Thursday, December 30, 2010

Buh Bye 2010

So it’s been an interesting year. Or maybe not even that. Feh. On the plus side, I finished writing a book, sold a short story to a good fiction magazine, wrote something just about every single day, met new people, some of whom were worth meeting, while others were not.  I also composed a bunch of songs and music. A few will have a future, and some will serve to remind me of things best left behind. I learned new licks and forgot old ones, touched base with old friends and lost recently-made ones whom I thought might last. I saw promising relationships whither while others prospered.

I’ve played music with people far more talented than I am and benefitted from the experience.

The writers’ group of which I am a member has been a godsend—talented people willing to listen and encourage in an occupation that is frighteningly solitary and very lonely at times.

No major illnesses but a bunch of niggling stuff that forces me to keep my $800+ a month health insurance with the local HMO. Bell’s palsy (WTF?), shingles, allergies and infections; a few weeks of flu and a back out of whack. But I am exercising—or trying to—every day, and if this is not as instantly rewarding as it would be in a perfect world, at least it does seem that the fit of my butt in the bucket seat of my car is not quite as alarming as it was prior to the sit-ups, squats and curls.

On the downside, construction of a metro push-station (WTF 2?) erupted behind my house, destroying a very nice copse of trees and driving out deer, fox, raccoons and other wildlife while making deafening thumping sounds from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekends included. The deforestation now allows me an unhindered view of a major thoroughfare. No doubt the paltry value of my ‘60s-era home has fallen sharply, but I am told this is the price of progress. Am I pissed of? Yes, assuredly. This is one of those moments when practicing acceptance is not only necessary but life-saving.

On the downside as well is my next door neighbor who has taken up the drums. He is not a gifted musician; I will leave it at that.

I attended some 200 12-step meetings and will celebrate 20 years of sobriety and abstinence in a couple of months. Other than breathing and eating, I can’t think of anything I have done with any degree of regularity for two decades.

I’ve gone on some wonderful hikes, and while walking next to a canal, was accompanied for half a mile by a young beaver swimming upstream. I almost stepped on a 60-pound snapping turtle and saw bald eagles roosting high in trees next to a river. I was stung a dozen times in less than 15 seconds by angry mud daubers. That hurt and took a couple of weeks to heal.

I have worked hard at disarming resentments new and old, and have only been partially successful. I think there are people who are natural sons (and daughters) of bitches. They may be here to test our forbearance and ability to remain calm during storms. Or maybe not. I do know this: such people exist and they take up space.

I have no idea what the coming year will bring, but that’s the fun of it all, isn’t it?

Best to one and all, and may 2011 bring you all the happiness you deserve.

May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. Old Irish Blessing


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Days After Christmas

Yesterday, in the parking lot of the upscale hardware store near where I live, workers were grinding up the unsold Christmas trees, each conifer tossed tip-first into the chute and reduced in seconds to chips and sawdust. Earlier, they’d taken the giant plastic red bows and the colored lights down and a couple of kids not wearing Santa hats any more were using leaf blowers on the pine needles and twigs. The noise was far-reaching, a combination of angry bees and more angry bees looking for something to attack. There were a couple of spectators there, people with little to do on a post-Christmas morning, a middle-aged woman walking her dog, an older couple holding gloved hands.

“Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?” The man had a round face, powder blue eyes and steel-rimmed glasses. I agreed, but then I have always thought that sawing down trees to provide a couple of weeks’ worth of decorations is sort of foolish. The middle-aged woman picked up her dog, a miniature something or other, and held it to her chest. The dog didn’t like the noise the shredder made and squirmed in the woman’s arms so she squeezed him tighter. Another tree went into the machine. “This is really disturbing,” she said. And it was, though I couldn’t really tell why. The man nodded, “The day after anything is always kind of sad.”  His wife smiled sadly in agreement, added, “We haven’t bought a tree since, when? 1985?”

If Thanksgiving is the national holiday of over-consumption, then Christmas is the one most associated with misuse of resources. One year I decided to see how many catalogs I received in the months of November and December (I think there was a Seinfeld episode where Kramer did this.)  I stacked them up daily under my kitchen counter and in the days before Christmas the pile was 32 inches high and weighed 16 pounds. The catalogs were all glossy and most came from stores where I had never shopped. A lot of them advertised items I didn’t know existed and would not buy either for myself or as a gift for another, items one might have problems re-gifting. According to news releases from the postal people, catalogs are the main reason it now costs the average non-commercial consumer almost a half-buck each to post a letter or pay a bill.

That stuff is recycled is beside the point. A tree reduced to sawdust will never be a tree again—nor, for that matter, will a catalog. Over the past couple of years I have tried to get my name taken off mailing lists, but with catalogs it’s more difficult than it is with spam. Somehow, my requests to not be mailed tons of unwanted material are seldom honored. I am sure that, from an advertising standpoint, there is a valid reason for this, but I can’t quite fathom it.

Next year, I plan to begin sending the catalogs back to their stores of origin. Maybe tie a brick to the one from Bed Bath and Beyond, just to see what happens. Gift-wrapped, of course.

Friday, December 24, 2010


According to the Washington Post, the area I live in has succeeded in having the highest median annual income of anywhere in the States. One hundred thousand dollars per household, to be exact…. That’s median, which means that about half of the people make a ton more than that.

In my neighborhood, there are very few cars more than a year or two old. The high school kids drive new Jeeps—the poor ones, that is; the wealthy ones have Landrovers—and Lexus (Lexi?). The homes are a mixture of post-Korean War bungalows built in the early 60s for returning GIs, middle-income two- or three-story brick colonials, McMansions, and ridiculous manor homes redolent of new money and poor taste. Increasingly, these are built on small lots so that yard space comprises a three-foot strip of lawn in the front (some are Astroturf) and a fenced-off bricked-over square in the back just large enough for a stainless steel Crown Verity eight-grill barbecue and a fire pit.

The communities with real money—McLean, Fairfax, Great Falls, Loudon—are peopled by cabinet-level government employees, brokers, attorneys, land developers, dotcom millionaires and plastic surgeons whose mates often are real-estate agents. There are malls everywhere, as well as Porsche, Aston Martin and Bentley dealerships, and a local coffee shop sells individually-wrapped marshmallows for two bucks each. You can buy ostrich eggs and fifty-dollar-a-pound cheese at the local gourmet food store and the mechanics at the area Ferrari dealer charge $190 per hour.  Despite all this wealth, local public libraries recently had to curtail both their hours and their staff due to budget cutbacks.

On the other side of this shiny coin, we find that we have among the worst traffic in the country. Political scumbags like Newt Gingrich pollute our local restaurants. The roads are Third-World at best, and the public education system is sadly lacking. We also have snakeheads—the Asian fish that devours all other species—and, thanks to the estrogen in our waterways, largemouth bass with both male and female sex organs. The National Rifle Association and its crazies are in our backyards buying the politicians’ votes to allow firearms in national parks and the unregulated sale of semi-automatic weapons at gun shows. And 15 years ago, a few miles from my house, workers in a lab full of monkeys almost set loose the Ebola virus.  You can read all about in the 1995 bestseller, The Hot Zone.

Oh. And our hockey, baseball, basketball and football teams are all on a losing streak.

So once again, I ask you: Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Life and Opacity

There are times when I feel opaque, almost transparent.  All emotions I have had that could be expanded have been spent, for good or for ill, and whatever I believe I am capable of teaching has been taught ad nauseam. Maybe it’s a function of age, this strange repetition of feelings, events, history, passions and sensations. The core of me says everything I listen to has been said too many times before, and even in music, there are only 12 notes, and every possible arrangement has been composed, hummed and played. I finally understand the full meaning of Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Obviously, even Shakespeare was willing to rehash these older feelings, (oh how I hate to quote Shakespeare… So déclassé) in Sonnet 59, when he wrote:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.

This sense of not-quite-déjà-vu is insidious. If everything has been done, thought, written and said, then what’s the point? Is life really a simple replay of all that’s already been accomplished?  

Christopher Booker, a British writer and founder of the magazine Private Eye, believes all literature—and here I would add all life—hinges on a few simple plot lines.

The first is Overcoming the Monster.  From Beowulf to modern horror novels, we strive to defeat something bigger and more evil than ourselves. The second story line is Rags to Riches, where we better ourselves along accepted social lines. Then we might go on to plot number three, The Quest, or the search for meaning which will almost certainly involve plot line five, The Voyage and Return. All this may bear traces of both or either Comedy and Tragedy and inevitably as spring follows winter, leads to Rebirth, or perhaps salvation. In more recent times and bowing to changes in modern literature, Booker had added two more entries, Rebellion (think 1984) and Mystery.

From my standpoint, plot lines one through seven perfectly exemplify modern lives. Some of us will live at least two of them, and many of us will exist and struggle through three or more. They repeat themselves, though wearing different costumes and playing different roles. Death, romance, work, play, family and friends, even faith, are cyclical. We pretend to see newness where there is none because doing otherwise will take the wind out of any ship’s sails.

Hmmm. I have no more deep thoughts today, nor even shallow ones, and it’s time for the brown rice holidays.

But give this some thought: out of the seven, which ones are yours?


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Faith, Religion and the Solstice

I’ve always envied and feared people who claim to have a direct line to their god. Envied because, lets face it, it must be kind of neat to have a Higher Power you can ring up like you can Uncle Stan in Minnesota, and feared because the hubris involved in having God that close to you is nothing short of phenomenal.

I was thinking of this recently after a 12-step meeting turned into a glory hallelujah get-together and made a few participants, myself included, very uncomfortable.

You can generally spot the non-Christians at meetings pretty easily. They speak of faith, rather than religion; they don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer; they shrink back into their chairs when someone ‘testifies’ and invokes Jesus as his or her personal savior. For them, God is an acronym for Good Orderly Direction, which is a conviction of its own.

My personal belief is that my God doesn’t listen to me much.  In organized religion, one gets around that stumbling block by telling the adherents they’re simply not smart—or tuned in—enough to know God’s will. This explains all the tragedies that occur around us, the events that can only be described as mythically unfair—think Haiti, think Bangladesh, think starvation and disease. We are basically too dumb to understand the underlying reasons for calamity and heartbreak in the grand—and beneficent—scheme of things.  We are also told not to pray for our gratification but for that of others, which is a neat way of saying “don’t expect much.” And though God is always responsible for the good things in life, His/Hers/Its reasons for allowing evil are, you got it, beyond our understanding. 

My faith comes and goes. I believe that true faith is the equivalent of true trust. You leap from A, not from A to B. Faith is taking chances, and welcoming change. Most of the time I am loathe to do so, since change can have some unforeseen side-effects.

Enough of this. Tonight is the winter solstice, one of my favorite days of the year. Each 24-hour period from today on and for the six months will carry a few extra minutes of sunlight. The moon tonight is huge and sacred.  I imagine Druidic and Selenite celebrations are being held the world-over. 

Happy solstice to one and all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Wars

Three or four houses down and across the street from me lives a wealthy fellow in a very large home on a quarter acre of land. I’ve never met him, but my mailman tells me he is Arabic and involved in marketing cell phones. Every three or four months, an 18-wheeler semi delivers a new car, sometimes a Lamborghini, other times an Aston Martin; also a Smart Car, a Mercedes and a Landrover. I have never actually seen my neighbor, though I did knock on his door once out of sheer curiosity.

Throughout the year, a battalion of workmen toil on the house and land. A line of 30-foot spruces has been planted, and a gate erected either to keep the expensive cars in or other people out. The house has been painted twice in four years, and the driveway repaved with hexagonal tiles that I imagine must be very slippery when it rains.

Two weeks ago, this neighbor decided to beautify the neighborhood by illuminating his land and home with, oh, maybe a zillion blinking, flashing, blinding multi-colored lights, eight-foot candy canes, giant (and I would think empty) refrigerator-sized gift boxes wrapped in tinsel and bows, and a full complement of colored elves. The latter line the driveway and appear to be quarrelling over the candy canes, but I can’t be sure of that.  The effect is that of a Wal-Mart on ecstasy and I believe the display has caused a road accident or two in the past week.

Two doors to my left, meanwhile, a new neighbor has also planted candy canes though these are more modest and aligned in a fashion remindful of a graveyard. In and of itself, that’s OK, but the effect is all the more macabre because of an inflatable Santa that has sprung a leak. Erect and proud in the evening, the bearded Saint Nick is a spread-eagled red and white corpse by morning. I don’t know if this is intended. In Northern Virginia, some people have very strange senses of humor. Not good, strange.

A few blocks from me in a different but adjoining neighborhood, a Christmas display skirmish has been raging for more than two decades. One family lives in a post-Korean War house of the type built by the thousands in Virginia for returning veterans. In the front yard is a permanent 15-foot tall Statue of Liberty festooned with flags. At Christmas, the statue is joined by a helicopter-riding Santa, Snow White and eight (I’ve counted them) dwarves, Bambi, what I think may be the Keebler  elves, the three little pigs, and an inflatable Redskin football player. The mélange is draped with lights that emanate enough heat to melt the surrounding snow.

Next door to this is a veritable museum of woodworking wonders. I have no doubts whoever lives there has several scroll-saws buzzing year round. The yard features wind mills of assorted sizes, derricks, wishing wells, two small Japanese bridges spanning nothing, a kissing Dutch boy and girl who move with the breeze, three weather vanes, a life-size crèche and a 1975 Volkswagen Beetle painted in a Stars-and-Stripes motif. At Christmas, decorative lights are spread like kudzu over the entire front yard for that undulating look that may make some folks seasick.

Is this a great country, or what?    

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sins of Omission

Recently, a national pizza chain started advertising a new pie with extra cheese baked into the crust and promised its customers, “You won’t be able to stop.” In light of the national obsession with obesity, I thought this was either an amazingly ballsy or amazingly stupid ad. In the end, I think it’s both.  It isn’t the first time that advertising promotes excess, of course. I remember a few years ago a campaign to sell potato chips with the same gusto and message—“You can’t eat just one!”

Pizza is one of those foods with a high degree of instant gratification. With fat, salt, and sugar (in the pizza dough), pizza-makers hit the holy trinity of addictive chemicals most of us long for in what we eat.

All this leads me to wonder why preaching overindulgence in food is acceptable.

Any ad campaign pushing beer or cigarettes in the same manner would be banned quickly. Imagine, “Budweiser! You Can’t Drink Just One!” But then, come to think of it, isn’t ‘lite’ beer marketed so we can indeed consume more? Hmmm. TV ads, we all know, are inherently deceptive. They seldom show fat people stuffing themselves, nor drunk people swilling the product being pitched. They never tell you about the opportunity cost of the latest gadget you must have, nor that a new car depreciates the moment it is driven off the lot. We are not told that cholesterol-laden foods are deadly, not about the potential dangers involved in drinking. Ads never tell you about hidden costs, either. Some, like come-ons for various drugs, do indeed issue warnings, but in such a way that they are either anodyne, or (the four-hour erection from Cialis) laughable.

But back, for a moment, to the concept of advertising toward excess.  All advertising is basically designed to (1) wrest your allegiance from one manufacturer of a product to another and (2) make you believe your life will be enhanced by the purchase of the item being advertised. Along the way, some ads will provide a trickle of information about the thing at hand, but since a little information is a lot more dangerous than no information at all, it’s often better for the ad to gloss over even the most basic of practicalities. What ads can do is target your weak spot. Food, for example.

Advertising is the ultimate realization of what the Catholics call ‘a lie of omission.’ It does not mislead overtly, it simply fails to reveal the whole truth. Telling people their taste buds will be so enchanted that “you won’t be able to stop” is perfectly OK but only if you add “until you have consumed thousands of calories and added to your cholesterol.”

Real truth in advertising would be a boon to American saving accounts. Imagine if, before buying an expensive big screen TV, you were told: “This product will not make the insipid shows you watch any better!” Or, when purchasing a car, you were informed that, “You will still be a lousy and accident-prone driver,  more likely now than ever to kill yourself and others since you have a new and more powerful vehicle.” Or, as you contemplate a box of donuts, “This product is made with sugar, the most addictive known to man, according to the Food and Drug Administration.”

Wouldn’t that make you think twice? No? Me neither.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Nurturing Resentments

I have resentments. Against the cable company, Wall Street, my broker, my neighbor who recently bought a set of drums and practices several hours a day while managing to never keep an honest beat; the newspaper delivery people who toss the morning rag so that it slides under the prickly bushes lining my driveway; the metro planners who decided to build a booster station almost in my backyard and destroyed a perfectly lovely copse of woods to do so. People who treated me shabbily—particularly people I trusted—rank high on my list of resentees (yes, I just made up the word but it works). These include makers of promises not kept, those congenitally late for everything, gossipers with bad opinions of me (gossipers with good opinions can slide), ageists, and, well, the list is long and varied and quite colorful.

I tend to my resentments much as my late father did the orchids he lovingly grew in a small greenhouse built off the side of the family home. The flowers were exquisite and costly things that demanded patience, attention, a vast degree of love and understanding, and special fertilizer that at the time had to be mail-ordered. He spent at least an hour with his flowers each day aerating the soil, shaping, pruning and inspecting them for aphids, ants and mealy bugs.  My mother never understood his passion. He wouldn’t display the orchids openly in the house, so what was the use? She reasoned other chores needed to be done, but she tolerated his zeal. My father was a handsome and charming man whose smile captivated many. There were far more noxious hobbies he could have espoused.

 The old line is that having resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. There’s truth to that. I’m particularly prone to anger against bad drivers, but the fact is, the Asian lady who cut me off this morning during rush hour traffic is not even remotely aware of my existence. The hour I spent obsessing over her lousy road skills is wasted. I did not get even, I did not get vengeance, I got frustrated.

In the last decade or so, I’ve gotten better about letting the small stuff go. Ankle-biters no longer dominate my life. I can wax philosophical about the minute vagaries of day-to-day existence. It’s the big resentments that still give me problems.  They take up much too much space and don’t pay rent.

Still a lot of work to do there….

Monday, November 29, 2010

Modern Times

There’s a bunch of men hanging around the church parking lot after the 12-step meeting, it’s an acceptable November day and they’re in their thirties to their sixties. They know each other pretty well; have gone through divorce and job losses, the birth of children and the death of parents; they get together for a few minutes’ chatting once or twice a week.

During the meeting it was mostly women who shared about their lives, about their husbands and boy friends who do or do not drink, and how they’ve been working at acceptance at best and rejection at worst. One woman in her 40s is leaving her husband of 17 years. The man has been in and out of sobriety but mostly out, and after all this time she’s decided it’s time to go. She’ll be moving out in a week or two, her sister has a spare room and there are no children, thank god.  But she hasn’t informed him yet, she plans to have The Talk in a couple of days, and it’s going to be hard.

That’s what the men standing in the church parking lot are talking about now, how they were told, because each of them was, in one manner or another, sometime in their varied pasts.

“I got a letter,” a 50-year-old with a year round tan. “I was at Fort Benning and she sent me a letter saying it was over. I went nuts, asked for leave and it was denied which thinking back was a good thing. I was still drinking back then. It coulda gotten ugly.”

“Phone call,” said another. “I had the feeling she had made a list and was reading it to me. Her mom was with her.” He shakes his head. “Her mom really disliked me. She never once said my name. It was always ‘him’.”

Heads nod. Two men who’ve officially quit smoking light cigarettes.  One’s wife left him recently, announcing her departure with a brief text message on his Verizon Droid 2. Another recalls that his 18-year-old son was dumped by his girlfriend after an exchange on Yahoo Messenger.

Three of the guys exchange looks. One starts humming Roberta Flack and the two others join in, “Hey, that’s no waaayy to say good byyyyyyye…”

Then they get in their cars and return to work.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Death by Caroling

I never have an easy time of the holidays. I don’t know why but it’s always been like that; it’s a struggle and invariably something happens to darken the already gray mood, so that an event tolerable during the summer months is markedly painful to deal with in November or December. True to form, the bad came to pass a day or so ago. It was foreseeable but no less unpleasant for being so.

I am not helped by the caroling, the cheery pap that erupts and covers everything within reach with cloying treacle, making an already difficult time well-nigh intolerable.  At my favorite coffee shop this morning (owned, I might add, by a Lebanese Muslim) the ceiling speakers were blasting out Jingle Bell Rock loudly enough to sour the little plastic containers of Half and Half. At Million Dollar Books, where I get my weekly supply of cheap novels and biased histories, it was Holy Night, followed by Three Kings and capped off with Little Drummer Boy, which rat-tat-tatted my ass right out of the store.

It’s hard to get away from the caroling, since we have made Christmas—a one-time pagan celebration—the centerpiece of the holiday economics. A totally unofficial (and vastly prejudiced) survey I carry out each year among my friends tells me perhaps one in ten likes Christmas music, and six in ten really detest it. One woman friend told me the sheer repetition and sandpaper effect of Noels make her want to cry. Another said she turns off her car radio from Halloween to January second, at which time she thinks it’s once more safe to tune in, but sometimes she gets fooled.  “January 4, 2005,” she recalls. “NPR ran a three-hour special of Christmas music from all over the world, narrated by Garrison Keillor. I stopped sending them money after that.”

The auto parts store that is an essential stop during my Sunday meanderings had a chorus of lumberjacks singing about partridges in pear trees, and when I asked the manager about it, he shrugged and said the company headquarters had ordered all stores to air the company radio, and that programming switched to Christmas tunes the Saturday following Thanksgiving. It has something to do with the franchise agreements. 

Bad events cooperating with bad music create the soundtrack for a hellish Sunday.

It’s my belief that carols are a deterrent to spending money. One is tempted to save in order to give one’s beloved all the gifts described in 28 Days of Christmas, or is it 12 days. No matter. It feels like 28 days.

Stores would be wiser to pipe in The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary or anything by Enya or Dvorak. But they probably won’t. Marketing, we all know, is the wide-ranging application of the lowest common denominator.  So tra la la la la to you, and happy deficit. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Silly me!  I thought Black Friday was the day after Thanksgiving when we’re somewhat disheartened, having, despite our best resolve, blown the diet by 5,000 calories. We’ve also come to terms, as we do each year at this time, that we do not like our twin cousins Eddy and Betty, or their mother, Aunt Trudy. We realize Uncle Pat will forever be getting drunk before the turkey is served, and there’s not a thing we can do about it. We are, as they say, powerless over people, places and things and we have to accept it. If we don’t, we will be very angry and depressed indeed. Thanksgiving is an odd holiday, a celebration of excess sugar, meat and fowl, strange tubers and gratitude.

The day of over-indulgence is followed by Black Friday, the holiday of over-spending.  Some stores open before dawn and promise savings such as are not seen in the lifetime of an average human. Indeed, these places, boiling over with the milk of human kindness, are almost giving away their wares, and who are we not to appreciate such sacrifices? If we are good, smart and discriminating shoppers, we will forthwith and without a second’s pause rush to such establishments, and partake of their kindnesses. Never mind that a recent survey showed that an alarmingly high number of us are still paying off the 2009 Christmas debt.

The newspaper in our driveway weighs eight pounds this morning, but only has five ounces of news. All the rest is catalogs, broadsheets, invitations to partake in the above-referenced incredible bargains, and if we go to the mall and spend a few hours (and dollars) there, we might be lucky enough to return after our houseguests have joined the crowded roads and airspace to return to Idaho, Maine or Florida.

Me, I’m always sort of lonely on Black Friday. I avoid taking the leftovers proffered the night before—tasty as they might be, they have no place in my fridge. I’m fairly certain most of the people I know are dealing with a bad tryptophan hangover. It’s hard to find someone to have lunch with. And it’s hard to find someone not dreading the next holiday, scheduled for less than a month from now. And people are moody after Thanksgiving. It simply never unfolds as it is supposed to. A friend calls it the most bitter of holidays. I suspect that long-term and short-term relationships end at Thanksgiving, possibly suffocated by the food, the environment and the resentments. It’s that kind of a day.

Going shopping on Black Friday is anathema. Really, I have nothing I need to buy, and I’ve already selected the presents I will give my friends. This being said, the 36-inch (diagonal) hi-def surround sound flat screen TV is tempting at the new, low low price. There will be a rebate too, and maybe even a few months’ of free cable access (basic subscription only). And a six month membership to Net Flix, a free copy of Avatar 3-D with accompanying glasses, a set of NFL mugs, 12 packs of microwave popcorn, a case of Diet Coke or Mountain Dew so the young ones can get really wired, and a big plastic bottle of mild salsa. This is almost too good to pass up; I could easily justify the purchase since they’re more or less paying me to take the thing home. It’s sort of like walking by a bar that’s offering free booze.  Who would pass such a deal?

So me, on Black Friday, I rake leaves. I go to one or two twelve-step meetings. I commune with my cat and vacuum the spent fur accumulated under the sofa. I think of friends both here and gone, and parents and siblings who’ve passed on. And I do give thanks for remaining at the top of the foods chain and realizing I don’t need any new doodad to appreciate being there.   

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death three 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 (la 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 (maïs). 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 maï 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 très 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 êtes pain comme un étudiant), 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 à être emballé), 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'étonnement 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 auprès 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 fête and no matter how well-fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I’ve been writing songs every since I was a little kid. The first one I remember, I was six or seven years old and Babette, age nine, whom I loved with fierce if uncertain passion, announced she had started taking singing lessons. I reasoned a song might be an appropriate way to impress her, but it didn’t turn out that way. I remember that she used the word anodyne, which is the same in French and English, and I thought it had something to do with mercurochrome, but it didn’t.

I wrote songs in my teens, but mostly I focused on other people’s stuff and quickly figured out that knowing a total of seven chords was more than enough to play 90 percent of what was on the radio. Then, in my late 20’s, I joined a bluegrass band and realized that bluegrass calls on three chords. I wrote a couple of instrumentals and learned to play them badly on the Dobro.

I estimate that by now I’ve written maybe 100 tunes. Most are pretty simple progressions though I occasionally like to throw in a C dim or an F#minor 7th just to keep things interesting. They’re both great and seldom used chords. I also spent time learning to play the pedal steel guitar, an insane instrument with two necks, 20 strings, eight pedals and five knee levers, plus a volume pedal. The instrument is devilishly hard to play but makes wonderful sounds and offers an unlimited range of chord changes.

For me, a song starts with a couple of words, perhaps a fragment of or a whole sentence, an image, a brief event, an interesting turn of phrase. Someone might make a comment, unexpected in its clarity or scope, or unwittingly use a phrase that causes a spark. Recently, an acquaintance told of fighting “sad little battles,” and it stuck. I’ll be doing something with that. Some time ago, a friend from whom I hadn’t heard in months called to say, “Dixie and me, we’re doing fine!” Dixie is her 15-year-old daughter and it was such a wonderful phrase that it became the refrain to a song about the slow death of a small town and the endurance of its survivors.
Occasionally, I come up with what I think is a good double-entendre. Then, invariably, tiny grappling hooks become embedded up there in my brain and stay determined not to let go until more words are found, until a story is told in its entirety. That’s what happened with Lucky Tonight, the tale of a philandering husband and his bingo-playing wife. And then sometimes it’s straight theft. An image from an existing song will beget a new and different concept…

All in all, it’s an enjoyable quest. I like the challenge of interesting rhymes (and it’s true, nothing rhymes with ‘orange’ unless you’re Cockney, then ‘door hinge’ sort of does) , the play of the meter, the cadence and intonations. When the first stanza has taken life, I type it out on an index card that I keep in my wallet.

By this time I also have a basic idea of the music itself. I’ve played long enough to have heard (and copied) unusual riffs and progressions, as well as special instrument tunings. Drop the high E string of a guitar to a D and you have a built- in chord machine used by just about everyone from Muddy Waters to the Stanley Brothers to Bowie to the Stones. I have a slide guitar using that tuning and can play some very cool licks just by barring the neck with my index finger.

I’ll never get rich at this. My stuff lacks the hook of pop music, but that’s OK. I’m perfectly happy being a basement player with an occasional open-mike outing. A decade ago, a bunch of friends and I formed a band recorded a CD, and it’s there for posterity. Want to listen? Go to the iTunes Store, look for Idylwood, and download December Light. At .99 cents, it's a bargain...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Who Are We?

Are we who others think we are? Or are we who we think we are? Or something in between the two?

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a Starbuck’s having coffee. One table away, an argument was raging between a man who appeared to be in his thirties and a slightly younger woman. I will take some editorial liberties remembering the exact words, but here was the gist.

He: “What makes you think you’re always right?  Most of the time you’re not. You’re wrong about almost everything.”

She: “No, I’m not. You think everyone thinks you’re really smart and have all the answers, but most of my friends don’t think that at all. They think you’re stupid and stuck up!”

He: “Everybody knows your friends are all idiots.”

She: “My friends think you’re an idiot, even if you boast about being a PhD. You know what PhD Stands for? Phony Dummy!”

He (gets up): I’m outta here!

She (stays seated): “And you think you dress well? You think you’re a male model? You get all your clothes at Sears and you smell like Hai Karate!”

He: “F*ck you!”

She: “No, f*ck you!

Throughout the debate I tried very hard to appear as if I’m not listening, assiduously stirring my coffee and staring into space. The young woman turns to me, makes a face and says, “He’s such an asshole!” Then she leaves, going in the opposite direction.

Well, now. Here are two people who really had difficulty buying into each other’s images of themselves. I have no idea who these folks were, though I can attest that the man did indeed look as if he dressed at Sears or maybe Home Depot. I did not get close enough to smell the alleged Hai Karate, which is just as well.

I know even less about the woman. Maybe her friends are all idiots, but I doubt it. Most people have at least one friend smarter than they are. I have several; in fact, just about everyone close to me is way smarter than I am.

I guess the point to all this is the realization that whatever image I have of myself is probably false. There may be a core concept that has some value but most of what I may see as both assets and shortcomings is probably inaccurate. My leaving a dollar in the Starbucks jar does not make me a big tipper, even though I might think it does. What I take as wittiness may be incredibly boring to others, and a head full of worthless trivia does not make me the fascinating person I may think I am. Nor, for that fact, do my limitations define me though for years I thought they did. Now I try to live with them as best I can, while working to mitigate their effects on others. I’m not often successful but at least it’s worth a try.

So. Who are you?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Fall is setting in, winter is a corner away. The sun leaves early and comes late, there’s frost on the windshield of my car and the defroster doesn’t work.

This is a bad time for a lot of people. Whether it’s the loss of light, the downward spiral of the temperature or the holidays galloping toward us, this is the season of lost expectations. Many of us haven’t accomplished what we wanted to during the year. We didn’t go skydiving, we didn’t end a non-working relationship, we’re still living in the one bedroom apartment over-looking the parking lot. We didn’t write the book, record the song, go back to school for our masters of doctorate, and we didn’t get around to painting the fresco. Hell, most of us haven’t even gotten around to painting the desperately shabby bathroom yet and, let’s be honest, it’s not going to happen in December because nothing good happens in December.

It’s not quite Thanksgiving, the Great America Holiday of Wretched Excess, and already the Christmas ads have hit the papers and TV. Catalogs are invading the mailboxes, promising the great joys of purchasing largely needless things—stuff, as George Carlin used to say. And, it turns out, one out of five Americans apparently suffers from the winter blues, and 17 million are affected by seasonal affective disorder. The term, now shortened to SAD, was coined in the mid-80s by psychiatrist Normal Rosenthal and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health. There isn’t a clear cause for SAD, but there are many theories. A prevalent one is that serotonin, the brain chemical that helps us feel happy and satisfied, dips when there is no light. This would be particularly meaningful in a place like the DC area, where in the midst of winter there are 15 hours of darkness and only nine hours of daylight. Another possibility is that the production of melatonin, a secretion that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to rise, is also partially regulated by light changes.

Certainly, in the ancestral part of our brains, we are programmed to sleep more in winter than in summer. We want to hibernate, since the hunting and gathering season is over and we need to conserve energy. Our bodies haven’t changed much in tens of thousands years, but our social systems have. Most of us work year-round, and outside of farming communities, the call of duty has little to do with the seasons.

So here’s some advice if you suffer from winter blues. Exercise more and eat less carbs. Let more light bathe your home—keep the blinds open, go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and get a a couple of cheap floor lamps. Throw a party, have guests over, get involved in some sort of community activity. If you truly suffer from SAD, go see your doctor and get more drastic—a light therapy box isn’t cheap but it’s not much to pay to avoid depression. And remember, December 21—the shortest day of the year, is not that far away.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Study schmudy...

A recent study performed in England discovered that booze does more harm to humans than do drugs. I hope the Brits did not spend millions of pounds on this one. The United Kingdom recently announced some serious cutbacks in almost every social program across the nation, and in this case, the researchers could have gone to any Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the world and probably come up with the same findings.

Here’s the deal: Heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth and methamphetamines may be more lethal to individual users than alcohol, but the latter so suffuses families and societies as a whole that the harm done to groups trumps that caused by other chemicals. And since alcohol has a negative effect on every organ in the body from the skin in, the liver, brain, kidneys, the stomach and digestive track, all take a hit. Continued use, as they say, leads at best to the emergency room and at worst to the grave or the asylum.  Even if the disease is caught in time, unless it is professionally supervised, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, which can’t be said of any other drug withdrawal.

The study also found that alcohol is connected to higher death rates and is involved in more crime and fatalities than any other drug, because drunks do stupid things. They drive and kill people; they hunt and kill people; they get mad and kill people; they get depressed and kill people… And of course hospitals spend unreimbursed millions of dollars treating end stage alcoholics, even as clinics and community-run rehabs are the first to lose funding when budgets run low.

Is there a solution? No, not really. Prohibition failed, and future attempts to ban alcohol will never succeed. Drinking is a part of social mores, and the alcohol lobby is easily as powerful as the NRA. Additionally, it would be completely unfair to remove from society something that gives harmless pleasure to a majority even as it may be fatal to a minority. Education makes a difference, and the acceptance of alcoholism as a disease that is treatable may, in the long run, mitigate the effects. More studies are unnecessary. Most of us know where alcohol abuse leads and many of us come from disintegrated families that were victimized by drunks.

Now a lot of us simply don’t drink, and in this way at least try to stay sane, connected and useful. It’s a small number, probably no higher than one or two percent of the people who shouldn’t drink, but it’s a start…

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Halloween doesn’t exist in France. I can’t remember any holiday that requires dress up, except for Le Jour des Rois, the feast of Kings, a one-time pre-Christian celebration during which a common man would be picked at random to become king for a day. Eventually this became the feast of the epiphany, and in France it is still celebrated with a special flat almond-flavored cake called a galette. Baked within the pastry is a fève, a tiny, hard-candy baby Jesus. If you’re lucky enough to find the fève without breaking a molar, you get to be king and wear a gold paper crown. Then you select a queen, and everyone drinks too much wine and gets tipsy. In recent times, if a woman finds the fève, she selects a king. France, after all, is a modern country.

The only holiday where a trick might be played is April Fool’s. Hardly seen here anymore, it is taken seriously in France and, for inexplicable reasons, is called Poisson d’Avril, April fish. It’s a day of practical jokes, the most hilarious of which is to pin a paper carp to the back of someone’s jacket. Why this is funny has always eluded me.

In my years here, I have seen Halloween virtually disappear, which is sad. Very few people come to the door nowadays, and if they do they’re small children accompanied by adults. There have been too many milk-carton stories of kids disappearing and understandably moms and dads are concerned, so that what once was a slightly scary time for adolescents haunting the darkened streets of their neighborhoods has morphed into an accompanied trip to the mall where kids go from store to store begging for candy. Or maybe it’s simply that the anti-sugar and pro-dentist forces have finally won.

I’m always tempted to give out radishes. They’re my favorite snack food, low-calorie, high-fiber, and satisfyingly crunchy, but like the rest of the population I buy bags of nutritious candy bars instead since I don’t want my home toilet-papered.

Halloween is the first of the dreaded fall and winter quintet that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s day. All, in one way or another, are celebrations of excess: specifically food, credit, inebriation and pink things from Victoria’s Secret.

Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pagans and Sobriety

A couple of days ago I went to a 12-step meeting for pagans. There were 10 of us, none outwardly pagan-looking, more like a cross-section of suburban shoppers at the strip mall. There were no spells, incantations or secret rites. We were there because for one reason or another, each of us had found reason to have difficulties with the Judeo-Christian aspect of 12-step programs in America. To wit, we do not want to say the Our Father prayer which more and more often is recited at the end of meetings. We do not like the concept of an anthropomorphic Higher Power. We do not want a Christian agenda attached to our recovery.

The meetings I normally attend have changed over the years. Many people no longer share, they testify. They thank Jesus for their sobriety as if He himself had driven a limo to their home and taken them to their first meeting.  My HP did not. I am not sure whether He/She/It is even aware of my existence and if so, whether the vagaries of my life are important enough to warrant divine involvement. I don’t think so.

I am also bothered by the fact that being so outwardly and aggressively Christian, the healing programs are alienating other cultures and faiths. I know Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, Muslims and a Zoroastrianist or two, Wiccans, agnostics and atheists who value their sobriety as much as anyone. Their faiths are essentially denigrated by the notion that the Christian god is The God and must be invoked if soberness is to follow.

I don’t expect things to change. Years ago I protested about the prayers and suggested a group rethink its recitations, and I was pulled aside after the meeting by an elderly lady who waved her cane aggressively in my face and snarled at me “Don’t even think about it!”

Ah, Christianity!  God bless her…

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Powerlessness is one of those notions you hear bandied about in 12-step programs. We pay homage to it, congratulate ourselves on our deep grasp of the concept, practice it whenever we can, and shrug our shoulders at events we deem beyond our grasp.  We are powerless over people, places, things, the weather, the neighbor’s irascibility, and the fact that gasoline will be twenty percent methanol within a short time, thereby fouling any car that still has a carburetor.

Powerlessness is an interesting idea. It’s linked to almost all organized religions and most people have adopted it without even being aware. When Mark Twain in a celebrated speech said, “We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is done about it," he perfectly illustrated the concept of powerlessness. We bitch, whine, complain, mumble and rumble, but in the end events—including weather—occur as they will.

But, as a friend once commented, “We may be powerless, but we’re not helpless…”  I take that to mean that yes, I very well may get hit by a bus in the near future, but if I opt not to walk in the middle of the street, I can improve the odds of not getting run over.  For the most part, I can choose to be out of harm’s way, thereby bettering the chances of survival. If, however, I choose to go into what another friend calls “the idiot spotlight,” i.e., dancing the tango in the middle of I-66,  I’m going to get flattened.

The powerlessness/helplessness conundrum slices through pretty much everything we do. If I accept that my best efforts are just that, and not necessarily deserving of miraculous results, then I have “helped” the outcome of a situation as best I can and am not in need of the idiot spotlight.

Lately, I’ve felt powerless over agents who don’t read my stuff or return calls. Such a lack of basic courtesy infuriates me.  My temptation is to bombard them with emails and phone them incessantly, but then an agent friend of mine tells me he routinely has thousands of pages of manuscripts to review… I’m sure successful agents handle dozens of writers and are deluged with manuscripts, so my harassing won’t serve a useful purpose. Powerless, damn it.

I still have to work on this stuff. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I’m a long way from achieving serenity and acceptance of all things. Like anything worth getting, it’s a long slow process, and I’m impatient.

I remember a Seinfeld episode where George’s father tries to reduce his stress by yelling, “Serenity now!”  

Maybe that’ll work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Phillippa Foot

Phillippa Foot passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 90. If her name doesn’t leap to mind, and if you haven’t read her book, Natural Goodness, or Vice and Virtue, her biography, well, you’re excused. There’s not that much room left nowadays for philosophers, and she spent the better part of her life exploring issues of virtue and ethics. She went back to the roots of Aristotelian thought which considered not just the consequences of an action, but the character of the person performing the action. The quote of hers I’ve always liked best is, “You ask a philosopher a question and after he or she has talked for a bit, you don’t understand your question any more.”

She is perhaps most well known for her exploration of “the trolley problem.” You are the driver of a runaway trolley that will kill five people if you do not switch tracks. If you do, however, the trolley will hit one person who will die. Judith Jarvis Thomson, an American moral philosopher and metaphysician, took this concept and spun it around. As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Another, more relevant example: if you had the opportunity to come up with a cancer vaccine that would save millions of lives, would you be ready to sacrifice hundreds of lives to develop it?

These are fine moral distinctions that can argued until we’re all blue in the face and die of asphyxiation. But they’re important. They stand at the crux of what we call societal thinking and behavior. Such questions are at the basis of any war, and most conflicts. What are we willing to sacrifice to achieve a beneficial end, and how much of such sacrifices can we stand before we decide our actions are no longer tolerable by society.

And here’s another thought: If we do not interfere with the runaway trolley, whatever happens, we can’t be blamed. The deaths of the five victims are an act of God. If, however, we manage to change the trolley’s direction so that it kills only on person, that death is our responsibility—it would not have occurred had we not acted.
Personally, I hope Phillippa Foot is up there talking with whoever is making the big and small decisions, and asking him for clarifications on a number of ethical issues. And I hope there are some answers for her.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

France, Italy, Gypsies

When I was a little kid in France, it was common knowledge that children who were bad would be taken by the Gypsies. I’m not sure what the Gypsies did with all the nasty French kids; maybe it never happened and maybe the Gypsies simply had a bad rep.

Now France and Italy are cracking down on Gypsy camps and expelling thousands from the two countries. It’s wrong, but in a period of high unemployment, failing economies and nationalistic fears, the Gypsies are a perfect target. They’re easy to spot, since they set up camps in dilapidated mobile homes and trailers generally outside large cities; their children are home taught and this lack of schooling is often seen as the root of Gypsy woes; they’re insular and refuse to be integrated with the larger native population, and yes, they’ve been tagged as inveterate criminals. Whether it is sane or not to paint an entire minority in such a manner is beside the point. In Paris and Rome, Gypsies have been credited with running purse-snatching gangs who prey on tourists and native alike, using either fleet-footed children or teen agers on mopeds. In other countries they run used car lots and chop shops; and they’ve been documented as traveling hundreds of miles to run roofing and paving scams.

The Romas have many names. In the UK and the United States, they’re often called Irish Travelers or Pavee. The French call them Romanichels and Tziganes; the Germans Yeniche. To Armenians they are the Lom people and in Asia they’re the Lyuli and Dom.

There are between 10 and 12 million Romas in Europe. Some 200,000 were exterminated by Hitler during World War 2. According to a recent article by the Associated Press, “The European Union has a directive on racial equality, sponsors biannual summits on the Roma's plight and funds aid projects. But critics say there is no continent-wide will to fix the problem, and it took France's crackdown on the Roma — cast as part of the conservative government's fight against crime — to awaken mainstream European concern.

“France, which has its own local Gypsies with deep roots here, also has a very small Roma population of newcomers from Eastern Europe, estimated at up to 15,000.”

France, a mainstay of the EU, considers itself a beacon of human rights, so many Europeans were shocked in July when French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office described camps of Roma newcomers as sources of "illicit trafficking, deeply disgraceful living conditions and the exploitation of children through begging, prostitution and delinquency."

France has a long-standing policy of expelling Roma newcomers, but Sarkozy's attack, and the ensuing expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania, drew new scrutiny. On Sept. 29 the European Commission began proceedings to take France to court over the expulsions.

This is good. Both France and Italy should be taken to task for their actions against the Romas. Intolerance of any stripe does not serve any nation well. Hopefully, other countries, including the US, will step in and make their discontent known. And hopefully the Romas themselves will see that the world has changed. The recession and their blinkered ways do not mix well and the time for Gypsies to be well, gypsies, is over.

Friday, October 8, 2010


A few days ago I was sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and some insane pudgy man with spiky blonde hair was on television yelling out the secret to making egg rolls. The TV set was bolted to the ceiling with a sign that said “Please Don’t Change the Channel” and “Ask the Nurse for Assistance.” I looked around at the other folks waiting and I couldn’t see so much as one single person paying any attention to the fat chef. I could see any number of people who seemed very annoyed at the noise. Some were trying to read, others to doze. Even the receptionist was flashing dark looks at the oversized cuisinier. To make matters worse, minutes earlier an orderly had told us the doctors were running up to an hour behind, which meant most of us were essentially being held hostage by the cooking channel.

I wondered what the purpose of the TV was. Certainly, it couldn’t be entertainment. No one was smiling, and I had the feeling that out of sheer spite, none of us would ever eat an egg roll again. I asked the receptionist if we could at least change channels but she said the remote was lost and we were not allowed to stand on a chair to do it manually. I asked her if she, at least, liked the show, and she told me she didn’t even notice it, which was a lie. She had been doodling little fat chefs with spiky hair on her calendar.

I think maybe the powers-that-reign at my HMO have decided that noise is better than no noise. Maybe if we are occupied hating the noise, we will be too busy to complain about the long wait, the $30 co-pay, and the lack of any magazines save the one put out by the HMO and the AARP monthly.

It made me wonder about the value of silence.

My home is quiet. Even though I own enough CDs to stock a small store, I rarely play them. I detest Muzak, loud trucks that belch black smoke, sirens and horns, people who shout and commercials where the decibel level is 50 percent higher than the show I’m watching. I think ear buds are pure evil—we’re raising a generation of Future Deaf People of America, and I don’t think that’s good.

But then again, I used to play in rock ‘n’ roll bands, so my hearing is already shot, and if I were thirty years or so younger, I wouldn’t listen to me about anything, much less a complain that the world is too damned loud.