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My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life is the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, you can find an archive list at the bottom of this page.

Saturday, December 31

December 31

What does one do on the last day of the year? Rosalie went to work at 7:00 and I had the day to do with whatever I pleased. So I opened Real Player on my computer, put it on shuffle, and listened to random choices from my 10,000+ tracks. So much good music. Most of it’s jazz, especially female jazz singers, but I have a little bit of everything, and nearly all that Sinatra ever recorded. Some classical sprinkled in, quite a few Broadway musicals, lots of Broadway divas, and a good selection of golden oldies. And while I listened, I put together all my blogs of 2011, then ran it on my Clickbook program. Clickbook transforms standard 8½ x 11 pages down to 5½ x 8½ printed both front and back. Then I cut the pages in half, punched six holes on the binding edge, bound them with upholstery thread, then used black duct tape to cover the threaded holes. Done. Now I have separate booklets for each of the years I’ve been keeping a journal, just over 6,000 pages all together. Someday, my children will find them and wonder what in the world they’re all about. What, they’ll say, drove me to compile that many pages of daily thoughts? I guess it’s the need to leave something of me behind. Better than a headstone with a one-line epitaph. Vanity, vanity, thy name is Travis. I’ve been binding books for over twenty years, and I’m getting very good at it. Before I decided to have my novels published by Xlibris, I would go to OfficeMax and run ten copies of the Clickbook format, then cut and bind them, enough to give to friends or relatives. I’d hate to add up what all those copies at OfficeMax must have cost. I think I once estimated that each bound copy cost about $10, and that didn’t include how many hours I put in. One way to stay out of mischief.

I spent the rest of my last day of the year reading my 34th Dick Francis novel, watching bowl games, and getting our New Year’s Eve dinner ready—small shrimp cocktails, baked potatoes, strip steaks, garlic toast, and two of Trader Joe’s Crème Brulèe cups for dessert. That’s a meal of about five thousand calories. Whew! Well, the diets start tomorrow.

Friday, December 30

New Year's Eve

On the brink of another new year, this one 2012. And we’ll be celebrating its coming just as we have for at least the last twenty years—salad, steak, baked potato, garlic bread, followed by a B&B or two. That takes us to about 10:00, midnight on the east coast. A quiet hurrah, a kiss, turn out the lights. And that’s enough for us. We can see the ball drop in New York and then we can go to bed. What partiers we are. See us, dancing?

See the New Year’s mouse?

Happy New Year, everyone. Let’s all hope it’s better than the last one. And we can all hardly wait for all the negative campaigning that will take place in the next ten months.

Resolutions

And speaking of New Year’s resolutions, you know, the old ten pounds off the gut, exercise, be kinder to stupid people. How about this one? To mind my own business. Twyla Fritz, a Facebook buddy from my hometown, had this on her space:

There, that should make it easy to keep such a resolution.

Thursday, December 29

Christmas Trees . . . and Needles

This is the time when everyone begins to think about reversing the process, taking all the Christmas decorations down, taking the tree down. All those years we used to have a live tree, beginning with ones that were about seven feet tall, slowly shrinking in size as the years went by. What a pain it was to put on the light strings, then the garland, then the balls and trinkets saved from years gone by. But it was always beautiful, always, as we would invariably say, the best tree we ever had.

But then we had to take it down, putting all the light strings away in confusing tangles, the garland rewound on rolled newspapers, the balls back in their age-yellowed boxes. And the needles. Needles everywhere. Dry, clinging needles we could never get vacuumed entirely, still hiding in rug crevices to be found the following year. We even continued to have live trees after we moved to Arizona, only much smaller than previously, shrinking from those seven-footers to five feet. Still, however, with the dried needle problem. About ten years ago I began making my own tree. I would hang heavy cord from the shelf above our mirrored wall down to the floor, fanning them out in a cone shape, anchoring them with an assortment of heavy stuff. Then I’d string lights and garland just as with a live tree, then the bulbs and other ornaments. And, with the house lights off and the tree lights on, it actually looked like a Christmas tree.
And no needles. That lasted for five or six years, and then we got smart enough to buy a small artificial tree, four feet tall, fiber-optically lit. Out of the box and onto a sheet-draped table.
That’s it. And putting it away is just as simple, back into the box and out to the garage until next year, next Christmas. And the way time has been flowing by, next Christmas is only five or six months away.

Wednesday, December 28

Stereograms

Just before I retired from teaching, I had a class of “difficult” students, the kind that weren’t interested in anything I had to teach and didn’t want to listen to anything I had to say. I can’t remember where I got it, but I had a calendar with pictures that were called stereograms. I brought it in and had my students look at them, to see if they could figure out what made them tick. When they finally saw what was there, they were amazed. I’d forgotten all about them until they were mentioned in one of the Dick Francis books I’ve been reading. So I went on-line and sure enough, there they were. I still can’t quite figure out why they work, but work they do. And the more often one looks at the images, the easier it becomes to call them up. If you look at the center of the image and then sort of let the eyes glaze over, a bit like crossing the eyes, a three-dimensional image will appear. Amazing.

This stereogram has an inset eyeball in black and white. What is so surprising is that the outer image contains colors, but they don’t show up in the 3-d image.

My search also took me to the more common optical illusions, such as the one below.

After careful study, the viewer will find twelve faces or human figures. Can you find them all?

Friday, December 23

Ho, Ho, Homosexuality

I hope I don’t offend anyone with what I’m about to say. But if I do, so be it. It certainly won’t be the first time I’ve been offensive.

It’s nearly Christmas and we’re hearing all those Christmas songs, including “Deck the Halls” with its now-rather-comical line, “Don we now our gay apparel.” I say “now” because in the days of my youth, gay meant simply happy, merry, joyous. In my lifetime, we have come not quite full circle in our views of homosexuality, but almost full. Maybe in the next decade the circle will be complete, with no one thinking much one way or the other about gays. When I was young, in the Forties, we didn’t really know much about homosexuality, and what little we did know led us to believe that only young males could be considered gay, or faggoty or fruity or fairyish or flitty. Odd how all those old, cruel words begin with the letter F. But the cruelest word of all was queer. Back then, any tendency toward flippy wrists was enough to brand you for life. Now it’s becoming more and more inconsequential. When I trace back the way we’ve come, I remember when Rock Hudson died and it was revealed that he wasn’t the manly hunk we’d all considered him to be. How shocking. No limp wrists there, no flittiness. How, we asked ourselves, could he be one of those? It became public knowledge that Cole Porter was gay, that Truman Capote was gay, to name only a few. In 1976, Renée Richards (born Richard Raskind) made headlines when she was banned from playing as a woman in the U.S. Open tennis tournament. She had undergone sex reassignment surgery in 1975. She protested the ban, which was overruled in 1977 by the New York Supreme Court.

Some films addressed the question. Midnight Cowboy in 1969 shocked my innocent eyes by showing for the first time in film male fellatio. The Crying Game in 1992 shocked me and much of the audience when it was revealed at the end that Dil was really a cross-dressing male. The Irishman Jimmy had fallen in love with Dil, who he believed was a woman. This film brought up the question of love between anyone, male or female. Love can come in many forms. For all of us who assume that homosexuality is somehow deviant, this film may have prompted us to look at the relationships between men and women in a different light. Is Jimmy, now in love with a man who he first assumed was a woman (and a very attractive woman she/he was), a homosexual? Or is he just a person who fell in love with another person, regardless of physical genders? That leads to the question about sex and love. Are the two synonymous? I don’t think so. But I’ll come back to that later.

In 1997 in In And Out, Kevin Kline played an English teacher who was mistakenly outed by a former student accepting an Academy Award. Much confusion followed and many in-and-out jokes about sexual stereotypes. Kline was described as “neat, organized, sensitive, loves poetry and Shakespeare, and his favorite female singer is Barbra Streisand.” Therefore, he must be gay. The same could be said about me. For all my career as a male English teacher, I wondered how many people questioned my masculinity. Quite a few, I suppose. In 2005, Brokeback Mountain shocked a lot of people by taking for a central theme the homosexual relationship between the two main characters played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. Homophobes all over the country could be heard screaming their disgust. In 2010, The Kids Are All Right explored the relationships between two women in a same-sex marriage, both of whom bore children using sperm donations, and the affects of that marriage on the children. The consensus was that they’re all right.

Television entered the debate in 1972, when “M*A*S*H” took a sideways step toward cross-dressing, with Klinger, supposedly trying to get a discharge from the army, enjoying his many female costumes. In 1982, cross-dressing is the entire plot hook in “Bosom Buddies,” in which Tom Hanks, disguised as Buffy, finds the joys of posing as a woman. In 1997, after coming out of the closet on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ellen Degeneres did the same with her character on “Ellen.” “Will and Grace” in 1998 moved further, portraying Jack as an openly stereotypical gay and Will as a non-stereotypical gay who shares an apartment with Grace. Then along came “Glee,” the show that has, since its opening in 2009, opened wide the doors regarding homosexuality, homophobia, and bisexuality. Chris Colfer, who plays the gay student Kurt Hummel, has admitted to being gay. And in the last two seasons, we’ve seen the football bully Karofsky kiss Kurt, Brittany and Santana acknowledging their love for each other, Blaine Anderson admitting to being gay and the love angle for Kurt, the understanding between Kurt and his father. In other words, this show has done more for encouraging understanding of homosexuality than any other show thus far. And I’m an admitted Gleek.

Now, with all the film and television exposure, with the rescinding of the military’s DADT (Don’t ask, don’t tell) policy, more and more people are finding it easier and easier to come out of the closet (such an odd yet fitting way to say it). Which then leads to the question of same-sex marriage. Those people and those states that still oppose it, based on the Bible’s dictums about such matters, cite as their proof Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them”; and Corinthians 6:9-11: “Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” I think those who believe the Bible to be the true word of God and not man’s interpretations of those words should be welcome to their beliefs. But that shouldn’t prevent those who don’t agree with them from being legally joined in matrimony.

Some last thoughts about sex and love, heterosexuality and homosexuality. When I was a young man, almost nobody got a divorce. It was a shameful thing to do. Young people who fell in love then were at least as much in lust as in love, because premarital sex was frowned upon then, and unwed mothers were shipped off to give birth or were hidden away like lepers. So, many people who married young, thinking that sex was the basis for a love between two people, often stayed together for their lifetimes. The same is true of those who would be classified as latent homosexuals, people who married but could never figure out why they didn’t feel fulfilled. Too often, for both homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, after the sex was appeased, love didn’t necessarily remain, and they were just two people sharing a life and a house. To successfully share lives forever, two people must be in love, not in lust. Even though the pleasure of sex can certainly be a part of love, it can’t be a substitute for love. Two people may be wonderful sex partners but absolutely awful full time partners. The sexual revolution four decades ago introduced the concept of “fuck buddies,” two people who enjoy each other’s company for brief sexual encounters but who part ways afterwards, still friends but not lovers. Even our euphemism “to make love” is inaccurate. It suggests that only people in love can have satisfactory sex together. Just not so.

And with that thought, I’ll say again, I hope I didn't offend too many of you. Merry Christmas, everyone, and I love you all.

Thursday, December 22

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I and the other six or seven people who haven’t yet read Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of books about Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the you-know-what, will now have to find and read them. It seems that most of us men-who-don’t-hate women who have just seen the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have fallen in love with this truly strange Swedish girl. Or is it that we’re in love with Rooney Mara, who plays the girl in David Fincher’s version of the story? I don’t know. But I certainly agree with what one reviewer had to say about her: “When it comes down to it, this is Rooney Mara's movie, and I don't care if the second and third stories are any good as long as they are full of Lisbeth Salander.”

The movie was long (2 hours, 38 minutes) but so intense that no one in the audience was about to fall asleep or complain. And I don’t think I’ve ever experienced cold in a film quite like the cold of the opening ten minutes, when we and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) are first introduced to the island in northern Sweden where he is to begin an investigation into the 40-year-old murder of Harriet Vanger, the young grandniece of the island’s owner, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). The cinematographic white on white of snow and fog of the opening made me shiver from the cold as well as in anticipation of what was to come. And I wasn’t disappointed. The story is shaped like a two-pronged pitchfork that midway comes together at the shaft, one prong about Mikael’s losing a libel suit against a wealthy industrialist and his taking an investigative assignment to find Harriet’s killer from among the odd assortment of relatives of Henrik Vanger who live with him on his island, the other prong about Lisbeth Salander, the young computer hacker who did the investigation for Henrik Vanger into Mikael’s background. There are details about her background that I didn’t understand, either because I hadn’t read Larsson’s trilogy or because I couldn’t follow the dialogue. She tried to kill her father when she was twelve but I don’t know why. Was she abused by him? Okay. But who was the stroke victim she found in his apartment? Her father? And if so, why was she still loyal to him? And her financial allowance was dependent on the mental reports made by her counselor, the sleaze ball who required a sexual favor or two for that allowance. But back to the pitchfork. The two story lines go back and forth until they come together when Lisbeth is hired as Mikael’s assistant in his investigation. Together, they look into the story through computer searches of the details of that day when Harriet disappeared and the many photos they find. There is, of course, a romantic involvement between the two of them, despite their age difference. And the end of the movie leaves us with the feeling that although they aren’t together, they will be in the next installment or two. I guess I may have to see the movie again to find the details I missed the first time. Or read the books. Or see the movie again just to watch Rooney Mara do her tattooed-girl thing. Or do both.

Wednesday, December 21

Internet News

A recent article suggests that newspapers as we’ve forever known them will soon be a thing of the past. Just too expensive to compete with the cyber world. The article said probably within five years. With the ever increasing rate of Internet use, I think it’s more likely to be within two years. The article thought only four newspapers in hard copy would survive, at least for a few years after the demise of all others: USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Maybe even sooner, we’ll see the end of most hard copy magazines, with only Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated surviving for a few years beyond. I read a variety of articles on the Internet, but it still requires squinting at the screen, being there in front of the screen. I would miss being able to hold the paper or magazine in my hands, being able to carry it with me. But with the advent of really smart phones and ever smaller and lightweight computers and tablets, I guess my complaints wouldn’t be valid. Just another step away from the world of information I grew up with. Newspapers, magazines, and hard copy books will soon be a thing of the past. How sad. How exciting. On the positive side, just think of all the trees that won’t be cut down.

Tuesday, December 20

More Frost

I’d forgotten how much fun Frost’s poetry is, forgotten how much I loved his poetry. As I understand it, the man himself wasn’t easy to live with or befriend, always with a darkness in him and often in his poetry.

Which takes me to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s easily one of his best-known poems, and is often mistakenly read as a sort of children’s poem, a Christmas card set in words. The rhyme scheme is interesting. It hooks each stanza together by taking the off-rhyme of the preceding stanza and making it the dominant rhyme of the next. So the four stanzas go: aaba, bbcb, ccdc, dddd. Only four rhymes throughout. And the last line simply repeats the next-to-last line, sort of rounding it out and finalizing the pattern. Then look at the scene itself and that ambiguous final repeated line, “And miles to go before I sleep.” Critics have most often considered the poem a Frostian death wish. The speaker (Frost?) is hurrying home through the dark and snowfall of a late December evening, but decides to stop to “watch the woods fill up with snow.” And these woods, far from home or any human connection, are “lovely, dark, and deep,” and seem to beckon him. There’s the death wish critics point to. The speaker, though, has obligations (promises) and miles to go (years) before he can enter those lovely, dark woods.

It’s not as though this is the only darkness in Frost’s poetry. That frightening conclusion to “Design” is one example. “Desert Places” is another.

The setting here is almost exactly like that in "Stopping by Woods," but not as evocative to the speaker. In fact, here the loneliness is frightening, a blankness of the countryside paralleling the emptiness of the speaker's soul. The speaker (Frost?), in the last stanza, is saying that what the scientists say about the immensity of the universe and how insignificant mankind is doesn't frighten him as much as the spiritual emptiness, the desert places, within himself.

Just for the fun of it, here are several other statements Frost made, both tongue-in-cheek humorous as well as dark. "So Eden sank to grief" (mankind's loss of Paradise), "So dawn goes down to day" (loss of youth and its brightness), "Nothing gold can stay" (nothing precious lasts as life moves toward death). Not much humor there.

In "It Bids Pretty Fair" we have an unusual hint of optimism: Mankind, despite our propensity for war, will probably be all right as long as nothing goes wrong with the sun. Finally, his mocking epitaph, forgiving God for His practical joke on all of us, granting us life and then taking it away after too short a time. Again, the light and dark of Frost's outlook as seen in his poetry.

One last word about form in his poetry. He wrote many of his poems in blank verse, a form often used by Shakespeare. Blank verse consists of ten-syllable lines alternating with unaccented and accented syllables but without rhyme, the cadence of ordinary speech as seen in the first four lines of another of his best-known poems, "Mending Wall." For those of you who remember such arcane information, it's unrhymed iambic pentameter.

There, that should have bored my readers sufficiently. Now we're done with Frost and moving toward the frost of Christmas.

Monday, December 19

Thanks & Frost Sonnets

I began this blog almost three years ago, January 2, 2009, and I’m pleased that so many people have visited me to read what I have to say. My subjects have jumped all over the place, from personal thoughts and experiences to local, state, national, and international news. And my audience has been surprisingly diverse. I’ve had, for example, 394 page views from readers in Russia. How they stumbled onto my blog I can’t figure out, but to those readers I say, “spasibo, spasibo.” My heartfelt thanks. And to all the other readers from around the world I also say “thank you, thank you.” Another surprise is the number of times people have gone to a blog I wrote on September 25 of this year, a blog on poetic forms, particularly the sonnet. There have been 51 visitors to that blog. I wouldn’t have thought there’d be anywhere near that number of people interested in such a minor subject as the sonnet form. To those who might be interested, on March 6, 2010, I also wrote about that fun form, the limerick, and on March 7, the double-dactyl, rondelet, and cinquain.

And now I’m going to talk about Robert Frost and his use of traditional forms. Frost, in the midst of poetic rebellion against tradition in the early 20th century, stuck to his guns and remained a traditionalist. Possibly the only thing non-traditional about his poetry is his use of common language instead of traditional poetic diction (“thee” and “thou” and “whither,” etc.) He wrote thirty-seven sonnets, he wrote many poems in blank verse, and he even did a cute little thing with rhyme in one of his best-known poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” This last is especially appropriate because in just two days, the darkest evening of the year will be upon us. First, a few sonnets:

“No Holy Wars for Them” is an English sonnet, in strict iambic pentameter and the strict English (or Shakespearean) rhyme pattern. The only non-traditional aspect of it is the commonplace language, no poetic diction here, even a little of the typical Frost irony.
“Acquainted with the Night” at first looks like another English sonnet rhyme pattern, the first four lines going a-b-a-b. But then we see it’s really a terza rima pattern in which the lines break into threes, with each succeeding three lines using the middle rhyme of the previous set as its predominant rhyme. Like this: a-b-a, b-c-b, c-d-c, d-a-d with the concluding couplet using the a-a pattern. Frost once wrote to Louis Untermeyer, "The sonnet is the strictest form I have behaved in, and only then by pretending it wasn’t a sonnet." He loved traditional forms, but he also liked to play his own little games with them.
In “Design,” probably his best-known sonnet, maybe the best-known sonnet in all of American literature, he goes one step further with the terza rima pattern, in this case using only three rhymes throughout the fourteen lines. That’s no mean feat. He's taken the Italian sonnet form and gone it one better. The careful design of the rhyme pattern reinforces his meaning in the poem, that although he may question whether or not there really is a pattern to God’s plan for the universe, the poem itself seems to say there is. That’s a scary premise, that if there is a pattern, doesn’t the pattern of the spider, the flower, and the dead moth present something we’d rather not consider as a pattern? Then, almost as an afterthought, he goes on to say that maybe these three ingredients are too small, too inconsequential, to be part of any pattern. Or for that matter, maybe man and his affairs are also too small, too insignificant in the vastness of the universe to be part of God’s design.

More on Frost tomorrow.

Saturday, December 17

Christmas Collages

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, only one soul at his computer, looking for something to do with all his Christmas cards. They're too nice to just throw away. So I made a couple collages and decided to stick them here.

I especially like the cat sleeping with a Santa hat on her head. Then there's the dog with a mouthful of presents. And the pig gazing smilingly at us over the fence.

A week to go to Christmas Eve and then another week to get to New Year's Eve, and then, BANG! we're into 2012 with all the politicking. I hope both nominees use mainly positive ads instead of all those ugly negatives.

Friday, December 16

Cell Phone Laws

Now we have a debate over new legislation regarding cell phones and other electronic devices being used by drivers. The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending states to ban drivers from using not just cell phones but also any hands-free devices such as Bluetooth, citing statistics that show driver distraction is just as great with hands-free devices as with hand-held cell phones. Lots of people disagree. The whole idea of driver distraction as dangerous brings up other kinds of distractions: smoking, eating and drinking coffee or soda, applying makeup, steering with knee or thigh (and what, you ask, would be the reason for such an action?), listening to the radio, conversing with another passenger, looking at a GPS map on the console, fighting with backseat children, opening or closing a window. You name it, they’re all distractions. But how in the world would one enforce a law that disallowed such distractions. They would all be unenforceable laws like the seatbelt law or the motorcycle helmet law or the now defunct law (now that Alabama has finally done away with it) banning miscegenation or that old unenforceable law prohibiting the sale or consumption of alcohol or the laws prohibiting sodomy. I’m not suggesting that I’m in favor of using cell phones while driving. I’d still like to smash into cars in which I see the driver with a cell phone glued to the ear. But to write laws to prevent driver distraction is senseless . . . and such laws would be unenforceable. Why not just have a national campaign urging drivers to keep both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road, mind focused on the driving instead of that silly text message saying, “Oh, hi, whatcha doin’? Just saw a guy go right through a red light and almost hit a pedestrian. LOL!”

Thursday, December 15

Sun City West

We just celebrated our 17th anniversary of living in Sun City West, Arizona, and we still can’t figure out how we were lucky enough to find this place. We’re called Sun City West because just a few miles to the east of us is the original Sun City, the first such retirement community envisioned and designed by Del Webb, the founder of all the Sun Cities that have since mushroomed around this country. And ours is the best of all of them. Webb must have decided he would go whole hog when he built SCW, making it the epitome of retirement havens. It’s a design that would never again be duplicated because of the cost of such an endeavor. We have more amenities here than anywhere else—seven prime golf courses, four recreation centers, three outdoor swimming pools, two indoor pools, a 24-lane bowling facility, multiple lighted and fenced tennis and pickle ball courts, a racquetball court, the best softball field to be found anywhere, ten churches, a large hospital, three weight and workout facilities, a billiard parlor, bocce ball courts, two putt putt courses, a lighted timed walking course, countless clubs for hobbyists in silver, copper, wood, metal, jewelry, embroidery, even a railroad club with extensive trains and train tracks. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the clubs, but you get the idea. When we got ready to move to Arizona, I was certain that we wouldn’t be able to afford anything but a mobile home court with some tiny par-3 golf course for me to spend the rest of my days playing. And then we found Sun City West. And discovered that even on only a teacher’s pension we could afford to buy a house and live in this retirement paradise. And we haven’t regretted a day of it since.

Seventeen years. That’s the second longest time we’ve ever lived anywhere. We lived in our hometown, Mobridge, South Dakota, for seventeen years before we were both able to make our escape, like nearly all young people in South Dakota who flee from their hometowns and their state to find a better life elsewhere. And we lived in Lakewood, New York, where I taught for twenty-three years. We fled from there just as we had from South Dakota, never having felt we were a part of that community. Now, we feel we’re home and a part of this community of young/old people living out our lives in healthy, useful activities other than sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch waiting to die. No thanks.

Wednesday, December 14

Ellen & Descendents

We watch The Ellen DeGeneres Show almost every day, saving it to the DVR and then fast-forwarding through all the commercials and interviews with those we don’t care about (like those two nasty little girls from England, like Justin Beiber, like Lady Gaga). Just over a week ago she began her annual “12 Days of Giveaways,” each day giving everyone in the audience up to $3,000 worth of “stuff.” And the audience invariably screams and cheers when Ellen flips over a Christmas box to show them what they’ll be getting—gift cards to those companies sponsoring that day’s gifts, electronic devices from tv’s to Blu Ray disc players to Playstations to X-Boxes to laptops to Kindles to I-Phones, watches, headphones, cookware, necklaces worth $1,000, cameras, sunglasses, even a Fender guitar. And the greed just oozes from the folks in the audience. I wonder how long it will be before most of these devices wind up in a closet or on a shelf in the garage. Or how many of the recipients will be selling their “stuff” for whatever cash they can get. Ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas and a happy giveaway from Ellen. We’re in the middle of an economic meltdown and yet nearly everyone living in the U.S. has at least one cell phone or e-reader or laptop. It strikes me that most of us in the U.S. are better off than we would have the world know.

More on The Descendents. I just finished reading Wild Horses by Dick Francis, the main character of which is a young film director working on a movie about a real life mystery involving the death by hanging of a young woman. I assumed that directors were just people who yelled “Action! Cut! Print!” and told the cast where to stand and how to say their lines. But I learned that it involves much more than that. The director chooses specific ways to get his message across. In The Descendents we see the young daughter through a patio window throwing deck chairs into the pool to suggest her grief over her mother’s coma. We watch the older daughter in their backyard pool, right after her father tells her that the life-sustaining machines will be turned off and that her mother will soon die. She hides her grief by going under where the camera records her silent underwater scream, her face contorted with underwater tears. And the final scene shows the youngest daughter sitting on the sofa watching television, a blanket across her legs, the same blanket that covered her mother as she lay in the hospital. The father comes in with two bowls of ice cream, one strawberry for her and a chocolate chip for him. He sits beside her, then pulls the blanket across his legs. They eat spoonfuls of ice cream, silently watching the tv. The oldest daughter comes in and sits next to her father, who pulls the blanket over her legs. He gives his ice cream to her, then takes the other daughter’s bowl and begins to eat from it. The three of them sit together, sharing their ice cream, the blanket, silently content together, now a family who have come together after the death of their mother, his wife. It was a powerful statement that couldn’t have been made with dialogue. I’m sure the director, Alexander Payne, chose this silent but powerful concluding scene. I’ll probably see this movie again, and then maybe again, just as I have with all the other movies I’ve admired, to see how the actors and the director bring it all off.

Tuesday, December 13

Rain & The Descendents

We've had a two-day drizzle here in the Valley, most unusual. I can't remember any time in the years we've been here that the skies simply closed down and the gray drippers commenced. Back in upstate New York, this kind of day wasn't at all unusual. In fact, way too often we might have two, three days, even a full week of gray skies and drippiness. But never until now have we had it here. Usually, the rains we get are from fast-moving cells that fly over us and drench us with a twenty minute downpour. This London stuff feels sort of welcome for a change. And we certainly need the moisture.

And since we had no other pressing business, we went, finally, to see Clooney do his Clooney thing in The Descendents. We're both glad we did. It was a low key, gorgeous presentation of Hawaii in all its beauty. And George did himself proud with his moving portrayal of a man trying to find his way after his wife's water accident and subsequent coma, a condition from which, the doctor told George, she would never awaken. It's the story of a man who reunites with his two daughters, who learns of his wife's infidelity, who tracks down the man with whom she was unfaithful. A really simple story told simply. And it was worth five stars and may even win an Oscar for best picture. And George may also win for best actor. I hope so.

Monday, December 12

The Sitter & Political Prognostications

I made the sorry mistake of taking our Arizona Republic movie reviewer at his word. I should know better. Bill Goodykoontz gave The Sitter a three-and-a-half star review and I bought it. He said, “The Sitter isn't Hill's best movie, not by a long shot (it is, in fact, a sort of lesser, comic version of "Cyrus," in which he plays a more seriously tormented young man living with his mother). But it's one worth watching, something that can be said of most of his films without hesitation.” I sat in the theater with about sixty other people. For the entire movie there wasn’t a single sound—no snicker, no chuckle, no guffaw. Just silence. I was surprised that no one walked out, surprised I didn’t. It was a silly, nonsensically plotted, unfunny, unnecessarily raunchy film. Jonah Hill should stick to his new slimmer figure and agree to more roles like the one he had in Money Ball. I’d like him a lot better. One reviewer at Rotten Tomatoes said it better: “There is no doubt an audience for this material among adolescent boys, but for almost everyone else, this is 82 deja vu minutes of your life you're not getting back.”

I’m no political pundit, but with the coming battle for the Republican nomination, I think I can make a reasonable prediction. If either Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich becomes the nominee, he will probably beat Barack Obama, all based on a negative vote over seeming deficiencies in the present administration. Thus, Obama will become a one-term president, the first since George H. W. Bush’s loss to Bill Clinton in 1992. But I think it likely that whichever Republican wins the nomination and then the presidency in 2012, he will also be a one-termer. Our nation’s economy is in such a mess right now that no one will be able to do much more than Obama’s done. And so in 2016 we’ll have more disgruntled voters dumping Romney/Gingrich to go to another Democrat. Some have speculated that Hillary Clinton might challenge Obama for the nomination in 2012, but I don’t think that’s very likely. However, she would certainly be the logical choice in 2016, and she could certainly beat either Romney or Gingrich after they too have fallen on their faces. And she’d be only 68. There you have it. Unless the jobless rate drops to 8% by election time, a Republican will be our next president. But he will last for only one term. Then we’ll see how our first female president can do it.

Sunday, December 11

Dreamcatching

`This seems to be a slow idea day, just nothing much that strikes my fancy. And even though I’m sure no one but me is interested in my dream states, I may as well recount some of them here. I have a lot of classroom dreams most often as teacher, but some as student—some pleasant, some unpleasant, some just weird. I wonder what Dr. Freud would say about them.

In one, I was taking a final in a college history course with very few students. The teacher handed out the tests and assigned us numbers and words to put at the top of the test. Most got numbers, but I got the word “who.” The test consisted of about five essays topics and we could take it anywhere we wanted to. I went to some room down the hall and began writing. Or trying to write. I suffered the same kind of paralysis I used to have when taking a timed test and I just couldn’t seem to get started. Time was just whipping by and I had only just begun my first essay. Oh, how painful the process. Trying to get thoughts down on paper but always aware of the clock. Finally, I just gave up and went back to turn in my unfinished test, knowing I would have failed the course. But how very accurate was the feeling of being paralyzed.

In another, the teacher was really attractive and sexy and even though it was a test day she kept going around the room dancing and flirting with all the males. Finally, she got around to me. She told me to touch noses with her but that I should look only at her nose and not mine. We did that and then she very lightly put her lips against mine. And very slowly it turned into a full embrace and kiss that lasted a long time, during which I became aware that she was crying. I pulled away from her and tried to console her. I had the feeling she was crying because the kiss was so beautiful, so moving, and she’d intended it to be only silly.

In another, I was sitting in on a seminar in some college or other and the teacher had us all put a coin marker on a date on a huge calendar on the floor. The date was supposed to represent one of the most meaningful times of our lives. No one else wanted to go first, so I did. I started telling them about a teacher I had who so influenced me in my desire to do something creatively, in music. His name was Major Sindar Buchanan Fargis. I was surprised that everyone in the seminar had heard of him. The teacher then said that he’d do some research and I could continue my story at the next meeting.

Like I said, weird. Or maybe it's just me and not the dreams that's weird.

Saturday, December 10

Sayings

Every winter, just before Christmas, we get several catalogues touting interesting items for potential Christmas gifts—sculpture, wall ornaments, rings, bracelets, T-shirts and sweatshirts. And the shirts both T and sweat have funny sayings on front or back. We can skip ordering anything because we’re old and we don’t need any more “stuff” in our lives, nor do our friends and relatives. In fact, a decade or two ago, we instructed our kids not to give us anything non-consumable; only things we can eat or drink. We’re both good little eaters and drinkers, and we’re no longer bothered by more stuff around the house. In this year’s Signals catalogue, I found a number of sayings which are keepers. For example:
“Old age comes at an inconvenient time.”
“There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life—music and cats.”
“And thou shall have dominion over all the beasts . . . except, of course, for cats.”
“I used to be indecisive. Now I’m not so sure.”
“I’m always late. My ancestors arrived on the Juneflower.”
“Facing your fears builds strength. But running from them makes for a great cardio workout.”
“Relish today—Ketchup tomorrow.”
“Irony—the opposite of wrinkly.”
“Catch a falling star . . . and you’re toast.”
“Statistics mean never having to say you’re certain.”
“History Buff: I’d find you more interesting if you were dead.”
“Resistance is not futile. It’s voltage divided by current.”
“I cannot prevent the Birds of Sorrow from passing over my head, but I can keep them from building a nest in my hair.”
“Writer’s Block: When your imaginary friends won’t talk to you.”
“Even if it’s crap, get it on the page.”

I know, I know, this last one is probably too relevant to my writing. But at least it’s on the page.

Friday, December 9

Sports Stats

I’m not a fanatic for statistics in our professional sports, but stats are often a good way to determine an individual athlete’s true abilities. In basketball, we keep track of points scored, rebounds, assists, and steals. We can also look at percentages from 3-point range, free throws, and overall percentage of shots made. To evaluate a player’s defensive ability, we can track the percentages of shots made by the one defended as opposed to his percentage for the season. And in baseball, the most fanatic about stats of any of the professional sports, we can keep track of hitting, hitting in the clutch, extra-base hits, on-base percentage, and defensive errors. The pitchers are the only ones who are assigned a stat that isn’t very meaningful—wins and losses. A pitcher could give up ten runs and still get the win if his team scores eleven. Much more important are the stats about earned runs allowed, walks given, hit batsmen, and hitting percentages allowed. And then we come to professional football. One of the most misleading statistics about quarterbacks is the passing yardage. The totals don’t necessarily show how many yards are gained after the catch. What about that seldom used play where the quarterback takes two steps back and then flips the ball forward to the running back going through the line. It counts as a forward pass, but it's really little more than a long handoff. Let’s say the running back takes that little flip and goes ninety-nine yards. Which is more important? The little flip or the run? Obviously, the run. Another example is the 52-yard reception in overtime by Cardinal LaRod Stephens-Howling to beat the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday. Kevin Kolb, the quarterback, gets credit for all 52 yards in his passing stats, when actually he threw only a two-yard screen pass to Howling, who took it the other fifty yards for the touchdown. Why not credit quarterbacks with only the yardage of the catch, not the yardage the receiver goes after the catch? That would be a much more reliable statistic about a quarterback’s true worth.

Thursday, December 8

007 & Waste Management

I just finished reading the new Jeffery Deaver novel, 007 Carte Blanche, a James Bond continuation of the Ian Fleming series. Sort of dumb, I think, not up to Deaver’s usual standard. But his attention to detail is impeccable as always. In this one, much is made of waste management in a world that sorely needs to pay attention to waste management. One of the bad guys, who owns countless waste disposal sites in the world, is telling Bond about the problem: “There are four ways to rid ourselves of discard. Dump it somewhere out of the way—in tips or landfill now mostly but the ocean’s still popular. Did you know that the Pacific has four times as much plastic in it as zooplankton? The biggest rubbish tip in the world is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, circulating between Japan and North America. It’s at least twice the size of Texas and could be as big as the entire United States. Nobody actually knows. But one thing is certain: It’s getting bigger.

“The second way is to burn discard, which is very expensive and can produce dangerous ash. Third, you can recycle it . . . Finally, there’s minimizing, which means making sure that fewer disposable materials are created and sold. . . . It’s the packaging that causes most of the volume. Discard was easily handled until we shifted to a consumer manufacturing society and started to mass-produce goods. How to get the products into the hands of the people? Encase it in polystyrene foam, put that in a cardboard box and then, for God’s sake, put that in a plastic carrier bag to take home with you. Ah, and if it’s a present, let’s wrap it up in colored paper and ribbon? Christmas is an absolute hurricane of discard.”

He goes on to say, “E-waste accounts for more than ten percent of the deadly substances on earth. Heavy metals, lithium from batteries. Take computers and mobiles. They have a life expectancy of two or three years at most, so people just throw them out. . . . But pound for pound computers and phones are the most deadly waste on earth. In China, they just bury or burn them. They’re killing their population by doing that.”

Scary, isn’t it? Most of us do the recycling bit, which makes us feel a little better about ourselves, but that doesn’t even begin to solve the problem. Six billion of us now on earth with that number climbing alarmingly every day, most of that six billion buying more and more plastic and cans and bottles and computers and mobile phone devices and then throwing them away, mountains of refuse growing and growing in our landfills and rivers and lakes and oceans. Where will it end? I guess it will end when there’s nowhere we can live that isn’t contaminated with toxic waste, and then we’ll all die. Now that’s a depressing thought.

Wednesday, December 7

Miracle on 34th St. & Natalie Wood

Last night we went to the Arizona Broadway Theatre to see Miracle on 34th Street, music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson. Right from the overture I could hear Wilson’s signature music, way too similar to that of Music Man, same cadences, same kind of schmaltzy “76 Trombones” effects. And early in Act Two, we had a song called “She Hadda Go Back” that was a carbon copy of what we heard in “Trouble” from Music Man. Not that it wasn’t good—it was—but it was way too similar. The set designs and costuming were excellent, the story and music not so good. Susan Walker, the little girl who believed in Kris Kringle, reminded me of that other little girl who starred in the 1947 film version of Miracle, Natalie Wood. Most of us oldsters remember her for her roles in Rebel Without a Cause, with James Dean; Splendor in the Grass, with Warren Beatty; and West Side Story, in which she played Maria. Controversy then, controversy now. Thirty years ago, she drowned, either falling or jumping or being pushed off their yacht anchored off Santa Catalina. Her death was ruled an accident. Now the case has been reopened with some questions about a fight between Robert Wagner, Christopher Walken, and Natalie Wood, questions about whether her husband, Robert Wagner, may have “allowed” her to drown, seemingly unconcerned when he and the boat’s captain couldn’t find her on board, both assuming she had taken a dinghy and gone to shore. I can’t for the life of me understand what the authorities hope to accomplish by reexamining this case. Nothing can be proven one way or the other, and all the innuendo can be unfairly damaging to those involved. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what develops.

Tuesday, December 6

Christmas 2011

Bah, humbug! I seem to be even Grinchier this year than normal. ‘Tis the season is really upon us, with too many folks out driving from one shopping center to another, bustling around buying gifts the recipients probably won’t want or use. Bah, humbug! Yesterday, my wife Rosalie spent the day putting up our few Christmas decorations. Each year the amount shrinks. We went from lights strung around our pineapple palms and the front of the house, a 6-foot live Christmas tree, and lights strung all over the place inside the house, all that to what we now do—a 3-foot artificial tree, two small lighted houses beneath the tree, two basketball-sized balls of lights hanging from our outdoor house lights, and a 1-foot lighted snowman on one of the tables. That’s it. Not much to put up, not much to take down. And we no longer have to worry about those dried pine needles that seemed to be all over the place when the live tree dried out. Bah humbug! This might be an appropriate time to bring out the contents of a Christmas letter I sent out in 2003:

We’d like to wish you a very merry Arizona Christmas and a peaceful, warless, terrorless, happy New Year. May this holiday season find you all well and happy, thankful for what you have and not envious of what others may have. We usually don’t realize just how good we’ve all got it. We sometimes complain about the weather (What? In Arizona?! Never!), about the state of affairs in our state (What? In Arizona?! Never!), about the state of the Union (What? In this good old U.S.A, with the leaders we have?! Never!), with the way our coffee tastes or the way some old guy tries to cut us off at the light or the number of times some telemarketer calls us during cocktail hour or the number of putts we miss or the number of putzes on the road with cell phones glued to their ears or the fact that time seems to be swooping in some kind of nose dive headed for eternity. Whoa! Let’s not go there.

We think you get our drift, and we don’t mean a snowdrift. Count the days as precious. Give the gift of love to those you love, and give it to those you don’t love, just to see how uncomfortable it makes them feel. Maybe they’ll reciprocate. Wouldn’t it be nice if our adversaries in the Middle East felt that way? And it doesn’t even have to have anything to do with Christ and Christianity or Muhammad and Islam. Let it just be about the simple gift of love, a gift that doesn’t cost much and doesn’t need to be wrapped. And you can send it in a second or a minute or an hour if the receiver isn’t near. It’s a gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving. We love you and hope you have a lovely, love-filled holiday and a bountiful 2012.

There, I’ve removed my Grinch mask, put away my Scrooge refrain. Now let’s get on with this holiday season. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, December 4

3-D Movies

We went to see Hugo last week, the 3-D version . . . for an extra $3 a ticket. Hardly worth it. Avatar revitalized this trendy technique in filmdom and I believe soon it will again be a thing of the past, just as it was in the ‘50s when the Three Stooges could fling pies at the audience. Hugo, like a lot of other 3-Ders, puts too much emphasis on the effects rather than on the story. The story was cute and well done, but I didn’t need snowflakes falling on my head and there seemed to be too many races through the train station just for the 3-D effects. The chintzy glasses are another thing. Soon, film technologists will be able to shoot a movie in 3-D without having to resort to audience glasses. Then, all films will be in this third dimension. And after that, we’ll probably have holographic films. The same will be true of 3-D television, which might well become holographic, the stories playing out right in our laps. The next development will be a headset for each individual, who, with eyes closed, will have a 3-D story almost near enough for him to join the action, to reach out and touch the actors. Science fiction has already suggested such a thing, and we’re living in a time when almost all s-f ideas are becoming reality.

Saturday, December 3

1984

Orwell’s Big Brother seems to be alive and well these days. We’ve enjoyed watching Person of Interest this season, a show about a man who invented a computerized spy system to ferret out potential terrorist threats. But it also points out potential victims of violence, and he and his CIA-ish cohort take it upon themselves to circumvent these acts. The system tracks everyone via spy cams and phone calls both by land lines as well as cell phones and all similar electronic devices. It all seems a bit farfetched, doesn’t it? A little too science-fictiony, right? Wrong. It’s just been suggested by Trevor Eckhart, a security researcher, that most smart phones now have a secret software called Carrier IQ installed that can log every text message, Google search, and phone number dialed, all without the knowledge or consent of the phone user. And who gains access to this information and for what purpose? Well, I guess that would be Big Brother whose purpose could be to protect us or to subjugate us. Scary, huh? The question: At what point does the need for national security outweigh the right of personal privacy? Maybe Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, has the answer.

Friday, December 2

Harry's Law

We’re becoming faithful watchers of Harry’s Law, in which Harry and her colleagues engage in some really interesting and controversial cases. This week, in an episode called “Head Games,” there were two. The parents of a high school boy who died from brain trauma suffered in a football game wanted Harry to present their case against the high school, wanting the high school to do away with the football program. Interesting statistics about concussions and sub concussive brain trauma in the game, and the younger the player the more likely the injuries, with the brain still developing to age 23. With more and more autopsies on those who die from football or on those who played college or professional football and died young, the results indicate the likelihood of dementia later in life. Then the defense brought up that many other sports involve head injuries—soccer, boxing, hockey, baseball, skateboarding, even cheerleading, to name only a few. Should they all be discontinued? The judge, after hearing both sides, decided to sidestep the issue and send it to a jury trial. Interesting case. The other one involved a middle-age woman who had held up a bank at gunpoint, escaping with $60.000. She didn’t wear a mask or attempt in any way to disguise herself. She was shown clearly on tape doing exactly what she was accused of. Tommy defends her arguing that hers was an act of civil disobedience against the bank that foreclosed on her home, foreclosed unfairly without using any of the federal bailout money the bank received to help her with her loan. Tommy wasn’t trying to win an innocent verdict since it was obvious she was guilty. But he thought the twenty years the district attorney was asking for was too harsh, that no one was injured, that she had made no attempt to get away with the crime, that the banks and the federal government were as much to blame for her actions as she was. She was found guilty and sentenced to serve the twenty years. I wonder what Henry David Thoreau would have to say about it.

Thursday, December 1

Rest & Recuperation

Continuing the history of my sexual education (as though anyone really cares), when I was in Korea in 1953, I went to Japan twice for R & R, rest and recuperation. I don’t know how much rest I got, but I recuperated nicely. Two buddies and I from our platoon flew to Fukuoka City on the northern shore of Kyushu. One of the buddies knew how to find girls while we were there, and the next thing I knew we were situated in a hotel with young Japanese girls there for our recuperation—Chiko, Reiko, and one whose name I can’t remember, none of them with any more than pidgin English, but we didn’t really need conversation. I had Chiko for the first half of the week and then Reiko. I don’t remember why the switch. Maybe I wasn’t as pleased with Chiko’s looks as I was with Reiko’s. An unfeeling bastard I must have been. I also don’t remember ever leaving the hotel to sightsee. We were there for a week and I don’t remember anything except the drinking and eating there in the hotel. And the sex. It’s hard to call these girls prostitutes or whores. They were simply making very good money from GI’s at a time when life couldn’t have been all that good for them. But that might be the same story for most of the hookers now working the streets of our country. The week ended and we returned by air to our base in Korea. About a half a year later I went again to Fukuoka City for a second R & R, this time alone. I again found a girl, probably with the help of a cab driver. She convinced me that we should stay in a fancy hotel she knew of, and we did, spending most of our time there. Her name was Seiko Furui, and again I fell in love. She was probably five or six years older than I was and spoke excellent English, a tiny girl/woman, orientally attractive. While there, she convinced me to use the hotel’s universal bathing facilities, an experience I went to blushingly like the naïve young man I was. But after a time or two, bathing with as many as a dozen other people, I outgrew my embarrassment. My main memories of that week included a meal I had more than once, a ground beef steak topped with a fried egg. What an odd memory. And we went one day to Dazaifu Park where I took pictures of her and the statuary and buildings. I still have most of those pictures. But none of Seiko. My mother, the guardian of her son’s innocence, must have found them and removed the evidence of my loss of innocence. The pictures of Seiko vanished along with the stamp I once owned called The Naked Maja. We tearfully parted at the end of the week, both promising to write each other. I think I wrote and received one letter. And that was the end of the romance. I often wonder what happened to Seiko Furui. I hope she had a good life, one paid for with the dollars of the soldiers she educated and recuperated.

Wednesday, November 30

John D. MacDonald

I just finished reading an essay by John D. MacDonald called Reading for Survival, written in 1985, just before he died. He wrote it as a conversation between his fictional characters Travis McGee and his brainy economist friend Meyer. Meyer is explaining to Travis why it is essential today for all people to be able to read, that man’s stored knowledge in books is a necessary ingredient for the survival of mankind, that all men must be able to tap into that stored knowledge. Among other things he uses to make his point, the following passage about the Bible and Creationism is interesting in light of Texas governor Rick Perry’s attempts to win the Republican nomination for president. Here’s what Meyer had to say:

The Bible is a powerful piece of ecclesiastical literature, a poetic and historical document. But to believe it is literal truth is nonsense, acceptable only to the gullible. To believe that every word is true demeans the Bible. It insults it. It turns the Bible into some sort of magic talisman with meanings accessible only to the chief wizard. To believe every word is true deprives the reading of the Bible of any meaning and turns it into a magic ceremony, as empty as the spinning of the prayer wheels in the village streets of the Himalayas.

It is in the interest of unscrupulous men who presume to teach the Word of God to insist that their flock accept the Bible as literal truth. This gives those men the option of translating those parts which seem obscure, translating them into terms which always favor the translator.

Creationism is a case in point. They want it taught in the schools. What is there to teach? That God created the earth six thousand years ago? They say that it is as respectable a point of view as the Theory of Evolution. Out of their abysmal ignorance comes the idea that theory in this context means some kind of assumption open to dispute, not yet proven, whereas the word is used in the same way it is used in the theory of diminishing returns, or the theory of relativity. Those theories are not open to dispute because the proof of their correctness is available to anyone who can read. As to the age of the earth, measure how long it takes the tiny creatures which make up the coral reefs which have become the Florida Keys to build one inch of structure from the sea floor. Divide that time period into the height of the keys and you get a minimum figure of ten million years. The Himalayas are still rising, still being pushed upward at a measurable inch at a time by the pressure of a vast tectonic plate against the Asiatic land mass. How long did it take to push flat land up into six-mile-high mountains?

I’ve long been an admirer of the writings of John D. MacDonald. This essay only increases that admiration.

Tuesday, November 29

The West End Tavern

My memories of Carmen McRae send me back to other times, other places in my misbegotten youth. All my early sexual encounters involved prostitutes. Remember, I was a naïve lad growing up with mid-twentieth century mores. I lost my virginity to a West End Tavern whore named Candy when I was eighteen. The West End Tavern, located across the tracks southwest of town, was a famous, or more likely infamous, house of ill repute (what a quaint way to sidestep “whore house”) in my hometown of Mobridge, South Dakota. It had opened in the early days of the town, around the turn of the century, when the railroad was an important shipper of cattle to the east. And it survived all efforts to close it down by righteous Mobridge citizens. Survived, that is, until those efforts were finally successful in about 1960 and it closed forever. But while it was open, it served salesman and other travelers and the youth and adult lechers of the town. It was a square building, the front door opening into a large central room with tables, chairs, and sofas, and a bar at the end of the room. There were four rooms on each side of the main room, each the bedroom and service area for the prostitutes who worked there. If they weren’t engaged in those services, they would sit in the main room, chatting up and flirting with any drinking customers. The fees were straightforward, $5 for the usual, $10 for the more exotic services, like “half and half” or “around the world.” I needn’t explain those terms for my purposes here. Since most of us had little or no schooling about sex, parents too embarrassed to talk about it except for the standard “Birds and Bees” lecture and no sex education classes in the public schools, the West End Tavern provided a safe place to learn about those birds and bees firsthand. There were still the few teenage pregnancies but not nearly as many as there might have been without the WET (now there’s an appropriate acronym for the place). Once one overcame the embarrassment of going there, the rest was easy. After I got out of the army I spent too much time and money there, seeing one of the girls more than any other. Her name was Robin, about 25, slender and very attractive, and I thought I was in love with her. There it is again, my naiveté. She gave me presents and I gave her money. She gave me a leather-sleaved jacket, she gave me a huge bottle of Russian Leather cologne, she gave me Sinatra’s “Songs for Young Lovers.” She even invited me to meet her in Selby, a small town east of Mobridge, when she took the train home to see her parents. She would get off in Selby and I would meet her there to spend three or four nights in a motel. I begged out, fearing that someone somehow would see us there and report back to my parents. I don’t remember what happened after that. I guess I must have gone to New York for that other strange chapter in my life. I know I never again saw Robin. I don’t remember saying goodbye to her. Just another gray area in my memory. More on this tomorrow.

Sunday, November 27

Carmen McRae


How about a little musical nostalgia? I’m listening to Carmen McRae, an old love of mine. What a sensational voice she had. In her early years it was clear as a bell, singing all the old American jazz and pop standards. It was a young, innocent voice. And then she grew older and her voice grew older, tinged with the smoke and booze of countless club dates, kind of like what Sinatra’s voice did, getting stylistically better with experience and the awareness of life’s sadness. My first encounter with Carmen was in 1955 when I was in New York trying to find my way in life. I bought a 45 of hers, with probably six or eight tracks. Cost me about $1.99 back then. It had a white cover with nine luscious red singing mouths and lips. I went to the Carmen McRae website and there it was, the cover I remembered after fifty-six years.

Oh, how I wish I still had that record. I guess what I’m really wishing for is that time for me when life was still on fast-forward. I was in New York right after I got out of the army, working for the Washington Detective Agency, making what was then a lot of money, about a hundred a week. And I spent it as fast as I made it. But I digress. Back to Carmen. Sit quietly and listen to her rendition of an old Blossom Dearie song, “Inside a Silent Tear.” Listen as she sings and follow the slide show, a portfolio of empty benches. What a great song sung by a great singer. Then, if you’re impressed, I recommend you listen to “He Was Too Good to Me” and “Blame It on My Youth.” If you don’t come away a Carmen fan like I am, you must be tone deaf.

Saturday, November 26

Games from the Past

I remember a long time ago reading a book called Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing, by Robert Paul Smith. It was his recollections of his youth, about the silly things he did as a child growing up in a small Midwestern town in the Twenties. It struck me then and even more so now how like my own childhood his was.

When I was about eight or nine or ten (one of those magical years) spring was always heralded in by a certain smell in the air, the smell of recently thawed earth. One day it was there, and little boys’ noses turned up simultaneously, led as by a piper to an open field. It called us eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds to migs, marbles to the uninitiated (“immies” to Smith, although I know I never called them that). After school or on weekends we would find a vacant lot (not hard to find in the early Forties) and mark out mig pits or mig squares to use for the winning or losing of our stashes of marbles. As I recall, the pits, shallow holes dug out with heel or toe of a shoe, were used for lagging. Each player would put one or more marbles into the small hollowed out place in the ground and then each of us would take turns from a distance of about ten feet trying to lag our shooter into the pit. Whoever managed it won all the migs in the pit. This game didn’t require much talent, just a feel for lagging. The game with the square was more difficult because it required an ability to shoot a marble with thumb at a target, one of the marbles we’d put at the corners of the square or another’s shooter. Whatever marble the shooter hit was his to keep. The players would never put one of their really good marbles on the corners of the square, and they’d never use any of their true favorites as a shooter for fear of losing it. The difference in skill levels was considerable. There were boys (never girls) who could hold a marble between tip of index finger and thumb and rifle that marble very accurately at another marble, some at distances of five or six feet. The shooter marble would travel through the air like a bullet at its target, often smacking into the target with enough velocity to send the target marble awesome distances (awesome to eight- or nine- or ten-year-olds). I was always wary of these experts and seldom played migs with them. I was one of those who held the marble in the crook between the first and second joints of the index finger with thumb under it. And I almost never held the marble very far off the ground, preferring to roll it on the ground at my intended target. This was the sissy method and loudly scoffed by the experts. But for the majority of us, rollers rather than shooters, we never referred to it as sissy. To each his own. We let the experts play against each other. We had our own game. The shooter kept his turn as long as he kept hitting marbles, pocketing each won mig as a comfortable trophy. And when the one whose turn it was missed he left his shooter marble as a potential target for those who followed in turn. When all the migs in the square were gone, that round was over. Marbles came in all sizes and colors. Some were called “steelies” because they were like large ball bearings, shiny silver and metallic. Some were called “cat’s eyes,” for obvious reasons. Cat’s eyes were rare and coveted by us all. Some were called “aggies” (short for agates) and were swirling browns and tans and grays. Most marbles were standard size, about half an inch in diameter. Some were larger, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and called “boulders.” Marbles smaller than the standard were called “peewees” or “pebbles.” In the early days of migs, marbles were not mass-produced as they were after WWII. The early ones were lovingly crafted by glass artisans who made each one individually different—creamy solids with swirls of various colors, transparent glass of varying colors and also streaked with contrasting colors. The later migs came out like thousands of clones. If the machine made clear with orange streaks, it made hundreds of thousands of exact duplicates. How boring. How uninviting. The season for migs seemed to us to go on and on, but it usually petered out as spring passed into summer. And the number of seasons seemed greater in memory than in actuality. I’m sure that I quit playing migs around ten.

Other games that came and went seasonally and lasted for only those magic years between eight and ten were jacks, hopscotch, and jumping rope. Jacks was mostly for girls, although my wife and I enjoyed playing jacks for a short while soon after we got married. We played on the kitchen floor of our first apartment, and she beat me with regularity. Hopscotch was also mainly a girls’ game, but some of us boys, unafraid of being called sissies, also played, although this too, like migs, had to be abandoned after age ten. Otherwise, the sissy brand would be simply too appalling and too permanent. I remember how we all searched for special glass pieces for the game. It was vitally important that the glass be a special shape and color, thus giving us with the most unusual piece a decided magical advantage over the other players.

Kids these days wouldn’t know what I was talking about, nor would they care. They’re all too busy with video games, expensive video games. I think it’s their loss, not knowing about the games of my youth.

Thursday, November 24

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. A day to give thanks for all we have, all we’ve been given. I give thanks for three kids, all of whom were born normal and grew up straight and tall. I give thanks for five grandchildren who are all on their way to successful and fulfilling lives. And I give thanks for a life that seems incredibly short but also incredibly full. I give thanks for a wife who has stood by me for fifty-one years through all kinds of tough times and for being there still. I give thanks for living in Sun City West, as great a place as I could have ever imagined. I give thanks for all the friends and relatives whose arms I’ve twisted to get them to read the words I’ve written and continue to write. Thanks for everything. And everyone, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23

North Wind & Modern Music

We woke up to high north winds this morning. All night, the sound of our bathroom vents rattling. It sounded too much like those blizzardy nights from my South Dakota childhood, or those blizzardy days in western New York in my adulthood. The sound of a dying year. How in the world did we get to November so quickly? Just last week it was July. Now we have Halloween behind us and immediately in front of us is Thanksgiving and Christmas and another new year. My old cry of anguish, tempus fugit. And even my carpe diem now disallows my hands to seize the day as one day after another blows by in this high north wind.

I may sound like a broken record, but I have to comment once again on the state of popular music these days. Do you even know or remember what a broken record sounds like? If an old vinyl 78 or 45 or 33.3 developed a crack or scratch, the needle would jump and the musical passage would repeat and repeat and repeat until one ran to either take the needle off or put it ahead of the crack or scratch. Well, here I go again, repeating and repeating until someone either stops me or puts my needle ahead. Too much modern singing, too many modern songs, are not really singing or songs. They’re performance. How can someone like Rhiana, whose last cd has already sold thirty-one million copies, enamor an audience to the extent of such huge sales? Sexuality, beauty, performance. But not singing ability. Too often, she and the other successful recording artists today sing songs the words of which I can’t understand or aren’t worth understanding. So much depends on the visual aspect of their performances--the outlandish outfits they wear, the pelvis thrusts and dance segments backed by other dancers and the ever-present ear shattering guitars and percussion. The volume not only distracts from the lyrics, it almost completely overwhelms them. I want songs that I can hear and understand. I want singers who can actually sing. I don’t want rappers and hip-hoppers. I don’t need bells and whistles and light shows. So, Rhiana and Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga and Beyonce and all other performers like them, first learn how to sing, then sing songs that make sense, use words that actually rhyme, patterns that are interestingly diverse. Let me hear Barbra and others like her make songs moving and beautiful. Appeal to my ears, not just my eyes. Okay, now you can throw away this old broken record.

Monday, November 21

REM Sleep

There’s such an odd window in between sleep and dream, between dream and awakening, such a mental clarity that brings memories back to us in vivid detail. For the past eight months I’ve been getting up about every two hours a night to feed our dying cat Dusty. Each interval he comes to the foot of our bed and yowls until I get up. Thus, for these eight months I’m REM sleeping almost the entire night, dreaming in great detail. You might wonder why I don't just leave enough food to last him through the night. But it's canned food, and what he doesn't eat turns hard and ugly and he won't touch it. So I, like a new father, get up for tiny nightly feedings. And sometimes after I return wearily to my bed and fall asleep again, I find myself in that middle state of clarity. Last night I heard Perry Como singing “Near You,” all the lyrics there in my ears. Then I slid left and heard the nonsense song, “Chickeree Chick.” All of it. When I got up it was gone, even the title. So I went to the information network on the computer, searching through Silly Songs + 40’s. I must have gone through a dozen sites before I gave it up. Then I searched Nonsense Lyrics + 40’s. Went through another dozen sites and stumbled onto a guest comment asking about “Chickeree Chick,” and then it was back to me. “Chickaree chick, chala chala, checkalromy in a bananica, bollica wollica, can't you see, chickaree chick, is me.” Now I just have to get it out of my mind again. I thoroughly enjoy those moments of clarity, but I do miss my deep sleep. As long as he holds onto life, I’ll continue the nightly feedings.

Thursday, November 17

Tutored

Gary Larson with his Far Side black humor has always been one of the funniest cartoonists in the business, and possibly the single funniest cartoon of all is this one:

I'm constantly amazed at how much information is available on the internet. I had thought about this Larson cartoon for years, remembering it from a book of his we used to have. So I went looking for it on the internet. I couldn't remember the cartoonist's name, so I simply searched for cartoonists. I was given a list and there saw and remembered Gary Larson. So I did a search for Gary Larson + tutored. Bingo! There it was, just as I had remembered it. And now I'm sharing it with you. Is it really funny or is it just my twisted sense of humor?

A quick comment on television commercials. We watched an episode of NCIS and noticed that the last three segments of the story were really short. We had it saved on dvr, so I went back and timed each story segment and each set of commercials. Sure enough, there were five story segments interspersed with five commercial breaks, the story itself comprising 41 minutes, the commercials 19 minutes. Granted, some of the commercial time was devoted to presentations for other CBS shows, but it still reprsented a ratio of two to one for story and non-story. That's just too much. I then wondered what effect the dvr would have on the value of commercials. I mean, assuming that almost half the viewers in this country have dvr's, that number increasing daily, and those viewers, like us, save shows to the dvr and then fast-forward through the commercials, what does that do to the value of the commercial hype? Makes it considerably less worthwhile. When advertisers realize they're no longer getting much value from their air time and decide to cancel, what will happen to networks relying on advertising revenues? I don't have a clue.


Life & Cats

If you have no hooks on which to hang your memories, life can seem terribly short. By hooks, I mean those memorable moments in our lives that stand out bright and shiny. Then we string them together, with gray gaps in between. Without the hooks, it would all seem like a gray wasteland that lasted only seconds. J. Alfred Prufrock, in his ironic love song, said he has “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I do the same thing but with haircuts, golf rounds, and pets that have come and gone. Andy Rooney says, “Just looking at the coffee cans I’ve saved makes life look like practically forever.” He goes on to say if he measured it in food he’s eaten, not in pounds but in tons, life would seem unmanageably long. “I must have eaten ten tons of ice cream alone in my lifetime. It makes life seem long and lovely just thinking about every bite of it.” Ah, yes, ice cream, Andy. An ice cream lifespan would be good, every mouthful lovely. Too bad for most of us that there are also the broccoli bites.

We took our car in for a service check yesterday. We had time for breakfast at a wonderful little restaurant called Brenda's, after which we stopped at a nearby thrift shop and pet store called “4 Paws,” where thirteen years ago we got our two cats, Dusty and Squeakie. Just had to look. There were at least twenty full grown cats all waiting hopefully for adoption, beautiful multi-colored cats, all willing to have a chin scratched, all begging us with big cat eyes to take them to our bosoms. I’d have been willing, but better sense prevailed (Rosalie, that is). Soon, we know, Dusty will be gone and we’ll want to replace him with one or two kittens. Knowing how marshmallow soft we both are, it will probably be two. On this day, all the kittens were elsewhere so we didn’t get to see any, but we’ll be back, and two will very likely come home with us.

Wednesday, November 16

The Black Widow

I began my fifth novel as a project in which I would write the final installment in John D. MacDonald's series about Travis McGee, the one in which he used different colors as the theme for each book. After MacDonald's death, I thought I could write the final novel, the one MacDonald never got around to writing. I tried to copy the MacDonald style, use some of the characters from others in the series, and bring the whole thing to a conclusion. I pored over all the books in the series, some 21 in all, learning everything I could about McGee, about the way he thought and acted. I assumed that once I got it done, I'd be able to convince MacDonald's publisher and the MacDonald family that I had written a worthy tribute to the author and his character. Wrong. It seems that a number of people had offered to do the same, including Stephen King, who was similarly turned down. I learned all this after I was finished. Then I went back and switched the point of view from first person to third, created a new character with a new background, and came up with a stand-alone novel called The Black Widow. I think it stands well alone. Here's a plot synopsis:

Colt Frazier, a Phoenix ex-cop, now a private investigator, is hired by Sarah Wilson, a black woman, to find the person who killed her husband. She and her husband were being extorted for a million dollars from someone who called them, threatening that if they didn’t wire the money to a Swiss account within twenty-four hours, someone dear to them would die. They didn’t take the threat seriously and the husband was shot from long range and killed.

Frazier and the woman track leads around the country, from Chicago to Louisville and finally to Las Vegas, where they find the killer and are nearly killed themselves. The plot ends in Omaha, Nebraska, in a final confrontation with the psychopathic extortionist involving Frazier and Sarah Wilson, Frazier’s daughter and her husband, and a charming dog named Big Red

This too is available free as an e-book from Lulu.com, or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble in paper.

Life in the Arbor

I wrote my fourth novel as a lark, having been fascinated by all the animal life in our backyard. And our back property line was dominated by huge arbor vitae trees that served as a home for that wild life. It came out as a children's story, specifically for fourth and fifth grade students, illustrated by my daughter Jeri.

Life in the Arbor centers on Rollie Rabbit and his fellow animals that live in the back yard of a house in Sun City West, Arizona. Rollie is a smart, ingenious rabbit who tries to make his and his family’s life better. Their home is a stand of tall arborvitae trees that line the back boundary of the yard.

Rollie decides that there must be a better place somewhere out in the Great Out There, and he and his friends—Fred Lizard, Millie Monarch, and Buzz Hummingbird—embark on a journey to find such a place. They encounter a number of friends and foes along the way—Olliver Owl, Cecil Snake, Fara Cat, Black Jack, and Kitty Rabbit, to name just a few. Their journey takes them out and then back to their home in the Arbor, culminating in a fight for the hand of Kitty Rabbit, and the realization that there really is no better place than their home in the Arbor.

Prologue

The view from above, let’s say from the side window of a commercial jet flying at 35,000 feet, would show a tiny walled enclosure. A nearly circular enclosed city sitting more or less by itself, although surrounded by increasingly spreading areas of new housing developments and commercial enterprises. It is the West Valley, west of Phoenix, Arizona, and the city holds about 30,000 inhabitants. Human inhabitants, that is. Senior inhabitants, that is. If one counted all the other folks living within its walls, the number would increase to nearly a million. And who is to say which of the inhabitants is more important?

A closer view, let’s say from one of the F-16 jets flying out of the nearby Luke Air Force Base, would show a city with charmingly confusing configurations—circular roads, S-shaped roads, U-shaped roads, cul de sacs—modest condominiums, moderate single dwellings, spacious homes, a dozen or so churches, nine green oases holding nine golf courses for the city’s retired inhabitants, a commercial area in the middle of the circle, and five openings in the wall for entrance and exit from within its boundaries.

This story is about the other group of creatures living in the city. And a diverse group it is. Narrowing it even further, this story is about a small family of creatures living in the back of one of the homes, a home with a towering privacy hedge of arbor vitae on the rear of the property. The Arbor, as they think of it, is their home. And the hero of this story is a young rabbit named Rollie. Rollie is unusually smart, unusually curious, and unusually dissatisfied with his life in the Arbor.





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