Thursday, August 27, 2009

Belief Systems

Here is what I think may happen during the next go round. I will reach the pearly gates (or sandalwood entrance) and whoever is there will say, "You know, Mr. Sagnier, your entire belief system is crap. And worse, it's crap you tried to make look good to others. The fact that on very rare occasions you succeeded in doing so is not to your credit. So we are putting you in a special place, along with all the other folks who thought spreading their pointless opinions was necessary."

I will remonstrate to no avail.

"Be quiet," the gatekeeper will say. "You had nothing to say then and you have nothing to say now. So go and stand with the other guys who have duct tape on their mouths. We'll let you know when to take the tape off."

"How long will---"

"A couple of million years should teach you silence. Now go. You're beginning to bore us. We'll be in touch later."

And so for a very long time, I will be in the company of people who have strong opinions about the toilet paper roll facing in or out, GM being better than Ford, the moon landing being a hoax, that Elvis is alive and that there were three shooters on the grassy knoll. This probably won't be a lof fun.

But it makes me wonder about modern religion. Take Mormons, for example. Lets say Grampa is in Holy Roller heaven, which he has earned by living a good healthy life. Now he's allowed to drink, smoke and carry on, unaware that his grandson has become a Latter Day Saint, and that this particular religion allows for post-death baptism of relatives into the Mormon faith. So grandson decides he will baptize Grampa and shazam! Grampa in now in Mormon heaven, which is like a Hilton in Peoria without room service. That doesn't sound fair, or fun either.

That's the problem with the afterlife--it's so uncertain. The Catholics, of course, figured this out very early and found that keeping the faithful guessing is keeping the faithful in line. Because really, short of being a martyr for the church, there are very few garanteed ways to get to heaven, though there's no dearth of ways of going to hell. It's pretty much the same for Islam; the endless supply of virgins for the sacrificial victims (male only, please) is a novel way of getting a young man's atttention--if you like virgins, that is. Do martyrized Islamic women get virgins too?

It reminds of the cargo cult. You might recall that during World War II, the Allies brought food, medicine and other supplies to previously isolated islands in the Pacific. Natives of these islands were distraught when the Allies left and the cargo vanished, and in noting the events that had occurred prior to its arrival assumed they had caused the cargo to drop from the sky. So in an attempt to bring back the supplies, the islanders created structures that visually resembled control towers, carved headphones out of wood and made large-scale model airplanes.

We do it slightly differently. We try to please our gods by behaving in god-like manners and building edifices that we think might resemble heaven. Then we wait for the good stuff--our cargo reward, as it were. It worked in the past--just read the Bible.

Thoughts like these are not likely to land me in a good place, so what I am hoping is that god has a sense of humor (if you want to prove god has a sense of humor, tell him your plans) and that I can sneak past while he is laughing.

Unfortunately, most of my jokes are stale, and the rest aren't that funny.

I think I'm screwed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You Should Read This

This is a blog written by a friend. You should read it. It goes to the heart of what many feel and very few can express. Good work, GQ...

Monday, August 24, 2009

According to Mr. Doyle...

Arthur Conan Doyle, through his creation Sherlock Holmes, put forth the theory that a man's (or a woman's) memory is limited. We have only so many little cubby holes to fill in a lifetime, and when all those are occupied by images from the past, we can make room for more only by emptying full cubbies. When he reached his late 60s, Doyle became even more convinced regarding the validity of his belief. He could remember the long ago past of his youth but not last week's events. The cubbyholes, he thought, were overflowing with memories and he could not empty them quickly enough to accommodate the present.

In Victorian England, it was common knowledge that a man could only have so many ejaculations in a lifetime. These nature-driven limits encouraged men-about-town to carry small notebooks so they could document their encounters, and the general consensus was that a male could hope for between 7,000 and 9,000 orgasms in his life. Following this, he would become inured to the baser pleasures.

Nowadays, I wonder if indeed there are limits not to memory or sexual events but rather to emotions. Do we, can we, after a certain amount of time, become no longer capable of dealing with love or hate, acceptance or denial, kindness or cruelty? Or are we designed to repeat emotions, regardless of the passion or pain they might engender?

This topic comes up because I recently had lunch with a friend whose life, in the last year, has been a series of brutal events--deaths, illnesses, a tax audit, financial setbacks, separation and imminent divorce. We were at a local coffee shop; she sat across from me toying with a cranberry muffin and said, "I don't think I have the capacity to feel anymore."

So we talked about that, and she agreed with Doyle, though she smiled for the first time and added, "That's one of the more ridiculous theories I've heard." Her thoughts were that we get calloused, we harden, and what might have been devastating a decade ago now is merely painful. Or, in her case, the convergence of events have made it impossible for her to feel anymore. Right now, she is thankful for the emotional anesthesia. "If I were to feel anything right now, anything at all, I think I would go postal," she said.

I've had times like these, although never have I been subject to such an onslaught as that of my friend. I wonder if, after all is said and done, this is simply the mind's way of protecting itself, like an overheated circuit with an automatic shut-off.

I do think there can be a deadening of the spirit. Call it an anhedonia of sorts, an inability to feel pleasure. We all go there sometimes, particularly following overwhelming losses when all the cubbyholes capable of harboring pain are filled up. It makes sense. What we can no longer feel, we can no longer remember. Which may after all be a blessing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Strangeness in the Burbs

I am in the locker room of a suburban pool with two kids, the 15- and 12-year-old boys of a friend, and at the sink a man is shaving his chest with a Gillette Mach III. A few feet away, an Asian gentleman is ventilating his pubic hair with a hair dryer. I have just crossed over to the weird zone.

Neither men is outstanding in any way. The Asian guy has a hawkish nose, the white one wears faded tattoos on both arms. There are probably societal rules to deal with such behavior, but I don't know them. The 12-year-old goes, "Gross!" loud enough for both men to hear over the whooshing of the hair dryer, but they continue their odd rituals. I wonder if this is something the teen-age lifeguard should deal with but decide it probably isn't. I return to my chair poolside. The 15-year-old says, "That guy is sooo strange." I ask, which one; he says, both.

It turns out the shaver does this at least twice a week. He comes to the pool with his mate and I wonder whether she performs some similar grooming rite in the women's locker room. The Asian man does not speak English and has a guest pass. He is at the pool daily from two to five and always buys an ice cream from the Good Humor truck at four. I learn this from the 15-year-old, who adds, "I am not going to be in the same room with him." The boy's father, I know, has a thing about sexual predators, whom he describes as anyone behaving in an unusual way. I ask the kid if he's told his father about the two men and he shakes his head. "He'd never let us come to the pool again."

I wonder if someone should speak to these two guys, but who? Nowhere is it posted (I looked) that blow-drying your pubes is forbidden, or that shaving your chest is frowned upon. Established pool rules do not come out of the blue--they are argued over by community boards and designed to (1) protect the community from law suits and (2) ensure some basic safety. Neither gent is in anyway jeopardizing the safety of swimmers. They're just, well, weird and, yes, gross.

It's probably a good thing we not have too many rules against weirdness or inappropriate behavior. Most of the people I know have at some time or other acted in very strange ways, both privately and publicly. And what would we have done without the strangeness of Tom Cruise, and Michael Jackson, without our weekly fix of News of the Weird?

I'm not sure I'd want to spend a lot of time with the chest-shaver. A friend who works at a local gym tells me Asians routinely use blow dryers on their nether parts, much to the discomfiture of pube-non-dryers. So maybe it's a culture thing, or they're afraid of catching a cold down there.

I suppose it could have been worse. The chest-shaver could have been publicly shaving his... oh, never mind.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wasted Days

Every once in a while a day begins full of promise and ends as empty as a drum. Proust, Chateaubriand, Castenada and Soljenitsin all mention such times in their writings--days when expectations run high and realities do not, when the past and the present do not make a seamless union. By noon there comes a sense of useless struggle against things not well defined, a knowledge that somehow, whatever may occur, these will not be hours blessed by the joys of accomplishment; there will be little relief or reprieve from what may be ailing. Life, and what makes it good, has dismissed us.

Days like that--wasted days--run longer than 24 hours. They occupy the disregarded nooks and crannies of our being and make us aware that often, our lives are not our own--they belong to our husbands and wives, lovers present and past, children, bosses, employees, whoever that day wields the most power over us. They make us feel the control we normally exercise over our own lives is at best minimal, haphazard and subject to every conceivable vagary.

Note that this isn't what is referred to in 12-step programs as "powerless over people, places and things." It's different; it's helplessness, not powerlessness, and where one can feel a certain relief at being unable to influence most events, appearing unable to influence any event is something altogether different.

Which brings up to the Learned Helplessness Theory, developed by psychologist Martin Seligman in the 1960s. Building upon his research with humans and animals, LHT came to be defined as "the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human or animal perceives no control over repeated bad events," or as "the perception, based on past experiences, that one has no control over one’s reinforcements."

Perhaps the best definition is, "Learned helplessness is a phenomenon in which individuals gradually, usually as a result of repeated failure or control by others, become less willing to attempt tasks." It may occur in everyday situations where continued failure inhibits an individual from experiencing faith in the future. Apathy and submission prevail if and when life circumstances cause the individual to experience life choices as irrelevant.

It's my belief that all of us, regardless of station in life, success or ambition, experience moments and days that reinforce our feelings of helplessness, and a percentage turn to addiction for relief. Those of us who have done just that, and later discovered that the addiction itself had become the focus of our helplessness, are in a special quandary. We turn to other forms of relief--some write, some sing, some dance, some medicate--because, in the words of Blaise Pascal, "Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in... without passion, without occupation, without diversion, without efforts. Then he feels his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness."

Pascal was a mathematician and physicist in the 1600s; he invented the world's first calculator, the pascaline, and throughout his life was plagued by ill health. He struggled with LHT long before it was defined, and of course, he was French.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Fox & the Hedgehog--The Musical!

To be sure, they'll rob you blind
Of money, love and time.
The Fox and the Hedgehog

I've forgotten both where or when I learned this song as well as the chord progression, but I remember the lyrics and I've always found them evocative, so here goes. I have no idea why I want to put this out there....

There are groundhogs, there are foxes

Secrets locked in tiny boxes

Buddhist monks, lonesome Christians

Online scammers, politicians.

One day soon you’ll know them all

At the rise and at the fall

All companions, all good friends

Who’ll stay with you til the end.

Or maybe they’ll just mosey on

Humming a much different song

Than you thought you should be hearing

Song of sorrow, song of fearing.

May your friends and may your lovers

Be like music that discovers

Memories of better times

Better notes and better rhymes.

Just one thing you should remember

Keep a bullet in the chamber

Turn your back, they’ll rob you blind

Of money, love and time.

One last thing you should remember

Keep a bullet in the chamber

To be sure, they’ll rob you blind

Of money, love and time.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


sadness in Dutch is zieleleed, bedroefdheid
sadness in Italian is tristezza
sadness in Norwegian is sorg
sadness in Spanish is tristezasadness in Swedish is sorg, vemod
sadness in French is tristesse

Why is it that sadness, of all emotions, seems to be able to outlast so many other feelings?

I'm at the gym; I work out and stay pretty well focused and little gets in the way save the burn in the set of muscles I'm straining. An hour later I feel good, drained, ready to face whatever is in the offing and wham! the sadness comes back, almost bigger for not having been felt for 60 minutes. How does that work? I ask a friend, do you get this too? Friend says yes, she does, and sometimes she feels doing anything to get rid of sadness makes it even worse. The sadness appears to feed on the very efforts made to rid one's self of it.

According to Islam, "Sufis use the word huzn (sadness) as the opposite of rejoicing and joy, and to express the pain one suffers while fulfilling his or her duties and realizing his or her ideals. Every perfected believer will continue to suffer this pain according to the degree of belief, and weave the tissue of life with the 'threads' of sadness on the 'loom' of time. " That doesn't help me much. Weaving threads of sadness is not my life's ambition.

If you're a Buddhist practicing the principles of Shambhala, "you should feel sadness and joy, simultaneously with everything you do. Whether you have a good time or a bad time, you should feel sad and delighted at once. That is how to be a real decent human being, and it is also connected with the Buddhist principle of longing, or devotion. Longing is the hunger for sacredness. When you begin to feel you’re too much in the secular world, you long for the sacred world. Therefore you feel sad, and you open yourself up that way. When you feel so sad and tender, that also brings ideas for how to uplift the rest of the world."

And closer to home, we are told by the Western medical/psychiatric community that "living is to be regarded as a duality of the positive and the negative. This duality works in a balance. One cannot be without the other. Each one serves a purpose for the other. Most people connote sadness and sorrow with the negative. They may be in a sense. However, when one anticipates that the negative goes with the positive, then they may have an even perspective."

So it seems many authorities agree that sadness is--and should--a part of life, its existence called upon by the yin and yang of all things. I dunno. That, in and of itself, is kind of sad to me...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pour Flo

Florence, my oldest sister, died six years ago today. I never got to know her as much as I should have since we had different fathers, lived in different homes, and I moved to the States shortly after she had fled both sets of parents and gone to England. But I miss her; we spent weeks here and there sharing her apartment when I visited Paris, and by the time she was in her 50s, she had achieved mythical proportions.

She was a writer whom some critics likened to Francoise Sagan, and the books she wrote, thinly disguised biographies of her early life, read like sad tales of bad love and worst upbringing. She won literary prizes that brought her a measure of fame without alleviating poverty so in mid-stride she switched careers and became the manager of one of France's top rock 'n' roller, and she bought into the lifestyle with fury. She was the mother of two by then, young boys who grew up in a very topsy-turvy world and came out the best for it. The father, the love of Flo's life, died shortly after the birth of their second son.

Flo and her singer drove matching Porsches, showed up at press conferences in feathers and David Bowie make-up, wowed them at the music festivals in St. Tropez and Cannes. They were the toast of the Côte d'Azure, fawned upon by rich and poor alike. They made the covers of French news magazines and were interviewed weekly by Radio Télévision Française. There were a number of European hits, a few appearances in the States, trips to Nashville and Hollywood to see if he could make it in the movies. He didn't, instead developed a heroin habit and things got dicey. He sank faster than she could rescue him, retired in Switzerland and eventually got clean after spending almost six on-and-off years in rehabs and clinics all over Europe. Years later they would re-unite and become fast friends again. He sang at her funeral.

After the singer she met an older man who owned several record stores in Europe, and he loved her with unabated passion. I remember the two of them showing up unannounced at my parents' house in suburban Maryland. Flo had mentioned not seeing her mother in a while and the record magnate chartered a jet that flew them to Dulles, where they hired a limo. They rang the bell wearing his and hers mink coats and I thought my mother would expire there and then. The limo chauffeur carried in a bouquet of 100 roses. Maman could not decide whether to be grateful or outraged, so she was both, but Flo's man was a charmer and in no time at all had won our mother over.

The future caught up with Flo in 1994 when the French government discovered she had never paid a franc's worth of income tax. There was a messy trial during which Flo's excesses were paraded before an appreciative jury and when the verdict was in, Flo was penniless. Everything was taken from her and sold, and her future earnings were dunned by the fisk, France's IRS. That broke her. The last time I saw her she was living in a one-room apartment in Paris, smoking Gitanes cigarettes and drinking too much. Friends gave her money to live on, and her singer discreetly deposited monthly checks in her bank account. She died of cancer at the Neuilly hospital, and her funeral was a glam affair attended by le tout Paris.

Recently, a young woman with the same soul as Flo's zipped in and out of my life, and I wonder if indeed there are no coincidences. We win people and then lose them.

Alors Flo, ma gentille soeur qui ne croyais pas en Dieu, j'éspère que oû que tu sois, tu es toujours aussi passionante et mythique. Tu me manques. Le frèrot....

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Comics

Ever since I was a little kid, I've found refuge in the comics. As an adult, particularly when I'm down (I've decided to stop whining, effective now) , I can still get a little suspension of belief by turning to what has become a new literary genre, the graphic novel.

In France, Tintin reigned. He was a young reporter who, with his dog Milou, his friend Captain Haddock and a list of colorful and not altogether healthy characters, traveled to all parts of the world and expounded what was then European colonial aspirations. He went to the moon, stopped slavers, found sunken treasures, hunted in the Congo, foiled opium traders in the Orient. He was completely sexless--no romantic interest ever entered life and the sole woman portrayed was an overweight opera singer whose stolen jewels he recovered.

In the States, the greatest and most original work was A Contract with God, by Will Eisner. Seeking a more mature expression of the comics' form, Eisner, a cartoonist whose works include The Spirit, Blackhawk, Sheena, and many others, spent two years creating four short stories of "sequential art" that became A Contract with God, first published by Baronet Books in 1978. In this book, with its 1930s Bronx tenements and slice-of-life moral tales, Eisner returned to his roots and discovered new potential for the comics form — the graphic novel.

More recently, artist Neil Gaiman wrote and published The Sandman, the tale of Dream of the Endless, an amorphous creature who rules over the kingdom of dreams. There were 75 issues in all from 1989 t0 1996, and Norman Mailer described Gaiman's creations as "a comic book for the intellectual." The Sandman is one of a handful of graphic novels to ever make the New York Times bestseller list. And of course there is also the Watchmen series, recently made into an unfortunate and incomprehensible movie.

Graphic novels are not for lazy readers. The images are far more complex than the text, which is often secondary, and the plots would daunt Dante. These books are put together by a team of artists--writer, drawer, inker, letterer, editor and each participant will probably have a impact on the book's lot and resolution. In some editions--notably Sandman--the writer invites several teams of artists to put together a given issue, so that by the time these are put into a printed collection, each issue has its particular look, style and voice. Imagine,if you will, Mick Jagger putting a different band together for each cut of the Stones' new CD and you'll get an idea of what publishers of graphic novels are offering today.

Interested? Here are some worth considering according to Time magazine:

Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes (Drawn & Quarterly; 2000)
Part of an incredibly ambitious, years-in-the-making project, this is just the first volume of a series of novels that will all take place during the combustible Weimar era of the titular city. Drawn with clean lines and an attention to architectural detail that pays homage to such European comics as Hergé's "Tintin," City of Stones follows a young woman art student who starts an affair with a weary leftist journalist against a background of boiling politics and decadence. Filled with rich characters and period detail, even if the follow-up books never come, it will still be one of the premier works of historical fiction in the medium.

Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf; 2003)
This semi-autobiographical novel set in the snowy hinterlands of Wisconsin tells the story of a lonely, artistic young man who struggles with his fundamentalist Christian upbringing when he falls in love. Fluidly told over 582 pages, Blankets magically recreates the high emotional stakes of adolescence. Thompson has set new bars for the medium not just in length, but breadth.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (DC Comics; 1986)
One of the best-selling graphic novels of all time, this black comedy version of Batman's latter days masterfully combines satire with superhero antics without betraying it's central character's core of danger. Along with Alan Moore & Dave Gibbon's Watchmen, it redefined the concept of "superhero," and helped spark the first wave of "serious" interest in comics.

David Boring by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon; 2000)
Although best known for his book Ghost World, thanks to the movie version, Dan Clowes' David Boring, about a guy in search of a woman while the world may be ending, marked his first truly novelistic approach to graphical storytelling. Peerless in his ability to create offbeat characters and write sardonic humor, Clowes has lately gotten more experimental in his form, but David Boring remains his most readable and unified book.

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (Pantheon; 2000)
The most perfect novel yet seen in this format, Ware innovates in form and in content to create a uniquely American story, both tragic and gut-splittingly funny. Neither smart nor a kid, Jimmy reunites with his long-lost dad, finds him a great disappointment, and discovers an African-American sister he never knew about. Confronting race, history, and family this book proved incontrovertibly that the form could be as deep and complex as any prose novel.

Palomar: The Heartbreak Soup Stories by Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books; 2003)
A kind of über graphic novel that collects a series of smaller graphic novels all situated in a small town "somewhere south of the U.S. border," this giant tome by a seminal comic artist will likely be the author's magnum opus. Part of the creative team behind the deeply influential "Love and Rockets" comic book series (along with his equally talented brother Jaime) Gilbert has created a pan-American epic that spans multiple generations of a family run almost exclusively by women. Hernandez' Palomar combines the look of Archie comics with Faulkner's richness of character and place into the melodramatic sweep of a sexy soap opera to create one of the most remarkable works of any narrative art.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fate & Karma

Having been a person of small responsibilities and even lesser achievements, and not particularly pleased with how things have turned out this time around, I am really curious as to what comes next. Being a Buddhist of some 20 years' standing, I am now faced with a conumdrum. I believe in some form of reincarnation. Buddhism does not.

Reincarnation is held to be the transmigration of a soul to another body after death. There is no such teaching in Buddhism. One of the most fundamental doctrines of Buddhism is anatta, or anatman-- no soul or no self. There is no permanent essence of an individual self that survives death. And yet the faith often refers to rebirth.

The Buddha taught that our bodies, physical and emotional sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness work together to create the illusion of a permanent, distinctive "me." Every moment, the illusion of "me" renews itself. Not only is nothing carried over from one life to the next; nothing is carried over from one moment to the next. This can get confusing.

In his book What the Buddha Taught (1959), scholar Walpola Rahula states, "If we can understand that in this life we can continue without a permanent, unchanging substance like Self or Soul, why can't we understand that those forces themselves can continue without a Self or Soul behind them after the non-functioning of the body? When this physical body is no more capable of functioning, energies do not die with it, but continue to take some other shape or form, which we call another life. ... Physical and mental energies which constitute the so-called being have within themselves the power to take a new form, and grow gradually and gather force to the full."

What is it, then, that dies? I believe that when this physical body is no longer capable of functioning, the energies within it, the atoms and molecules it is made up of, don’t die with it. They do indeed take on another form, another shape. Is this another life? Probably not, since according to the most basic Buddhist thoughts, there is no permanent, unchanging substance and nothing passes from one moment to the next. If that's the case, nothing permanent or unchanging can transmigrate from one life to the next. Being born and dying continues unbroken but changes every moment. The force that propels this continuity is karma, another Asian concept often misunderstood. Karma is closer to a simple action of cause and effect than it is to the Western idea of fate, the notion that man's life is preplanned for him by some external power, and he has no control over his destiny. Karma, however, can be changed. Because man is a conscious being he can be aware of his karma and thus strive to change the course of events.

Up to this point, I can lay a modest claim to understanding. After this, it gets too complicated. Luckily, Buddha reportedly left 84,000 teachings so as to reach the mental and spiritual capacity of each individual, from the smartest to the most humble. Being somewhere in between, I can still hope that something happens in the next world. Life is a struggle, and it really would be a great waste of effort if nothing was to remain from it.

OK, so I've had a bad day, which always leads me to musings about better days elsewhere. Hip hip for Buddhism...

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Fox and the Hedgehog

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Archilochus (7th century BC)

According to the Greek poet, humans are categorized as either foxes or hedgehogs. This comparison is found in European and Asian fables, and basically states that the life of a hedgehog is the embodiment of a single, central vision of reality, while foxes pursue many divergent ends. Foxes know life is too complex to be squeezed into any unitary scheme; their sense of reality prevents them from formulating a definite grand system of everything.

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler says, "You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They're hedgehogs." Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it. "Those who leave the biggest footprints," said Bressler, "have thousands calling after them, 'Good idea, but you went too far!' "

Isaiah Berlin, in his 1993 book, Studies in Ideas and their Histories, writes that "Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory....Their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes..."

Personally, I believe all of us harbor a little of both. We can be fixated or scattered, obsessed or dispersed. We all suffer a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder, but can lapse into delusional fixations if the issue at hand is important enough. In other words, our pastimes and avocations are fox-like, while our passions are hedgehogical (my new word.)

This, of course, merges nicely with my belief that, to a greater or lesser extent, all of us suffer from forms of multiple personality disorders. If the disorder is too intense, Jekyll to Hide or vice-versa transformations, we may want to refer to the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) and get help. But if our MPD is not extreme, a passing thing that does not harm, then it might be called a mood change. We may be sad without being really depressed, take care of details without having an obsessive/compulsive disorder, have concerns for the future without being paranoid.

Personally, I like the idea of being a fox, though I've had a real weakness for hedgehogs ever since I found one in a friend's backyard in France. It was, without a doubt, the cutest thing I have ever seen. And we are in a hedgehogical age. The specialists reign supreme while the foxes--Renaissance animals almost by definition--have been shunted aside. When everyone has a small area of expertise, there's little room for a generalist.

Maybe one day this will change, but I doubt it. More and more, whether in education or daily employ, we find large areas of knowledge being split into increasingly smaller ones. There are no astronomers, physicians or chemists anymore. There are astrophysicists, gastrointestinologists and biocellular engineers.

And yet there is a need for foxes. Someone has to be able to link the knowledges of the world; we need people who know a little bit about a lot of things or we'll simply end up having an awful lot of folks knowing nothing about anything.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I've gotten to be a pretty good cook in the past few years. Limited, yes, and not haute cuisine, but pretty tasty if simple. I make a ratatouille my friends stand in line for, a decent sweet and sour beef, I'm hell with lentils and my fish skills grow daily. And of course, as any Frenchman must, I am able to create crèpes flambées which I think are called crepes suzettes in this country. I suspect Suzette was an American housewife who put on a French maid outfit when she was pouring pancake mix one day, and that's how history is made.

This being said, there are days I dribble salad dressing into the Safeway salad bag, shake it up, and that's lunch. I get tired of cooking for one, and I think the Great American Food Machine has discovered this--there is an increasing presence of meals for one where I shop, anything from veal scallopini to chicken cacciotore in small colorful boxes, designed to be popped into the microwave and consumed standing over the sink.

I first started cooking--as opposed to warming up--when I was newly divorced and living in an efficiency apartment. The kitchenette had a small sink, a two burner stove top and a hotel-room sized refrigerated cube where I kept my good vodka for guests. Since guests were never invited and therefore never came, I would drink the guest-vodka and refill the bottle from the non-guest vodka hidden behind the complete works of Walter Scott.

I didn't have a lot of money (guest-vodka isn't cheap) so I became a fried rice expert. I figured out that if you waited until the rice was done to fry the egg, the entire thing was not too gloppy and palatable. Plus, by adding shrimp and vegetable and eating with chopsticks, I could pretend I was in an MSG-free Chinese restaurant. Women tend to like a man who can cook and I learned something important: the likelihood of having a girlfriend increased in direct proportion to my abilities to prepare food.

Now I find myself still too lazy or isolationist to invite dinner guests, and often loath to cook for one. Eating by yourself is poor entertainment and can get downright lonesome. I cook in quantity, making enough to last a while. I freeze stuff, and I give stuff away.

I suspect that within a few years kitchens may vanish altogether, as have large front and back yards. We will start seeing large homes with maybe just a room with a lot of counter space, a microwave and a bunch of wall plugs. I know of one woman who never cooks and has made her cupboard and kitchen cabinets into shoe racks. I know a few who, quite literally, do not know how to boil water.

OK. I'm off to grill some oranges.

Friday, August 7, 2009


This will be unashamedly politically incorrect. I don't care. I'm an immigrant and have earned full rights to criticize other immigrants. It says so in my naturalization certificate. So let me say a few words about DWA, Driving While Asian.

I realize saying 'Asian' is like saying 'European' and Heaven forbid anyone lump the French, German and Italians into one general category, but what the hell, I plan to do this with Asians, even as all Asians hate the Japanese, many hate the Chinese, and no one ever admits to being Cambodian. Here's my complaint: where do these folks learn to drive? Do they ever actually take and pass a driving test and with who? Asian driving instructors?

On an almost daily basis, I have a close encounter of the worst kind with Asians behind the wheel of their SUVs or vans. They turn left from the right lane, drive three miles under the speed limit while talking on their cell, wander heedlessly all over the road. Occasionally, they stop dead in the middle of the street to drop off passengers, oblivious to the unhappy honking of cars behind them. And since I am being a chauvinist, I might as well be a sexist: these cursed drivers are mostly young or middle-aged Asian women.

Some of the shortcomings, I understand, are cultural. What is the norm in the West is not so in the East. Here, for example, we flash our high beams as a measure of courtesy, an implicit "yes, please, go in front of me." In many Eastern countries, flashing your headlight means, "I will let you rip my liver out with your bare hands before I allow you to pass."

Augustus Cho--he's both of Asian descent and Chairman of the Chapel Hill Transportation Advisory Committee----wrote in the Chapel Hill News & Observer, "Most FOBs ("Fresh Off the Boat")--primarily international graduate students and the new, legal immigrants--lack driving experience before arriving. They did not drive in their homeland; it was too expensive and/or dangerous. Instead, many are learning now, on our roads, trying our patience.

"Amplifying the quandary, their driving is dictated more by their cultural state of mind (i.e., not stopping at STOP signs, "No cars there") than the proven rules of the road. The automobile may be a Western invention but the drivers in question have an Eastern mentality.

"Furthermore, the lack of automobile history implies equal lack of proper road infrastructure. Most roads are narrow: visualize paved alleys, barely wide enough for two vehicles. Such is used for walking, pushing carts, storing excess inventory by stores, children playing, parking and yes, driving. The motorists have no choice but to hold up traffic to let people on and off. Though here now, their ingrained customs are not easily changed."

Does that make me feel better? No. Less critical? Nope. I've always believed that immigration is--or should be--an act that encompasses serious cultural changes. You come to live in a new country, you learn the language, the laws, the habits of your new environment. As an immigrant myself, I am totally opposed to multi-language ATMs and bi- or tri-lingual signs in national parks advising visitors that the park is not a trash dump.

As H.L. Mencken once said, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." So learn the language, drive like me (most of the time) and don't turn left from the right lane.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Reverend Worthington Pyle Said

"It's God's plan, Edward, that each generation of Americans will become stupider than the last. Dummies will graduate from college and give us the laws of the land. Morons will carry the day. God in his wisdom will see to it, because an intelligent population would be too restless in the kind of culture we're developing... We've become an over-populated, leisure-time culture that's getting stupider by the minute. Two hundred and fifty million people would get in each other's way, don't you see? Brains need elbow room. Ignorance doesn't care." The Reverend Worthington Pyle, The Dean's List, Jon Hassler.

I let Reverend Worthington Pyle, one of writer Jon Hassler's more endearing characters, speak for me on this issue. I think we have devolved into a mass of really ignorant people too lazy to take the country in hand, shake it up and make things right. Even the people who have virtually nothing have opted for the "I've got mine" philosophy and each segment of society has defined a social class it can look down upon.

The really rich people--millionaires don't count anymore--operate at a level of stratospheric detachment. They have their own rules, their own laws, their own mores and behavioral patterns. They rule through wealth and we let them.

The moderately rich are happy in their McMansions and gated communities. They're too busy trying to become really rich to be involved in the day-to-day running of a complex nation.

The merely well-off are threatened by the economy and hanging on for dear life to what they have. It's dicey out there with modest investments losing value.

The middle class feels truly defenseless. The cabin in the woods, the one-bedroom condo by the beach, are for sale with no buyers in sight. It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The middle class followed the rules, worked hard, saved, sent its kids to college, put money in its IRAs, paid down its mortgage, and in spite of its best efforts, the system collapsed. The middle-class is left holding the bag, too cowed by the prospect of losing more to make much of a stir and somehow persuaded it was fortunate not to have it all taken away.

The lower middle-class is drowning in credit debt--new cars, Jetskis, bass boats, motorcycles, $1000-a-day visits to Disneyworld for a family of five, Visa and American Express balances that represent a third of a working family's annual income.

The poor, as always, are screwed.

The problem with all this, as notes Reverend Pyles, is that "ignorance does not care." The British poet Thomas Gray wrote in his 1742 poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College: "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." What we have set up is a system that fosters ignorance and more often than not punishes wisdom. We have become floaters, not swimmers. We no longer value elbow room and are content to walk with our arms obediently by our sides.

I've always maintained that the United States is a very young country, an upstart that had some good ideas--democracy being the foremost--but no follow through. It pains me to accept that, "Dummies will graduate from college and give us the laws of the land. Morons will carry the day." But it appears to be more and more likely.

Monday, August 3, 2009

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

A couple of nights ago a storm came through and the rain woke me. I have a skylight in my bedroom, and the drumming was steady and incessant, typical of Virginia weather where a drought is followed by so much water that the ground can't absorb it, and the run-off clogs the culverts.

When I awoke, I had a strange moment of total disorientation. I reached an arm across the bed expecting to touch another person, and when I didn't there was a moment of secondary confusion. I knew who should have been there and wasn't. Actually, it's been almost two years since someone other than myself spent the night at my house, and by now I've gotten so used to sleeping alone that I'm not sure what my reaction would be were there another person there.

In France, where I was born, heavy rains are called giboulées. They traditionally mark the passage from winter to spring and the legends attached to them vary according to region; in the South, where Roman and Greek cultures once held sway, the giboulées are the tears of maidens wronged by gods. In the North, it's the exact opposite--male Teutonic gods being ill-treated by earthly females. Times have changed and now the rains are celebrated by rock concerts and outdoor festivals which are held, not suprisingly, mostly in the rain.

I remember as a kid looking out our apartment window in Paris during a downpour and watching the drops splatter against the pavement, my father, a good man of strong reserve, beside me. "Look," he said, "it's like thousands of little horsemen galloping." And it was. I've never forgotten the image.