Monday, November 14, 2011

The Cutlass Supreme

By Elliott Joseph
Copyright Elliott Joseph
December 2011

"Sell it? Great Car! Cutlass! What year? '69? '72?"

I hear the cry every day. It's actually a '71 and I am the original owner. I'll never sell it. "I'm saving it for my grandson," I say. I do not have a grandson, but it's a comfortable way to avoid a confrontation, and then I drive off on my errands.

I bought the Cutlass, a convertible, on July 17, 1971 at was then Van Ness Olds in San Francisco. It cost $4,500. I had looked at a very nice brown Mercedes, but it was $12,000 and did not have an automatic top. Since I now have over 300,000 miles with the original engine I think I made the right decision.

Yes, there have been repairs, and sometimes it is difficult to find parts, but I have a wonderful repair service, Union Garage, and they understand old cars.

The Cutlass is filled with stories. One day I was parked in the Marina. A man, accompanied by a man and a woman, approached me. Here we go again, I thought, but he surprised me by taking out a three-ring binder with pictures of his '71 Cutlass that he had at home in Switzerland. It is identical to mine in excellent condition. He showed a picture of his engine under the hood, immaculate and I think it was chromed. He asked to see under my hood, and I was embarrassed because it didn't look like anything like his.

I use my Cutlass every day. It's just my regular car and I don't exhibit it or take it to a classic car event. Yes I keep it in good shape and still have the original interior with the old but working AM radio. I'm on my third top, three paint jobs and three transmissions along with several renewed starters and brakes.

The thing about the color of the paint job is the quality of the blue. The original color is matched by computer and is simply gorgeous. It reminds me of the French expression, l'heure bleu, that time of day after the sun sets and before night falls. People respond to the blue almost more than to the car itself. Cars today are so much alike the Cutlass really stands out.

One day the Russian fleet was in, and they started taking pictures of the Cutlass. They wanted to have their picture taken sitting in the car with the top down. I think the Cutlass must be all over Russia by now.

The car drives beautifully and with its eight cylinders has a lot of power. It has no electrical systems except of course for the lights, and you have to roll up the windows by hand, which I like.

For about 38 years my wife and I were never in an accident. Then for the past two years we have been in two, one when a car went through a red light, taking out the front end, and another time when a man backed out of his garage and hit the passenger side. Both times my wife was driving and fortunately was not injured. Hayes Auto Repair did a magnificent job both times and the car looks like new, getting a lot of thumbs up. I am so cautious now when I drive, not wanting another accident. I'm very careful coming out of my garage. It's tight and the Cutlass when I bough it was called mid-size, but today, compared to most cars, it is big.

I know many people fall in love with their car, and with the Cutlass Supreme I am one of them.

# # #

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Manhattanization of San Francisco

By Elliott Joseph
Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
November 2011
Reprinted from California Living,
The Magazine of The San Francisco Sunday
Examiner and Chronicle

To the amazement of an incredulous world the island of Manhattan has actually begun to move itself to San Francisco. While many claim to have heard the rumblings of New York ideas in the fair city of the hills and bay, it is safe to say that no one ever dreamed that brick by brick, girder by girder, street by street, twenty-two whole square miles of concrete, give or take a few miserable acres of parks, would really pick up and physically transport itself 2470 miles across the country.

Considered the largest move in the history of the world, logistically outdistances such huge undertakings as The Great Wall of China, underground Atlanta, the Astrodome and Walt Disney World, it is matched in its daring only by the decision to complete the move by mid decade. Perhaps there was secret hope that it all could really happen. Perhaps New Yorkers thought San Francisco would balk at the move.

The popular 102 story Empire State Building, long the world's tallest structure, is being painstakingly transplanted to the Embarcadero where it will replace the pitifully inadequate Ferry Building.

Sixty-nine additional skyscrapers over thirty stories in height, led by the Chrysler Building, the seventy story Rockefeller Center and sixty story Chase Manhattan Bank, are being moved to the immediate vicinity. They will house the offices of the 104 major corporations making the move, along with the host of advertising agencies, printers, accountants, insurance agents and myriad others who service them.

The United Nations, destined for Russian Hill as a concession to a soft foreign policy, is coming back to The City where it all began. The buildings will be operated by The De Young Memorial Museum.

The famed New York theater district , the Great White Way, complete with its first run motion picture houses, peep shows, side street strollers and concomitant entertainments, is destined for Broadway and Columbus Avenues, elevating the area to that of the "Crossroad of the World." Elevation of a more literal kind is also in the making, since the new density will require North Beach topless and bottomless to move into the Transamerica Building. Word has it that the move would not be unwelcomed by the renting agent.

The need for vastly increased housing is anticipated for those of Manhattan's two million inhabitants who will choose to make the move with the city, as well as the countless others who will be drawn to the new San Hattan, Fran Hattan, San Franhattan, Manfrancisco, or whatever The City may be renamed once its transformation to the new position of the new National Center is complete.

Some feel there will be a huge need for jobs for all these people. But others have pointed out that there will be enough employment handling the move itself. This latter group calls over-cautious those who see the need for new jobs after Manhattan has been transplanted, emphasizing the endless cycle destruction-construction as sufficient in and of itself as a means of generating employment. The wrecking trades alone. the group claims, will account for fifty percent of the new labor force.

An army of bulldozers is in the assembly stage for the assault on the Redwood Highway as part of the plan to link all of Northern California with the new San Francisco. Oregon is building a 40-foot wall stretching to Klamath Falls to protect itself from "the hand at our throat."

One can only wonder how it happened. Some say it started a bit at a time. Some say Manhattan grew bolder as it perceived a change in the values of San Francisco, feeling the time was right. One view even held that San Franciscans were tired of losing. They wanted to win for a change. And here was their chance to play big league ball, make a place in history for themselves.

Some thought that San Francisco had been naive, unaware of what it had, without the courage to realize it had been where others really wanted to be San Francisco, they felt, a gifted city, a pearl.

And what of New York? Suddenly finding itself free, plans are now in the making for Grand Central Park, stretching the length and width of the island. Across the Hudson, in New Jersey, things are growing again, as roads and refineries are being plowed under.

It's quieter. At times, a certain stillness, caressed with soft, child-like laughter, fills one's ears. The other day someone came up with a new idea. It took hold at once, and a hundred and fifty men, women, boys and girls marched to Brooklyn, each with a little brush, to paint the Verrazano Bridge red.

# # #

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Search for Meaning

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
October 2011

When I was teaching at The College of Marin in Northern California I gave a course called, "The Search for Meaning." While the other courses I gave were popular, I was surprised that over 60 people registered and showed up for this one, making it necessary to book an especially large room to accommodate the participants.

I should also tell you that the course was part of an adult education program at the college.

I had a good relationship with the participants (it's hard to call these adults students, considering their age and education). And so I didn't mind opening the session by saying, "It's remarkable that in only two or three hours we are going to learn the meaning of life." This got a bit of a laugh, as you might expect.

The reference I used for the course was an anthology from a series called Discovery Through the Humanities, sponsored by The National Council on the Aging, Inc., with the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The cover of the anthology was "The Thinker" by August Rodin.

The course engendered a great deal of discussion of the essays, articles, stories, poetry and photographs in the anthology, copies of which I was able to distribute to the class for use during the session.

So how does one find meaning? Actually, according to the compilers of the anthology, there are some interesting ways.

Foremost is Personal Relationships. And then there is being part of The Social Whole, being One With Nature, being aware of Truth in the Unseen, Accepting the Inevitable, and for some the concept of Life After Death. And finally, Creating Meaning through Art and Science, and Creating Meaning through Sacrifice and Service.

Some of the texts used to illustrate the authors' points were: "A Death in the Family" by James Agee, "I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King, Jr., "Renoir, My Father" by Jean Renoir, "The Republic" by Plato, "Courage" by Anne Sexton, "Death Be Not Proud" by John Donne, "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters" Francis Darwin, editor, and "Out of My Life and Thought" by Albert Schweitzer.

Magnificent writing to help us think about ways we might find in our lives for our own search for meaning.

For me, my search for meaning has primarily been Personal Relationships. I have had many friends and a rather large family with many cousins, aunts and uncles, a brother and a sister, and of course my parents. My parents divorced and my mother's new marriage was very successful with a man who adored her.

It was easy making friends growing up. Where I lived there were many boys and girls close to my age. We played many games indoors and outdoors and were very athletic. As I grew older more intellectual matters added to my development under the influence of my teachers and more mature friends.

I had several girl friends through the years, a couple more serious though I think it was my sexuality that was a driving force.

As my education proceeded, there were many other subjects of meaning, such as I have described previously in The Search for Meaning course I gave at The College of Marin.

Some of my friendships were very close and have lasted for many years from my neighborhood, my schools and college and my experience during World War II.

Meeting the woman at The City College of New York whom I married has been a profound source of meaning and happiness for me, a relationship of now 63 years.

Creating meaning has helped me as a writer and the appreciation of the mysteries of existence, through reading in science, religion and philosophy. I have also been influenced by Martin Buber's I-Thou concept, the antithesis of the I-It where one recognizes people are not things to be used. A relationship is not a separation but a meeting of the other, a give and take dynamic matter with rewards, surprises and perplexities. Physical intimacy, too, contributes deeply profound human feelings and meaningful understanding. Who can doubt this?

# # #

Monday, August 15, 2011

Being the Oldest in the Room

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
September 2011

I'd like to get a little personal today.

Age is a tired idea, but I must say I suddenly realized I am often the oldest one in the room. By that I mean at the movies or theater or restaurant or certainly at a social gathering.

At 87 I am not the oldest in the world and surely there are a lot of gray heads except in the restaurants, where the clientele is so young. When I was young I couldn't afford these restaurants.

At 87 I sometimes think it won't be long that I'll be 90, if I last. That's a number. Time goes so quickly.

Fortunately, while I have some health issues I am basically OK. I haven't played golf for over two years and tennis is long gone. Getting out of a chair is a chore and exercise is always on the horizon, but though I realize walking is the easiest and the best thing for an old guy, I don't walk enough.

What else do I feel at 87? The news is so disappointing, all those unemployed, people losing their homes, the endless stupid wars, the killings on the street.

What helps is having a neutral corner. I remember a play, I can't recall the name, where this husband kept getting his wife pregnant until she declared a neutral corner. It was a comedy with a message.

What more does an 87 year old person think about? Cassandra. Remember her? Because of her beauty Apollo granted her the gift of prophecy. But when she did not return Apollo's love he cursed her that no one would ever believe her predictions. She told the truth, but because of the curse she would never be believed. It's a legend, but so true. The bright aware woman who recognized a financial crisis would occur. She was not believed and her name wasn't even Cassandra. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, but the inspectors were not believed. Cassandra at work again. You can't win in Afghanistan. Nope, can't be believed what common sense can see. Cassandra. Apollo's curse.

Oh well, what's an 87 year old supposed to do in the face of such tragedy? As I've said before, can you live with it? Just don't call me Cassandra. Anyway, I'm not that beautiful.

# # #

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Im Silber Gemacht

By Elliott Joseph

August 2011
Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph

I was 19 in 1943 and in the ROTC, Reserved Officers Training Corps, at City College of New York. Together with other members of my class in the ROTC I was enlisted in the army in June. Since December 7th, 1941, we were at war with Japan and Germany, when the Japanese abruptly bombed Pearl Harbor.

At Fort Dix in New Jersey, where I was inducted, a sergeant in charge who had a heavy foreign accent, told us recruits, " You think you soldier-- you shit." Not too good an introduction to serving our country.

Basic training in the heat of a summer in Georgia soon followed. We were a bunch of college New Yorkers, new to the South and its racial prejudices. We mixed, however, and learned what we ultimately were in for as infantry officers.

After 17 weeks of weapons and varied arduous training, we were returned to the college for a short period of education in a program called ASTP. This was followed by transfer to Officer Canidate School in another part of Georgia.

It was rigorous, difficult, but not without some humor because my close buddy, who was a few weeks ahead of me in the program, tipped me off to what to expect, making me a star. The result was I was commissioned in July of 1944.

So there I was, a Second Lieutenant, not the best job to look forward to in the infantry as an officer in combat.

Luckily, I was transferred out of the 106th Division, which was practically annihilated in the Ardennes Forest when their lines were broken by a furious assault by the Germans in what became known as the Bulge. I would have been captured or killed as some of my fellow soldiers and officers were.

As a replacement officer I arrived in Holland, following being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean with 15,000 officers and soldiers on the Queen Mary, in January of 1945, and was transferred to the 75th Infantry Division.

And then another piece of luck. Because I spoke German, thanks to courses at De Wit Clinton High School and City College of New York, I was made the staff Intelligence Officer of my battalion. There was patrolling and combat, but mercifully not nearly as much danger as other officers and the men experienced.

A memorable situation was when I was flown in a Piper Cub to reconnoiter the other side of the Rhine River, which was occupied by the Germans, in anticipation of the crossing of our Ninth Army and the British into the heart of Germany. A patrol I organized investigated the far shore at night with heavily armed men in two boats and returned safely with information that was used by our forces in the crossing.

The war in Germany was ended in May of 1945. And in Japan, fortunately for me, although not for the Japanese, the terrible Atomic Bomb, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed so many people, ended the war in Japan in August of 1945.

There followed a year when I was stationed in Rheims, France, in charge of processing German prisoners of war and returning them to their homes. I have to admit it was a pleasant, educational interlude where I learned about French culture.

In my function processing the prisoners I dealt with their officers, and happened to have been promoted to First Lieutenant and given silver bars. When I showed up at a subseqent meeting with the officers, they noticed the bars and suddenly shouted, "Im Silber Gemacht," recognizing that silver bars were the sign of promotion, evidently a matter of pride that "their" commander had been recognized.

I was returned home and discharged in July of 1946. With the support of the GI Bill I completed my education, receiving a Bachelor Degree in English from the City College of New York and a Masters Degree in the Teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University with the hopes of becoming a writer. With my wife, Roz, I then travelled to Paris and enrolled in the Sorbonne, where she and I enjoyed a memorable year.

I have been able to get some things published and have enjoyed teaching at the College of Marin in the Bay Area where I recently retired. And now I have my blog, Gray Matters By Elliott Joseph, which I hope to have its three year collection of pieces produced in a book.

# # #

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bronx Boy

By Elliott Joseph
Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
June 2011

I loved growing up in The Bronx. I had so many friends my age. We played in the streets, which were safe, hardly any traffic. The years were the thirties, another time. Somehow my parents were able to feed and clothe me in those difficult economic days. Corduroy knickers and colorful sweaters, soft shoes from the Army Navy store where I could also buy a pocket knife to play mumblety-peg in the gardens.

You never said you lived in Bronx. It was The Bronx, unlike the names of the other boroughs, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island. It was, and still is, The Bronx.

The Bronx is a county with its own courthouse and executive. There are two stories of how it got its name. One is that it was named for a Swedish sea captain, James Bronck who settled there in 1639 and established a farm. The other story named for the Bronck family farm. As Google reports, "Many of the wealthy of Manhattan would come to visit their friends who owned the farm, and would simply say they were going to the Bronck's ." The name stuck.

The Bronx became the home to Irish, Italian, German and Jewish immigrants, of which my family was one from England, Poland and Russia, our neighborhood on the Grand Concourse being principally Jewish. For Italian flavor we visited Arthur Avenue where we got great pizza and Italian pastries and listened to Italian spoken joyfully. It was in Creston Junior High School and De Witt Clinton High School that I met non-Jewish students. P.S. 64, my elementary school, was almost all Jewish, which closed for the Jewish holidays, an extra vacation from our studies for us kids.

After school we played all the New York street games until dark and our mothers called for us to come upstairs. We played Ring-o-Leavio, Johnny-Ride-The Pony, Stick Ball, Salugi. Touch Football, Immies Hits and Spans, Catch, Slug Ball, Boxball, Skelly, Potsy, cards and lots of games.

We roller skated, played street hockey, threw what we called a pink Spaldeen rubber ball that had a high bounce. We talked and talked about what we'd do when we grew up. We roasted mickeys on a fire in the lot. We never fought except if a bully made his way into our group. He'd get the Bronx cheer, which would deflate him. When it snowed I'd sleigh down our hill belly-whopping on my Flexible Flyer while one of our gang watched for the occasional car or horse and wagon delivering milk or ice.

When I was fifteen my father and mother divorced and my beautiful mother subsequently married a very nice man who adored her. With my little brother and my big sister we moved in with them. My stepfather, whom I called "uncle," bought me a bicycle in Macy's and I pedaled safely on the expansive Grand Concourse, which was modeled after the Champs Elysees, to my old neighborhood and my friends. By then there were girls in our gang and new adventures trying to get a "feel."

There was a swimming pool and huge parks and the famous Bronx Zoo and exciting neighborhoods to explore. We rode the elevated train to high school and the subway to City College on Convent Avenue.

We listened to the radio for the baseball scores and stole our way onto a roof that gave us a view of the Yankee Stadium's games. We listened to the heavyweight championship fight where Joe Lewis knocked out the German boxer Max Schmeling in the first round, to much of the consternation of Adolf Hitler. We hung on every word of FDR's Fireside Chats after his stunning victory in the 1932 election over Herbert Hoover. We lost five dollars when our local savings bank failed after the start of the Depression.

What a time it was, so much an important part of a young boy's Bronx life, and the friends I made, which has stayed with me all this time.

# # #

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good Old Fashion

By Elliott Joseph
Copyright 2009 Elliott Joseph
July 2009[2+Good+Old+Fashion+blog+postt.jpg]

My friend Phil has loosened fashion's grip on me.

And not a moment too soon as I consider the frightening prospect of having to replace any part of my wardrobe.

He walked in the other day, looking like a million. He was wearing a smart, single breasted gray glen plaid suit, white cotton dress shirt with spread collar, deep red silk tie with tiny black dots and a pair of shining, wingtip black oxfords.

"New outfit?" I asked.

"Not on your life!" he said, smiling. "I got these clothes right out of my closet. The suit is Jacques Roy, Paris. Bought it at Barney's New York in 1986. The shirt is nine years old. The tie ten. And the shoes sixteen. That's years, man, years."

"Some of my trousers are tapered below the knee," I said. " Some are flared."

"And some. I'll bet, are straight," he said, laughing mischievously.

It was an exhilarating moment as I thought I might be able to wear those great clothes that I've cherished over the years. But it all weighed heavily on my mind. Could I stop believing that the day of my old clothing had passed?

Phil must have understood my dilemma.

"I say to those who feel they have to dress down. 'Go ahead if you feel you must dress to conform and forget who you really are.' Guys like you and me should dress for ourselves. You wear your Marty Sullivan. And I'll wear my Jacques Roy. We'll stay trim so we can fit into them, and we'll knock each other dead in the process.

"The alternative," he went on as he made for the door, "is to go out today and pay eight hundred and seventy-five dollars for an off-the-rack two-piece wool and synthetic blend suit, sixty-four dollars and fifty cents for a shirt that doesn't even have your exact sleeve length, forty-five for a tie and ninety-five dollars for a pair of shoes! Or worse, drop your self respect and get a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. Uhg!"

Flushed with excitement after Phil left, I wondered what it will be like when I come out with my old but in great shape Marty Sullivan suit , my old still crisp Ascot Chang custom shirt, the foulard I got years ago in Los Angeles and my brown English loafers, class of eighty-nine.

Will my age be showing?

So be it!

# # #

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Year At The Sorbonne

By Elliott Joseph
Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
May 2011

Actually, my year at the Sorbonne was a year in Paris without the Sorbonne. You see, although I was registered for a Doctorat d'Universite I never attended any classes for the simple reason
they were all in French!

The year was 1951. In order to qualify for my G.I. Bill monthly check of one hundred and five dollars as a married man, I had to establish a subject for my thesis. I met with my advisor, who fortunately agreed to conduct the interview in English.

"Blake," I said.

"You Americans," he said. "All you know is Blake. Why don't you do Washington Irving in Spain. He's American, a wonderful writer. You could go to Spain and do your research there."

Although I had been an English major in New York, and had a Master's degree, I was woefully ignorant of Irving's experience in Spain. I vaguely knew he was the author of Tales of the Alhambra and later learned he was the American Minister to Spain. At another time, when I eventually got to the Alhambra, I was sorry I had not done any work on that thesis idea.

Never mind all that. I liked all his other work, which included The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, A History of New York, Rip Van Winkle and a host of other writings collected in The Sketch Book.

My wife Roz and I were overjoyed to devote the year to experiencing the food, wine and culture of Paris. Hotel living was far from pleasant, however. But fortunately the student services of the Sorbonne got us a small apartment in the fourteenth arondissement near Montparnesse where we thrived as happy residents despite the lack of hot water. The public baths and heating up enough water on our two burner stove for a bath kept us fit.

We did not have a refrigerator, but I loved shopping every day in the neighborhood food and wine stores and learned enough French to get by. One day in a butcher shop it occurred to me to ask the patron, "How long would it take to eat a cow?" I don't know what came over me to ask such a question.

"What did he say?" asked one of the local customers who was there that day. When he relayed my question to them an intense discussion on the fringe of an argument ensued until one asked, "How many in the family?" I don't recall the final result, but most of the group was satisfied with the response.

The cafe night life with the gang that we got to know was ideal, just hanging out, having drinks and engaging in hours of discussion on just about every thing. We were living the free life of expatriates soaking up all that Paris had to offer us in our twenties. The parks, the neighborhoods, the sites. You cannot describe how beautiful it all was. Late nights and sleeping in the next morning was a fragrant routine, listening to the French radio with some tantalizing comprehension. Reading so many books. Trying to write.

How we managed to find a beat up VW Beetle we could afford in a newspaper ad was a miracle of sorts, which gave us runs through France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Belgium and Holland, often breaking down but finding people who could keep it going for very little. Each trip a story, documented in four notebooks we kept religiously. So many memories. Always wishing, wishing the dream would never end until we ran out of money enough to supplement our G.I. checks and had to return home to the U.S. to find work and our changed lives.

To this day, so many years later, we have applied the rich lessons we learned during those glorious days in the City of Light. Paris, we will never forget you.

# # #

Thursday, March 24, 2011


By Elliott Joseph
Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph
April 2011

I have several ways to exercise.

It's a serious endeavor, because everything I read about exercise says it is good for you. I do not like to exercise, no matter how healthy it's supposed to be.

I may be an exception in that there are a lot of people on the streets running, whether it is hot, cold, raining, or probably somewhere snowing.

There are also stores that have exercise machines in the window with people, mostly young sweating, who are the farthest thing you can imagine from needing to exercise.

Be it as it may, I try.

The first thing I do in the morning is go to the bathroom. Not to exercise, but to urinate or whatever. Then I have my orange juice, after brushing my teeth. There is some exercise there but not very much.

Before breakfast, because I don't want to upset my stomach, I stretch my legs then my shoulders. I have seen Asian people in the park throwing their arms around, so I try that a couple of times. That hurts my shoulders and my elbows, so I stop that pretty quickly.

Getting out of a chair is kind of tough these days, so I do that two or three times. It seems rather silly, but getting out of a chair can be important.

Don't misunderstand me, I know this is vital. I have a couch, and getting out of it is not that easy, but I don't want to become a potato.

Walking is the key to health, so I don't take the car to go a few blocks. We have a lot of hills in San Francisco, so walking isn't a piece of cake. I do not eat cake.

Diet is not exercise.

You think I'm kidding, but I know this is serious.

I used to play tennis. I enjoyed this even when I lost, which was more often than most. I switched to golf, which is as you may know, a game where one good shot brings you back for another try.

Drinking is not exercise, but it is far more enjoyable and not too bad for you if you don't do it to excess. Exercise in excess can be dangerous for your body. Joggers can overdo it to the point of losing their breath. That doesn't seem too bright. Swimming requires showering and risking athlete's foot in the locker room.

There surely is a point to exercise, and far be it for me to deny it, but how do you measure moderation? There must be a way to exercise without dread.

I am looking for that way.

# # #

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Are People Actually Thinking?

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright 2011 Elliott Joseph

March 2011

I've always wondered what people are actually thinking. It boggles the mind when you see what they do, what they say. Are they thinking? I took a course in psychology, way back when, to try to understand it. What I learned was when the environment of lab rats was put into turmoil, the rats went crazy. Is that our world today? Are people simply reacting to our nutty environment, the terror, the aggressiveness, the pace, the economy? Which came first, behavior or thinking?

You know what you are thinking. In the interest of trying to figure out what you or others are thinking, I thought I'd tell you what I am thinking.

I don't think you can surmise what goes on in a person's mind, one can't read their actual thoughts by simply noting their behavior. You can't overhear what they are thinking, as though they are doing a Shakespearean soliloquy.

I have to admit that in recent years I have started to think aloud, talk to myself. I am often alone for great periods, and suddenly realize that I haven't said anything for hours. My cell phone is just sitting there. Though I am married and have friends and family, I don't think aloud where others can hear me. So up to now no one knows what I am thinking, unless I tell them. When I write they may have some idea but writing is different.

A great many of my thoughts, I am sure, are not unique. I am a member of society and the human race, which is comforting, though I like to think I am me and no one else is me. My thoughts, as yours are too, were different when we were young, growing up, getting an education and at different stages of life.

So what are some of the things I have been thinking lately?

I have done a lot of reading in my time of philosophy and psychology and the classics. They are a part of me, but I don't think of them actively that much now, with some exceptions.

When I look in the mirror in the morning I sometimes talk to my image. Who are you I wonder? What do people think about you? They see my profile and the back of my head, which has to give them a different view of me physically, in addition to the frontal view that is familiar to me.

When someone calls out my name I am somewhat surprised, though of course I shouldn't be. I use their names, why shouldn't they use mine? My parents named me and for the rest of my life I have come to realize that is me. If I had changed my name, which I had thought of doing, would that also be who I am?

And what does it mean to be a senior, to have lived a portion of what others call history? I was "it" a while ago in a game of "Trivial Pursuits." I had to select a category. I was not up on sports or contemporary music, or so many other things. I knew something about history, so I chose it. Every question was about something that had happened in my lifetime. History!

To have lived through the Great Depression, World War II, The Korean War, Vietnam, all those presidents. Other people's history.

Have you ever thought about all the numbers in your life? Social Security, your land telephone number, cell phone number, your address, the phone numbers and addresses of the people you know, if you work, all those numbers, how much money you have, how much you have lost, your library card, your credit cards, pin numbers, checking account, passwords, license plate, driving permit, passport number, date of birth, wife's or partner's numbers, your combination lock, your safe deposit box, the temperature, the distance of the moon and the planets, how many days in November, your weight. You get the picture. Be grateful you are not on Roman numerals. How do you remember all those numbers?

I think a lot about my wife, of course, and my friends and family, and I'm sure they think about me, though one can't know exactly what they are thinking. Fiction describes people, some times going into their heads, added to the observations of behavior. Can that be utilized to understanding the way people actually think?

Psychologists, philosophers, do they know? The closest I can come to guessing what you are thinking has to do with the news, politics, family life, relationships, sports, the movies, television, the economy, healthcare, things to buy. We think about what we see and hear on the media, to paraphrase Will Rogers, who ironically said he only knows what he reads in the newspapers.

Kids, teenagers, adults, tomorrow's seniors, heads full of thoughts, some wise, some banal. Sex, children, survival, jobs, money, pleasure, health, joy, fear -- all those thoughts, the good and the bad. We may not know them, but as the Bard reminds us, "Thinking makes it so."

One of the little things I think about is what I should have for a drink before dinner. Or whether I should have a drink. I have heard that having a drink, as long as it is not in excess, say two or three, isn't harmful. In fact, a glass or two of wine with dinner is actually beneficial. And enjoyable. Eating, in excess, isn't good for you. Nor is sex these days.

What else do I think?

There is, of course, the world, our country, the suffering and joys, what it all means, if that were possible.

Sometimes I am not thinking at all, just reacting, living the day. But when I am not day dreaming, there are more things I think about.

Bob Herbert, The New York Times columnist, makes me think about the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class losing that position in society that they have had since World War II. Are we losing our democracy, while Egypt and perhaps parts of the Middle East, may be gaining theirs?

Why do some people order Coke when they go out to dinner? Why do they order a hamburger at a good restaurant? Why do they dress down instead of up? Why do they shout and laugh so much in restaurants? Why is the music, if that's what it's called, so loud in restaurants? The French don't allow it. So much better for your enjoyment of a good meal.

Why do some people drive so fast, even in the rain? And so aggressively, without common courtesy?

Am I being too critical? I wonder about that sometimes. But not enough.

What do I like about some people? That they're nice, funny, interesting, look good whether they are good looking or not. Why don't I like Best Sellers, popular movies? Am I an elitist? What's so bad about being an elitist? Wasn't that once upon a time a distinction like a good education?

I think about my skin a lot. It's so vulnerable. Is that the word for sensitive? It cracks and sheds, gets so dry. It has lost its integrity, some one once told me.

I used to think about what people thought of me. No longer, though I want to think I still care, in a way. What are some of the other things I think about?

Security, relationships, what I should have said that time, the moon, the stars, the universe, evolution, faith, books I'm reading and have read, my education, money, death, my travels, my health, my garden, my 71 Olds Cutlass Supreme convertible, what's going on, where it's going, so many questions.

Enough about me. What are you thinking, right now?

# # #

Thursday, February 3, 2011

You're Only Dead Once

By Elliott Joseph

Copyright Elliott Joseph

February 2011

To life!

Hey, wait a minute. This blog is supposed to be entertaining. What am I doing writing about death? Well maybe what has an absolute end can help provide meaning to what comes before.

Ernst Becker opens his Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Denial of Death," with a quote from Samuel Johnson, "The prospect of death wonderfully concentrates the mind." As the realization came to me of its eventuality, whenever that may occur, I began to prepare information for those who will have the responsibility of taking care of matters after I am gone.

What started this for me? Besides my own natural thoughts, I was faced with all those tragedies and disasters in the news, floods, tornados, storms, shootings, war, disease, the ever presence of obituaries.

But what sealed it for me was deleting the names in my address book of those friends and family members who have passed away. What a terribly sad and painful thing to do! Everyone dies, but how to accept it? If I could retain the names of the dead, perhaps their ghosts would comfort me.

There is so much being written about death these days. The media, the literature, the films, the theater. It's hard to escape it.

Live forever? Jonathan Swift cautions us about that, as you may recall from that part of Gulliver's Travels about the Struldbrugs.

"Happy notion where every child hath at least a chance for being immortal...their minds free and disengaged from the continual apprehension of death." What advantages I would acquire if I lived forever, I thought.

"The question," Swift writes, "was not whether a man would choose to be always in the prime of youth, attended with prosperity and health, but how he would have a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it.

"Loss of teeth and hair, no distinctions of taste, eating and drinking without relish or appetite. The diseases they were subject to still continue. In talking they forget the common appalation of things, and the names of persons, even of those who are their nearest friends and relations."

And so Emerson writes, "As the bird trims how to the gale, I trim myself to the storm of time, I man the rudder, reef the sail, obey the voice of eve obeyed at prime; 'Lowly faithful, banishing fear, right onward drive unharmed; port, well worth the cruise, is near, and every wave is charmed.'"

And John Donne. "Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so."

For some, I guess, like Donne, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more, death, thou shall die."

Every creature, from the beasts of the jungle to the tiniest insect, does everything it can to avoid death, and yet there are men and women and boys and girls who come to welcome it, though in truth, others embrace it tranquilly, if not eagerly.


To life!

# # #

You're Only Dead Once