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."