail and the world gasps in horror and shock. Flowers and messages of support pour in. Mary Jenkins, of Olathe, Kansas, is brutally murdered in her home in front of her children and the news doesn't make it past the next county.

Have I been under a rock for the past ten years? Who the hell are these people who rule our popular culture--these preening, posturing poseurs whose unknown talent totally escapes me? What constructive, positive things have they ever done to help improve humanity? Why should their peccadillos, their divorces, their scandals interest me in the least? (Well, they don't, of course, but surely, surely I have to be missing something, somewhere!)

Why are we glued to "reality" shows--awash in vacuous young bimbets and hunks with flawless skin and perfect teeth but with a head so hollow you can almost hear the wind whistling between their ears--which couldn't possibly be farther from reality? Why do people listen to--and far, far worse, totally believe--the purveyors of ignorance, bigotry and hate posing as "political analysts," pundits, and talk-show hosts on egregiously un-fair and un-balanced media like Fox News? (Actually, Fox occasionally displays some bitter humor. You can be sure, for example, if, when reporting on a home-grown terrorist, they discover that the perpetrator's great grandfather had voted Democratic in the 1928 election, it will be brought out as incontrovertible evidence of guilt.)

The problem is that it is so hard not to be bitter when things that should be so simple and self evident are twisted and skewered and turned inside out at the whim of anyone with a perceived axe to grind. Becoming bitter is a particular danger for romantics, who really want and fully expect to see goodness and courtesy in others and who never really develop the rhinoceros hide most people don in order to deal with the world. The more one yearns for a world of puppies and cocoa with marshmallows, the more prone one is to be disappointed and hurt by gratuitous evil.

The seeds of bitterness grow slowly, but the trees that spring from them are almost impossible to fell. And worst of all, there is no joy, or hope, or promise in them.

And yet, for all my very real concerns, for all my inability to comprehend why the world works the way it does, or why there is so much soul-crushing stupidity and bigotry and greed and so little compassion and common courtesy, there remains, underneath the accumulating layers of cynicism and distrust which threaten to smother me, the belief in good and our ability to somehow...somehow reverse all this negativism; to somehow put the genie back in the bottle.

And as long as humanity has hope, however unrealistic it may seem, we will survive. For in the raging tempest of existence, hope is our one small, inextinguishable candle providing a beacon in the vast night.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Time and Dreams

Unless this is the first time you've come across my blog, you know that I am utterly obsessed with time, and deeply (albeit pointlessly) resentful of the fact that our physical bodies are trapped in it, and that it moves in only one direction. But the physical laws of time do not apply to the mind, which is one of the reasons I became a writer.

At any rate, dreams have always provided humans a refuge from our daily life and offer hope for the future. Most people keep their dreams to themselves, as though they were somehow slightly shameful. Others are carried away by their dreams to the point of losing touch with reality. But far too many people, I fear, have no dreams at all. They're too busy handling the challenges and demands of time. For them I feel truly sorry.

I am currently dreaming of a trip to Europe when my friend Norm's estate is settled, and I'm well aware that the possibility of realizing this particular dream could not exist were it not for his kindness.

(Of course me being me, I am already managing to throw something of a wet blanket on the dream by remembering the last time I planned a trip to New York, set for June 10, 2003, only to have it cancelled with the diagnosis of tongue cancer on June 3, 2003. I know it's silly to even think of such a thing happening again, but it's all part of my natural perversity: "Never pass up a chance to spoil a dream.")

But this is a special dream, which grows more special the more I think of it. It's the dream of bridging a gap of 55 years in time, to my first trip to Europe courtesy of the U.S. Navy. I've recently added to the dream by thinking of adding London and Venice, to which I've never been, to the itinerary. While my friend Gary may be accompanying me at least as far as London (this is still in the dreaming stages here, remember), and it would be wonderful to see the city with him, the rest of the trip I will be on my own, which will be more than a little strange but somehow oddly fitting. Of course pleasure is enhanced when shared. But though I may be alone, I will in fact be sharing it with a 22-year-old sailor named Roger--the me I once was, and will be seeing things through both our eyes.

I will try to brush up on my French and Italian before I go, but I fear I was not cut out to be a linguist. I took both French and Spanish in high school and college, and I stand in awe of those who are bi- or multi-lingual. My problem is that I will be doing very well for awhile in French, say, and then either suddenly have no idea what word I want next or, worse, suddenly lapse into Spanish.

I want to revisit Paris, Rome, and Pompeii, and most specifically, Cannes. I want to find (if it still exists, which it probably does not) the small jetty where Marc and Michel, two young Frenchmen who were on holiday from Paris before joining the army to fight in Algiers, Guntar and Yoachim, young Germans traveling the south of France, and I and a buddy from the Ticonderoga met one beautiful day in July of 1956. The week I spent with them provided me with the happiest memories of my Navy career which I still treasure. Though they will not physically be there with me, we'll still all be together again. And anyone who ever questions how very closely related pain and pleasure are need only imagine what my feelings will be as I stand on that jetty and remember. And knowing me, I am sure that I will wonder if, as I see us laughing and diving off the jetty into the glass-clear waters to retrieve stones from the bottom of the sea, if perhaps there might have been a very old man standing there watching us.

Because the past is so very real to me--only the impenetrable wall of time, to me as crystal clear as the waters of the Mediterranean off Cannes, separates, for me, "now" and "then"--I have no idea how I will react to revisiting the same places nearly 55 years apart. I know my chest will literally ache with longing to reach through that clear, clear wall, to really see, to really feel and once again be on its other side.

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, April 05, 2010

Charlie Brown

I've always identified with Charles Schultz's Charlie Brown, though I never pined after a little red-headed girl--or any girl for that matter. My life has been full of both human and corporate Lucy van Pelts, however, each one of whom I trusted, and each one of whom took/takes perverse glee in frustrating the crap out of me at every turn.

I recently moved directly across the hall from Apartment #906 to Apartment #907, which nonetheless requires a full change of address routine. So I went on line to the U.S. Postal Service (ah, the irony of that last word) to use their simple-as-pi, so-easy-a-caveman-can-do-it instructions. And simple they are.

Question: "Start date of change." I type in "04/03/10" and move on, filled with pride at the keenness of my comprehension.

Question: "Date of Birth' (small arrows to the right of small rectangular boxes marked "Month," "Date," "Year.") I click on the little arrow beside the "Month" box and scroll down to November. I click again, and "11" appears in the Month box. I go to "Date," click on the little arrow, and scroll down to 14, click again. "14 appears" in the date box. I am giddy with delight! I move to "Year", scroll down--way, waaaay down--to 1933, click. "1933" appears in the "Year" box.

I move on, and suddenly, two or three questions later a box pops up on the screen saying "The date format should be: mm/dd/yyyy." Excuse me? That was two or three questions ago, and that's exactly what I did. Also, it's the only question involving dates, so it has to be referring to that. But I go back and repeat the steps quoted in the paragraph above. Exactly the same results. I mean, all I have to do is scroll and click, and I sure as hell should know my own birthday by this time.

I move on to where I left off. Before I can even read it, another pop-up box appears saying "Provide start date of change." I did provide the start date of change: 04/13/10. I go back to check and see they wanted "mm/dd/yyyy," and I'd only provided "yy." Okay, I'll give 'em that. I change it to 04/03/10.

Back yet again to where I'd left off. A box pops onto the screen saying: "The date format should be : mm/dd/yyyy." That's what I just put in, you scum-sucking idiots! Can't you f***ing READ?

I go back yet again to the very beginning. Birthday is shown as 11/14/1933, exactly what they say they want. I check the start day of service: 04/03/2010, exactly what they say they want. I go back to resume the questionnaire, shoulders hunched, eyes slitted, glancing defensively over my shoulder lest the USPS is sneaking up on me from behind with a sharpened letter-opener.

Everything appears to be perfect. It's exactly, exactly, what they said they wanted. I move to the next question. A pop-up window appears on my screen. "The date format should be: mm/dd/yyyy" and is immediately overlaid with another pop up window saying, "Provide start date of change."

I grasp my right wrist firmly with my left hand and force my right index finger to the little red "Cancel" circle at the top left of the screen. The entire page disappears, hopefully forever.

But like Charlie Brown, I know I can't resist Lucy's promises that this time she'll hold the football in place and not yank it away at the last second. So I will go back to the U.S. Postal Service Convenient Change of Address On-Line Form tomorrow, knowing full well that it will not matter. That I can do nothing until I put in mm/dd/yyyy and tell them the start date.

Bureaucracy holds the football, and don't you ever forget it.

Now, would anyone who feels I am not amply justified in feeling more than a little paranoid please raise their hands?....No one? I thought not.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Chicago Then, Chicago Now

Having moved to Chicago immediately after graduating from college, I left in 1966 for reasons which make the stuff of long, boring psychological dramas. We might get to it eventually, sometime down the road. At any rate, I moved back again in September of 2006, and it was in a way as though someone had simply removed 39 years' worth of pages from the book of my life.

I now live on the the same street--even on the same side of the street--as when I first moved to Chicago: exactly six blocks north of my very first Chicago apartment. And therein lies a problem, because now that I am surrounded by the streets and buildings and things which were so familiar to me when I was 25--even the same sounds of elevated trains rumbling by less than a block from my window--I am still 25. And then I catch a glimpse of myself in a window, and the illusion shatters. I never cease to be shocked.

One of the reasons I returned to Chicago was to be back among what I like to call "my own people"--the gay community (there are more gays in one block of north Halsted St. than there are within 80 miles of Pence, Wisconsin). And yet I find that while I am once more in the community, I am no longer a part of it in the same way I once was. The intervening years I have so readily chosen to ignore have aged me out of the bar and cruising scenes which were so important my first time around, and sometimes my chest aches with longing, like someone who knows he is not welcome at a party to which he so badly wants to go.

But still, to be able to be in a place where I can see gay and lesbian couples walking casually down the street holding hands, or with their arms around each other, to go into a store where the staff and the customers are predominantly gay, to talk openly with friends in a crowded restaurant without having to avoid saying anything that might identify me as "one of those" is liberating in a way only members of a minority can feel when they are surrounded by their own kind. Straights never experience this feeling: they are always around their own kind.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was no "gay community" as such. The near north side of the city was something of a gay ghetto, but other than several gay bars, there were no gay shops, gays and lesbians were openly harassed by a notoriously corrupt police department. Discrimination was not only practiced but encouraged. Gays could be fired from their jobs or evicted from their apartments simply for being gay, and there was no recourse.

So, though I was used to attending Gay Pride parades in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was in something akin to awe when I attended my first Chicago Gay Pride parade. The City of Chicago lined the parade route and other gay areas with rainbow flags, and every local and state politician (from the governor on down) marched or rode in the parade. The Chicago Fire Department had a float, and the Chicago Police Department had not one but two parade entries, one of which was a huge float with more than 20 uniformed openly gay and lesbian police officers.

And to the scores of thousands of gays and lesbians (and many of the straights) under the age of 30 lining the route, all this was simply the way it is, and the way it should be. They had, for the most part, not a clue of what those of us who remember "the old days" went through or how hard we fought for all this to happen.

The City of Chicago was a major financial contributor to the Center on Halsted, the city's sprawling Gay and Lesbian community center

But time also brings rather disturbing change. I and perhaps the majority of Chicagoans still mourn the takeover...and subsequent loss of name...of Marshall Field’s department store, which had been a landmark and symbol of Chicago for well over 100 years. I refuse to shop there now. Carson Pirie Scott, another department store anchor, has closed its gigantic Loop store, the building now filled with trendy (read "exorbitantly expensive" little boutiques and restaurants, and probably at least 17 Starbucks). State Street, once a battleship row of grand old flagship department store chains--Wieboldt’s and Goldblatts and many others--is becoming a very upscale strip mall. The charm of "going downtown" is largely gone, at least in Chicago. Walmart, Target, K-Mart sounded the death-knell of innumerable small towns by driving small hardware stores, paint stores, dry-good stores, men's and women's clothing shops, etc. out of business; the collapse of the department store giants has sounded the death-knell of the once legendary Loop.

Well, life goes on. Chicago goes on. I go on.

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