Saturday, May 30, 2009

Interment Aftermath

At Dale's funeral in the Presbyterian church, I sat behind a wide-shouldered, perfectly coiffed man who wore an expensive suit and a snow-white shirt. He was evenly tanned and sang the hymns on key in an elegant baritone. He did not weep during the service, as many did, and when he turned momentarily, I saw he had the type of movie star good looks women favor. I tried to figure out the relationship he had with my late friend, couldn't. In fact, it didn't matter, but that's where my mind goes during such services.

I have always believed that our essences, our souls, if you will, probably stick around a few days after death just to make sure things are done right.

When my dad died and was cremated, I decided to take his ashes back to France so they could be scattered with my mother's at Paris' Cimetière Père Lachaise (yes, that's where The Doors' Jim Morrison is most unfortunately buried.) I thought a fitting place for his remains to rest until the trip to Europe  might be the Buddhist temple I occasionally attend, which--Buddha has a sense of humor too--is next to a gun club's firing range near a Civil War battlefield.  I drove his ashes there, spoke with the monk who took them from me with a smile and placed them near the altar.  That night at home, I heard my father's voice, loud and clear, "Mais t'es fou! Are you crazy? What are they going to feed me here, rice and vegetables?  All they have is water and I hate rice!  You know that! What in the world were you thinking of?"

Understand now, my father was a bon vivant; he liked a glass of wine or two with his food, enjoyed his bread, butter and Camembert cheese, took his scotch and soda when the sun set. It had never occurred to me that he might prefer not to be in a place where food and drink were far more frugal than he was used to.

So that night over dinner in my kitchen, we discussed it, me and my late father, and agreed that he would spend no more than three days there. Seventy-two hours later, I drove his ashes back to my house. Until we left for Europe, they stayed in the closet where I keep my manuscripts. At least dad had something to read.

My friend Lisa  says that, "The thing about a funeral is, it's not just the one loss. It's every loss, every grief you have ever experienced. You to have sit there and listen to 'On Eagles Wings' in uncomfortable clothes and consider your own mortality as well. I also am always overwhelmed with a feeling of futility. Here is a long, productive, adventurous life. Now it's done. Really?  That's it?"

Maybe that's it, maybe not. I think both Dale and my friend Beth, whose funeral is a few hours from now, are still hovering about tending to the last details of their lives, and that's a wise idea. We, the living, have a tendency to muck things up when we are sad and mourning, so it's probably good to have some help from the ones we're honoring.

And now I promise not to write about funerals for awhile. There are more cheerful subjects at hand. And E, my good and kind friend in West Virginia who thought I was suicidally depressed and called the local police to look in one me--I'm OK. Promise. But thanks for caring. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two Funerals, No Wedding

Funerals, we know, are not for the deceased. Most faiths stress that as we shed our corporeal vessel, so too do we rid ourselves of our shortcomings and defects. Gone are envy, resentments, anger,  bitterness and bile. So the ones we mourn probably will not care whether we are in a place of worship to celebrate their passing, or fishing for catfish in the Severn River. He, or she, is above all this.

I will be attending two funeral services this week, one for Dale on Friday, the other for Beth the day after. Both were 12-step friends of many years' standing whose bearing, sobriety and behavior I admired. They passed on with grace and courage, refusing life support that would needlessly prolong their existences. They leave families, friends, memories of wisdom passed on.

I have been to a lot of funerals. The last of my parents' generation has vanished, and I was a pall-bearer more times than I can remember for war-time friends of my mother and father, people who had been there with them in Paris, Algiers and Tunis, members of the Free French and the Maquis, the French underground of World War II. Five years ago a sister died, and before that both parents. And there have been people of my generation as well, men and women who died prematurely, victims of illnesses and accidents, drugs, alcohol and carelessness.

I think a little part of the living vanishes with every death. We lose our families, our friends, the people we love and admire, and we are diminished. We are left a little lonelier, a little more bereft and a little less important with each passing. We get dressed for death, polish our shoes, bring out the suit we wear for marriages and interments and we become smaller in stature, for who are we if not the sum total of what others see in us?

Friedrich Nietzsche,  in Expeditions of an Untimely Man, wrote: "To die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.  Death of one's own free choice, death at the proper time, with a clear head and with joyfulness, consummated in the midst of children and witnesses:  so that an actual leave-taking is possible while he who is leaving is still there." 

And from Mark Twain, "All say, 'How hard it is that we have to die' - a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live. "

Good bye, my friends.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Two Weeks, Two Deaths

Dale died very early this morning at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, DC. It was a quiet event, according to his family, a transition from one state of being to another. He joined The Big Guy and it must have been a joyous encounter since Dale and TBG were on intimate terms. Dale humbly asked, and more often than not, TBG delivered.

Dale liked attractive blonds, and they, in turn, hovered around him like hummingbirds near a trumpet vine. He carried in his wallet a favorite photo of himself surrounded by five young and beautiful light-haired women and when asked why, after more than 20 years in the program he still attended ten AA meetings a week, he would pull out the photo and pass it around.  Nuff said.

Dale was a slow talker, sometimes infuriatingly so, and anyone who frequented the rooms for more than a year or three was bound to hear one of his two most moving stories. The first was about his family, which had led an unsuccessful intervention on him more than two decades earlier, and how his youngest daughter, when he turned away their help, had walked away, swearing she'd never see him again. The second was how, four years ago, he fell to his knees and recited the Serenity Prayer when he learned one of his daughters had died of an overdose.

It took him more than a decade of sobriety to get his family back, and he would tell you that if there was a single miracle that dominated his life, that was it.

Dale was a former college football quarterback, an inveterate Redskins fan, the owner of a ratty red sweater he wore eight months out of the year and that his family desperately wanted to burn, a history buff, and the only person I have ever met who routinely ordered a hot dog on a bun at restaurants.

He often parked his car spanning two spaces in the church parking lot. He touched hundreds of people in a kind and gentle way and I mourn his wisdom and his passing. We'll be the poorer without him.

Here's installment 90 of Wasted Miracles.
The ship was in Freeport, would sail the following afternoon on its last leg, a straight shot to New York. The travel agent Colin knew from AA said the trip would take about 48 hours. “It can hug the coast this time of year, do maybe 36 knots an hour,” the man said, pointing to a map on the wall of his office. “Now during winter, there’s too much current off Hatteras, right here; a ship gets caught off Cape Fear, well, it wasn’t named that without a good reason. Some 2,000 ships have foundered there at one time or another. So your boat would have to make a large loop,” he traced it with a finger, “go out to sea and come back in. That’s in winter. It takes longer. But right now? No storms, current’s nice and friendly. Two days at the outside.”


Mamadou would take one of the limos. He glanced once again at the scrap of paper found in the Zulu’s home. Clare Drake, Jennifer Jamieson, aboard the Isadora. The ship’s arrival date in New York, complete with pier number, were underlined. The Zulu had been thorough.

     With the limo, he’d be able to get close to the ship. No one would question his presence there, just another chauffeur holding up a sign bearing the names of his clients.


Perched on a stool at the bar in Dulles Airport nursing a Coke and nibbling on pretzels, Mollie once again chided herself for getting there far too early. It had set her back $22 to take a limo from downtown and she still had two hours to wait before boarding. It galled her that the limo hadn’t been a real limousine, which was what she’d been expecting. Instead, she rode in a cheesy gray van with tinted windows, sharing the middle seat with a thickly accented businessman from God-knew-where. He’d tried to make conversation in a thick guttural voice but she’d ignored him, and after a while he’d fallen silent, watching the traffic flow along the Dulles access road.

     She looked at the digital clock over the bar. Time to go. She gathered her carry-on bag and purse, double-checked to make sure the ticket was in the back pocket of her jeans. At the security check-in she placed the bag and purse on the conveyor belt and held her breath. She’d made sure to empty both the bag and purse of anything metallic. She stepped up to the metal detector. A bored security agent waved her through.

     In the plane she placed the carry-on beneath her seat as the card instructed, fastened her seat belt and closed here eyes. She hated flying. When the plane took off she held on to the armrests, promised God that if she got through this, she’d never do anything bad again.

     The flight went quickly. She ordered coffee twice, ate the dry-roasted peanuts, read the airline magazine. She wanted to check the carry-on, make sure all the money was still there, resisted the illogical impulse. Of course it was still there. And what if someone saw her? All those bills, fifties, twenties and tens. Three thousand four hundred and eighty two dollars. Less twenty-two for the limo ride.

     When the plane began its descent into Freeport, she forced herself to look outside. From that high up, there wasn’t much to see. The water did seem a shade bluer than she’d seen elsewhere though not as blue as on the TV ads. There were palm trees, just like in the South. As the plane made its final approach, she saw the harbor and the five cruise ships anchored there. She squinted, tried to make out names but couldn’t.

     She passed through the airport like any one of the thousands of tourists that came and left daily, a nondescript young woman in blue jeans and a University of Maryland Terrapins sweatshirt that was far too hot for the Bahamian weather that day.


Monday, May 25, 2009


My friend B died a few days ago; the cancer in her throat spread and took her almost two years to the day after she was initially diagnosed. I had known her for a decade-and-a-half, saw her almost every Sunday at an AA step meeting, and through the more than 600 encounters there, learned about her life, her struggles, losses and victories.

Beth was a good, average woman. She'd been wedded briefly with no children, and her husband was not the man she had thought she would marry. She had hoped against hope that the one she wanted--her high school sweetheart--would return to her but he never did. She was an administrative assistant in a big firm, a job she found suitably interesting. She had sick days, took vacation, traveled out of state to see family. Most of her life, B lived with other people--housemates, her sponsor for awhile, friends. A few months before the cancer was detected, she moved into a one bedroom by herself and often spoke about what a change this was, living alone. She wasn’t used to it and sometimes the noises that came with the night frightened her and she couldn’t sleep, so she read, paced, journaled.

BC (Before Cancer) and AD (After Diagnosis) showed marked differences, but not in the way one would expect. BC, she was another face in the crowd, attractive, with snow white hair that appeared in her thirties. AD, my friend found a source of inner strength that both flustered and amazed me. She spoke of her illness calmly, as if it were a distant and fractious cousin who had come to visit and stayed. She went through chemotherapy and radiation and for a brief time the doctors thought she might be saved.  The cancer in her throat seemed to go away, but months later it reappeared, bigger and more virulent. 

Acceptance was far from immediate, yet she seemed to work through Kublër-Ross’ grief cycle quickly.  Her shock, denial, anger and bargaining vanished in a matter of weeks.  For a while she was deeply depressed, and we had a couple of conversations where, for once, I had no advice to give. The testing stage, the seeking of realistic solutions to her problem, saw her go through all the usual peregrinations of the terminally ill. She read voraciously, toyed with the idea of trying alternative therapies, joined support groups, changed her diet, and then, when she faced the inevitable, a remarkable change came over her. She became calm, spoke with radiant authority; she glowed.

Another friend, an older man I have known for about five years, is now in the same situation. D is short, round, and I have never once seen him not wrapped in a red golf sweater. His pancreatic cancer, initially thought by his physicians to be operable, is not. D always spoke of the Big Guy, his higher power whom he trusts implicitly. The Big Guy saw him through the death of a daughter and more recently, of his wife, and now D gazes upon his own future with a degree of calm curiosity. He credits his quiet acceptance to 24 years in the program.

There are no great conclusions to be found here. People live and they die, and whatever your beliefs on the afterlife or lack thereof, the good folks leave something behind. My friends have, and I’m a better person for having known them.

Here is installment 89 of Wasted Miracles.

Comfort spent two days in the efficiency apartment taking stock of his situation. The Zulu was dead, as where the two hired thugs. Obviously, the girl had not perished in the blaze. Comfort had watched the early and late news each night on his black and white set, he had purchased the Washington Post and Washington Times. Nowhere was there a report of a female body found in the burnt out house. He wondered if that had been the intent of the raid: to rescue the girl. He wondered to whom the blonde addict could have been so important. Addicts seldom were.

     Obviously the man he had fought with in the yard had been a policeman. And the policeman had died. Comfort felt no responsibility for this particular death; the man had a gun, they’d struggled, shots had been fired but he, Comfort, had not pulled the trigger. His recollection of the fight was hazy, dreamlike. It had been over so quickly, not even a blink-of-the-eye moment. Death, he knew, came to many just that way.

     It worried him that it had been a policeman because he knew the death would lead to a much greater investigation than would the death of almost anyone else. Policemen were the same all over the world--the murder of one brought out the fury of their brotherhood. But it had been dark, there’d been no witnesses—none, at least, who would cooperate with the authorities. And if one did, what of it? What had made Comfort the excellent acolyte was his total anonymity. He was a faceless black man in a city of faceless black men.

     Still, during the two days, he’d come to one basic conclusion. It was time to leave, to go home to Nigeria and live the life he’d been preparing for.

     There was really nothing in the apartment worth keeping save the gray pinstripe suit the Zulu had bought him in a rare fit of generosity. He’d never worn the suit, it hung in his closet in the original Hecht Company garment bag. There was also a pair of soft black leather shoes Comfort had purchased for himself for no other reason than he’d never had such shoes. A few shirts, socks, some underwear, that was it. He made a small pile of the clothes he would wear during the trip and packed the rest in a Wal-Mart suitcase. Traveling overseas without luggage might arouse suspicions.

     He spent the next day going to the twelve separate banks where he had accounts and withdrew one quarters of what he had in each. He asked that two-thirds of what remained be wired to the Banque Nationale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Not a single teller seemed interested in the transaction except for a Nigerian woman at First National  in Tyson’s Corner. She’d smiled at him, asked, “Going home?” He’d lied and said no, unfortunately Nigeria was no place to call home these days. She’d clucked, shaken her head and agreed.

     It pained him to leave the rest of the money behind but that had always been his intention. Closing out all the accounts might also arouse suspicions.

     When he added up all the money, he found he’d underestimated the sum by $182. He’d forgotten to tabulate the interest earned in a month. That seemed like a good omen.


In her bright blue turban that matched the bedspread, her hands folded above the covers and a half-glass of dark red wine on the night table next to her, Aunt Mim looked a like a dark primitive painting.

     She said, “A lot of people in the neighborhood are calling me that dwa-yen word. I just don’ know how that got around.” She shot the elderly George a suspicious look which George ignored. Mamadou noticed that today Aunt Mim’s paramour was reading a hardback version of Grey’s Anatomy. He pored over the words with an old-fashioned magnifying glass.

     “Man refuses to wear glasses,” Aunt Mim chided. “Whatcha gonna do? I tell him, ‘Pride goeth before the fall,’ but he don’t listen to me. Never did.”

     George looked up briefly, said, “Glasses, huh?” and returned to his reading.

     Aunt Mim reached over, found her wineglass, took a dainty sip before returning her attention to Mamadou. “So you got that white child out? “

     Mamadou poured himself a little wine, drank two swallows. “Yes. She’ll be all right--as all right as any addict can be, in any case.”

     “Lotsa death, though,” Aunt Mim sipped again.

     “The Zulu. Two of his men.”

     “And the white policeman.”

     Mamadou nodded. “And the white policeman.” There was a note of resignation in his voice.

     “Bad business,” Aunt Mim intoned.


     “Lucky for you, nobody saw anythin’.”

     Mamadou looked up. Aunt Mim met his eyes. “Don’t worry yourself. That nice neighbor lady, she’s a friend of mine, her name’s Mrs. Thornton. Bethany Thornton. Got seventeen real nice grand-children. Imagine that, seventeen.” She paused sipped, continued. “She told me, soon as things started happenin’, she went down to her kitchen--it’s in the back of the house, on the other side--and started makin’ pancakes and bacon and eggs. All that fryin’ sound, she didn’t hear nothin’. Fire worried her, though. She was afraid her own house might burn down.”

     George looked up. “She didn’t have a thing to worry about. Her house is on the east. The wind was from the northwest. She wasn’t in any danger at all.”

     Aunt Mim shook her head, annoyed. “Hush up, George. Wasn’t talking to you. Why you always gotta know everythin’, anyway?”

     “That’s what the weather channels said. Both of them,” George persisted.

     Aunt Mim ignored him.

     “One man got away,” Mamadou said. “The man who shot the white policeman.”

     “That so? Does it matter?”

     Mamadou took a second to think. “No. I guess it doesn’t. The Zulu’s gone. He was the one. The last one. Amelie--”

     “Your sister, she can rest in peace now.”

     George looked up, nodded, resumed his reading. Aunt Mim lit a Vantage cigarette, made a face. The smoke hung in the room like hazy curtains. “These things got no taste at all. None.”

     George shook his head. “Doctor said for you to stop altogether. Said your lungs probably look like smoked hams.”

     Aunt Mim snorted. “Doctor? I put that boy through school, look what he does to me? I don’t have that many pleasures left in life.” She stubbed the cigarette out in a crowded ashtray. “Anyhow. That’s it. It’s over, ain’t it?”

     Mamadou drank the rest of his glass in one swallow. “Just about, Aunt Mim. Just about.”


Monday, May 18, 2009

Cooking for One

When I was a kid in Paris, my parents would occasionally ask the one-floor-up neighbor at 3, rue de la Terrasse, to babysit me.   These were rare occasions that I always enjoyed, since Madame Yelena Sokolov's apartment was far more interesting than the one I lived in, and she always addressed me as Jeune (young) Monsieur Thierry.

Mme. Sokolov was the daughter of a White Russian refugee, and she claimed a direct if confusing link to Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, the last tsar of Russia.

Mme. Sokolov smelled of lavender. Her white hair was always up in a tight bun, she had high cheekbones and, in her youth, must have been stunning. My father occasionally flirted with her--or tried to. She was not particularly amenable and, in retrospect, it is clear she thought my family was one step up from barefooted serfdom.

Mme. Sokolov fixed herself three complete meals each day and never ate leftovers. Sometimes, when I was in her apartment, she would set the table for one with two forks, two knives, three glasses and two linen napkins--one for the main course and one for desert, which was usually sherbet in a silver cup. I was never invited to sit at her table. I had a special small chair, and was given a tray to balance on my knees, which I did fearfully. She served me minute amounts of her own minute servings. I remember veal in a sweetly bitter sauce, fish so white it dazzled the eye, tiny potatoes no bigger than grapes. Everything she cooked, she consumed. When she ate, it was with both hands on the table, holding a fork with the tines pointed downward, and a small, very sharp knife. Her back was absolutely straight, and if mine was not, she would mutter, "Le dos, Jeune Monsieur Thierry. Le dos."

I remember thinking it must be very sad to always cook for one's self.

Now I do it two or three times a week, sometimes sadly, other times not. I seldom set the table, though I always sit and think eating while standing is a crime of taste. My cooking repertoire is rather limited. I make a good Salade Niçoise and decent shepherd's pie. My ratatouille is famous. I occasionally bake, more often grill, and on rare occasions invite people to my home to eat.
I recently told a young friend--a lovely mother of two and accomplished businesswoman--of Madame Sokolov's lonely culinary exploits, and where I had seen aloneness, my friend instead saw a wonderful expression and reward of the self. She may be right.  Madame Sokolov never once evinced the slightest hint of melancholy. She was proud, kind in a manner that no longer exists, self-contained, her manners impeccable. She had an elegance that brooked no nonsense and the manners of an exiled princess which, for all I know, is precisely what she was.

I have no idea what became of Madame Sokolov.  Her name, it turns out, is among the most common in Russia. It is cited in a 1920's book titled "The Last Days of the Romanovs." Grigori Sokolov is a celebrated pianist.  Alexander Sokolov is a champion armwrestler. Authors, painters, and several families in Minnesota also bear the name. I doubt her history will ever be known. But I think of her teaching manners to a small child of another culture,  cooking alone in a minuscule kitchen, among the last of her class and bearing, a proud survivor of the Russian revolution. I hope she was celebrating herself.

Here's installment 88 of Wasted Miracles.

The grocery cart had a gimpy wheel and kept pulling to the left. Every few steps, Colin picked up its back end and straightened it out. They were in the houseware aisle and Catherine was selecting cleaning products. She dropped a large orange box of Tide in the basket, said, “Well, I did it.”

     “The separation?”

     “Went to see a lawyer two days ago, he drafted the papers. Lars wasn’t even surprised. Said he was expecting it. Got down to business right away--what did I want, how much for how long, that sort of thing.”

     “That was quick.”

     “I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. The thing with Josie, well, that was the deciding factor. The fact that Lars really  didn’t care. I used to think maybe it was because he didn’t like to show emotions, kept things in, but the truth of the matter is, he didn’t--doesn’t--give a damn.”

     Colin lifted the cart’s back end, set it straight. “So what now?”

     “He keeps the house, which is just as well. It’s a mausoleum. He said he wants to entertain more anyway,” she raised her eyebrows, “which struck me as kind of strange for Lars, who’s not a big people person, but that’s not my problem. I’m sure he won’t have any difficulties finding hostesses.” There was only a trace of bitterness in her voice.

     She selected Windex, Comet and Dove soap, flirted with a box of Brillo, returned it to its shelf. “We haven’t worked out the financial details, but I’m sure it’ll be satisfactory. I gave him a ballpark figure and he didn’t even blink. He didn’t mention Josie until I did, and his concern was future college tuition, so that’ll be taken care of too.”

     Colin said, “Shared custody?”

     Catherine shook her head. “Nope, All mine.”

     She scooped up a carton of Light Days, said, “You know what else I did? Went to Supercrown, the bookstore in McLean. They had a help wanted sign in the window. I talked to the manager, and I got an application form.”

     “I didn’t know you liked books.”

     She gave him a sidelong glance. “Lots of stuff you don’t know.”

     They went to the fish section and Catherine picked up a salmon steak. “Here. Buy this. They’re easy to cook--I’ll show you how--and good for you.”

     He accepted the fish. “Have you told her yet?”

     “No. I’m not sure whether I want to wait or not. Maybe I should find a  place for us first. There are a couple of buildings I like--I want to rent an apartment, a house would be too much--and I have to price them. It’s kind of exciting, actually. Two women on our own. What do you think, about telling her?”

     “I don’t think it’ll surprise her much either.”

     As they filled the cart, the wheel began to squeal. Catherine said, “This is silly.” She went to the checkout, selected another cart, transferred the groceries. “Yeah, that’s true. We didn’t hide much from her, me and Lars. Never tried to. She’s a smart kid in spite of everything. She’s known things haven’t been going right for years.” She stopped, moved in front of the cart, blocking its way. “Here’s a question, Colin, an important one. Your answer won’t make much of a difference, I’m going to get the divorce regardless, but I’m curious. I’m going to have a lot of free time. Am I going to see you more?”

     It took him by surprise, the shift. He paused before answering and saw in her eyes that it would make a difference. He said, “Yes, yeah. You will.”

     She smiled and took his arm. “I wasn’t sure. We’re still going to have to work a bunch of things out. But I’m glad. It’s a good thing.”


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Three Cs.

The readers of this blog--all three of them--have each, individually, said my outlook on life is a tad on the down side.  They used the three Cs, and not the program ones about cause, cure and control. One called me crusty, the other crotchety, the third curmudgeonly--the perfect Rooneyesque trifacta. 

Personally, I feel that even if I am no Erma Bombeck full of love, cheer and rosy expectations, neither do I have both feet planted in the dark side. I am merely a bit... soured by recent events, admittedly mostly financial. I am resentful of the anonymous brokers/bankers who stole my retirement double-wide by placing my savings in crappy investment vehicles, and then told me they'd really done the best they could. I couldn't fail but notice my former money guy's Jaguar collection is still in his garage, and the sailboat he keeps in Siesta Key has a fresh jib and spinnaker.

This being said, I here and now promise to make an effort. I will not write about my cat, nor my cars, nor my collections of various and sundry artifacts illustrating a life. But I will attest to the fact that I treasure my friends; they bring me joy, succor, and strength. They make me laugh, challenge me when necessary and sometimes when it's not. Over the last few years I have winnowed away the people who take without giving, and now I am left with a stalwart platoon of men and women for whom I have the deepest love and admiration. 

I value my serenity which, though far from Zen-like, has given my life value and a certain amount of meaning. I can now tolerate reject slips from publishers who cannot dedicate 10 minutes to something that took me 10 years to create. Not that long ago, I would have agonized over their words and felt their lack of interest was in fact a damning denial of my talents. I don't do that anymore. And I don't panic, I plan. 

Increasingly, I've come to depend on the philosophies espoused by 12-step programs. Yes, I am powerless over a titanically large number of people, places and things. But I am not helpless, I have an endless choice of possible actions I can take in any given situation. The right choice is never assured, and in light of this I have realized the importance of taking responsibility for what I do. Or, as a friend once said, "If it rains I can take an umbrella, and if I poke some guy's eye out while opening it, that's my fault, not the rain's."  Not the strongest of analogy, but it makes the point.

I like the UFC. That's the Ultimate Fighting Championship, for those of you not in the loop. As a dedicated pacifist, I find I can channel a lot of my aggression into watching a couple of athletes beat the crap out of each other in a chain-link-fenced octagonal ring. As a former martial arts guy, I can appreciate some of the moves. As a man who dislikes pain, I can be thankful for the fact that it is not me in the ring. 

I've discovered I like to drink a mixture of one-third Lipton decaf ice tea and two-thirds Pellegrino. 

I've planted yellow peppers for someone who likes them and this had made me happy.

Here's installment 87 of Wasted Miracles. 

As on every other ship belonging to a major cruise line, women passengers--mostly single, widowed or divorced--outnumbered the males by an uncomfortable margin. To correct this disparity, the ship employed a dozen or so males--the Gray Panthers--ranging in age from their late 50s to early 70s. These men--always presentable, good manners, above average conversationalists capable of playing a decent hand of bridge and dancing the fox-trot, tango and rumba--traveled free of charge. They neither smoked nor drank overly much and were expected to devote their time to entertaining--quite properly, for the most part--clients of the opposite sex.  If a shipboard romance thrived, so be it. It was not the Captain’s duty to enforce morals among his passengers. It was, however, his responsibility to see that the Gray Panthers behaved in a fashion befitting his ship’s good name. Dealing cocaine, even in minute amounts, was an unforgivable offense.

“Castro saw Robinson do this?”

The mistress shook her head. “Not exactly. First he saw a passenger giving Professor Robinson some bills. He thought this was odd and a couple of days later witnessed the same thing again, this time with another passenger. And yesterday evening, three men asked him whether Robinson was around. The Professor apparently spends a lot of time in Castro’s bar. Later that night, one of the men had too much to drink and spilled a drink on himself. He emptied his pockets, dumped everything on the bar and Castro thought he saw a small plastic bag with some white powder in it. Obviously, it could have been anything but he said the man snatched it back and walked away--or staggered--very quickly.”

The Captain carefully replaced the cap on his Mont Blanc fountain pen, blotted the latest entry, closed the logbook and placed it on the shelf above his desk. “That’s all?”

His mistress nodded.

The Captain sighed. According to Interpol, virtually every cruise ship asail carried between 20 and 200 pounds of illegal drugs at any given moment. Even senior citizens were not above making a few thousand dollars by shepherding caches of drugs--usually not more than a pound or two--from one port to another. The smugglers were often  women in their 60s who had been on cruises at least once before. They were rarely caught.

The Captain sighed again, rubbed his forehead. “Have Professor Robinson’s cabin searched. If you find anything, have one of the men bring him to me.”


Sunday, May 10, 2009


I am, and have been for the last decade, an orphan. This is a term rarely applied to adults; it has Dickensian overtones and lives in James Michener's home for the poor in Pennsylvania, or John Irving's Cider House. It smacks of tragedy and abuse, and yet it is the fate of most  humans.

A true orphan lacks not just mother and father but family as a whole. An abundance of siblings who are alive and well waters orphancy down. So does an excess of money. Orphans, ideally, are small, pale, have runny noses and worn shoes. They exist on the edge of society and are taken care of by draconian trustees who are in it for the bucks and perversions.

But in real life, most orphans have jobs and wives or husbands, children, friends. The fact that they have lost both parents is not, in the word of Oscar Wilde, carelessness. We outlive our parents and not much thought is given to the effect this may have on a grown adult. Personally, I think it's a staggering change in one's life.

For many, many years, I have believed that you cannot be truly free until your parents die--not a popular opinion, I assure you. But I think it's only then  that we can fully seek a life of our own without fear of reproach, criticism, disappointment or judgement. Most of us are so imbued with our own parents' expectations that any major decision to be made contains a strain of, "What will mom and dad think?" Often, this alone will sway our choices--we want to be what they wanted us to be, regardless of our own age and desires.  

More and more, as the elderly live increasingly long lives, we find ourselves taking care of them and--still fearful of their opinions--delaying our own dreams. What happens to a 60-year-old with 90-year-old parents? Sandwiched between having to work and raise children and, once this is done, assuming responsibility for elderly parents, he or she finds that the time to realize one's own expectations has suddenly vanished. 

When my mother died in France some 17 years ago, I brought my father to the US. Being raised in the UK and having spent many years here, he largely led his own life--until his Alzheimer's became increasingly pronounced. 

When this occurred, my life went on hold. There were midnight calls; his thoughts were such that he would often wake in the night confused and terrified. Once, while on vacation, I received a phone message telling me he had gotten involved in an altercation and was going to be evicted from his apartment in his retirement community. I drove 1000 miles in a day to find him strapped in a hospital bed; this bright, intelligent man had overstepped the bounds of what is allowed for the elderly and been relegated to the role of raving lunatic in a second-rate clinic.

For a while, every decision I made had him at the forefront. When he died following a fall from a window in an assisted living  facility, I was horrified, guilty, relieved. The last emotion was the hardest to accept. I carried his ashes back to France and let them go where those of my mother lay in Paris'  Père Lachaise cemetery. Only then--and now an orphan--did I feel I could resume my own life.

Here's installment 86 of Wasted Miracles.

Chapter 21

Captain Roderick Stuart’s mistress said, “I think we may be having a minor problem with one of the Gray Panthers?”

The captain’s eyebrows rose slightly. He was entering the events of the past 24 hours in the day’s log. He did this by hand at the same time every evening, shunning the computer  recently installed in his cabin. At the end of this trip, he would personally deliver the log to the company archives and accompany the records officer to make sure the volume was placed where it should be, on the shelf bearing his own name engraved on a small brass plaque.

“Or maybe not so minor,” his mistress continued. “It depends.”

“On?” The captain did not turn around, continued writing in the even hand he had learned in public school and developed over years at sea.

“On whether this particular gentleman is actually doing what one of the bartender suspects, which is selling small quantities of what seems to be cocaine to some of the younger passengers.”

“Which bartender?”

Julio Castro.”

The Captain paused, thought for a moment. He knew the name of each member of his crew as well as the number of years spent in the service of the Royal Scottish Line. Finally, he nodded.

“Castro. Won an award two years ago, saved the life of a passenger, applied CPR.”

“That’s the one.”

“Good man. And the Panther?”

“Earl Thorogood Robinson. Seventy-one. First trip.”

The Captain once again thought for a moment. “American, from Georgia or somesuch. Tall man. Full head of hair, military mustache?”

“Former professor, Renaissance Literature. Very popular with the ladies; his dancecard his full every evening.”