Thursday, December 31, 2009

Late Friends

No, not late as in dead dear departed friends; late as in never-on-time.

I have a friend who, if she tells you she will be here at seven, may make it by nine. Ten minutes mean an hour; "on my way" does not imply imminent, it's a manner of saying " first, I have to take a shower, then feed the cats and go to the gym." Appointments made in the morning are regularly cancelled in the afternoon. She sees nothing wrong with any of this--life is full of unexpected demands (on time) and you have to roll with the punches.

I am thinking of giving this friendship up. We've talked about it, she and I, and on more than one occasion after waiting much longer than I thought necessary, I've cancelled whatever was planned. I see it as a control issue--whoever keeps the other waiting is actually holding the person hostage. There's also a question of respect involved. If my friend is not respecting my time, how can she respect me?

The other side of the coin, of course, is that by insisting on a measure of punctuality, I'm the one controlling the situation, forcing the other person to do my will.

It's all very confusing. What I have found, though, is that people who are messy with their time are messy with their lives. Things that need to get done are endlessly put off until what should be a random chore becomes a critical event, and I don't care for critical events. Daily existence has a way of throwing enough of those around without my manufacturing extra ones. I also find that people who are compulsively late leave a vacuum behind them that sucks in bad things, like cops and speeding tickets, fender benders and small expectations unmet.

What I've often done is planned to do things while I'm waiting--a laundry, vacuuming the kitchen, preparing coffee for the next day--but that somehow does not feel right. I am no doubt anal retentive about many things--punctuality being one--but it's hard for me to launch into even a minor project if I know I'm going to have to put it aside when the late one finally shows up.

So this is the quandary for the last day of the year. Things could be worse....

Monday, December 28, 2009

Au Revoir Dédé

I killed off a character today, wrote him right out of life and it feels positively weird. And sad.

This was not a person of great meaning. I needed him to reflect the attributes and defects of other, more important player in the book I'm writing, but still, I liked him. I honestly don't know where he came from; he just appeared almost whole one late evening, a small boy named Dédé Bourillot, son of a largely inept dentist, born innocent, neither bright nor dumb, an inveterate trouble-maker of middling cleverness who just wants to get along. Dédé's most endearing--or troubling--trait was that he believed eating raw onions would make him smart and healthy. It did neither. If I had to have an image of what Dédé looked like, I would be that of Dil, the smallest kid in Richard Thompson's charming strip, Cul de Sac.

I now have to make his death count. There will be ramifications. His passing will be the stone thrown in the pond, creating ripples. The fact that right now I have no idea how all this will work is beside the point--Dédé will not have died in vain. That would be too cruel, too insensitive even for fiction, because here is the thing: once a character is created, he is no longer fictional. If he's done well, he'll have breath, life, thoughts, ambitions. He will engage others, meddle in their lives, become a power in and of himself. That's how good fiction works, I believe--by creating people we find endearing, and placing them in situations we understand and feel a part of.

It's not always easy. Dédé didn't have much of a chance to develop. He's in about 25 pages of what will be a 400-page novel but I'm hoping his brief life will be remembered. He will be resurrected a few times in the thoughts and memories of other characters.

I hope I do him justice.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Scandals & Other Good Stuff

There is something profoundly proper and pleasing about a terrorist--a wealthy young man to boot--who sets his own leg on fire while trying to detonate a bomb in an airplane. Let us hope that this is the future of terrorism, even as we know it is not. It's a fitting end to a decade that actually started on September 11 nine years ago and has kept us if not on our toes, at least on our feet, largely disbelieving that anyone could hate us with such virulence.

There's an argument to be made that this past decade has been one of failure and discontent. Certainly, it has been neither the best nor the brightest. We've seen century-old institutions vanish, victims to amazing greed and ineptitude. Here, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, many brave have lost their homes and are no longer free. We have elected a black man thinking he was a black Jesus and are still waiting for the loaves and fishes.

Lets face it, it has been a crappy ten years.

The popular music stinks, we're mired in vampiric literature, tacky architecture, ugly fashion and larger traffic jams. Modern art is, well, neither.

Facebook, MySpace, Tweeter and a host of other non-essential time-wasters have proven conclusively that we are getting better and better at communicating more and more to say less and less.

My favorite failure of the decade is Dubai, an essentially non-existent country that, in spite of being in the black with trillions of dollars a mere five years ago, is now in bankruptcy.

My favorite politician remains George W. Bush who in full view of the world stole and election, thereby putting to shame all the Third- and Fourth-World leaders who have done the same with more style and less elan.

My favorite financier is Bernie Madoff. My Jewish friends want to de-circumcise him and make him a Christian.

My Favorite religious leader is the good Reverend Tedd Haggard, founder of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. A charismatic pastor, Haggard was a vocal critic of homosexuality until he was outed by a male prostitute who claimed to be involved with the Reverend for more than three years. Oh, and Haggard apparently liked crystal meth during gay sex, too.

There's more--of course there's more--just Google "10 worst" anything and feast your eyes. Come up with your own list and forward it!

But please, no Salahis. I'm trying to keep this blog in good taste.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Story

So at 4 p.m. on Christmas day, I am struck by the fact that my back is simply not getting any better. Nothing major, mind you, just moving too much snow too quickly and now, five days later, what was a small ache has become a real pain that makes getting out of bed and rising from a chair just a little too difficult. At this rate, by morning I will not be able to move.

It's getting dark, it's raining. I have already taken too many Tylenols. I hate taking pills--my addict self recoils at ingesting anything that may cause my body to have strange reactions--and whatever is available over-the-counter won't do the job. I had a few Percocets I was saving from oral surgery but an addict acquaintance stole them a while back.

The only recourse is a heating pad, but I lent mine to a friend.

At 4:40 I head for Giant, which will close at five so the Islamic, animist and Buhddist workers can enjoy a Christian holiday. At 4:50 a Giant lady dressed as an elf tells me that yes, they have heating pads, and no, I can't have one since the pads are in the pharmacy and the pharmacy is closed. At CVS just down the road they have heating pads too but they're sold out on account of all the people who hurt their backs while shoveling snow. The tiny Vietnamese woman behind the register commiserates--her husband had terrible back pains and swore by Tiger Balm, a sort of Asian super-lethal Ben Gay I used to rub all over myself after having the living cr*p kicked out of me when I did martial arts many years ago. It does work, kind of, and makes you smell like eucalyptus and garlic.

Rite Aid is closed, the bastards. The CVS in McLean claims not to have heating pads but now I am getting suspicious that the Sikh cashier with the Singh nametag is actually hoarding them. He has a wary, haughty look when I question him but remains adamant. The last pad--the deluxe $50 model with four heating settings and the automatic shut off for safety--was sold not an hour ago. He sold it himself to an elderly man with a cane who looked as if he really needed it. The implication is obvious; I am not worthy of the Singh heating pad.

Getting in and out of the car is becoming actively painful. The rain is getting colder. A 23-foot long Cadillac from the 70s almost sideswipes me and fishtails down the street. I give up. I am going home. I will stay in my steaming shower until the hot water runs out. Then I will wrap myself in something flammable and... No, I won't do that. I will stay in bed, eat chicken soup (the chunky kind), and wait for my spine to fuse.
On the way home I pass a 7-11 and decide a Christmas spicy quarter-pounder might make me feel better. I stride painfully down the overpriced medicine aisle. I spy a blue package on the bottom rack. I bend, I hurt, I pick up the heating pad, it costs $19.95 and has five settings and an automatic shut-off so I do not immolate myself as I sleep.
I buy the pad. I pay cash. The spicy quarter-pounder is warm in my hand, an omen of things to come. The clerk wishes me a most happy Christmas, and I return the favor. Blessed art thou, 7-11.
I go home, plug the pad in, lie down and begin writing this blog on my micro laptop. All is well with the world. I have left the spicy quarter-pounder in the car, where it is now congealing. This is probably meaningful. Merry Christmas, one and all.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Today the sun set one minute later than it did yesterday. This is progress. My favorite day of the year--the winter solstice on December 21--came and went with nary a whimper. The area is still digging itself out of the Great Blizzard of Aught Nine and my back is sore from moving a few tons of snow a few feet to the right or the left. I have been watching--and participating in--the mob scene at the local food store and scored two pounds of sauerkraut, which will make my Christmas meal complete. I saw two women have a heated argument over three little cups of Danon Vanilla Yogurt and one man grow apoplectic as the Muslim lady in front of him at the dely counter bought one each of all non-dairy and non-pork products.

My mailman has been a source of humor in his hip boots, my paper delivery guy less so as he flings my Washington Post into impossible-to-reach areas. But that's OK. I am in better than average good humor, considering the month; my shopping is done, my plans formulated, my season-to-be-jolly reasonable and amusing.

I am worried about a friend in a funk and concerned by unanswered emails. This is a bad time for folks without families, particularly for folks who think that by now they should have families of their own. Everything at Christmas screams gifts! children! joy! booze! food! laughter! letdown! The onslaught is relentless and erosive, a particularly nightmarish high familiar to addicts whose days are too often either manic or depressive. This year things are worse because of cabin fever. We are not used to snow, here in this Southern capital; we react poorly to the white stuff; we drive like fools, run into each other, curse, dent our vehicles, skid as if we're on olive oil, park and/or abandon our automobiles in emergency snow lanes.

But there are good things too. A day or two ago, I heard an insistent thumping coming from my kitchen stoop. I looked outside through a frost-rimmed window and saw nothing. The thumping continued, located, it seemed, in my trash can. A small raccoon was stuck there having practiced the dumpster dive but not the dumpster recovery. I helped him out by lowering a broomstick into the can; he grabbed it and I brought him to the stoop. He was totally unafraid, inquisitive, haughty and hungry. He sniffed my boots, decided against eating them, turned tail and vanished into the night.

Two days later a young buck with a barely nascent rack came into the yard. The snow was as high as its haunches and he seemed to float above it. There were rabbit and fox tracks all over the front lawn.

In my home it was warm and smelled of Earl Gray tea. My cat was happy. I wrapped stuff with candy-cane colored paper. I cleaned, washed, dusted, defragged my hard drive. I am extraordinarily lucky and have just about everything I need.

Happy solstice!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fall Sundays

There's always something sad about early December days. The fading light lets you know there'll be no reprieve from winter, and the warmth of a late afternoon is gone. You can't fool yourself that maybe, just maybe, an Indian summer is still imminent.

Night comes in the late afternoon. When that happens, life changes. I am not a good nocturnal. I am not sure how good a diurnal I am either. Maybe the trick is to live in the twilight.

I have had an excellent weekend: a good meeting on Saturday, chores completed in record time, good moments with best friends. Today, life is good. The writing is going well too; 160 pages into it and I can see the new book's shape even if I can't quite yet tell you how things will be resolved. At this point, resolution-literary resolution, that is-doesn't seem particularly important. What I need is some sort of personal resolution to tell me what I'm doing here and where I'm going. I seem to have lost that particular focus.

Fore the past few weeks I've been thinking of San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican mountains. A writer friend who's been there several times raves. It's cheaper, quieter, and the morning traffic doesn't thunder past as noisily as it does here. There's a large expat community and my lispy, French-accented Castillian Spanish just might be acceptable. I've checked out websites. Flights are easy and direct, rents a quarter of what they are here. There are daily AA and Al Anon meetings.

But still, still. Moving is such a monumental decision. I may decide to drive there and stay a couple of weeks. It's about 3,000 miles, a good distance for head-clearing. My favorite car, an aging Porsche 944 Turbo, is running like a top and it's tempting to travel as I used to decades ago: a knapsack, two pairs of jeans, four t-shirts. Buy two six-packs of jockey shorts and you're good for a couple of weeks. And I have an advantage now--I can travel drug-and liquor-free and not worry that whatever concoction is to be found in whatever country may kill me (this is not an idle worry. I was in Nepal many years ago and bought a bottle of Nepalese 'scotch' which smelled suspiciously like dry-cleaning fluid and tasted like low-octane gasoline. I was desperately ill for three days but did manage to finish the bottle.)

In exactly a week my favorite date of the year--the vernal equinox--will pass and the days will begin to lengthen again. Then we'll cross into January, and by February I will be able to make sane decisions (I traditionally make incompetent ones the last two months of the year) and give more serious thought to Mexico. Adios.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgivings Past

A friend once described that strange feeling you get when everyone’s gone home for the holidays and you’re the only one left on campus. It’s not quite loneliness; it’s more of a man-in-the-moon thing, somewhat like the cover of St. Exupery’s Little Prince. The planet gets smaller; you can see the curvature of the earth. The rain is wetter, the cold is colder and your feet never get warm.

We're entering the family season, a time for gustatory and financial excesses. More often than not, it’s all about remembering when you all last met like this, who was there and who wasn’t and what happened to everyone. Uncle Billy got drunk as always and passed out in the bathroom. The turkey was too moist, too dry, too large, too small. Old arguments are revived and long-term resentments dusted off. The Big Chill with tryptophan.

Many decades ago when my parents were still living in the States, when I was newly married in a condo in the Maryland suburbs, I fixed a whole Thanksgiving meal and stuffed the turkey with a mixture of sage, parsley, rosemary, a hint of basil, a touch of anise, a teaspoon of oregano, and a quarter ounce of top grade marijuana rendered to powder in the Cuisinart.

My parents loved the meal. Everyone was jolly including the other guests and all raved about the quality of the potatoes and rice. Even the Lipton ice tea and Gallo wine got compliments. In fact, my father said, he’d never had a meal that was so succulent, and in one sitting he ate more than most 70-year-old males do in three days. Desert--a variety of cakes and pies--vanished in instants.

My mother, I think, was wise to the ploy. She’d spent a lot of time in North Africa during World War II and was conversant in the mysteries of hashish. But still, she wasn’t sure and was too well-mannered to inquire.

I drove then back to their house in the evening and my father, a smile on his face, fell asleep in the back seat. My mother chattered like a squirrel, remembering meals from long ago. She got sad when she thought of all the acquaintances and family that had passed away in the last few years and she spoke about moving back to France to be with old friends in a walkable city. My father, too, would welcome the change. He loved Paris more than any place in the world, would spent entire days rubbernecking in the smaller streets, finding here a plaque honoring the American soldiers of World War I, there a small private museum that opened only three hours every other week.

The marijuana Thanksgiving was the last one we spent together. They went back to Europe, I stayed here. My marriage ended and for a half-dozen years after that I didn't celebrate T-day. Even now, many, many years later, I do not know if my parents knew of the tainted turkey.

That's my most memorable one.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death two years ago, Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post will not run it this year, so I will.

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pelerins ) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.

They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pelerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pelerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pelerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pelerins than Pelerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :

"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez tres vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui etes pain comme un etudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."

Although Jean was fit to be tied ( convenable a etre emballe ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow ( rendue muette par l'etonnement et la tristesse ).

At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Ou est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)

Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun a son gout. )

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fete and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Broken Pieces--Part 2

My forlorn friend came by last week on a leaden rainy day. The sky was low and dark; leaves littered the sidewalk like dead things. He sat in my living room sipping a cup of Earl Grey, staring at the vacant lot behind my yard. "No deer," he said. "Usually you see them this season. I wonder where they went?"
The deer had been there yesterday, munching my azaleas' branches. Their coats were shiny from the rain. When I went out back to chase them away, they levitated over my fence and vanished.
He said, "Lets go for a walk. It's not really cold. You can use the exercise."
We found a trail that ran along the Potomac River, climbed down an embankment and stood on the shore. We skipped stones for a while, he more skillfully, and we watched a large tree trunk float by and get caught on rocks. It created a small island in the rapidly moving waters. The river was high, eerily quiet.
"You know what I think?" he said.
I shook my head.
"I think she was trying to tell me good-bye from the moment we met. We broke up a half-a-dozen times and it was always her. Fark."
My friend is trying not to swear, and 'fark' has become a staple of his vocabulary.
"And then she'd come back and we'd have a few good days, and then she'd be gone again."
I shrugged. I'm trying to give up on giving advice. I've noticed how ready I am with easy and meaningless wisdom and realizing that such facile astutness is really just a lack of respect. There's nothing I can say to make my friend feel better.
His shoes are soaked, the bottoms of his jeans are wet and I notice he's not wearing socks. I bite back fatherly advice on dry clothing and pneumonia.
He says, "Lets go eat something." It's not a request.
He wants to go to a buffet. I hate buffets, but the one he mentions is nearby and cheap. We pay, fill our trays with a cornucopia of very cooked meats, fish, pasta and starch, boiled vegetables and salad. He picks at his food.
The place is a haven for the lonely, the old, the parentless, the fixed budgeters who eat once a day, the badly bewigged. He says, "There is not a single normal person here..."
It smells of rain and galoshes. The conversation is muted; I wonder what I'm doing here--I always overeat in places like this and feel terrible afterwards.
My friend gets three deserts and a cup of decaf. "Fark. I already bought her Christmas present. How stupid is that? Who the hell buys a Christmas present in October?"
"You were hoping to see her during the holidays. That's normal. You can probably return it, buy something nice for yourself."
Damn. I just gave advice. "Or something," I add.
He shrugs. "Yeah, I'll do that."
But he won't. He'll stuff it in the back of a closet and try to forget it's there, and one day he'll rediscover it and freshen the sadness.
"You through?"
I nod.
"Fark," he says. "Now I'm depressed and stuffed! I hate feeling like that! Why'd you let us come here?"
I shrug. No advice. "Seemed like a good idea at the time."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Broken Pieces

"There should be a time," says my forlorn friend, "when you heart doesn't break anymore. It should be like measles, or mumps. Past a certain age, you shouldn't have to concern yourself."

He fidgets with his cup of coffee, adds sugars, stirs, sips. "I mean, really, what's the point here? What is it I'm supposed to be learning? I feel like such an idiot."
No advice to give. He'll get over it but it will take time. The holidays are coming up and those are alreeady demanding, depressing enough without lost loves and useless questioning. "I mean really!" He balls up a napkin, lobs it towards the trashcan, misses.
The object of his affection has just told him that no, sorry, it's not going to work, she has other plans. He thought he was her plan.
"I should've known... Why didn't I know? Actually, I did know, but I didn't want to believe it so I pretended not to now. But I did, I really did. How stupid is that? How old do I have to be before I stop believing in fairy tales? This is ridiculous."
Well, yeah, probably it was. There's an old saying that when things look too good to be true, they probably are. In his case the romance had hit him between the eyes like a fast thrown baseball. Bonk!! He was done for.
"Oh fark. I'm thinking of moving, did I tell you? I'm tired of living here. It hasn't been very good the last few years."
I nod. Sometimes a geographical change is good for the soul. I ask, "Where to?" He looks into his coffee. "Damned if I know... Asia, maybe. I've always liked Thailand. Nice people there. Buddhists. Maybe if I were around more Buddhist I wouldn't act like such an idiot. Maybe have a better grasp on reality. Buddhists are smart, I've heard."
This may or may not make sense but now's not the time to discuss it. He doesn't look good. "You should get some sleep," I tell him. He shrugs. "Tried. Couldn't. Fark."
All I have is bumpersticker wisdom. He drains his cup of coffee, stands. "You around tomorrow?"
I nod yes.
"Maybe go for a hike, OK? I'll call you." He pulls his hat low over his eyes, makes ready to leave, pauses. "I can't even think of a good quote..."
Neither can I.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A New Motto

If the US is really to keep pace with the rest of the world, it's time to re-evaluate our national mottos, specifically the ones about the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Lets face it, the politicians and leadership of our last administration were guilty of frightening stupidity and cowardice, leaving us, as a friend says, in a fine pickle. People are losing their homes, unemployment is up, and financial institutions that were bailed out a scant few months ago using tax dollars are filing for Chapter 11 today. Home of the free? This nation has the highest per capita incarceration rate of any country in the developed world.

  • In 2007, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end -- 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults.

    State and federal prison authorities had jurisdiction over 1,610,584 prisoners at midyear 2008: 1,409,442 in state jurisdiction and 201,142 in federal jurisdiction.

    Local jails held 785,556 persons awaiting trial or serving a sentence at midyear 2008. An additional 72,852 persons under jail supervision were serving their sentence in the community.
  • So, time for a new motto. I suggest, "Bigger Is Better." Here's why.

    I live in Northern Virginia very close to Washington, DC. We have the third worst traffic situation in North America. Rush hour starts at 2 p.m. and goes both in and out of the Virginia suburbs. In recent times, the Tysons Corner area where I live has become one of the dotcom capitals, with tens of thousands driving to and parking their cars in one of the biggest unincorporated city in the country. We have minimal enforcement of existing High Occupancy Vehicle regulations; the cops stop cars when it's time to meet the ticket quota, but by and large the rules are ignored. One person, one car. Ten thousand folks, ten thousand cars. Because of the high traffic density, there is a constant need for road repairs, which further complicates the traffic patterns.

    Politicians are loathe to tackle such issues. In America, it's not only your home that's your castle, it's your car, too. There are essentially no real incentives for car-pooling, so we build more roads but wait: with more roads come more people. With more people comes a need for more schools, more housing, more parking lots and malls and other impermeable surfaces causing more run-offs and more pollution both to the air and to the waterways. Places that were never problematic are now prone to erosion, and on and on. Damages are repaired--or, more likely, cobbled temporarily--by using more taxes. This is one of those frightening vicious circle, which gets ever bigger, ever more expensive, ever more dangerous.

    Here's an idea: lets give people willing to run a car pool a free Kia van and gasoline vouchers. Lets give people willing to be in a carpool a tax break. Lets give employers who practice flex-time a break too. Lets give money to people who use their cars less than, say, 10,000 miles a year. Lets give people who use public transport a couple of extra paid days off a year, or remunerate them for their time and efforts.

    There are quite a few interests involved here--developers, road builders, construction suppliers, politicians--more than willing to keep building (Bigger Is Better) and essentially saddling the coming generations with problems we should be solving now. Maybe our kids will need to find a motto of their own, something along the line of, "Thanks for Nothing, Folk."

    Saturday, October 31, 2009

    My Friend Sisyphus

    Sisyphus has been living in my shower stall for about a week. He (or she but I will call him 'he' for the sake of convenience and to show my respect for females in general) ) is a Pentatomidae, which means five (pente) sections (tomos) beetle, known less generously as a stink bug. My understanding is that if I disturb Sisyphus, he may emit a pungent liquid related to cyanide, hence his name. Not that I plan to disturb him--he is hibernating and has caused me no harm so I see no reason for him not to share my home. If he last through the winter,which is doubtful, he will return to the great outdoors and begin doing what he is designed to do: suck plant juices and prey on other beetles.
    Sisyphus is the official bug of no state, save perhaps depression. He is terminally unattractive, a drab grayish-brown. He does not converse well and, for all I know, is probably as near-sighted as Mr. Magoo. Nevertheless, I admire his pluck.
    Sisyphus got his name when I first noticed him swirling around the shower drain. He was too big to fit through the drain holes, and his attempts to make it to safety reminded me of the original name-bearer of Greek legend, condemned in Tartarus to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill then watching it roll back down again.
    Sisyphus was founder and king of Corinth, known as the most cunning knave on earth. His greatest triumph came at the end of his life when Hades came to claim him personally for the kingdom of the dead. Hades had brought along a pair of handcuffs and Sisyphus expressed such an interest that Hades was persuaded to demonstrate their use--on himself.

    And so it was that the high lord of the Underworld was kept locked up in a closet at Sisyphus's house for many a day, a circumstance which meant nobody could die. A soldier might be chopped to bits in battle and still show up at camp for dinner. Finally Hades was released and Sisyphus was ordered summarily to report to the Underworld for his eternal assignment. But the he had another trick up his sleeve.

    He told his wife not to bury him and then complained to Persephone, Queen of the Dead, that he had not been accorded the proper funeral honors. What's more, as an unburied corpse he had no business on the far side of the river Styx at all--his wife hadn't placed a coin under his tongue to secure passage with Charon the ferryman. Surely her highness could see that Sisyphus must be given leave to journey back topside and put things right.

    Persephone, kind but not very smart, assented. Sisyphus made his way back to the sunshine, where he promptly forgot all about his funeral and lived on in dissipation for another few decades. But even this paramount trickster could only postpone the inevitable. Eventually he was hauled down to Hades, where his indiscretions caught up with him. For his crime against the gods he was condemned to an eternity of hard and frustrating labor rolling a great boulder to the top of a hill. Unfortunately, every time Sisyphus, by the greatest of exertion and toil, attained the summit, the thing rolled back down again.
    There's a moral there, but I haven't found it yet. Until I do, Sisyphus, old buddy, mi casa es tu casa.

    Thursday, October 29, 2009

    Haunted Houses and Streets

    All houses are haunted. As a matter of fact, I'd go so far as to say that all dwellings, streets and alleys are haunted--anything that has been or is inhabited has a palpable past, one that lingers in the walls and floorboards, in the closets and cellars we like to call our own. The pavements and cobblestones have seen loves and consummations, tragedies and miracles, illnesses, deaths, wounded spirits and heroic battles, all live within the same walls and spaces we occupy and walk. The past never really goes away, it simply shifts slightly and waits patiently just out of sight. History, a blink removed.

    This, I think, is why we're fascinated with old homes, antique furniture, books from yesterday or the day before. This is why we travel to cities with a past; we sense the lives led there, they touch us somehow; they serve to remind us that our time is limited, perhaps not as special as we like to think it is.

    I began thinking of this recently when driving through the upper Northwest section of Washington DC. The city, like Rome, has seven hills, and nowhere are these as distinctly marked as along Connecticut Avenue, a straight shot from the rich Maryland suburbs in the north to the White House in the south. The avenue, for a couple of decades, was mine. I knew every store, every restaurant, every crack in the sidewalks on both sides; I knew all the animals at the National Zoo, the movie schedules at the Uptown and the menu at the Roma where Frank Abbo, a noted hunter, decorated his restaurant with the stuffed trophies from his safaris. I had my first illegal beer at the Roma when it was the only restaurant open after a snowstorm and the waitresses were too harried to check a kid's ID.

    I knew Dupont Circle before the gays took over the neighborhood, back when Sophocles Pappas had a guitar store on the second floor above a cheesy nightclub. It was the only store that sold Fender electrics, Strats and Teles, and even if I couldn't afford one, I was there three days a week inspecting the merchandise and playing as much as allowed.

    I was downtown when the riots broke out in 1968 after Martin Luther King's assassination, and downtown again a scant 18 months after that for the Peace Moratorium that brought 250,000 anti-war protesters into the streets. I helped cover some of the demonstrations for the Washington Post and was almost killed by a DC cop who shoved his revolver into my mouth. Two years later, still working for that paper, I had the good fortune to see Watergate unfold and befriend some of the reporters who made the story happen and changed America--at least for a little while.

    When I had a job with insane hours, 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., I rode my motorcycle in the dead of winter nights on a deserted Rock Creek Parkway, once was handcuffed and briefly jailed for operating the very same motorcycle without a license. I've owned homes in the city, leased apartments and basements, slept on floors and on one or two occasions, outside. Every block has ghosts with names. There's something vaguely disconcerting and ultimately pleasing about this. On the eve of Halloween, I can say that the hauntings are good.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009

    Afternoon in the City

    Twice this week I've gone to Washington, DC. I don't live far from there--not even ten miles--but suburbia has a way of sucking you in and I can go months at a time without visiting.
    I've lived in and around Washington most of my life. I love the city, its colors and rhythms and neighborhoods. Most of the years I lived there---in Georgetown twice, Capitol Hill, Cleveland Park, Adams Morgan, and Chevy Chase--I did not own a car. I had motorcycles, bicycles, in-line skates. I rod the Metro and buses; the public transportation system if used only within the city, was not that intolerable. Mostly, I walked.

    Today, Washington was gorgeous, a splendid capital full of autumn reds, yellows, browns and tans, hues that made me nostalgic for a time when I had both far less and far more.

    The first place I lived in was half a floor of a Victorian townhouse on N Street. I rented from an elderly lady I called Mrs. Fuzzybee who was known to don a full mariner's yellow slicker when she hosed down her front stoop. I remember coming home from work one day to see Mrs. Fuzzybee frantically pacing the sidewalk. Her car was gone, she was sure it had been stolen! Would I mind riding my bike around the neighborhood looking for it? Of course I did, looking for a green 1957 Chevy. As I widened my search, it struck me as odd that in Georgetown, even then home of Mercedes and BMWs, someone would choose to rip off an old Chevy, but stranger things have happened, and the car was not to be found. I pedaled back to the house, knocked on the front door, told Mrs. Fuzzybee her car was indeed gone and it was time to call the police. She gave me an odd, unfocused look. "Car?" She said. "What car? I sold my car in 1962!" Then she slammed the door in my face.

    Georgetown was where I had my first brush with crime. A beautiful watch given to me by a girlfriend was stolen when someone broke into my place. The cops came, took one look at my hippy-length hair and suggested I not bother them again.

    I cooked on a hibachi set in the fireplace, smoked a lot of bad dope, played guitar incessantly and listened to the Moody Blues. It was a good life, lived on a salary of $87.50 a week.

    From there I went to Capitol Hill, a large house where a commune of sorts had been set up. On a daily basis, seven to 15 people lived there--an airline stewardess, a gorgeous black woman trying to break into modeling, two pot-smoking brothers who were never straight, a strange little man called Narji who wanted to be a cowboy, dressed in denim and boots and smelled of liniment, a young Jewish couple trying and failing to have an open marriage. Gallo wine was consumed by the gallon on a daily basis and I learned to fashion lamps from the large round bottles. I bought my first sportscar while living on the Hill, a grey Datsun 1200 that one day burst into flames as I was driving it on First Street NE. I rolled out of the car as fire licked the dashboard and there was a solid "whumpff" as the almost empty gas tank exploded. I lost my entire collection of 8-track tapes that day... But there again, innocent times and happy days.

    A couple of years ago when I thought I might move back onto town, a friend drove me around her neighborhood near 16th Street. Handsome row houses, some gentrified, others not. She pointed to a pockmarked wall--a drive-by had killed two drug dealers a week earlier. She'd heard the automatic fire, knew what it was, hardly paused. Her car had been broken into twice that year, and the rats in the backyard were as big as alley cats and a lot more aggressive. The potholes were cavernous, the streets a mess of double-parked cars and delivery trucks. I decided I would stay in suburbia.
    The house I bought for $28,000 in Adams Morgan in '71 and gave away after my first marriage failed recently sold for $2.5 million dollars. There are Zipcars now, and espresso carts, and chichi boutiques have replaced the bodegas. But the feel is the same, the city's soul hasn't changed. It's a different place, but I still miss it.

    Sunday, October 25, 2009

    Acceptance--Don't Leave Home Without It

    The title of this blog isn't mine; I picked it up this morning at an Al Anon meeting. For those of you who don't know about Al Anon, it's a 12-step program for the family and friends of alcoholics, practicing or not. And since almost everyone I know is an alcoholic or addict--mostly sober, mind you--I go to Al Anon to get my thinking straight.

    So here was the epiphanette of the day: acceptance , regardless of whether I have it or not, is not going to change what is or has occurred. Pretty simple, really, but it took years for that to make any sort of sense to me. More often than not, my acceptance is at best grudging and foul-tempered. I don't like things that don't go my way; I pout; I make faces; I argue; I do a remarkably accurate king-baby impersonation and finally, when it becomes painfully obvious that my attitude will not effect a change on the here-and-now, when I've been dragged kicking and screaming to a place of recognition, then, finally, I accept.

    But here's the thing: acceptance, I have learned, does not imply approval. It's not necessary for me to like what's going on. I'm perfectly and totally entitled to give an event the finger if I want; I just need to remember that whether the event is accepted with grace or bad will is completely beside the fact: the quality of my acceptance is not going to affect things either.

    So it's a good news/bad news thing; it translates to this: I may be powerless over pretty much everything, but I am not hopeless. I can try to guide my response to reach some sort of healthy reaction, i.e., one that will not harm me anymore than the outcome of the event that I resent already has. I can make the best of a bad situation, lemonade from lemons, yadda yadda.

    It bothers me when I get slapped across the face by the obvious.

    Here's another small revelation: acceptance does not mean becoming a victim, an all-too-easy path to take when the universe is down on me. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, shit happens. How I handle it, and how dirty I want my hands to get, is entirely up to me. The more I stir it up, the more it's likely to stink.

    That, at least, is an easy thing to remember.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009


    For the past several years I've been getting my hair cut every six weeks or so by a very nice Ethiopian woman. The challenge is to somehow dissimulate my growing bald spot without making it too obvious, and she does this well. I seldom have to wait, and the shampoo, haircut and conversation run me twenty dollars, which in these days of $400 jeans and $90 tank tops is a pretty good bargain. For a few days I can forget that the top of my head is essentially naked, shiny, and prey to the elements.
    In the time that I've known her, Beylanesh has dated, married and become the mother or a gorgeous baby boy. She is charming and petite, has a wonderful smile and likes to talk. Today, I realized for the first time that I never have had a good grasp of what she's talking about, and vice versa. Part of it is accents, part of it is culture, but a major reason for our lack of tangible process with the spoken word is that we have agreed to miscommunicate. It's easier that way.
    During our first few encounters, we spent the better part of the twenty or so minutes she works on me saying, "What?", "Excuse me?" or, "Sorry, I didn't get that." It took three sessions for me to understand that Ethiopian women often have names ending in 'nesh,' which means 'you are.' I love knowledge like that. Beylanesh, for her part, learned that I sell used cars. How she got to that knowledge is beyond my understanding, but I've grown comfortable with it. She asks how business is and I say it's not doing well. She nods and between snips comments, "It's the weather, the economy. Afghans are not buying camels in the summer months. Ronald Reagan." Or at least that's what I think she said. Today, she also told me that her mother barbecued the couch.
    Our misunderstandings are safe. Beylanesh probably goes home to her husband and tells him I tried to sell her a camel. Nothing will come of this, and it will affect neither of our lives. But what is it about communicating that has become so complicated and error prone?
    Just recently, a friend and I exchanged a phone call after a long silence, and both of us realized we had misinterpreted an earlier conversation, and that the misunderstanding had caused consternation and sadness. We made amends and we made peace, but some of the harm lingers. Did my friend really say that? And what, exactly, was meant by that choice of words?
    Something like 80 percent of communications is non-verbal, which explains all the misunderstandings originating with emails and phone calls. We really on body language, eye cast, the furrow of a brow or the set of a jaw to understand what is really being said to us, and while the friends whom I love deeply will know what is going on in my world without a need for words, most communications remain haphazard, as likely to fail as not. It's the nature of the beast. Words--unlike numbers that are set and definitive--at best convey only a semblance of what we are trying to put forth; they're often more enemy than friend, and I very much doubt any two people in the world speak exactly the same language. On occasion, I find a word in French will come closest to what I want to say, but if I'm talking to an English-speaker, this won't help much. It works the other way if I am in Europe.
    So what are we to do... Silence is an option I exercise on occasion; I travel from home and make it a point not to talk for several days. Not communicating on purpose has its advantages: you can't be misinterpreted if you have nothing to say. Or perhaps you can. As always, there are contradicting thoughts. Confucius called silence the true friend that never betrays. A few hundred years later, Francis Bacon said silence was the virtue of fools. Personally, I like Mark Twain best: It's better to keep my mouth closed and let people think I am a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

    Friday, October 16, 2009

    The Family Season

    Halloween marks the official beginning (for me) of the Silly Season, which lasts until March 2, the day after my birthday. Other people know it as 'family time,' and others still simply call it hell. These are the months--and the occasions--when families gather to celebrate various holidays that include, but are not limited to, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, Tet, Valentine's Day, MLK Day, President's day, Groundhog Day, the vernal equinox, and any number of private events including birthdays, anniversaries, and Superbowl Sunday.

    I'm not sure when I started harboring such a deep dislike and resentment for holidays. I remember in my 20s being the sole person left at Christmas in the house a mob of us rented on Capitol Hill, and getting desperately drunk at the Hawk and Dove. I also remember one Christmas when I was in my late teens getting a shoe-shine kit from my mom and dad, and to this day I wonder if this was an unsubtle hint of their expectations that I would end up on a street corner with a couple of cans of Kiwi brown and black and a brush.

    Last year, I holed up in my house with a couple of pounds of sushi and a Giant Food breast of turkey. I learned how to make yam French fries. I was persuaded to have lunch on Christmas day with an old friend at a Chinese restaurant, the only place we found open. The food was tragically bad and MSG-laden, and I ended up with a killer headache that lasted until the 27th. On New Year's I watched all three-or is it four--Alien movies. It somehow seemed apt.

    The first feature article I ever wrote and had published by the Washington Post was one on the rise of suicides during the Christmas holidays. Actually, it turned out to be an urban myth. Statistics failed to reveal what I hoped was a spike in such deaths and I found out people rarely did themselves in with their Christmas ties or the new kitchen knives from grandma. That, frankly, was a disappointment.

    I'm not sure what I'll do this year for those wretched four months. I'm taking suggestions.

    Thursday, October 15, 2009

    And Now, Some Advice from Bill Gates

    I'm not necessarily a huge fan of Bill Gates, and my respect for him plummeted when Microsoft created Windows Vista and had the bad taste of imposing it upon others.

    This being said, there's no doubt in my mind that Gates is a genius who single-handedly revolutionized almost every aspect of American life, and he must know something the average twit like myself does not. Maybe it's these eleven rules that he outlined during a recent speech he gave a speech at a High School. He described how feel-good, politically correct teachings has created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept has set them up for failure in the real world.

    So copy this blog and paste it on your children's door...

    Rule 1: Life is not fair - get used to it!

    Rule 2: The world doesn't care about your

    self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

    Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

    Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

    Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your Grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: they called it opportunity.

    Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

    Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you thought you were. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parent's generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

    Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life HAS NOT. In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as MANY TIMES as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

    Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time.

    Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

    Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

    Hmmm. I might even become a Friend of Bill.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009


    I've never considered myself particularly smart. I have a head full of largely useless information (what's a reluctant flyer ? Know about the divine proportion? Who is Исаак Озимов?) but I've never had the conventional smarts that make money, produce investments that work, or purchase properties that accrue in value. In fact, as I've stated in earlier blogs, my motto is "Buy high, sell low." I'm often good at starting projects but find it difficult to finish them. In fact, most of my initiatives have a pretty high burn-out rate. My ambitions have been relatively limited: I want to write, get read, and achieve a small measure of fame. So I don't think I'm dumb, far from it. What it is, I guess, is that there seems to be a curiosity there that is often unfocused, and happily so.

    What I find interesting seldom is to most people. The speed at which we process remembered information and segue from one thought to another, for example, has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. For what it's worth, according to Johns Hopkins University, the speed of thought is around 300 milliseconds, which is how long it took a volunteer to begin to understand a pictured object. Add to that another 250 to 450 milliseconds to fully comprehend what it was. Total speed of thought: between 550 and 750 milliseconds.

    More interesting, even, is how our minds (or at least mine) begin by pondering the recipe for Grandma's pineapple upside down cake and, in mere flashes of time, go through a series of steps and thoughts without our volition to end up contemplating whether the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds lyrics were drafted when John was stoned or indeed did have something to do with Julian Lennon's favorite schoolmate.

    How do we do this, and why? What possible reason can be found for this aimless leapfrogging of notions, one after the either, with no apparent rhyme or logic? Practitioners of kundalini yoga would tell you that thoughts freed of intellect represent the first step towards a liberation of the being. Buddhists might echo this in their own way with the concept of of 'mindfulness' which, if I understand it correctly (no guarantees there) is a very brief state of awareness that exists just before conceptualization. In other words, we enter this state before we focus our mnind on an issue or thing, before we objectify it and segregate it from the rest of existence.

    This, I think, is good. It does not necessarily lead to productive inspirations, useful notions or wisdom of any type. In fact, it may do the exact opposite by creating a small, formless universe where our brain gets a chance to rest, to have fun, to flex its muscles. Or perhaps it's just a sign that I am suffering from a pleasant form of Attention Deficit Disorder.

    There's a story told, possibly apocryphal, of Einstein and a physicist talking at a cocktail party. In the middle of their conversation, the physicist whips out a small notebook and scribbles a few words, then turns to the already famous scientists and says, "You really should carry a notebook as I do, Professor. I use it to note down good ideas I may have during the day." Einstein looks at his colleague sadly, shakes his head. "It wouldn't work for me," he replies, "in my entire life I've only had one or two good ideas ." So that's it. I'm like Einstein.

    Friday, October 9, 2009

    The Autotrain--The Return

    On the way back from Florida, there are only 151 passengers and 92 cars. One entire coach wagon is empty, and a lot of people opted for the sleepers which cost anywhere from $150 to $300 over the basic fare.I did that once, many years ago, and it was the only time I became genuinely seasick.

    Across the aisle from me is a Vin Diesel look-alike who instantly falls asleep, and three seats in front are two old codgers in full leathers. They're transporting their bikes back from a week-long reunion of old-codgers-on-bikes and I immediately have unkind thoughts. How do they have a good time, these Harley-riding seniors? Do they get high on Serutan? Destroy the Depend section at Wynn-Dixie? One, it turns out, is a retired Air Force mechanic, the other is a plumber. They built their own bikes from the ground up. Respect grows.

    The deal went through. My apartment is no longer mine. It was bought by a nice man, a father of four boys who came with his own father to the closing. Up until the moment of signing, Gramps pointed out my place's shortcomings and things that really should have been repaired. I am fortunate, my own real estate agent is there and, perhaps sensing the potential failure of this sale (he knows I have very mixed feelings) intercedes quietly. As documents are passed back and forth, the agents and the lawyer talk fishing, sharks, restaurants good and bad, the weather. When all is done, the agent pockets his check, shakes my hand, pats my back, and climbs into his Cadillac Escalade. Gramps tells me he will start tearing out the bathroom tomorrow, and has already called a truck to take the furniture to the dump. I have tears in my eyes and bite my tongue.

    I drove back to the place to get my luggage and the detritus of 20 years' vacationing. This is a turn-key sale, which means almost everything in the apartment--the pots and pans, silverware, towels, throw pillows, TVs and DVD players--everything stays. I had to negotiate to take the espresso machine. Now I wish I could leave some sort of Floridian booby trap under the bed, something that might explode and cover Gramps with aloe gel. Or better still, something alive and with claws.

    The three-hour drive to the Amtrak station in Sanford is uneventful, except that I have sprayed Hawaiian Gold SP4 in my left eye so I am tearing throughout the trip. Also, my Avanti's aged A/C is not up to the task of dealing with the noonday heat. I arrive soaked in sweat and with my left eye swollen shut. I resort to sticking my entire head under a faucet in the men's room, but in the interest of conservation, water comes out in two-second spurts. I am trying to wash my eye out when a voice says, "Wouldn't drink that, if I were you." There are no paper towels, and I will not suffer the shame of putting my hwead under the whooshing air dryer.

    At dinner, left eye almost back to normal, I am seated with three guys who at first talk baseball and then segue to Florida's ills. One of them is moving back to New York. There was an alligator in his front yard, a little thing really, not even four feet long, but it freaked out his girl friend and she gave an ultimatum: New York or no more pussy. His words, not mine. He'd miss his bungalow in Sarasota but was looking forward to being in a place with real seasons. "The sweating Santas got to me. And the Christmas lights on the palm trees, that ain't natural."

    I remember spending a Christmas in Florida once, and the man is right: the holiday is plain weird when celebrated in 70 degree weather. But still, still... I'm back in Virginia and last night it was in the upper 40s. There are things to look forward to. I do believe most events have a reason for occurring, and it is not within my ability to discern why. The only thing I know with certainty is that somehow I'll get back to Siesta. There's too much of me still there.

    Wednesday, October 7, 2009

    Siesta Key --Part 2

    There is, I swear to God, a bona fide reason why I am sitting in the soon-to-no-longer-be-my apartment at the beach eating a 7-11 Big Bite and potato salad from Publix, to be followed by a Rexall Drugs cherry pie.

    Originally, I had thought of driving to St. Armand on the next key to eat at El Colombiano, one of the oldest restaurants in Florida. They serve a steak to die for, and it seemed like a fitting place to say good-by. But the more I thought of it, the less appealing it became. Paying $70 to sit by myself didn't do it for me this time. I decided I did not need real silverware and linen napkins, preferred, actually, the belly-busters from the good people who brought us Big Bites, Big Gulps and Slurpees.

    Here's the thing: I am hoping the deal will not go through. I feel as if I am being wrenched from the womb. Maybe the buyer will change his mind, or his wife will run off with all his money and the community pool lifeguard. Maybe, at the very last minute, he will develop an allergy to fine, white sand or become unable to bathe in the high-salinity Gulf waters. Maybe he'll die.

    Maybe I'll skip the Rexall Drugs cherry pies. They sat in the back of the car in the sun for several hours as I took a long, slow drive around the islands. But then again the chemical and preservative content of these treats is probably so high they'll last well into the next millennium.

    When I first started coming to Florida, it was a different place. There were still snake and alligator farms. Dinosaurland on Interstate 75 was a lot tackier and more fun. Sarasota, now gentrified but once the wintering ground for circus folks, was woolly and lower class. Bradenton, just up the road a bit, is still that way. In fact, it's a favorite place for reality cop shows to film. There are bikers and burn-outs, trailer parks where they repossess the double-wides if you're one payment late, too many bars and strip joints and roadside motels and penny-ante drug deals gone bad.

    None of that stuff on Siesta. There's not a single fast-food place; the Siesta Village main drag is 80 yards long with three bars and live entertainment that ends at 11 p.m. because people need their sleep. The favorite meeting place for rambunctious teens is Big Olaf's Creamery. There's not a pinball machine or video game console to be found on the entire island. There is, however, one head shop that still sells paraphernalia from the '70s. It's not on the main drag and I have a feeling it may be on the payroll of the local police station. After all, if you keep the pyromaniac at the fire station, you'll always know where he is.

    Not much changes on the island from year to year. According to the Siesta Key Association, homesteaders began settling on “Sarasota Key” in the 1880's, but few remained long enough to establish claims. An exception was Capt. Louis Roberts and his wife, Ocean Hansen Roberts, for whom Ocean Boulevard, Roberts Road and Hansen Bayou are named. In 1906, Capt. Roberts enlarged his house and began calling it the Roberts Hotel. The following year he, along with Harry Higel and E.M. Arbogast, formed the Siesta Land Company. By 1946, the Key was still labeled “Sarasota Key” on government maps, but was called Siesta Key by the County.

    In late 1910, E.M. Arbogast began construction of the Bay Island Hotel on the north shore of the Key. Meanwhile, Harry Higel's dredge was busy not only digging the canals and filling low land, but also excavating shell deposits that could be used to surface the roads as they were built.

    Harry Higel was mayor of Sarasota in 1916 and saw the building of the first Siesta Key Bridge in 1917. The second bridge on Stickney Point Road was built by the County in 1926.

    As of the census of 2000, there were 7,150 people, 3,783 households, and 2,273 families residing there. The population density was 3,120.1 people per square mile. The racial makeup is shockingly white: 98.63% European American, and less than 1% African American, Native American, and Asian.

    The lack of change is actually one of the things that kept me coming there. I have my restaurants, swimming holes, snorkeling points. If I want greater variety, I drive five minutes to one of the great, ugly stretches of Americana--Tamiami Trail, Rte. 41. Every conceivable fast-food mutation is there, along with a couple of strip malls dating from the 50s. I want class, I go to St. Armand. I want crass, Bradenton.

    I think I've persuaded myself that I need to find another place there...

    Tuesday, October 6, 2009

    Siesta Key--Part 1

    I’ve been coming to Siesta Key for more than 25 years, and tonight will be the last one I spend as owner of a small and pretty apartment overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Like many people, the economy got me. I had to sell this place at contre-coeur, as the French would say. Much against my heart. Actually, this is not true. What I did wrong was not take care of business myself; instead I entrusted a battalion of brokers, bankers and lawyers to look after my investments and best interests. This was not wise. One broker, in particular, bled me dry over a couple of years and by the time I came to my senses, it was too late.

    Siesta Key, despite its hokey name, is lovely. Only a few hundred yards wide, it rests southeast of Sarasota between the Gulf and the Intercoastal Waterway. There are pelicans and egrets, wild parrots, willets, sandpipers and laughing gulls, mergansers, ospreys and sanderlings that run along the shoreline like panicked accountants. Black-necked stilts and double-crested cormorants fish here, and I once saw an anhinga. Small lizards are everywhere and manatees too, giant sea cows that swim around the mangroves; sharks, sting rays, dolphins and barracudas abound. One time, many years ago, I was neck deep in the water when something large bumped me twice, like a rude subway rider trying to beat me to the turnstile. I spoke to a local guy at an AA meeting about it and he said it was probably a nurse shark.

    In the early morning, I can see porpoise from my living from window. There have been less pleasant sights. In 1999 a large woman was taken by the riptide. She was so covered with suntan lotion that rescuers could not grab her. When she was finally wrestled to shore, the EMTs parked their ambulance beneath my window and tried to resuscitate her. They hit her with the electric paddles a dozen times before they gave up, and each time her body shook and quivered, but she was gone. It made the evening news.

    I’ve been through two hurricanes here, the first time drunk, the second sober. The latter was a lot more frightening. I was evacuated once, with the rest of the island. The winds reached 100 miles per hour and the rain was horizontal. The hardcore—people too stupid or inebriated to leave—weathered the storm inside Captain Jack’s restaurant and drank the bar dry. One guy who went to his car to get cigarettes was never seen again.

    Siesta is not a babe-magnet island. The men are mostly overweight and over sixty. The women are roughly the same. Only once did I see someone wearing a thong at the beach and, putting it as kindly as I can, she really should not have. Neither are there 350-pound German grandfathers wearing Speedos, a common and unfortunate occurrence on the beaches of the south of France. The young people of Siesta serve tables and wait on the old people. They work at the Daiquiri Deck, the fake-British pub, the pizzeria down the street, or they clerk at the local tourist stores. Last time I counted, Siesta had two cops, both on bicycles.

    The island appears to have gone through the financial crisis without too much damage. Both video rental stores are gone, as is the sole Japanese restaurant. On the mainland, thing are worse; every tenth store on Rte. 41, the Tamiami Trail, is shuttered. Restaurants, fast-food emporiums, mom-and-pop rental places, specialty stores, all have suffered greatly. The people still making money cater to the old and he dying. There are two cancer clinics, more chiropractors than a human has bones, innumerable vision and hearing aid dealerships, and, my personal favorite, a White Tower hamburger place that now advertises oxygen and wheelchairs. The National Cremation Society is on Rte. 41. And so, incidentally, is the porn movie house where a decade ago poor Pee Wee Herman was arrested for practicing self-abuse while seated in a dirty crushed velvet chair in the darkened theater.

    I love this place.

    Friday, October 2, 2009

    ది Autotrain

    On the Autotrain to Florida, the passengers emptied the complimentary snacks and fruit bins in the club car even before the steel wheels started rolling. At the beginning of the 16-hour trip from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford in Central Florida, elderly ladies broke out their cell phones and all said the same thing. “We’re on the train! Here! Talk to daddy.” Daddy confirmed they were indeed on the train, and the train was going to leave the station soon, and the car had been driven onto the carrier wagon and Mom had left her purse under the drivers’ seat and no amount of pleading with the conductor could get the purse back, so Mom did not have her Metamucil or Valium. It would be a long trip.

    I love the Autotrain, have ridden it at least a dozen times, but this trip is at best bittersweet. I’ve had to sell the apartment I’ve owned on Siesta Key and this will probably be the last time I ride the train.

    This evening, a foursome in the observation car is into its second bottle of wine, and the stories are getting louder—tales of trips to Mexico, to Montana, to the Bahamas on a cruise ship. These folks have skipped supper to entertain each other with anecdotes of monkeys, alligators, ganja-smoking Black servers in Montego Bay and guides in Yucatan who spoke a language unknown to man. They’re a happy group, the children are grown and settled and now, with responsibilities discharged, the four are off to do a little gambling in the Seminole-owned casinos off Alligator Alley.

    The movie tonight is Mall Cop, not a high favorite among the passengers. There’s a small TV screen at the far end of the wagon and speakers every three-or-so feet, so even if you don’t want to see the movie, you’ll get to hear it. Next to the TV is a sealed cubicles where four dour smokers aggressively practice their art.

    Dinner is fish or steak. I sit with a delightful Hungarian couple in their eighties who ask if I have any friends who are camp survivors. It takes me a moment to spot the blurry tattoo on the man’s arm. Oh. Those camps. I say no, I don’t, though both my parents were in the war. The man says, “So, you are not Jewish?”

    Once this is established the conversation wanders. They’ve never gone back to Hungary; they live in Palm Beach, have a cabin in the Poconos. Their children are grown and none of them speak Hungarian. But imagine this: two homes, eight months in the sun, four in the woods! Old people like themselves? Is this a great country or what? We agree, three immigrants, two generations. Yes, it sure is.

    The only serious drawback to taking the Autotrain is that I can never sleep there. The noise, the rocking wagon, the stentorian whistling snore of the man two seats down, the hissing and slamming of connecting doors, the never-silent train whistle… All conspire to keep me dozing fitfully so that at 2 a.m. I remain awake; my legs cramp, my feet are swollen and my shoes don’t fit. I join the other insomniacs in the observation lounge, and since it is still pitch black outside, there is nothing to observe but each other, which we do surreptitiously.

    But the passengers who do manage to sleep show how adaptive humans are to their environments. Large men pack themselves into tight spaces, feet and legs going every which way! Women become tiny mummies wrapped in blue Autotrain blankets. The repeat passengers are smart—they’ve brought their own bed things, leaving to the rest of us the marshmallow-size pillows supplied by Amtrak. These flatten like crepes upon contact with one’s head, and I have witnessed elderly passengers going from wagon to wagon collecting them. Eight marshmallows carefully arranged provide a modicum of comfort.

    By morning the wagons are beginning to smell a little farty. Maybe it was the fish. We left the loblolly pines of Virginia and when dawn breaks, it is over palm trees and yuccas. The 452 riders stir, find the dining cars and a rumor spreads—they’ve run out of bagels! No, they haven’t but the corn muffins are running low. I sit across from a very large young woman who folds a half a bagel into her mouth so that little streams of grape jelly escape from the corners of her lips. She smiles at mde, I smile back. We are now two hours from Sanford, where we will debark and wait for our cars to be unloaded. This is a crapshoot. One time, I was the second car off the train. On another trip, it took more than two hours to get on the road.

    The Hungarian couple looks remarkably fresh and rested. They have changed clothes, scrubbed their faces brushed their teeth. They smell like Colgate dentifrice. When their car—an older Lincoln Continental in mint condition—is driven to the waiting area by an attendant, the husband shakes my hand and the wife gives me a hug.

    My car appears moments later. It’s an older Avanti convertible that never fails to elicit questions. I answer a few (yes, Studebaker made them originally; they were designed by Raymond Loewy, it’s a Chevy 305 engine…) and drive off. It’s warm, muggy. I stop and put the top down. I’m going to miss the train the adventure, even the one night of sleeplessness. I really like it down here.