Friday, January 29, 2010

Bye, J.D.

J.D. Salinger died yesterday. Who knew he was still alive? Not me--I swear I saw his obit in July 1976, in the Post next to a bicentennial fireworks story. Ninety-one years old, was Jerome David, an American icon who had vanished before our very eyes even as we kept staring at him.

Salinger was a god among writers, not for his style or originality, but for the amazing fortune he had of writing what he did, when he did. The Catcher in the Rye was his only book, a slender volume of 276 pages describing the coming of age of Holden Caulfield, a teen-ager who decides to run away before being expelled from school. It's frankly not that great a book but it somehow caught America's eye when published in 1951, and Salinger was catapulted to fame rivaling that of Mark Twain, Hemingway, Whitman, and a host of better and more prolific authors. In the mafia that is literature, with his one killing he became a made man.

He never wrote another book. His short stories were published by the New Yorker and some other mags. His last story, Hapworth 16, 1924, appeared in 1965. He never taught, never attended a writers' conference, never authored a book review. He was not given the Pulitzer. He did not play in a rock and roll band or narrate his work for Books on Tape. In fact, after Catcher, he pretty much never did anything again. He spent the rest of his life in Cornish, New Hampshire, avoiding scrutiny and fleeing others. He had a seven month affair with a woman who later reported that she left because the sex was bad.

He had an unpleasant surprise with Hollywood's interpretation of one of his tales, and steadfastly balked at Catcher being made into a film, even as stars vied for the part. According to Wikepedia, Jerry Lewis wanted to play Holden, despite not having read the novel until he was in his thirties. Celebrities ranging from Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson to Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio tried to make a film adaptation. In an interview with Premiere magazine, John Cusack commented that his one regret about turning twenty-one was that he had become too old to play Holden Caulfield.

J.D. wanted no part of it, though now that he's gone, the novel will almost certainly be sold to the highest bidder.

His book influenced a generation of popular fiction writers, as did his subject matter. Coming-of-age was treated spectacularly in Earl Thompson's trilogy (A Garden of Sands, Tattoo, and the unfinished The Devil to Pay) and well by Michener (The Fires of Spring), Uris and a host of others.

No doubt Salinger must have thought Catcher would be a hard act to follow. That may explain why he never tried for a sequel or prequel. Thank God for that.

I have the edition with the brown cover and yellow lettering. I've seen it in more homes than I can recall, and my local librarian says she tries to keep seven or eight copies on the shelves, but it's one of the books most often not returned. I've read it in French and in English.

Great work, J.D. . Rest well.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hi Mr. Insurance! How're they hanging Ms. Gee-em? Nice day for all you guys, isn't it Mr. Bigoil? In a miracle worthy of the loaves and fishes, you have been conferred Humanity. The Supreme Court worked this amazing tour-de-force, and so you now have the right to free speech (denied, by the way, to former convicts, and you've all been convicted of a few felonies in the past, but who's looking) and as such, you can vote. With your money. Is this a great country or what?

Seriously folks, did five out of the nine justices have a simultaneous senior moment? Was there no one on that bench willing to tackle Anthony Kennedy, drag him to the men's room and tell him, "Hey, Kenny, this is a really bad idea! In fact, this is the worst idea you guys have had since Bush vs. Gore!"
Guess not.

So what does this all mean? For one, the monstrously large insurance companies will be able to spend boundless funds to promote and elect the likes of Joe Lieberman, who will, in turn, continue to whittle away at health care reform. It means hard-won environmental measures will be rolled back. It means Wall Street and the big banks will have a much easier time going back to the behavior of yore, which caused the mess we're in. It means the country will be ruled as a plutocracy, where power is provided by wealth.

Personally, this scares the hell out of me. Plutocrats like war--it's great for business. They generally also like the status quo that has enabled them to remain plutocrats. believes only a constitutional amendment reversing the Supremes' decision can save us now. I'd like to suggest an amendment too. Mine is simple, it would read that if you are a citizen of the United States, you are not required to vote but you are required to show up at the polls and declare your non-voting statues. That's all.

This nation has one of the lowest voter turn-out rates in the world. I would contend bringing people to the polls will tempt them to vote. And I would bet that most Americans will not be that thrilled to see the plutocrats filling their pockets. They might even vote against them.

OK, it's not a perfect solution, but it's a hell of a lot better than destroying two decades of laws that attempted to make elections fair and transparent, which is what the Supreme Court did last week.

It's my opinion, and I share it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I am on Kindle. My blog, after almost two years and a couple of hundred entries, has hit the big time. I will, once again, be paid for writing, and let me tell you, it's been a long while.

Now admittedly I have only one person subscribing via Kindle. This erudite reader pays $1.99 a month, of which 30 percent is deposited directly into my bank account. That's 60 cent, folks, a not laughable sum. This time next year I will be able to spend my blog money on a Reuben at Jason's down the street. I am immensely grateful and plan to further spread my fame across the screens of Borders' Sony Reader and Barnes & Nobles' Nook.

The Kindle people are no fool. In order to read my own blog, I'd have to subscribe too, which I am not going to do. That would be unethical. At breakfast this morning a friend suggested I go to the homes of everyone I know and, claiming I need to check my email on their computers, secretly subscribe them. I'm sneaky. I could probably pull it off but that may be unethical as well, though not as much as self-subscription.
On a serious note, I am all in favor of digital books; anything that allows people to read more is a boon, and if it is at the cost of ink and paper, so be it. Audio books have been Ariond for quite some time; writers now use computers and word processing programs without a second thought and it's only fair that readers be allowed to do the same.
I bought my Kindle used, on eBay for about $120. The original owner had already upgraded it with a bigger chip. It's a first generation, which means the keyboard is split down the middle, but that's of no concern. I don't really plan to write with it. It came with the complete Oxford English Dictionary and the works of Shakespeare. Since I'm a cheapskate, I immediately downloaded all the free stuff I could find--there a lot of it on the net--so here's a hint: To get all the free books Amazon currently carries for Kindles, go to the Kindle store and in the 'search for'
line, type in $0.00 and hit 'enter.' All the free books will come up.
And if you have a mind to subscribe to a really good blog (this one), enter Wasted Miracles. A buck nine-nine! Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Success & Money

We are immersed in Success--mostly that of others--and I wonder if it's good for us.

On a daily basis the accomplishments of perfect strangers are shoved down our throats. Every media available depicts the fame, fortune and bad-taste-bling of people most of us would not invite over for dinner, and at probably no other time in history has this sense of m'as tu vu (French for 'look at me') been as prevalent as it is today. It's odd. A friend says it's not so much a question of envy as of head-shaking disgust with what is seen as going way over the top, repeatedly.

A good example are the MacMansions that have taken over my neighborhood. These houses have nothing of the singular or stylish to them. They are cookie-cutter homes and not built as well as my Korean War-era GI Bill special. They have no yards, but all have three- or four-car garages. One gets the impression that they were put together to last 10 to 15 years, and will certainly never be a part of anyone's inheritance. According to another acquaintance in the building trade, the coming thing in such homes will be minimally sized kitchenettes, since an entire generation of people now refuses to cook anything more meaningful than popcorn. They occupy space, are sold for four times their building costs to people who often can’t afford them. I was in one recently. There was no furniture in the living room save an old sofa and a state of the art home entertainment system. Classy…

High end cars are much the same. Talk to anyone with a knowledge of exotics such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis--once the possessions of the very upper class--and they will tell you that the newer cars can't hold a candle to the ones fabricated even 20 years ago. Recent models are shoddily built and designed to be traded in at incredibly diminished values within a year or two. Basically, these once proud marques have become m'as tu vu cars.

Thirty years ago, the word 'bourgeois' intimated everything people detested about a consumer-oriented society, and a musical on Broadway had a song titled "F*ck the Bourgeoisie." Today it seems as if there really is no upper class to speak of and the bourgeoisie now comes in several tiers: lower lower, lower-middle, upper-middle and so on, until we reach high ostentatious.

I wonder what this does, subliminally, to our collective egos? Of course there have always been the haves, the have-less and the have-nots and certainly in the land of Horatio Alger, the wealth of others remains a benchmark one could hope to attain. But with the advances of stupid money--that is to say riches that defy good sense given to nouveaux riches who lack any dregs of elegance—and runaway credit, we've come to foster examples of wealth that no longer has any social relevance. Urban kids are willing to kill for team jackets and the latest Adidas. Everyone deserves--no, needs--a Mercedes. Bankruptcy proceedings are followed by a rush of financial offers for credit since the bankrupt now have a clean slate.

Basically, money no longer has the relevance it once had. It has become a cheap commodity, and that perception is going to be a hard one to change, if indeed it can be changed. Money without real value--now that's one hell of a concept!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Sunday breakfast, rainy day, cleverly disguised coffeehouse on the street level of an expensive condo in an expensive small town near Washington, DC. The three of us, Peter, Loren and I, have been meeting Sunday mornings for a few years now. We are old friends bound by time and shared experiences, and we enjoy the flights of ideas that hover above the table.

We've all been reading the papers and watching the news, amazed at the ongoing dance of organizations, leaders and countries great and small who remain obstinately unwilling to be held accountable for the miscreants in their ranks.

First and foremost is the Muslim world, numbering between 1.6 and 1.8 billion. Active within this number, much like a cancerous virus, are some 10,000 terrorists who, as terrorists do, are perfectly willing to sacrifice life and limb to their varying causes. The leaders of nations harboring the terrorists maintain that these criminals are beyond their controls, unreachable and beyond the arm of the law. This, of course, is poppycocks, as our British friends say. Closer to the truth is that the terrorists serve a purpose. The leaders get a great deal of money from other nations to deal with the problem. The more terrorists there are, the more anti-terrorist money flows into the leaders' coffers. Additionally, the leaders are seldom on sure footing, so it is better to be pals with the bad guys than not. Lastly, many such leaders are already in the terrorists' pockets. So they claim a powerlessness to remedy the situation. Call this a variation of the 12-step mantra that we are all powerless over people, places and things. But as anyone actively involved in any twelve-step program knows, powerlessness and helplessness are not synonymous.

Part of the social contract discussed by John Locke and later Jean-Jacques Rousseau some three centuries ago establishes that humans have made a deal with governments, and that within the context of the agreement, government and people have distinct roles. Humans contribute to society and government, and the government in turn provides a social structure and, most important, protection. This has seen some serious erosion in the past 20 years as governments allow groups of individuals to practice a form of natural law, that is to say live in a natural state permitting actions harmful to the group. This, in a nutshell, is what terrorism is all about--the abrogation of rule to meet an end.

In essence, the world is being held hostage by some 10,000 ruffians. That's roughly the population of Hendersonville, Tennessee, or Anetta, Texas. That minute segment of the world's population (there were approximately 6.8 billion of us as of last year) is responsible for billions of dollars spent world-wide in the war against terrorism, countless lives lost on the front, and an endless series of large and small annoyances that plague daily life. It could be said that to an extent the terrorists have won. They've forced us to change our ways of life, our behaviors, our thinking, our day to day existence.

All this because a few nations have decided to allow lawlessness to thrive within their borders and plead outraged innocence at the results of their choices. The Saudis are a good example: we have a tendency to forget that the perpetrators of 9/11 were Saudis, that al Qeda's leadership is Saudi, that Saudi Arabia has done remarkably little to stem the growth of terrorism, terrified as it is of an internal revolution that would oust the present leadership. And yet Saudi Arabia is but one nation. Yemen, Lybia, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the Sudan and a host of other countries have accepted if not welcomed forces hostile to the West. With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Theodiocy & Theodiotics

Here are two brand new words--I just made them up this morning and I'm throwing it out there hoping it will become part of the lingua Americana. Theodiocy is the idiotic belief that one knows God's will. A theodiot is a person who practices Theodiocy. To do so is theodiotic.

Pat Robertson immediately comes mind. The Fatuous One recently opined that the earthquakes that ravaged Haiti were the results of Haitian rebels making a bargain with the devil in the 1800s so as to win independence from France. Robertson now stands once again in the moron spotlight. He seems to like it there. Perhaps it keeps him warm.

Theodiocy is practiced by anyone who claims to have a direct line to a higher power's musings. Popes have been theodiotics for centuries--nay, millenia. Insufferable folks of any stripe who maintain their god is better than yours are theodiotics. Terrorists, naturally, occupy the very top rung of theodiocy. Theodiots are easy to spot. They do not talk, they testify. Their prayers are louder than anyone else's in the room. They claim not to proselytize but do so without respite. They are generally very, very boring.

So, go out there, enjoy employ the new words freely. Ideally, I'd like them to show up in a year or so in a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, but I'll settle for the Washington Post. Or Webster's.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

I Once Dated a Woman

who had bad feet, bad eyes, depression, insomnia, hemorrhoids, carpal tunnel syndrome, clenched jaw syndrome, lousy ankles, freezing extremities and a host of additional ailments minor and major. She survived on Butterfingers, PMSed three-and-a-half weeks a month, and was, as it turns out, sleeping with another man. She was the writer of two published novels and she lived with an almost-dead cat in a grand old house that was filthy beyond description, a haven for cat hair and dustballs the size of a toddler's head. But she had great cheekbones and spoke passable French, she knew of a great restaurant for steak pommes frites, she was an adamant carnivore and she had interesting friends who seemed to like me.

There was something initially charming about the intellectual chaos that surrounded her, the stacks of unread books everywhere, the broken-legged sofa covered with a Hopi blanket from New Mexico, even the clothing closet I'd been asked to straighten up, only to discover a ludicrous photo of her other lover on a sailboat, shielding his privates with a sailor's cap. She liked talking about her exes, prided herself on the fact that many were still friends who would come and spend the night in the guestroom when they were in town. She taught writing, wrote book reviews for major newspapers and was regularly published in the better short-story magazines. She was constantly overworked, exhausted, on the edge of a major breakdown.

Her depression surfaced like a U-boat whenever we fought which, towards the end, was often. I would drive 90 minutes to see her and find her in tears over a comment made by an illiterate freshman student, or by a neighbor, a store clerk, a colleague. She would lock herself into her room, demand that she not be disturbed. I would go to the local eatery, order a slice of pizza and a diet Coke and wonder about the meaning of life.

My picker, as they say in the rooms, is often broken. I have a tendency to forge relationships with people who are, for one reason or another, largely unavailable. I am not the only one with this ailment, witness the growing ranks of Al Anon attendees, and judging from what I hear there, I wonder if broken pickers aren't more likely to be poorly built pickers. Most people I know who find themselves in untenable situations with friends or significant others come from families where the exact same scenario existed a generation earlier. Alcoholic mothers and absent fathers, poverty or over-wealth, haphazard lifestyles that did little or nothing to engender an environment of warmth and safety.

I have a friend, a woman who has been counseling other women for years and has a respected and thriving practice, who's persuaded that at the core of any alcoholic woman's issues is a thread--or rope--of sexual abuse. I those cases, she believes, addiction serves to mask the unspeakable. In men the antecedents are different, I'm sure, and I don't know what they are. Overbearing mother? Bullying siblings? Poor male role models? I have no idea... I do know that as many men get into impossible relationships as do women, though not necessarily to each other. It's a vast and confusing world out there, and, as we know--or should know--all relationships, even the best ones, end in tragedy. There are no survivors.

I often wonder about the few couple I know--older folks for the most part--who've had marriages lasting several decades. They've often been separated for months or years by war or work, and if anything the separations have made them stronger.

Maybe that's the problem; we have it too easy nowadays.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I've only willfully thrown out two books in my entire life. The first was sometimes in the early 80's, a paperback novel the rights to which had been purchased by a man for whom I worked, in the hopes of making a blockbuster independent film.

Basically, the plot was set somewhere in the Bahamas. It involved jewel thieves, spies, a man and a woman having an affair, a drug deal and--if I remember correctly--a kidnapping. It wasn't a long book, 300 pages perhaps, but it became obvious on page 292 that the author had no intention of resolving the various situations in which his characters were involved. So on page 297, he put all his folks--the kidnappers, thieves, and dealers, the spies and the lovers--in a restaurant. Then he blew up the restaurant's boiler. Everybody died.

This was not your standard deus ex machina. No, this was an act of terrible laziness on the part of everyone involved in the book's publication. The writer, editors, p.r. folks and bookstores simply decided to sell a piece of crap based on a title--the name of an island--and the hope that the book would not get reviewed.

I was so angry that I tore the book's covers off and mailed the circumcised edition back to the publishing house with an insulting note. When I told the film-maker that he had thrown away a couple of thousand dollars on something that wouldn't, couldn't, see the light of day, he got very upset, fired me and hired another writer. The movie was never made.

The second time I threw a book away was last week. In this particular case, the author relied on scientific gobbledygook to justify the existence of a bulletproof monster who was disemboweling the staff of a research station north of Alaska. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's been done. The Thing comes to mind, as do a few hundred other sci-fi/horror books published in the last 30 years. This was a terrible book because once again, the author was lazy. He'd had a success a year before with a remarkably similar plot set in Central America. That book was made into one of the worst movies of 2009 and it's obvious that he hopes his latest atrocity will be a repeat. Probably, it will.

Here's the rub. We've reached an interesting point in popular reading. The overwhelming majority of book buyers are no longer interested in having to think about what they're ingesting, hence the spate of truly meaningless books and the slow disappearance of what might be called meaningful literature. Again, there's no surprise here. What we come up against is the growth of instant gratification in pretty much everything: instant communication, instant response, instant decision-making, instant anything. We've sped up the world and left very little up to the imagination, and we've Facebooked ourselves into an all-around lowest common denominator. It's sad, and it explains why--outside of romance writers--there are fewer novelists making a full-time living at their trade than there are professional football players.
Here's another interesting statistic: if you were to lump all the writers together and include everyone from the newsletter lady at the church to the professor seeking tenure to the immensely successful people like Amy Tan or Stephen King, the average annual income of a writer would be approximately $300. Under-read, underpaid.

There may be a dim light on the horizon. Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Nook and other electronic wonders may save our collective asses by providing yet another instant gratification: the instant book. No need to go to the store or to carry a weighty tome--an entire library is at your disposal for a minimal fee. So there. Start reading, there're no excuses left.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stupid Money, Stupid Behavior

Pay me $111 million to do what I do best--write--for the next six years. Add a clause that if I develop carpal tunnel syndrome while pounding the keyboard, I'll be allowed to take a couple of years off and not produce anything. I promise I will be colorful. I will take my shirt off and throw it to my adoring fans at book conventions. I will provide colorful and witty interviews. Children will like me. I will make funny jokes. I will revolutionize modern American literature and I will bring firearms to my place of work because that's a really funny joke.

When I do the latter, you may get upset, and you may suspend my right to write. I will apologize because there's still $80 of that $111 million out there, a sizable chunk of stupid money, and to the best of my knowledge no writer in the history of this world has ever been paid that much.

One hundred and eleven million dollars given to a young man with a cool name because he can throw a round object into a slightly wider round basket is stupid money. It's stupider money than even Donald Trump or Madoff money, it's stupider than putting explosives in your pants and setting yourself on fire. Call it moron money.

There's plenty of moron money about, it seems. One hundred million dollars of it was recently promised to another young man whose specialty is knocking other men down. More millions have been paid to the very people who brought the American economy to the brink of failure (I'm thinking here of American International Group Inc. which in December was preparing to pay its departing general counsel several million dollars in severance after she resigned over federal pay curbs, according to the Wall Street Journal. AIG determined that Anastasia Kelly was entitled to the money under the company's severance plan, whose terms say certain executives can resign and collect severance if their pay is reduced significantly. Way to go, Annie!) Numbers a hundred times that large have been given to rescue the investors behind the world's tallest building and in November, we learned Wall Street had ear-marked $117 billion--that's billion--for bonuses.

Lemme catch my breath. All these big round numbers could turn a man's (or woman's) head. perhaps even lead to immature behavior. Like wielding guns in the locker room of a team formerly called the Bullets.

Personally, with that kind of loot, I'd get my 1989 Avanti fixed--it needs a new transmission--and maybe find better quality goldfish for my pond. I might purchase a publishing house on the verge of bankruptcy, hire some real editors and get all my friends Kindles. I'd invest in motorized in-line skates. I'd learn to play the piano and repair the slow leak in the ceiling of my utility room. I'd plant an asparagus bed, put speed bumps in my street, and buy my mailman new, top-of-the-line waterproof boots. Not counting the publishing house, I think that's good for about $10K. The rest of it might go to establish an international competition to find a cure for... well, pretty much anything that afflicts us. Traffic, all sorts of illnesses, stupidity.

Oh, speaking of the latter and a propos nothing, this just in: A man was arrested yesterday night for stripping naked near the White House and going for a jog. That has to be worth something.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I'm Sick...

... and it sucks. There's nothing special about the illness, it's a common cold that makes itself felt pretty much all over, and a lot of my acquaintances are suffering in the same manner. But it stops the daily flow of things; it interrupts normalcy and from that perspective it's a hindrance.
I've been fortunate health-wise. No major illnesses (aside from addiction, which I suppose is pretty major) in my lifetime. I have friends who are not so lucky. Hepatitis, muscular sclerosis, renal failure, agonizing spinal issues, and other insidious maladies have laid them low. I watch and admire their courage and wonder whether I would have it were I in their shoes, because here's the thing: my family has been riddled with cancer. Both my oldest sister and my mother succumbed to it. My father when he was in his sixties had a terrible bout with The Big C and a large part of his colon was removed. He survived but was never the same. So every time I get ill, even if it's minor, I wonder if it might not somehow mutate into something far worst and deadly.
Certainly there have been major discoveries in the nature of the disease, and these have increased the survival rate, but as any medical school hopeful learns early on, there are only a handful of illnesses we can cure; mostly, we deal with pain and symptom management. And in any case, treatments that work--that is to say very expensive treatments--are beyond the reach of most. Survival is--and always has been--a rich person's game.
I stopped smoking about 13 years ago, stopped drinking and drugging even before that. I gave up caffeine, mostly, and try to eat well. In short, I am generally pretty healthy and better prepared in many ways than most of the people I know. My will is current, as are instructions not to prolong life unnecessarily. This being said, I'm pretty certain cancer will get me. How I'll react to the inevitable, though, is still up in the air. I hope it's with dignity. But just in case, in a few years I will have "Do Not Resuscitate" tattooed on my chest, if only to make sure.