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Timeless Friendship by
5
(7 Stories)

Prompted By Friendship

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I’ve noticed many times in my life the long duration that goes between interactions with my best friends, and it amazes me.  True, social media like Facebook gives us the ability to quickly check in and see what’s going on in someone’s life, but there have been times that months or years go by between any direct, personal communication—and yet the friendships seem like they’ve never even had a pause.

...we've built them into the very framework of what makes us the people we are.

This is true with a few “old” friends of mine from high school, and more so with friends from college. Most of those I have not seen in person since graduation, decades ago, but when a phone call happens, all the memories return and the connection is still strong.

Even with the person I consider my “best” friend of more than 30 years (who gave me the quirky book above), we will have months go by without any communication and sometimes—the next time we talk—pick up the last conversation we were having right about where it left off.

I’ve decided it’s because those people who we consider our closest friends are never really absent, even when we’re not talking, texting, snap-chatting, or—I know it’s crazy to imagine—physically in the same room as each other. Even after they pass away, those very close friends are still with us, because we’ve built them into the very framework of what makes us the people we are.

Timeless friendship. I wish for everyone that they can find it, and that they realize the treasure that they have.

Oh, and since I have you thinking about it, how about giving those timeless friends you do have a call or going over to say hi, right now?

Wait, Wasn’t I Supposed to Feel Comfortable Here? by
5
(7 Stories)

Prompted By The First Time

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When I think about “first times” the one event that comes to mind is the first time I stepped into a gay bar.

For the great majority of you, there is probably not any comparable experience you can point to and relate to this experience. You grew up with it being perfectly acceptable—in the right circumstances—for you to express interest in the people you found attractive. You could openly and publicly date someone, kiss that someone, hold hands with that someone, yell angrily at that someone, break up with that someone.

While things are definitely getting more open now for people who are attracted to others of their own gender, thirty years ago—when I was growing up—it was extremely daring to be open about it.  During all of high school, there was really only one other person in my class who knew about me. Well, we knew about each other, but that was only after a very long series of conversations where we beat around and around the bushes until we were practically dizzy from running in circles.

Being one of those people born in the summer break months, I turned 18 after graduating from high school. I was away at college shortly after that and still very much closeted, even, to a point, from myself. I didn’t want to be different, and I was doing a lot of praying that somehow I would stop being who I kept worrying that I was and, seemingly more and more, always would be.

So my first summer back from college, my friend mentioned that a relatively local gay bar had an 18-and-over night and would I want to go. Absolutely, I wanted to go. I was excited and a little bit terrified, and just so happy that I didn’t even have to do some fake ID magic I’d never learned in order to get into the place.

And that was how I found myself walking D.O.K. West in Garden Grove, California.

I will always remember the sheer wonder and, well, oddness I felt at seeing two men—okay, they were probably also only 18, so two boys—slow dancing. (Admittedly, part of the oddness might have been that they were slow dancing to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”—which style of dancing, upon reflection, could have been induced either by pure romance or some kind of chemical reinforcement.)  And then the revelation of two men openly—and unashamedly!—kissing each other, right there where everybody else in the place could see them! Yes, I had already seen men holding hands in public when I was making early, shy forays into West Hollywood. But that had only happened in daylight hours; even in West Hollywood in the late 1980s, gay couples would very seldom kiss in public because there were still bashers who would drive through just looking for an excuse to show their dominance. (And thus probably also making their own repressed urges completely obvious to anyone really paying attention.) But here in the safety of a gay bar, wonder of wonders, a public display of affection could be affection publicly displayed.

It didn’t take long, however, for the shine to wear off.  I pretty quickly started to notice that everything was not quite all magic and wonder.  There was quite a bit of obvious cruising—with no friendliness or affection in it at all. Well, that was to be expected, really, any where that people might be out looking to connect with someone, physically if not always emotionally. But even beyond the cruising, there seemed to be this constant judging. It was as if every guy in the place—or, to be fair, the great majority of them—was mentally tallying the attractiveness of every other guy. The worth of every other guy.  And even beyond the judging, there was a desperation. A fear and longing. Palpable. Where we should have all been free to be happy and open and accepting, it seemed that so many of us had our hearts and spirits so dinged and dented as to barely ever trust another living soul. Even here. Even here, we still feel isolated and judged and… lonely.

I left that place smelling of cigarettes, and with a feeling like I had tasted something both bitter and sweet. Strong, old coffee, charred from being on the burner too long, so that any sweetness added only seemed to make the bitterness more obvious.  This was what I had wanted, but even what I had wanted had been spoiled.

Wait, wasn’t I supposed to feel comfortable here?

 

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due by
5
(7 Stories)

Prompted By Gratitude

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As someone who is estranged from the faith of my upbringing, the idea of “giving thanks” raises some challenges in me.

…I am not thankful as much for them as I am to them…

I still believe in the idea of gratitude, and I believe that being in a mindset of gratitude has beneficial results in our lives. However, I don’t believe in any first source that I should be grateful to for things like striking sunsets and infinite starlit skies and beautiful animals. For those things I try to focus on them with the amazement that such things should inspire in anyone with imagination and any degree of humility.

For other things—tangible things—I try to find the first source that I can get to in order to give thanks.

For the riches of our country? Thanks to the countless people who struggled to create our country and its vast infrastructure. Thanks to the people who have contributed to that infrastructure, both in the past and especially in the present, whether directly (by building it) and indirectly (by supporting it with their contribution of taxes for the very purpose of improving our country).

For friends and family? I remember that I am not thankful as much for them as I am to them: for continuing to be a part of my life, for putting up with me at my worst, for the very efforts they make in their lives to make the world a better place.

For the food on my table? I am thankful to the people who grow the plants and raise the animals. I am grateful to the people who work to get the food from the farm to where I can purchase it. I am grateful to those who provided my spouse and me (and those who join us and bring food with them) with our educations and our opportunities to excel, and therefore to provide for ourselves.

Being thankful to people—and letting them know at every opportunity that I am thankful to them—seems a much more positive way to express my thanks than platitudes or prayers.

My Halloween “Quick Take” by
5
(7 Stories)

Prompted By Halloween

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My best Halloween costume was a home-made, foil-covered Cylon (which looked very little like the real thing, above, to be honest).

Oh, those candies with the toxic red dyes!

My favorite candy was everything that didn’t have coconut or nuts, therefore I hated it when people gave out Mounds or Almond Joy candy bars—blech.

It usually took me just a single day to eat all the candy. (I shudder to think of it nowadays! What did I do to my body and my metabolism, doing that?)

Kids today are missing out on all the scary candy ingredients, like those toxic red dyes!

David Brin’s Startide Rising by
5
(7 Stories)

Prompted By What We Read

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I’ve always been a voracious reader, particularly of grand science fiction. While in 2016 I do most of my reading by listening using my Audible.com subscription, in the 1980s the “books on tape” thing was just beginning to catch on. So I, like everyone else, was almost entirely dependent on what my Uncle Walt now refers to as “treeware”—paper books. I rabidly scooped up science fiction paperbacks at every visit to the then-still-ubiquitous book stores, and had multiple book store memberships to discount my reading habit.

David Brin's "Uplift" universe thrilled me from the start. It had everything: great mysteries, epic scale, very alien aliens, clever humor, and immense personal depth. Startide Rising is still a favorite to this day.

Of course, the great “establishment” authors of science fiction amazed me: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and many others.  Some of their stories were more dark than I liked, though, whether they were cautionary or just meant to make you think on a serious subject. I mostly preferred books that had great hope as well as great, epic scale.  Alan Dean Foster was therefore one such favorite because of the unending optimism that seemed to leap from every page he wrote.

While I was in high school in the mid 1980s, I happened upon a book by an author, David Brin, who I hadn’t seen before. Reading the book summary, the novel Startide Rising looked to be everything I liked. It had already won the Nebula Award when I had found it, so there was extra validation to add it to my growing paperback collection.

I was NOT disappointed.

I’ll sum up the universe in Startide Rising as quickly as I possibly can while still being relatively clear. These books take place in a future in which the “people” of Earth—who now count among their number both dolphins and chimpanzees—have discovered that they are now part of a vast, politically complex galactic civilization. A significant element of that civilization is the rule that an established alien species can “uplift” another promising species to sapience and thus “own” that species as “clients”—essentially as slaves—for millions of years.  Earth’s humans are alone in the galaxy in having no known patron race of their own; but having uplifted dolphins and chimpanzees on their own, humans are technically a patron race themselves, despite many of the galaxy’s other races wanting to claim Earth’s people as clients for themselves.

Boom: instant epic conflict on a galactic scale. Brin does much in Startide Rising to make this immense, galaxy-scale conflict even more compelling, but he also grounds the book in the struggles of the crew of one small ship caught in the focus of an ancient galactic mystery.  His characters are both varied and comlex, and his chapters are broken up into short scenes that cut back and forth between action happening in different places (a technique I love and enjoy for how it keeps you hanging on almost every page).

Brin pulls of a couple of challenges very well in this book. First, he gives very realistic motivations—and in many cases creates great empathy—to the most alien of aliens. Second, he creates a very believable perspective and culture for the dolphin characters, who outnumber the human characters in the book. I recall realizing at the time that he had made a very alien species that is on our very own planet into a group of people that I related to, loved, and admired.

As the book progresses deeper and deeper into its drama, even when the universe seems to be falling apart and trouble is just around every planetary horizon, Brin infuses the story with wit, heart, and immeasurable hope.

Startide Rising remains, to this day (more than three decades later), one of my favorite reads. Considering how many reads this voracious reader has been through in all that time, that’s saying quite a lot!

My Grandmother Jocelyn Would Be Proud by
5
(7 Stories)

/ Stories

When we lose a loved one, we often redirect the emotion invested in that person into other areas of our lives.  In my case, this happened very clearly upon the loss of my grandmother Jocelyn.

One morning my parents sat me down and told me that Jocelyn had passed away… that was when I started being serious about playing the piano.

Jocelyn was my paternal grandfather’s second wife. They were divorced by the time she passed away when I was eight, and I was unaware until much later that my father and aunt had a tense and strained relationship with her.  I was either oblivious of that fact (very likely) or my father did a good job of covering that he felt awkward about my love for her and my desire to spend time with her.

When I was growing up in Southern California, I would often spend weekends with Jocelyn. She was my favorite grandmother. I remember loving being at her apartment, listening to her playing piano (sometimes turning pages for her), eating pancakes with Knott’s Berry Farm boysenberry syrup, and getting a penny apiece for picking up cigarette butts from the gravel behind her patio.

Regarding Jocelyn’s piano playing, I remember just dreaming that someday I might play as well as she did. She had played piano for events for a long time and had a huge collection of sheet music, seemingly all aimed at either weddings or funerals. I don’t recall asking her to play much of the former, but I know that I frequently requested the mournful “Brian’s Song” by film composer Michel Legrand. Its seemingly simple melody and powerful bridge haunted me.

One morning my parents sat me down and told me that Jocelyn had passed away.  I don’t recall if they explained to me right then or later that she had been diabetic. That she had continued drinking and smoking and not eating right despite knowing of her medical condition.  I just remember not really understanding at first, and then I remember a feeling like falling into a deep, dark, bottomless hole. The falling, empty feeling wouldn’t stop. I know the loss rattled me for days, at minimum, and that my best friend at school at the time kept trying to make me feel better—though that kind of well-meaning support never really helps more than to let you know the other person cares. It doesn’t make the pain go away or hurt any less.

And that was when I started being serious about playing the piano. I taught myself an easy version of Brian’s Song. Then, when that version turned out to be TOO easy and far less expressive than the original piano solo version, I started teaching it to myself from Jocelyn’s sheet music.  I remember the piano being moved from the living room into the dining room at some point, and I remember starting to create my own melodies—not just playing what was on paper—some time after that.

It’s pretty obvious in hindsight that I went through what is referred to by psychiatrists as “transference”.  All the energy and emotion that I previously had invested in Jocelyn was redirected, upon losing her, into first learning to play the piano myself, and then into composing.  I’m happy that it music was available to me as a focus, because I know that transferred emotion can be redirected to destructive behaviors the same way that it can go toward constructive ones.

So while she never got the chance to know it, my grandmother Jocelyn, in both her life and her death, guided me on a path toward music. Had she lived longer, I know she would have encouraged me, but I will always wonder if piano and composition would have ended up such large parts of my life if I had not lost her. My father told me after college that I played piano then far better than Jocelyn ever could. I hope I play as sweetly, and I hope my playing and my composing affects others as strongly as her playing affected me.

I love you, Grandma. Thanks for the music and the inspiration!

Muppets as Musical Influence by
5
(7 Stories)

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Kermit the Frog

Kermit the Frog Rainbow Connection

Folks usually laugh when I mention that the Jim Henson’s Muppets were a big musical influence on my composing style and sensibilities, but it’s totally true.

The magic of Jim Henson's creations affected my composing style in many ways!

I was fortunate enough to be at a very formative age when both Sesame Street got really moving and when the original Muppet Show was on television. Each one used music differently, but very effectively, and looking back I find it obvious how much they both affected my musical compositions.

Sesame Street music focused on easy-to-sing, catchy melodies, each of which taught some lesson. The lessons ranged widely—from a letter of the alphabet to paying attention to what signs say—but the delivery method of a song made learning much easier.

I was born about a year before Sesame Street started, and can remember loving the show as a child. Considering that I can STILL sing along with most of the songs—and yes, I STILL listen to these songs as they are included in the programming on Muppet Central Radio, a personal favorite and highly recommended!—I know that I heard those songs dozens (if not hundreds) of times growing up. So, yes, a formative musical influence on me!  The show’s original musical director, Joe Raposo, was responsible for many of the iconic songs from the show’s early years—including the opening theme—and had a songwriting style that was clear, clever, and memorable. What I admire now about his work for the show is that he never wrote “down” to the young audience he was serving. While straightforward, his songs are seldom really “simple”. He used a variety of melodic structures, clever harmonies, and interesting chord progressions to create very identifiable and unique themes.

The Muppet Show ran for five seasons starting in 1976, and was presented as a “Vaudeville” type show. Each episode included a variety of acts and performers—including the top A-List Hollywood and music stars—and almost every act included some amount of music if not actually being a performed song.  The eclectic musical selections were gleaned from the very best of our musical heritage and culture: great classical instrumental pieces; a variety of jazz numbers; ballroom dance music; comic songs by the Marx Brothers; and popular music from the likes of ABBA, John Denver, and Linda Rondstat.

I was nine years old when The Muppet Show aired, and was already a church choir veteran of many years! (Dr. Larry Ball and his wife Kris, aka “Dear”, started them young in the fantastic “ministry of music” at the First Presbyterian Church of Orange, California).  Right around that same time, my grandmother Jocelyn passed away—she is another significant musical influence on my life, and merits her own story from me here in the future.  These circumstances made an impressionable nine-year-old even more ready for vacuuming up the feelings and ideas that were being created and presented in such a brilliant production as The Muppet Show.  The sheer variety of the “variety show” routines on the program added eclecticism to the elements that I love and that I try to wield when composing. Further, the range of emotions in a program could go from upbeat one moment to very poignant the next, from comic to serious and back in just minutes.  My own enjoyment of composing music that creates a “ride” of moods could only have been strengthened—if it was not outright formed—by such well structured entertainment.

So no “wocka wocka wocka” intended! Jim Henson’s Muppets really were a serious musical influence on my style as a composer!  That influence can be seen in my love of clear, memorable melodies, in the eclectic musical genres that I enjoy exploring, and in the wide range of emotions that I try to induce—often within a single composition! I will continue to aspire to make my music on par with that which was on these excellent programs!

(Originally published on arthurbreur.com.)