Sunday, November 30, 2008

Crowning Glory

I recently ordered a Fleur-de-Lys flag and plan to fly it above my house. Why? Because I am at heart a royalist. I think George W. (Washington, not the other guy) missed the boat when he was asked to be king of America and declined. Noawadays, it seems to me most folks whom we have elected or named to positions of vast influence have been sadly lacking in honesty, mores and experience at serving the public trust. So why not rely instead on professionals, i.e. a royal family well-versed in presenting the country's best side, promoting commerce, and, generally, staying above the party politics and special interests that permeate government today?

The Royalist Party of America--yes, there is none--makes an excellent point in stating that "to create a true sense of trust between the governed and the government, our nation's leader must be above the politics of the day, beholden to no special interest group, and free to do what must be done for the good of all Americans, not just the party he or she leads."

This makes sense to me.

Today there are some 28 countries with operational royalty. Of those, 25 are constitutional or parliamentary monarchies. The three that aren't--Oman, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, all absolute regimes--are admittedly not your best example of effective and interest-free government, but the others, including Belgium, Denmark, Morocco, Spain, Japan, the U.K., and Sweden, have learned that it's not a bad thing to have your country represented by entities that are neither Wig nor Tory, Republican nor Democrat. In modern times, the whole concept of monarchy is based on having an entity of long-standing and respectable history that will act or react intelligently for the well-being of the country involved.

I'm not fooling myself--the US will not turn into a monarchy of any kind in the near or far future. But there are lessons worth learning from the kings and queens of history. Some were damned good leaders, the type of folks we need around now.

Here's installment 58 of Wasted Miracles.

For Josie, there is no past, only a present and an indistinct future.
The beanbag chair has become home. There is nothing else but that, that and the drugs. The drugs provide increasingly brief respites from what has become a slow-building agony. Josie has no notion of time save the moments elapsing between pipes. Her mouth, throat, chest are raw but whenever she fires up she refuses to cough; that might waste some of the salvation and she could ill afford that.
She has become almost somnambulistic. She eats when told to, relieves herself when told to, sleeps when the cravings allow it. The Zulu has become God and she is desperate to please him.
She misses sunshine, light. When she was just starting out, messing around with fruit wines and dope, one of her favorite things was to get lightly stoned and lie out in the sun sensing each individual particle of light bounce off her face. She hasn’t had that feeling in quite a while and wonders why.
Now she’s drifting on a painful sea. Most of the time she’s cramping though it’s not yet that time of the month, her period isn’t due for awhile, of that she’s pretty certain. So the cramping is something else and when she can give rise to an emotion other than want, that emotion is fear. She’s not scared of death. She feels death will be a relief, she’s earned it. She’s scared of something else, something she can’t quite identify.
When she’s high the memories rush by like express trains and the jumble of them amaze her. Things she hasn’t thought of for years, and she can see herself in situations long forgotten, it’s almost like being at the movies. There’s even music and a cacophony of sound effects, voices, noises, slamming doors, rushing water. She thinks the song she keeps hearing in her head is Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” it has that kind of a snarl to it. But then again the tune might be something else. It doesn’t matter.
The door opens and the Zulu walks in. She can tell he has a couple of rocks in a glass vial. He’s shaking the vial in his hand, he always does that when he comes in as if to announce his presence. It makes a noise like two pebbles rattling in a cup.
The Zulu says, “Miss Stilwell, my patience has just about run out. I am telling you this so you’ll be aware of the situation you’re in. These,” he holds up the glass vial, “are it. There will be no more until my simple questions are answered. Do I make myself clear?”
Terribly so. Horrifyingly so. But the realization that she will soon be cut off comes second to the need she has, right now. So she nods, yes, she understands, and hands him the pipe which is now a treasured item, the sole link to an endurable life.
The Zulu shakes a rock out, drops it into the bowl, hands the pipe back, fires a wooden match. She sucks it in like a true user, short intense gasps that hit her lungs like ball lightning. She wants to cough, tenses every muscle in her upper body to avoid it. And then it hits and life is OK again, more than OK, but short of wonderful because now there’s only one rock remaining.
The Zulu says, “Remember, Miss Stilwell. No more after this.” As if she could forget.

Monday, November 17, 2008

All Writing Is Fiction

You read it here first, and it's pithy enough to be remembered. Writing, by being interpretive, can't be anything but an invention, not matter how well-researched or objective.

I came by this realization recently at a used book store in Philadelphia. More than ten thousand books, many with obsessive footnoting and references to other, earlier works. Now certainly, had I been willing to do some research, I could have found the referenced works and inspected their footnotes, which would have led me to more fanatical and neurotic explorations... ad nauseam. But every single word written by all the authors and their sources were their words, the ones they thought best described the situation. And no two writers will ever see the exact same thing and describe it in the same manner. What is a bright fall day for me is the beginning of a dismal winter for you. So it's all fiction.

And think of this: What, if the research assumed to be correct is wrong? More fiction. So what we have is a basic fact: every biography, investigative or history book, every scientific tome and learned volume purporting to tell us anything at all, is basically a work of fiction. We cannot write, or paint or sculpt absolutes.

Somehow, to me, this is magnificently entertaining because I like subjectivity. I am much more interested in how things are perceived than how they really are, and anyway, I have a pretty strong suspicion that no one has a clue as to what really is. We just like to think we do...

How amazing. Rene Magritte was right. It wasn't a pipe at all, just one man's idea of what a pipe is supposed to look like. That makes my day.

Here's installment 56 of Wasted Miracles.
“It’s not much of a place.” Catherine let the words hang. She had been quiet throughout the ride from Virginia. They were sitting in Colin’s battered 924. The door to the garage that housed Africorp’s limos was shut and no one had responded to their knocking.
“We’ll wait a bit longer. The man I spoke with said Mamadou would be back around three.” Colin looked at his watch. “It’s almost that now.”
“How do people live here?” Catherine nodded to the street, the building, the trash. “I don’t understand how people can live like this and not do anything about it.”
“I guess they have other things to worry about than whether their streets are clean.”
They’d been waiting fifteen minutes and during that time had seen only two people, a pair of young boys who had eyed the car suspiciously and scampered down an alley.
“It’s hard to believe this is Washington. I mean, this doesn’t look like a part of America.”
“Inner city. Not that bad compared to some other places like Detroit, or the South Bronx.”
Catherine looked out again. “I’ve never been to neighborhoods like this. Guess I’ve led a protected life.”
“Be thankful.”
Suddenly the car rocked. Catherine stifled a scream. A black face wearing large wraparound sunglasses was peering in her window. She drew back.
“Y’all lookin’ for somethin’?”
Colin leaned over. “We’re just waiting for someone.”
The face considered this. “Unh hun. I see. But this here’s a bad place to be waitin’ for anythin’ if you don’ have business to transac’. Y’all sure I can’t hep you out?”
Colin said, “Nope. We’re fine. Thanks.” And felt foolish.
The man straightened up, ambled away.
Catherine asked, “Was he selling drugs? Just like that, right in the open? Aren’t there any policemen around here?”
Colin looked at her. “See any?”
She didn’t bother to look around. “Scary place.”
The limo pulled up next to them so silently neither Colin nor Catherine noticed it until the garage door swung open. Colin started his car, followed the Cadillac in, waited for Mamadou to get out. “Do you like this neighborhood, Colin? You seem to be spending a lot of time here.” Mamadou was not wearing his chauffeur uniform. He walked around the Porsche, opened the door on Catherine’s side, waited for her to get out. “You must be the young woman’s mother. The resemblance is striking.” He added, “Colin showed me her photo. I’m sorry about your plight.”
“Plight?” Catherine repeated it, surprised by the choice of words.
Mamadou glanced at Colin. “Is that the wrong expression. I apologize. English is not my native language.”
“Plight is fine,” Colin said. “Mamadou Dioh, this is Catherine Stilwell. I thought the two of you should meet.”
Mamadou bowed slightly at the waist. Catherine saw a tall, well-built man with the fine features and aquiline nose of an Ethiopian. Mamadou met her gaze, smiled. “My grandmother was born in Addis so I don’t look like the classic West African. You’ve been to Africa?”
Catherine shook her head. Mamadou shrugged. “I thought, perhaps, since your husband is with the State Department...”
There was a silence. Colin filled it, asked, “I know there hasn’t been much time, but have you learned anything?”
Before he could answer, Catherine said, “Colin told me about your earlier... encounter with drug dealers. And why it happened. I’m very sorry about your sister, and I’m grateful for anything you might be able to do to help with my daughter, with Josie.”
“Which has not been all that much, so far, I’m afraid. But I’ve set some wheels in motion, and I’m hopeful.”
The exchange petered out. Mamadou saw the exhaustion in Catherine eyes, the despair behind the false front. He debated with himself for a moment, added, “There are some people who seem to know everything that happens in Washington. One of those people is my friend. More than a friend, actually.” And he told them about Aunt Mim.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Movement Worth Considering

My friend Kim Kovacs, resident genius at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, sent me this. I reprint it in full...

In the wake of the election, thought you might be interested in the new secession movement….

Dear Red States:

We've decided we're leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue States with us. In case you aren't aware, that includes California, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country of New California.

To sum up briefly: You get Texas, Oklahoma, and all the slave states. We get stem cell research and the best beaches. We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Dollywood. We get Intel and Microsoft. You get WorldCom. We get Harvard. You get Ole' Miss. We get 85 percent of America's venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Alabama. We get two-thirds of the tax revenue, you get to make the red states pay their fair share.

Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22 percent lower than the Christian Coalition's, we get a bunch of happy families. Please be aware that Nuevo California will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we're going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals.

With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80 percent of the country's fresh water, more than 90 percent of the pineapple and lettuce, 92 percent of the nation's fresh fruit, 95 percent of America's quality wines (you can serve French wines at state dinners), 90 percent of all cheese, 90 percent of the high tech industry, most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias, and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech, and MIT.

With the Red States on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88 percent of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92 percent of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100 percent of the tornadoes, 90 percent of the hurricanes, 99 percent of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100 percent of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University, Clemson, and the University of Georgia. We get Hollywood and Yosemite, thank you.

Additionally, 38 percent of those in the Red states believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale, 62 percent believe life is sacred unless we're discussing the death penalty or gun laws, 44 percent say that evolution is only a theory, 53 percent think that Saddam was involved in 9/11, and 61 percent of you crazy bastards believe you are people with higher morals then we lefties.

Finally, we're taking the good pot, too. You can have that dirt weed they grow in Mexico.

Peace out,

Blue States

Here's installment 55 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 14

The brunette one--whose name really was Clare Drake--said, “Well, I guess it coulda been worse. Do you think he really meant it? Throwing us off the ship? Could he really do that?”
The blonde, whose name wasn’t Jennifer Jamieson, shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. I remember in school reading about how ship’s captains could do pretty much what they wanted. Bury people, have them whipped or put on a deserted island, stuff like that. But maybe that was just pirates. Anyhow, I think we’d better not screw up. That’s all we need, getting tossed on some island full of spades and ending up in their version of jail. I don’t think I’d like that much.”
Outside the cabin’s porthole there was nothing but blue-green water and bright blue sky. They could feel the ship humming beneath their feet, the sound of the giant engines not quite deadened. Clare Drake said, “He didn’t seem like such a bad guy, all in all...”
Jennifer Jamieson opened the small closet door, selected three dresses, tossed them on her bunk. “Far as I’m concerned, what we’ve gotta do is just not screw this up. There’s ten grand waiting for us in Baltimore when we get there. That’s in three days. Ten grand. We go to Florida, someplace near Disney World, get a decent apartment with a pool and a workout place. Start things over. No more hooking, no more dealing with assholes, ‘cause I’ve got to tell you, I’ve had it with that scene.” She held up a black dress, glanced in the mirror, made a face, let it drop to the cabin floor. “It woulda been nice to get a few extra bucks, but I told you that old fart’s wife was all over him. We should’ve tried for that other guy, the one who came on to me by the pool.”
“Except that he didn’t have any money. I could tell that right away. He was a scammer, I know it. Did you see his shoes? What kinda guy wears shoes like that on a cruise? Had PayLess Shoe Source written all over them.”
Jennifer Jamieson shrugged, “Yeah, well. Next three days, we’re prim and proper. Two teachers from an exclusive school, out on the cruise of a lifetime.” She made it sound like a middle-of-the-night television ad. “Real exciting.”
Clare Drake took her friend in her arms, hugged her hard. “Three days. We give Herbie his stupid package back, he gives us ten grand, we’re outta here for good. Think of it. Right next to Disney World, get to be pals with Mickey and Goofy, maybe even get job there. I’ll be Snow White, you can be one of the dwarves.”
Clare Drake laughed. She was the smaller of the two. “Bitch!”
Jennifer Jamieson squeezed her harder. “Yeah. But you love me anyway.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

Adios Yma

Yma Sumac is gone, and shame on you if you don't know who she was. Few singers have had her voice, her stature and yes, her chutzpah. In the postwar years (that's World War II, the big one), Ms. Sumac, a woman of doubtful ancestry and mysterious background, became one of the first women singers to sell 500,000 copies of an album. She did this thanks to a magnificent five-octave voice that would put many of today's opera stars to shame. It helped that she claimed to be the descendant of the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa. She could imitate birds and mammals of the jungle. She yipped, crooned, clicked, growled, muttered, bayed at the stars, growled at the mountains and hit an impossibly high D. She was bigger than life--much, much bigger--and left an epitaph: All Men Is Cuckoo.

She may or may not have been born in Peru, perhaps in 1922 in the Andes. Or, as some unkind critics have claimed, she may have been Amy Camus, from Brooklyn. She liked to wear massive pieces of gold and silver on stage, and she sang imperiously. In latter years, people made fun of her, but no popular singer in memory has been able to match her range. Watch her on YouTube and be amazed.

This is before special effects, dubbing, voice phasing, etc. What you hear is her voice, ready to shatter crystal...

My parents had a couple of Yma Sumac LPs. I remember hearing her on the radio in Paris, thinking no such sound could come from a human. My mom learned the cha cha listening to her records.

So good-bye, Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chavarri del Castillo, whoever you were. I'll miss you.

Here's installment 54 of Wasted Miracles.
“You gonna come up or you gonna stay down there and fry?”
Mamadou laughed. “I wanted to make sure you were home, Aunt Mim.”
The voice on the other end emitted a dry chuckle. “You ever known me not to be home? You come on up now. I’ll tell Derrick to watch that car of yours. Did you bring anything to drink?”
Mamadou lifted the jug of Gallo burgundy, waved it so it could be seen from the house.
“Well that’s good, shows you got manners.”
Mamadou left the car unlocked with the motor running. Soon a small boy, one of Aunt Mim’s distant relatives, came from the house, gave him a high five and discreetly stuck his other hand out. Mamadou slipped him a ten. The boy smiled, sauntered to the car, got in. Mamadou watched him turn the AC down a notch, saw him fiddle with the radio dials until he found a pleasing station. The speakers boomed, the boy rocked up and down, a dwarf in the limo’s seat, the entire vehicle vibrating to a dissonant rap beat. The car would be safe. Aunt Mim’s boys could put Mamadou’s Dobermans to shame.
Aunt Mim was in the bed in the upstairs room, her huge shape swaddled in pink sheets. She wore a turban of the same color. Gray hair stuck out the sides in tufts. She was smoking a king-size Pall Mall and the room was faintly hazy with smoke. Off to the side, Aunt Mim’s lover, George, sat quietly on a chair perusing an old copy of Utne Reader. He looked up when Mamadou came in, smiled slightly, looked back down.
Mamadou approached the bed, bent at the waist to kiss Aunt Mim on the cheek. He handed her the jug of wine. She looked at the label, said, “George?”
George looked up, nodded, stood and found three high-stem glasses, poured the wine carefully, handed the glasses around, returned to his reading.
Mamadou said, “You’re looking well.”
The old woman harrumphed, pleased nevertheless. “Gained another ten pounds. I look at food and it sticks to me, don’t have to eat it or nothin’, just look at it. You’re lookin’ good too. You married yet?”
Mamadou shook his head.
“Din’t think so, I’da heard. Your business still doin’ good, I’m told. You be getting richer, don’ have time to visit, forgettin’ the people that helped you...”
Mamadou shook his head again. “You know that’s not true, Aunt Mim.” He sipped from the glass. Aunt Mim drained hers, held it out to George for a refill. There was a long silence. Mamadou looked around the room.
He’d never seen Aunt Mim anywhere but in the huge bed, and George always seemed to be there, silent and attentive. The room itself hadn’t changed from the last time he’d visited a year earlier. The rosebush wallpaper was slightly more faded, the curtains, rugs, furniture, everything else was the same.
“So how you doin’?”
“I’m well, Aunt Mim.”
Aunt Mim squinted at him, sighed. “I still say a prayer every night for Amelie, don’t I, George?”
George nodded. Aunt Mim took a deep breath. “That was such a shame, young woman like that. Hope those boys are rottin’ in hell. They needed killin’. But thass what happens when the drugs getcha. Ain’t nothin’ good to be deerived from all that stuff. An’ it’s gettin’ worse and worse, thass what people tell me.”
Mamadou smiled, sipped. “People tell you everything, don’t they, Aunt Mim? You know what they’d call you in French? They’d call you the doyenne.”
The woman looked at him, laughed uproariously. The bed shook. “The dwayen? You still a sweet-talkin’ man, ain’tcha? Ain’t he, George? I like that word, dwayen. Sounds kinda African, though, not French.” She drank from her glass and her expression changed. “Damn straight! They tell me everythin’. I won’t tolerate no secrets. That’s how I knew that boy took your sister, ‘cause people came and told me. And that’s why I asked George here to pay you a visit.” She nodded in the direction of the elderly man who did not look up, took a deep sip of whine. Wasn’t hard gettin’ those boys to come to you. Hell, I knew that boy that hurt Amelie since he was little, knew his family, too. None of ‘em were any good. Ida been smart, I mighta could’ve prevented what happen to your sister, but I didn’t see it comin’, you know. I was gettin’ old, even back then.”
She made a show of sitting up in the bed, folded her hands on the coverlet. “So, what is it I can help you with this time?”
Mamadou told her. She listened silently, broke in only once, said, “AA? They tried settin’ up a AA meetin’ here once. I let ‘em use my kitchen, but it didn’t last. Most black people, men, they don’ wanta talk about their drinkin’ They just want to do it. Or ifn they do talk, they boast, like it was somethin’ to be proud of. Ain’t that right George?”
Mamadou listened to Aunt Mim for an hour as she recounted births, deaths, marriages, abandonments. Before he left, he wrote the word doyenne on a piece of paper, handed it to her. Aunt Mim looked at it, spelled it out loud a couple of times. Mamadou said, “It means a great lady, one who’s kind and helps people. A patron. A leader.”
George spoke for the first time. “It also means the senior member, as in age or rank, of a group, class or profession, etc. Webster’s Unabridged. Page 431.”
Aunt Mim nodded her head, unimpressed with George’s scholarship. “Thass a pretty word, ain’t it George? Yeah. I kinda like that, bein’ a dwayen. Gotta good ring to it. Maybe I’ll get one of the girls to embroider a pillow for me, have it say, ‘Mimosa Bell, dwayen of all she surveys.’ That’d be right, wouldn’t it?”
Mamadou put his glass down, took one of her heavy hands in both of his, kissed it. “That would be absolutely right, Aunt Mim. A proper and fitting title.”
Aunt Mim giggled. “Such a sweet talker, ain’t he George?”