Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Circles of "We"

This started out simply enough, with the idea for a blog talking about why I've always found the word "we" to be my favorite word in the English language, not for its sound but for its definition. (We: pronoun [ first person plural ] 1. used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself and one or more other people considered together). It's the commonality, the "together," I love.

And then, as so often happens when I'm looking up the definition of a word, I found myself thinking of another word which I then have to look up, which leads me to another word, which....Anyway, looking up "we" led me to think of the word "us" and how, to me, "us" and "we" were synonymous. So I looked up the definition of "us" and thereby went from dipping my toe in the water to plunging in far over my head.

The dictionary definition of "us" ( Us: pronoun [ first person plural ]1. used by a speaker to refer to himself or herself and one or more other people as the object of a verb or preposition) for some unknown reason pretty much drains the humanity out of it. The quality of "together" in the definition of "we" isn't even mentioned in the definition of "us," and for some inexplicable reason that both surprises and bothers me. I still can't help but seeing "we" and "us" as synonymous and overlapping.

But wanting to get on with the original intent of this blog, not knowing which word is really more applicable to its theme, I'll just arbitrarily use "we" because I like it more.

There are concentric circles of "we" in each of our lives, in which our individual selves are the center. And the minute I typed "our" in that sentence I was compelled to look it up to see how it relates to "we" and "us"! (Our: possessive adjective 1. belonging to or associated with the speaker and one or more other people previously mentioned or easily identified).

I swear, I shouldn't be allowed around a dictionary!

Dragging myself back to the circles of "we": while all circles appear to be generally the same, there are an infinite number of variations within each one. The individual is always the center of his/her own set of circles. The first circle outward from the center is family and, for most of us (and there we go with "us": see what I mean about overlaps?), the next one beyond that is friends. From that point, the lines between the circles become progressively less distinct the further out from the center one goes, with more overlapping and more variations: acquaintances/co-workers/colleagues, one's religion, social contacts, political affiliations, ethnic/minority identities.

Your circles...are as unique as fingerprints; while all circle categories may be basically the same, there are an infinite number of variations within each. Some circles, like family, religion, and ethnicity, we are born into and, while we may be free to leave some of them, we seldom do. As we pass from childhood to adulthood, we tend to add to our circles, to create new ones, or to join the circles of others.

But what all these circles have in common, and the point of this blog, is that they all--as with so very much of our lives--stem from our individual, personal concept of the word "we"...those things and people which create within us the sense of comfort and belonging.

"We," "us," "our," and "together" form the bases upon which human society is built and wherein our hopes for the future lie.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back. And please take a moment to check out for information on Dorien's "Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs."

Monday, June 27, 2011

Perchance to Dream

I love dreams. The prospect of dreaming is one of the high points of my going to bed.

Last night I woke up with a topic for a fantastic blog, and had the perfect title: “Whither Luxembourg?” It was to be a lighthearted piece (and, as I recall, actually had me chuckling) speculating on how, if people can’t find the United States on a map, they could ever be expected to find Luxembourg…let alone Andorra…and that how, since no one could find them, they in fact ceased to exist, and no one noticed.

As with all my dreams, it had deeply profound undertones, though I can seldom recall exactly what they were.

The study of dreams is a fascinating one, though it does have the element of removing petals from a rose to find out what makes the rose beautiful. To me, dreaming is vaguely like writing without the use of the fingers—and totally free of the confines of logic. When I write, I tell you stories. When I dream, I tell myself stories.

I’m pretty sure I’ve done a blog on dreams before; I’ve reached the point where after a couple years of blogs there is bound to be some repetition, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I say some of the same things I’ve said before. (Though if I can’t remember them, how can I expect you to?)

At any rate, I am blessed that I cannot remember the last time I had a nightmare, though occasionally a disturbing one will crop up. On a scale of 1-10, the vast majority of my dreams fall into the 7-and-above range. Dreams of flying, in one form are another, are my favorite, but the very best, most euphoric dreams of all are those happy dreams which I swear are reality. Leaping off a cliff and soaring through forested canyons and knowing…knowing…that I really, really am flying is nothing short of euphoric.

They say that the fact that one tends to dream just before waking up makes it seem as though one has been dreaming longer than actually is the case. But it does seem to me that I spend much of the night dreaming.

Perhaps it is because I am a writer that my dreams are so varied, and so vivid. I dream in dream-logical stories, I usually dream in color, I have dreamt full musicals with original choreography and score and a cast of hundreds, and on occasion I dream…and this is very difficult to explain…in concepts. I have dreamed in weights and in reams of paper and in cardboard boxes instead of word-thoughts. Interesting, but confusing and not really all that much fun.

Though I seldom dream about my parents or those people whose loss I so frequently bewail here in my blogs, when I do dream of them it is wonderful because the wall of knowing they are dead comes completely down. So when Dad walks into the kitchen in a dream, or Mom appears in some setting, doing something, it’s as simple as that. Dad is walking into the kitchen; Mom is wherever she appears, doing whatever it is she is doing. No need for grief or a sense of loss. Everything is fine.

And that for me is what dreams are…assurance that things are fine, and that all I have to do is lie back, relax, and enjoy them. I hope they are the same for you.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back

Friday, June 24, 2011

"Under God"

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." 1st Amendment, U.S. Constitution

"I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." Widely attributed to Voltaire

I fully support every individual's right to believe in God. I also fully support every individual's right not to believe in God, if that is what his/her conscience dictates. Unfortunately, while most Americans claim to agree with the first amendment, too few seem to share Mr. Voltaire's conviction.

Today I received a forwarding from a friend which included the Pledge of Allegiance, and the instant my eyes fell on "One nation, under God," I had the same hair trigger response of rage I have every time I see/hear it. Those two words, "under God" turns what is a uplifting, patriotic, positive and uniting statement into an unconscionably divisive blatant attempt to usurp my personal right to believe what I choose to believe. As a result, whenever I am in a large gathering in which the Pledge is recited, I refuse to say those two words.

For those who believe in God, to say "one nation, under God" is redundant. It's like saying "when the sun rises, in the east...." It's only purpose is as an attempt at religious proselytizing. It clearly implies that if I do not agree that ours is a religion-based (read "Christian") society, I have no right to claim it as mine.

Written in 1892 by socialist minister Francis Bellemy, the words "under God" were not added until 1952, at the insistence of President Eisenhower, in a totally pointless response to the threat of communism. When the pledge is recited, those two words necessitate an awkward and unnecessary disruption in the flow of the oath, and dilute the essential message of patriotism to and love of country by inserting the issue of religion where it has no business being. If the author, Francis Bellemy, a minister, had wanted to bring God into it, he would have, and even his own daughter strongly objected to its insertion.

America was founded by Puritans and has always had far more than its share of religious zealots for whom fervor far outweighs logic, common sense, or any degree of concern for thoughts other than their own. Any attempt, by anyone, to dictate what others may believe is morally reprehensible.

I've always found it interesting that, for a nation supposedly firmly rooted in the ideal of separation of church and state, every piece of American currency prominently features the words "In God We Trust." That's never bothered me because it is merely an innocuous slogan, like "Remember the Maine," and having about as much relevance to the average person's life. Were I required to say "In God We Trust" every time I handed a clerk a nickel or a dollar bill, I am sure I would feel quite differently. (And I wonder in whom the U.S. treasury might suggest atheists and agnostics trust. I suppose a case could be made that any time one is unwillingly removed from the word "we," it is limiting and discriminatory.)

I'm fully aware that what I think and how I feel as an individual means diddly-squat to anyone else. The vast majority of people simply never give it a thought and wouldn't care if they did. But for someone like me, raised to always feel like an outsider who doesn't belong and is not wanted, seemingly little things like being made clear that the word "we" does not include me cannot help but rankle.

I hold no hope for and would not even espouse the removal of "In God We Trust" from our currency. But if there are enough individuals like me who deeply resent being force-fed any form of religion against our will, perhaps it may be possible to form a "we" of our own, strong enough to join together to remove "under God" from our Pledge of Allegiance and restore it's all-inclusive original intent.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sharing Dreams

There is a trinity of dreams. First and chief among them is the collective dreams of our race, which guide us toward a better future and urge us to strive to make them come true. That not all these dreams have not yet been and may never be realized does not deter us from having them. We are an indomitable race, and we are patient.

Second is the only form of dreams most people are aware of: those we have as individuals while we sleep, which are considered by some scientists to be a kind of subconscious mental housekeeping…a way each of us tries to resolve our own inner conflicts and deal with the waking world around us.

The third of the trinity of dreams is what prompted this entry: those dreams which are conceived in the mind of individual artists, musicians, and writers and translated by them into words and sounds and images which build bridges between individuals and between the individuals and our collective culture. Begun in a single mind, they expand to encompass us all.

I’ve always considered books to be the writer’s dreams set to paper: I know mine are. They are formed, as are all dreams, in the imagination while, for the most part, the writer is awake. And unlike sleep dreams, the writer has some degree of control over them. If unable to direct the dream’s every aspect, at least the writer can consciously influence them by nudging them in certain directions. A relatively few writers are able, and prefer, to plot out every single step and detail of a story before actually sitting down to write. It works for J.K. Rowling, who has made more money from putting her dreams of Harry Potter on paper than I will ever see in ten lifetimes. But it would never work for me. The element of spontaneity, both in sleep dreams and writing, is far too crucial for me.

If writing can be compared to flowing water, the detailed-plotting method seems to be like one of Los Angeles’ drainage canals—straight as an arrow and contained within concrete walls. I prefer mine to be like a meandering river: I know where it’s going, but while I can see the bends coming up, I have no idea what lies beyond them. And I am always aware that I am not on the journey alone: the reader and I are Huck and Jim on the raft, flowing through the story together. I can’t imagine it being any other way.

People frequently ask writers where they get the ideas for their books. Whenever I'm asked, my answer is always the same: I quite honestly have no idea. They just appear. I’ll be minding my own business, thinking of almost anything except where my next story idea is going to come from, when I’ll be aware of something rising to the surface of my mind like a bubble in a tar pit. I’ll watch while it emerges and forms a bubble of thought and finally bursts, leaving me with a topic or plot idea. I love it!

For me to try to explain how these bubbles form and exactly how I handle them when they do appear is as impossible as explaining how we dream what we dream when we’re asleep.

All dreams are born and are nourished in the nursery of the subconscious, and there they remain until they are ready to emerge, either as a sleep dream or as a book or a painting or a sculpture or a symphony. Dreams are our humanity, and I cherish them, whatever form they take.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Monday, June 20, 2011


I recently did an interview about my paranormal Elliott Smith Mystery series, and in response to a question as to whether I'd ever had a paranormal experience, I immediately thought of my encounters with a spirit named Robert, and how I really miss him. I realized that it was Robert who was the model for Elliott's dream-visitor, John, in the series.

I met Robert through a roommate and short-term partner, Paul, shortly after I bought my first house in Los Angeles. I always got home from work before Paul, and one evening, the instant I stepped in the front door, I knew I was not alone. I didn't just know it, I KNEW it, and I had never been more sure of anything in my life. Afraid that the house was being burglarized, and calling out "who's there?" several times, I cautiously made my way from room to room--a truly stupid move if anyone were there. The feeling was almost overpowering as I approached the front bedroom, but when I finally gathered the courage to enter, ready to bolt for the front door immediately, no one was there.

As soon as Paul came home, I told him of the incident. He laughed and said: "Don't worry about it: it's just Robert." Robert, he told me, was a ghost who had lived at Paul's former apartment with him and three of his roommates. He was totally harmless but had a habit of playing tricks, his most favorite being hiding things. And he was, I learned over time, particularly fond of bedrooms and classical music. Though I was frequently aware of his presence, it was never the least bit frightening. In fact, I grew to be very fond of him and looked forward to his visits.

Paul told me of the time one of his roommates had come home from grocery shopping with a carton of cigarettes. Setting the bags on the kitchen table, he made a quick trip to the bathroom, and when he returned, the carton of cigarettes was gone from the bag. He was the only one in the apartment at the time. Three weeks later, when another of the roommates set out to do some minor repair on his car, the carton of cigarettes showed up at the bottom of his tool chest.

Though I never learned Robert's history, he did travel back and forth between my house and Paul's former apartment, his comings and goings usually coinciding with visits from Paul's former roommates. A roommate would come to visit, Robert would show up; another roommate came, Robert would leave.

When my mother came to visit for Christmas shortly after my father died, we were sitting in the living room on the couch, talking. The couch sat toward the center of the room and faced a huge picture window, and I could easily see the living room, part of the kitchen, and the entry/dining room, where the Christmas tree had been set up, reflected in it.

I was telling my mother about Robert. As I did so, I saw Paul, who had been somewhere in the back of the house, enter the living room from the kitchen and walk behind the sofa and into the dining area. He was wearing a bright blue bathrobe I'd recently bought, and when I turned to ask him why he was wearing it, the dining area was empty. When I called out to him, he answered from the back of the house. He was not wearing my robe.

"I don't believe in ghosts," my mother said, and at that moment, three ornaments fell off the tree.

Mother apparently changed her mind.

The next morning she told me that she had awakened in the night, knowing that someone was in the room with her. I asked if she'd been frightened, and she said "Not at all. I just said: 'Go away, Robert,' and he did."

When Paul moved out, Robert all but disappeared from my life, though there have been a few times since Los Angeles that I have been aware of him. I do wish he'd show up more often. I miss him.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Balance

About the time I returned home in northern Wisconsin recovering from my successful bout with tongue cancer, I received an email from a reader named Bil Buralli in Chicago, telling me how much he enjoyed my books. As always, I wrote him back to thank him, and we developed a regular correspondence.

When I moved to Chicago and was staying with my long-time friend and once-partner Norm, I invited Bil and a couple of my other Chicago readers over to Norm's for coffee. Bil was the first to arrive; bigger than I'd pictured him, balding with short grey hair and a short grey beard. Bill had himself gone through cancer, so that was one more thing we had in common. He was a long-time teacher at Chicago's prestigious Latin School and lived on Sheridan Road near Diversey. When I got my own apartment at Diversey and Sheffield, Bil and I would meet frequently for coffee. Often we'd meet at the Caribou Coffee on Broadway, where I met and got to be friends with several of the other regulars. Several times he would invite me to attend a student production at Latin where, even though he no longer taught there, he was always surrounded by kids he had taught and faculty with whom he worked.

When my friend Gary moved up from Texas, I introduced him to Bil and they, too, became fast friends, sharing a love of opera I was never able to fully appreciate.

When Norm died, Bil was there to offer his support. And then one day he casually mentioned that his cancer had returned, and he began a long series of chemotherapy sessions. Unlike me, he never complained. Never.

He began to use a cane. We would often meet for lunch at St. Joseph hospital, a few blocks from his apartment and where he was receiving treatment.

Walking became more tiring for him, and he showed up less and less frequently at Caribou, and it reached the point where he went out less and less.

Last February Gary and I were invited to a belated birthday party given by his four grown children, of whom he was rightfully extremely proud, and I had a chance to meet them and his ex wife, with whom he had remained close. It was obvious they returned his affection.

When he was no longer able to leave his apartment his family arranged for someone to be with him 24 hours a day. But he still kept up his routine of reading the paper, listening to the Metropolitan Opera on radio, and reading a constant stream of books, including mine. He was always asking about my current work in progress and asking how much longer it would be before he could buy one (he refused, until the last book, to let me give them to him, though I was happy to do so).

We tried to go over to see him at least twice a week, watching him grow weaker. When he was put on morphine, it became difficult for him to concentrate. But he seemed to enjoy having us be there. One time when we went to see him, having called in advance to let him know we were coming, we were met at the door by his son Brian, who'd come up to see him from his home in Peoria. Brian told us he was asleep, so we left.

Gary took to calling in advance to calling just before we took the bus over, to see if he was up to having visitors.

We were planning to go over this afternoon, and Gary called.

Bil had died two hours before.

I've often compared life to a gigantic teeter-totter; without life's lows we cannot fully enjoy the highs. But sometimes, when we hit the bottom hard, it hurts.

Bil and those who knew and loved him rode the teeter-totter with him, he on one end, we on the other. It was a fun ride. But we have hit the bottom exceptionally hard, and it hurts.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

One of my favorite lines from Tennessee Williams' classic A Streetcar Named Desire is Blanche DuBois's final line, as she is being taken away to the asylum: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." As have I, Blanche, as have I.

And not merely strangers, of course...far more frequently that of friends, whose patience my severely limited range of comprehension sorely tests. Were I, by some cataclysmic turn of events, to find myself the last man in the world, if I managed to survive a week totally on my own devices it would be a true miracle. I fully expect to be approached by the publishers of Funk & Wagnel's Dictionary, asking for a photograph of myself to illustrate the word "inept."

I know...for all the self-deprecation I display in these blogs you might wonder if I'm overdoing it a bit, and perhaps you may have a point. But I have so much to be self-deprecatory about!

Today quite by chance I came across The Poems of Dorien Grey, an e-chapbook I had published several years ago. I knew going in that poetry simply does not sell, so, like most poetry chapbooks, it just sat there quietly, bio-degrading. Hating to see the poems (some of which I am immodest enough to really like) simply turn to cyberdust, I decided to do something with them , I determined to start a Facebook page called Dabbles, wherein I can post them one at a time in hopes that one or two people might read them.

So off I go to set up a Facebook page for them. Simple. First, give it a title. I did: Dabbles. Second, invite people to "Like" it (Facebook is very big on "Like"). Uh, well, okay, but how can they like it if there's nothing there yet? Scanning quickly down the rest of the "page" I could find nowhere/no way to actually enter any text. So I have to expect people to come to a basically blank (other than the word Dabbles) page and go on record as "Liking" it. Would you do that? I wouldn't.

I finally figured out a way I could type in messages, though surely there has to be a more reasonable way for me to tell people what it is all about...sort of an introduction. Nope. So I enter a message briefly saying what Dabbles is all about. And since it is about my poems, I wanted to put up a poem. My only option is the message box, which is limited to around 275 characters. I wanted to enter a poem with more than 275 characters.

Now, when you type in a message of more than 275 characters, you get a little note saying it's too long, but can be sent as a "Note." Wonderful. A note it shall be. I cut and paste the poem into the "Note" box and hit send. The "Note" and the poem disappear. As I'm sitting there staring at the page as if willing the note to appear, I get a message saying someone "Like"d the poem. How can they like it? It isn't even there. But I click on the notification and I go to my Dorien Grey Profile page, and there it is!

Amazing. But I don't want it on my Dorien Grey Profile page. I want it on my Dabbles page. That's why I put it there. What's the point of even having a page if I can only be sure of putting up poems under 275 characters long?

I send a message to the person who had first seen it, asking if she knew anything about how I can go about putting it where I want it. She says to link it. Thank you! Link it how? The Dabbles page doesn't have a "Link" option.

So I spend another twenty minutes clicking here and typing there on my profile page and the Facebook home page, not having a clue as to what I'm doing, and when I go to the Dabbles page again, there it is! Hooray! But which of the 412 various clickings and typings was the one that did it? I still don't know.

So when I go to put up another 275+ character poem on my Dabbles page, I will be right back to square one and will have to put out yet another plaintive plea, hoping to once again depend on the kindness of strangers. Move over, Blanche.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I'm not sure why I insist on sharing these things with you...I can't expect you to have any interest in someone you never knew. Yet it is precisely because you never knew Bob Combs, my friend of more than 40 years, that I'd like to introduce you--however peripherally--to him here. Bob worked very hard at being a curmudgeon, scoffing at and disdainful of everything. He frequently drove me to distraction, as good friends are wont to do. And yet under that carefully-constructed outer shell beat the heart of a romantic.

During the last years of his long battle with laryngeal cancer, he wrote a column for his local newspaper. Quite by accident I came across it not ten minutes ago, and in keeping with my long-held belief that one is not truly dead until one is forgotten, I wanted to bring Bob back for a brief moment. He is not forgotten by those who knew him, and perhaps by reading his words, he may come alive for you.

Following his death, I received the following note from one of his friends. Here it is.


Dear Friends,

With his customary impeccable timing Bob Combs passed away on May 19th 2007, his 92nd birthday. He valued his friendship and kinship with each and every one of you. In accordance with his wishes, there will be no services of remembrance, except the ones you may choose to hold in your hearts.

Attached is Bob's final Sunny Side.

The time has come to say farewell – while it’s still possible!

It’s been such fun these past 13 or 14 years, since Lon got me started on this every-Friday essay, or column, or whatever-you may call it, in an attempt to balance out the Letters page – that is, to point out all the wonderful, beautiful, happy-making things around us. “On the Sunny Side of the Street!”

Stevenson wrote: “The world is full of such a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings!” Well, as Kipling wrote, “The captains and the kings depart,” but we are still here – until our time runs out. There will always be spring flowers out by Shell Creek, and the beautiful, winding, climbing,roads of our county, and Black Mountain out past Pozo, lifting its lordly beauty, with its calm and its silence.

There will always be an annual crop of children, full of curiosity and joy – sharing all their exciting discoveries with us, as we once shared with our grandparents. What delights they are, and we must strive to see that the world they grow up will be even better that the one our parents built for us.

In due season will come the breezes and the winds; the black clouds or the fleecy clouds of purest white. The trees and bushes will bud and leaf out and blossom, and flowers will pop out of the ground, seemingly overnight. The birds will come back and my favorite mockingbird, Moxie, will sing his heart out under the moons of spring and there’ll be Moxie XVIII before we can blink!

In its season will come the rain, but nothing, in our part of the world, will rule us as will the sun – and its “Cooker Days.” And so the grapes ripen, “to make glad the hearts of man..” And this old earth turns and turns, and our solar system does, too, and our galaxy goes spinning through space – a tiny dot in the vastness of the unknown.

So, let’s do the best we can, while we can, and smile oftener than we groan, and chuckle more than we sigh, and look on the sunny side….and so, goodbye.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Power of Touch

Whenever my dad and I were sitting side by side on the couch, he would, at some point, always reach over and squeeze my knee, which always made me jump and say “Jeez, don’t do that!” Why could I not see that this was his way of showing affection...which was always very difficult for him to do?

The need of human beings to touch and be touched by other human beings is probably one of the least understood but most elemental of human needs. It has been tragically documented that newborn babies not held or caressed or touched grow up severely stunted, emotionally. And while this need may lessen or be sublimated as we grow, it never goes away. Handshakes, hugs, pats on the back, playful punches to the arm, tousling of the hair, an arm around a friend standing beside you, reaching out to touch someone lightly on the arm, all are examples of how the need for physical human contact never goes away.

And toward the end of our life, the need grows even while the opportunities diminish. As loved ones and close friends slip away, so does the opportunity for physical contact. And while it is natural to make a physical fuss over children, the old without immediate family find themselves increasingly deprived of this essential need.

I don’t mean to preach, or pontificate, but this is, to me, simply the way things are, and it is one of the many things to which we should pay far more attention than we do.

Like that “food groups pyramid”, there is also something of a “touch pyramid” to categorize the importance of the different levels of touch. At the very top is the touch of a partner, someone one loves on all levels. Directly below that is the touch of parents; below that the touch of siblings, other relatives, then the touch of friends.

I’ve told this story before, I know, but when my mom was dying, she came home briefly from the hospital. That same night, she had something of a minor stroke and could not speak. Horrified and heartsick, I put her in the car and headed for the hospital. She could not speak, but she reached over and patted my hand. She was comforting me. She was comforting me! I cannot think of that simple gesture, even now, without crying.

The value of touch is in direct proportion to its sincerity. We all know the effusive “huggsies and kisses” type, and when I talk of the importance of touch, I do not include them. And I know some of us are for whatever reason basically undemonstrative, and that is fine. But when you sense a need from a relative, friend or even an acquaintance, don’t hesitate to place an unobtrusive hand on their shoulder; lay a hand gently on an arm, or do any of a number of things which involve gentle physical contact.

It is only the gestures of kindness, love, and affection not made that are later regretted. Make the gesture while you can, and appreciate those given you for what they are meant to be.

You have no idea what I would give to have my dad squeeze my knee.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Dear Lord, but You're Dumb!

Disclaimer: The title of this blog is not the personal opinion of the writer, but apparently that of just about everyone out to get something from you. Please read on.

I never cease to be amazed by the extent to which those trying to sell something, be it a product or an idea, go in their blatant assumption of your stupidity. This phenomenon is personified in a cartoon I once saw, in which a bunch of ad executives are seated at a table surrounded by graphs and charts and blown-up ads, and one is saying, "Ok, let's get down on all fours and look at it from the customer's point of view." Paraphrasing my favorite quote from H.L. Mencken, "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer."

You've seen the recent ads for drugs to treat atrial fibrillation and atherosclerosis in which they go to great pains to introduce them as "Atrial fibrillation, or 'Afib'", and "Atherosclorosis, or 'Athro.'" They apparently are reluctant to just use the full and correct name for the conditions throughout the commercial because they obviously are convinced you are too stupid to handle the complexities of polysyllabics. I suppose I should be grateful that the one time in the commercial they do use the proper name of the condition they do not pause to stare intently into the camera and carefully mouth each syllable as they pronounce it ("" and "").

There are two main types of assumption of stupidity. The first--the most common and most reprehensible--is the contemptuous attitude taken by by spammers, religious zealots, and self-appointed pundits, who actually never even bother to pretend that you have any degree of intelligence whatsoever. In fact, intelligence and independent thinking are utterly anathema to them. And in fact if you do believe them without question, a good case may be made for at least complicit stupidity.

The second and equally bothersome but somewhat understandable assumption of stupidity is that routinely employed by corporations fearing lawsuits. I call this "covering our asses stupidity." In all fairness, companies and corporations have little choice but to emphasize the lowest common denominator. Directions on bottles of bleach saying "do not drink" are, sadly, necessary in our increasingly litigious society to prevent costly lawsuits by those--or their survivors--who would otherwise sue claiming "but it didn't say not to drink it!" As a result, almost every prescription and even over-the-counter medication today comes with literally pages of cautions about possible side effects, even if realistically the chance of those side effects may be one in ten million or more.

Corporations are, however, not above displaying mild contempt for your intelligence by assuming you will simply accept without question their claims that whatever they are offering at the moment is superior to every other similar product out there on the market. I must admit to being pleased that we seldom see "New! Improved!" showing up on products every six weeks. I hope it is because the advertisers finally realized that spending millions of dollars to convince you Burp-O is the greatest thing since sliced bread, and then turning around six weeks later and implying, with their "New! Improved!" pitch, that what they've been selling you wasn't really all that good or it wouldn't need to be constantly "Improved!" may be counterproductive.

TV abounds in assumptions of stupidity. Every single time you fall for a "A $999 value for only $19.99," a "Not sold in Stores," or a "But wait! There's more!" scam, you're proving their point. (Never, never consider that if the product were worth the powder to blow it to hell they wouldn't need to offer you six of them "for the price of one.")

Every spam folder is heavily sprinkled with notices by glorified ambulance chasers looking to make money by convincing you to sign up for some egregious class action suit ("Have you suffered a paper cut while reading Time magazine? You are entitled to millions in compensation!"). Of course, to get your share of the booty, you will also have to pay the lawyers for their herculean efforts on your behalf.

But don't you worry your pretty little head about any of the above. I need your financial backing for the guaranteed best-seller I'm ghost-writing for Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman: American History: the True Story!

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Monday, June 06, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

But in the end, our desire to know the answers to the puzzle of life is rather similar to the situation of a dog chasing a car: what would he do if he caught it?

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The Shallow Pond

I sometimes like to stand on the shore of my knowledge and look out over its vast expanse, and I try to pretend that under the surface lie vast depths of wisdom and insight and understanding. But the fact of the matter is that it would be possible to walk across it and never get the tops of my shoes wet.

In short, I know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about practically nothing. I’m very good at trivia. I can name songs from WWI (“Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven, ’Cause My Daddy’s There”), tell you what the last song was played as the Titanic sank (not “Nearer My God to Thee,” but a hymn called “Autumn”). I can tell you what Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, and Robert Clary have in common (all were in the cast of “New Faces of 1952,” which I saw in Chicago during my freshman year of college.)

But by and large, my vast knowledge is mostly a series of (trivia alert!) Potemkin villages (false fronts erected on the banks of a river by Grigori Alesandrovich Potemkin, a minister of Russia’s Queen Catherine, the Great, to convince her of how prosperous the country was. Potemkin was also the namesake for the battleship Potemkin, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film). In other words, pretty impressive at first glance, but without much behind it.

Which is why I dread people asking me who my favorite author is or what my favorite book is: I don’t feel myself qualified enough to answer. I’ve read many, many books, but know nothing of literature on a scholarly level. I shudder at the prospect of being asked my opinion on almost any subject. The truth is, I probably don’t have one that doesn’t sound like pap.

I have firm opinions on very few things simply because I don’t feel I know enough about anything to form one. In that regard I’m like the beauty pageant queen who, when asked what she wants to do with her life, grins vacuously and says her goal is to work for world peace. Uh, yeah…like that.

I have a love-hate relationship with those who will pontificate on any subject presented to them. On the one hand, I stand in awe of their knowledge, but on the other hand I have no idea whether they actually know what they’re talking about, or if they’re just blowing smoke.

One of the nice things about being a writer, as I’ve often said, is that your readers almost always give you the benefit of the doubt. Unless you have your hero, caught between the warring Umbizzi and M’gwuba tribes on a hilltop in 1880 Transvaal whip out his cell phone to call for backup, most readers will go along and assume you know what you’re talking about. You can get away with a lot when you sound authoritative, as long as you don’t push it.

Did you know the tradition of “women and children first” in disasters came from the 1852 sinking of the British troopship Birkenhead off South Africa? With not enough lifeboats for everyone, the troops formed ranks on the deck as the women and children were put on what few lifeboats there were. It's still known as "the Birkenhead Drill." Few of the soldiers survived, but their bravery lit a beacon which still shines today. I love trivia.

But can I intelligently discuss the social ramifications of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the same year the Birkenhead went down? Nope.

Hey, nobody's perfect.

New entries are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Hey, Rube!

In the days when carnivals and circuses roamed across America, the rides and the side-shows were the primary draws. And while the rides were generally legitimate, the same could hardly be said of the side shows. Bearded ladies, turtle boys, rubber men, and two-headed cows drew huge crowds. Barkers in bowler hats and brightly wide-striped jackets would stand in front of the "show" tents and lure people in with wildly extravagant descriptions of the wonders to be found inside. The pitch never lived up to the expectation. Hucksters and shills, all effervescence and promises, encouraged the crowds to part with their money.

People stood in line to throw hoops over bowling pins, or toss a baseball through a hole in a backdrop for a chance to win Kewpi dolls and stuffed animals. Very few, of course, did. Without exception, the games were rigged in the carnival/circus's favor, just as are gambling casinos today--though today the rigging is perhaps a bit more subtle.

Among the carnies, as they called themselves, the gullible people who flocked to their shows were known as "Rubes."

Circuses and carnivals and side show tents have largely disappeared from our culture. But the barkers and the hucksters and the rigged games most certainly have not. Nor have the Rubes.

I readily and constantly admit that I am not the brightest button in the jar. When any degree of manual or physical dexterity is involved, you can count me out before we start. I am incapable of following an instruction manual. I am incredibly easily confused, and even more easily frustrated. But I can recognize a side-show huckster at forty paces.

Computer Spam folders are perhaps the most egregious of latter day equivalent of the circus/carnival freak show. Every single item in a spam folder might as well be a "Half-Man/Half-Woman!" crossdresser sitting on the platform in front of the tent, or scantily-clad young lady kissing the boa constrictor wrapped around her shoulder. With so few exceptions as to be totally disregarded, every item in my spam folder, and yours, is there for one purpose and one purpose only: to lure you in and get your money. No matter how attractive their offers may appear, no matter what their come-on may be--sympathy, the promise of untold wealth, or health, or success without a single bit of effort on your part--the goal is the same; to get your money. The assumption is that you are astoundingly gullible (a far kinder word than the more accurate "stupid") and, regrettably, that assumption seems to be justified.

Internet spammers are not the only morally undead out there from whom every ounce of compassion, dignity, or honor have been drained. Almost without exception today's hucksters tend to be a far more mean-spirited, malevolent lot; they do not even pretend that there is any pleasure in their pitches. Self-appointed pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck; an army of late night televangelists; Michele Bachmann, Sharon Angel, and other politicians of their ilk all use negativism as stepping stones to power and fortune. They seldom smile, and dwell exclusively on what is wrong with whatever/whoever it is they are opposing without even bothering to offer positive, workable alternatives.

How, how, do they succeed as frighteningly well as they do? How can anyone, anyone with the I.Q. of a baked potato possibly believe a word they say? There's not a dime's worth of logic among the lot of them. I see them for what they are. You see them for what they are (oh, please do); why can't those who, like pigs at a trough, eagerly scarf up the mounds of garbage these cretins spew out, take even one second to say, "Does that really make any sense at all?" The answer is of course "no."

So next time you hear, see, or read something that doesn't sound or look quite right, rather than automatically believing whatever it is, listen closely for a small voice calling "Hey, Rube!" and be sure it isn't talking to you.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please come back.