Sunday, February 28, 2010

Marriages, etc.

I've had the privilege of being married twice, and of having had four serious live-in relationships over the past 35 years. I helped to raise four kids, and saw a menagerie of dogs, cats, reptiles, mice, rats, guinea pigs, ants, praying mantis and birds fill my house and then vanish.

It amazes me.

For the past three or four years, though, I've essentially been living by myself, and I've come to like it in a subdued manner. I miss companionship, late night conversations, meals made for two, plans carried out. I miss physical intimacy, help in the garden and shoveling the walk, shared expenses, grocery lists and accomplishments. On the other hand, I'm happy to wake when I do and not feel the need to be quiet and unobtrusive in deference to another's sleep. I like playing my music loud, or not at all. I like making my own hours and cherish my ever-changing cheese collection, plastic baggies of deli meats and over-abundant spicy andouille sausage supply. I don't mind--and perhaps even prefer--coming home to an empty house that holds no surprises.

But I do know this: living alone has made me physically and intellectually lazy. Lately, I've been feeling emotionally lethargic as well, as if things that mattered much to me over many years no longer do. Challenges are unchallenging. I imagine myself groundhogging through the better part of the winter, awakening to see my shadow and deciding, what the hell, lets sleep another season. I have a notion that is is probably not the healthiest way to live, but am not motivated enough to change right now. Too much Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, not enough Beatles and Stones.

That will change. I haven't been writing aside from these blogs; I'm stuck, the characters in my book are somehow immobile, their feet mired in the pages. I'm used to them being my company, my friends and critics, and their inactivity fosters mine. I'll soon find a thread--a lifeline, really--and they'll waken from their hibernation with more stories to tell, more adventures for me to chronicle, but in the meantime they are about as alive as poured concrete statues.

I once wrote that I like my characters a lot more than most people I know, and this earned an anonymous response from someone who claimed I was at best demented and at worst subject to deistic fantasies. This is entirely possible, and even probable. It's easier to create universes and small lives in solitary than it is in a crowd, and I've always believed a huge, god-like ego is necessary to invent the full world of a poem, a painting, a symphony or a novel.

Part of all this, I think, is winter. I'm of the opinion that deep within our lizard brain are vestigial needs, including a desire to hibernate when the hunting and gathering is slim. (There's even a theory that contagious yawning [I yawn, you yawn, every body yawns] is nature's way of ensuring that we all hibernate at the same time. )

OK, that was a digression. What I am looking for here is a justification to stay lazy at least until the jonquils come up... What I should do is pretend I don't live alone, fill my house with friends, rededicate myself to the creative process and come up with at least eight ideas for the Great American Novel. Starting tomorrow.


Tomorrow I turn 64, and I feel... remarkably little. Well no, that's not accurate. I'm not sure how I feel save to say somewhat Sartrian. The world has turned out to be much bigger than I originally thought, and my contributions to it smaller than I'd hoped. I am finding there is something fascinating--possibly freeing--about being in the last fifth of one's life, but too many fears remain the same, and the image I see in the mirror can no longer fool itself that it's 1980. The passions of earlier years have evanesced.

I'm not sure why it's increasingly difficult to get excited about ideologies and movements. There is a sense that my generation's body of work has left only a faint imprint outside the boundaries of popular art, and though it's the right of every age to complain about the younger ones, this time around it seems justified. We've entered some truly scary times, times that make me glad I have no children--I would fear for their future and doubt their ability to survive. I believe morals have changed and lives come more cheaply. The instruments of violent death--from Saturday night specials to stinger missiles--are now commonplace and wielded by adolescents, while we have lost that sense of moral outrage that fuels sane behavior and acceptable social conduct. We've accepted the easier, softer way and this is not a good thing.

Simultaneously, while being willing to accept unacceptable behavior, we've also become criminally litigious and developed an environment of suspicion and qualms. With communities terrified of accidents and besieged by lawsuits, children no longer play in playgrounds. In fact, in many neighborhoods, children no longer play.

This isn't to say it's all bad; it isn't. There has been social progress in some areas, righting of wrongs and a freer acceptance of others' differences. But I can't shake the feeling that we're imploding. We're living longer than ever, and there have been remarkable increases in longevity just in the last few years. But is that in and of itself good? Is staying around for the sake of staying around an end onto itself? Too many debts and not enough money at all levels from the international to the individual; too many ways to communicate increasingly less; too much isolation in the midst of overcrowding. I may be wrong but I get the feeling we're increasingly passive, willing to watch things go by rather than participate.

But then again, what do I know? A signal advantage of getting older is that one can become irascible--in fact, it's expected. I'm getting to like being curmudgeonly and plan to improve and increase this skill.

You've been warned.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Great Highway Robbery

The area where I live--just south of the nation's capital--is nationally famous for having the third-worst traffic congestion in the country. I am at the epicenter of it where the Capital Beltway girding Washington, DC, intersects with Route 66 (not the one of rock 'n' roll fame. There no kicks to be found there.)

Kindly put, it's a mess of great proportions. In the past decades, the Virginia suburbs have sustained explosive growth without a corresponding increase in infrastructure and the roads have become a chaos worthy of any Third World country. Indeed, they remind me of what I encountered while in West Africa in the 80s. Potholes, badly made repairs that engender worse conditions within months, unsynchronized traffic signals, stalled traffic in mile-long lines spewing diesel fumes into the air. The rush hour in Northern Virginia starts at four in the morning and ends at 10 at night six days a week. And we do not rest on the seventh day. We drive to Washington and create traffic problems there too.

The legislation views these issues with benign concern. The solution most often relied upon is the building of more roads, as if such a giant step sideways might indeed indeed cure the traffic ills. The result is quite opposite. Creating new roads, or adding lanes to existing ones, creates additional traffic snarls that will last well into the next decade. Since there seems to be a philosophy of denuding road construction areas of any and all vegetation for miles around, we are losing the small amount of green stuff that helps make life here pleasant while adding acres of impermeable surface to the land, and contributing to erosion, silting and degradation of the Potomac river basin. I drive (no, my car staggers) daily through red clay-colored moonscapes devoid of trees or grass, with makeshift ramps that merge 80 mph maniacs with five miles-per-hour commuters already nearing road rage.

Here's another thing: Does anyone truly believe that the surfacing materials --tar,macadam, cement and other antiquated mixtures thereof--are the best we have to offer? Is there planned obsolescence in our roadways? Many think so. Europeans, meanwhile, are experimenting with rubber-based surfaces made from recycled tires, while some developing countries are looking into plasticized plant fibers that are highly resistant to heat, wear or water.

The point here is that our roadways are disintegrating, and that building additional ones to solve this problem is a fool's errand. What we need is address not the road, but the road user--the daily drivers, commuters and truckers.

Lets give people willing to operate a van pool a free van, gasoline vouchers and discounted parking. Lets invest the single drivers during rush hours with the same shame we now heap upon smokers while offering tax breaks to carpoolers and businesses that promote flextime and ridership programs. Lets promote permeable road surfaces, bicycle and skating lanes, motorcycles and micro-cars.

Solving basic transportation issues is easier--and cheaper--than running wars across the world. Probably, better for people, too. It's not brain surgery, it's common sense. Lets make the road less traveled.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Simpler Times

Many, many years ago, I lived in a city commune. I specify 'city' because, unlike our country cousins, we didn't grow tofu or harvest honey or macrobiotic mushrooms. We all had city jobs, we all drank Gallo's worst and smoked a lot of dope, and we all thought it would be cool to live with members of the opposite gender and have a lot of free sex. The house itself was a ramshackle edifice on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and it still exists, though now gentrified and condoed.

There was my friend Michael, already married and divorced with child, a big, handsome easy-going guy with silver hair that drove the girls mad. His brother, Mark, was far less charming. Mark was thief and and a bottom-rung con man who would and did steal anything not nailed down and then hide it in an aggressively obvious place where it would be found. Marty was a red-headed stewardess with a weakness for Burt Reynolds. Weird Nardi, who dressed entirely in denim and smelled of horse liniment, had a saddle in his room and made neighing sounds in the night. Danielle, a gorgeous black girl who worked for a newspaper downtown, was quiet and studious. She liked to walk around in her bras and panties, which made Weird Nardi snort like a palomino.

The joke was that if there was a sexual revolution going on, we never found the front. The great free sex never happened though Michael did seduce the downstairs tenant's room-mate/girlfriend. The tenant abandoned her and moved out after throwing a bucket of excrement through our front door. There was a house meeting and Michael was made to clean it up.

Mostly we cooked pasta by the tens of pounds, haunted local bars, and made bets about the nature of St. Bart's Hospital across the street.

Michael and I thought it was some sort of city-run euthanasia center. Nobody ever seemed to leave St. Bart's though plenty of older, black people went in. We never saw a uniformed nurse enter the building; every day, though, at the hospitals side entrance, a line of funeral home vans gathered corpses in body bags.

We entertained. We sat in the dark, lit up braided dry-cleaning bags, watched them burn slowly and drop napalm-like fluids into a pan of water. It make a disturbing hissing sound. We listened to Alice Cooper. We bought marijuana from Paranoid John. who came by every month or so bearing a bag of groceries with grapefruits and bananas and a few ounces of oregano-laced dope. Paranoid John was persuaded the CIA was after him, and would only meet one of us, at midnight, near the entrance of the Chun King restaurant down the street. He insisted on being paid in rolls of quarters since he distrusted paper money. One day he didn't show up for a pre-arranged meet, and we never saw him again, so maybe his paranoia was well-founded.

Danielle would occasionally bring a pale, white musician home to spend the night. This drove Weird Narji crazy, and he would turn up the volume on his Sons of the Pioneers LP. Eventually, following threats to his record collection, we'd give Weird Narji ten dollars and send him to the Hawk and Dove, a bar down the street. He'd get stupidly drunk. The owner knew him, and would let him crash behind the bar after closing.

I don't know where any of these people are today, though Michael died in a single-car crash, leaving behind an eight-year old daughter and Mark disappeared after leaving for South America to make "a major drug score." Martie, Danielle, Weird Narji and a host of others who came, stayed and left after a week or a month, all these good and bad folks have moved on, as have I.

Recently, I drove past the house and saw that St. Bart's hospital was closed. The house itself now contains eight condos with a rack for a half-dozen bicycles. The small front yard is a parking lot for six cars. I suspect the ghost of Paranoid John still haunts the neighborhood, the last inhabitant of a much simpler time.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Eek! It's Meese!

OMG! Meese is back! MEESE! I thought he was dead! What, the name doesn't ring a bell? Ed Meese, 75th Attorney General of the United States under The Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan? Ed Meese, celebrated for wasting tens of millions of tax dollars on a three-volume government study of pornography, which contained more than a hundred pages of porn flick titles? Ed Meese who was instrumental in spending $30,000 to drape a statue of Justice, whose exposed breasts offended him? Yeah, that Meese. That's him in the above photo, should he bump into you at Safeway. Kind of looks like everybody's favorite weird uncle...

Meese recently signed a conservative manifesto--The Mount Vernon Statement--complete with a George Washington impersonator in attendance to add a bit of veracity. The crux of the document is that the government is ignoring the limits of the Constitution. Read: lets roll back abortion rights, gun control, health care reform, that kind of offensive stuff. It was a great photo op.

And speaking of gun control, let it be known that you can now bring firearms into 392 national parks. That law was signed by President Obama as a rider to a credit card bill, and will allow folks to bring concealed weapons along with their picnic baskets onto federal parkland. The bill was sponsored by Tom Coburn, the Republican Senator from Oklahoma. Remember that name next time someone takes a shot at you as you're enjoying the scenery. Some 275 million visitors came to the park in 2008. Major crimes were committed there, 3,760 of them, to be exact, including homicides and 37 reported rapes. Undoubtedly, a bunch of yahoos carrying concealed Berettas will make things safer...

Is this a great country or what?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On Writing

George Orwell once said writing a book was "a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness."

Churchill thought, "writing as book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling it to the public."

Katherine Anne Porter believed that "writing is a craft. You have to take your apprenticeship in it like anything else."

I believe that when it comes to writing, the three quotes pretty much cover all the bases.

Orwell's painful disease for me is closer to an un-ease, a malcontentment with the world and most things in it. I write, I think, because the events I can imagine are far more pleasing to me than those life has to offer on a daily basis. Books have a beginning, a middle and an end, and good books, at the end, leave you satisfied. Life, on the other hand, is steadfastly confusing, a labyrinthine plodding from one dead end to another with, here and again, a glimpses of satisfaction.

Churchill's quote illustrates what all writers struggle with--the letting go of a work that in the writing mind can always stand more revisions, more polishing, one last look and a penultimate rewrite. I well remember a professor I had at university who, for two decades, had been finalizing his novel. To the best of my knowledge, the thing never saw the light of day.
Porter best says what I think. Writing is a craft, and an apprenticeship is necessary. I've had heated discussions about this with writing and non-writing friends who display various levels of shock when I compare writing to plumbing. Both artisans, I believe, are given tools-words, grammar, some basic rules; pipes, solder and joints-and hired to create something that works. Both should work efficiently, leaving no mess at the end, and charging a fair price. Plumbing, writing, carpentry, poetry, brickwork and composition all share the same purpose, and efficiency of action, use, thought and spirit. And both have in common the sweetest of sentence: "The check's in the mail."
When I was much, much younger, I found a certain romanticism to writing. I no longer do. It's work, pure and simple. Mary Heaton Vorse, a rabble-rousing laborite, suffragist and the author of 17 novels said it best. "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair." Thanks, Mary.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Strangeness Cast in Stone

There are, all told, more things that defy logic than there are things that make sense.

Did you know, for example, that the 30-foot tall Martin Luther King statue that will be the centerpiece of the MLK memorial is being sculpted and assembled in China by Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin (pictured above)? Does this strike you as strange? Do you find it likely that someplace in the US, an Afro-American artist has been commissioned to do a giant statue of Sun Yat Tsen?

Probably not. The primary question begging to be asked, of course, is this: "Is there not a single African-American sculptor talented enough to take the MLK project on?" The secondary question is, "If so, how come he/she isn't doing it?"

There's not much information on the official MLK memorial website about the Chinese connection. We are told, "the Memorial is conceived as an engaging landscape experience to convey four fundamental and recurring themes throughout Dr. King’s life – democracy, justice, hope, and love. Natural elements such as the crescent-shaped-stone wall inscribed with excerpts of his sermons, and public addresses will serve as the living testaments of his vision of America. The centerpiece of the Memorial, the 'Stone of Hope', will feature a 30-foot likeness of Dr. King."

There are numerous appeals for funds--the memorial was originally budgeted at $120 million but there will undoubtedly be some cost over-runs--and a proposed completion date sometimes in 2011. Recently, a Washington Post story said the original sculpted head had been rejected by the memorial committee as being "too totalitarian" in appearance. The Chinese, apparently, may have mistaken MLK for an American Mao.

OK, that's all for this item. Here's another one from the other side of the fence. According to News of the Weird: April Gaede, who four years ago guided her teenage daughters, Lynx and Lamb (performing as "Prussian Blue"), to a brief music career singing neo-Nazi songs, announced a new project recently on the white nationalist Web site She offers a no-fee matchmaking service to fertile Aryans, hoping to encourage marriage and baby-making -- to help white people keep up with rapidly procreating minorities.

And lastly, from a January issue of London's Guardian:

Only four days after the January earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, two Royal Caribbean cruise ships made a port call at a private enclave about 60 miles up Haiti's coastline from ground zero, turning loose hundreds of frolickers for "jet ski rides, parasailing and rum cocktails delivered to their hammocks." Haitian guards employed by the cruise line manned the resort's 12-foot-high fences, but about a third of the passengers still declined to leave the ships, too upset by the unfolding disaster nearby to enjoy themselves. Royal Caribbean said it had made a large donation to the rescue effort and promised, also, to send proceeds from the port's thriving craft stores.

That's all, folks!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Money money money

I recently spent a princely sum to get an expensive car tuned up and ready for sale, and a ducal sum on a less costly vehicle that I drive daily. This got me to wondering: How much money have I spent since I started spending money?

Millions, obviously, but how many millions? Does this spent wealth put me in the Trump category, or am I a wannabe Trump-ette?

When I first came to the States, cigarettes were 50 cents a pack. A Coke from a machine was a dime. My first apartment, half a floor of a Victorian townhouse in the heart of Georgetown, was $87.50 a month, and I was earning $78 a week as a lobster shift (8 p.m. to 4 a.m.) copy boy for the Washington Post. I had an Austin America, possibly one of the very worst cars ever made, and a Dunstall Norton motorcycle that was my pride and joy. My personal property consisted of a Monkey Ward guitar, a few pairs of jeans, three pairs of pointy shoes from Flagg Brothers, and a hibachi I used to grill hamburgers in the non-working fireplace of my apartment. Life was exceedingly good. Street drugs where I lived was a nickel bag of marijuana, five dollars, an occasional chunk of much sought after hashish for eight bucks, and a case of Bass ale for $6.75. At the Circle Theaters just blocks from the White House, three foreign movies went for a buck and dinner at the restaurant next door was three dollars.

Flash to now. I am paying approximately $1000 a month to my HMO for health insurance. My mortgage is in the low four figures, and the $200 I get from the 7-11 ATM lasts three days at best. Gas is $3 a gallon, coffee at Starbucks is $2.76 for a quad shot of decaf espresso. A cheap movie is $7, matinee price, senior discount. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet that charges $20 for mediocre food, and it's full every day.

I owe a lot of money to the banks, even if I pay off my credit card balance in full each month. I am encouraged to spend far more than I earn, given credit lines of $40,000 or more by institutions I don't know, and inundated with offers for great deals on cars, vacation homes, Cialis and Viagra, air travel, and plastic surgery.
Money does not stick to me. I tried for a couple of months to keep track of every penny spent with Quickbooks, and I failed miserably. I sought the advice of a friend who can point with pride to a collection of binders that document her financial life since she was 18--"every penny," she claims with a hint of condescension--and she simply said, "Just do it." This is not helpful, akin to telling a manic depressive to have a nice day.

Here's what I know. No matter what I spend, it's too much. The small economies I manage really have no impact to speak of in face of the larger picture. Safeway Two-for-One coupons simply means that I get more than I need for the same price and getting a three cents-a-gallon discount means I save sixty cents if I go the station offering the price reduction. It's eight miles away. Do the math.

The truth is, I can't begin to calculate how much I've spent ion a lifetime. I do know I no longer think great fortunes--of even meager savings--can be realized by what the French call economie de bouts de chandelles, savings realized by hoarding candle wax. But here's a secret. I hoard quarters in a jar I keep in the pantry. Three times a year I roll the hoard up and take it to the credit union. Then I go and have a really nice meal with a friend, savings be damned, and life is good...

Saturday, February 6, 2010


It is Waitangi Day in New Zealand. It is snowing here.

So far, there's a couple of feet accumulated in my driveway. The area where I parked my car looks like an Indian burial mound. The cat adamantly refuses to go outside, and the weather service calls for another four to eight inches. Peachy.

It's a heavy snow, the kind that sticks and buckles tree limbs, brings down power lines, and stays awhile even after the fall stops. Normally, my windy, hilly road is a haven for cross country skiers but not today. Today it is very, very white, cold, unforgiving and somewhat scary. Today I am blessed with not having small children or dogs but I do wonder, where is global warming when you need it?

My concern is a power outage. Already ten percent of the Northern Virginia population is without electricity. This happened once a decade ago and I ended up spending a memorable night at the local motel, along with several other people from the local AA club in a room that reeked of old smoke and Cheetohs. It was not fun, had none of that winter jolliness portrayed in sitcoms. We did not roast marshmallows or tell funny stories. We mostly huddled, ate cold pizza and bitched a lot. Nobody fell in love, nobody had sex. Now I am paranoid. Will warming Swedish meatballs in the microwave put the entire grid at risk? I can hear it now: Hmmmmm, ding! Pow!

Like all the other ninnies in the area, I spent the better part of yesterday stocking up on gasoline (why? My car is undriveable), kitty litter for the undriveable car, bread, sushi and oranges. The staples. I have three films from Netflix, a rack of ribs (five bucks at Safeway, a bargain!), capers and olives stuffed with something or other, a smallish wedge of Brie and a leftover slab of whole wheat sourdough bread. I have library books. My laundry is all done in case I need to evacuate the area quickly. The snowblower I inherited from a friend's father is ready to go, but will be totally ineffectual in almost three feet of white stuff. I'm not sure what to do with the cat, but he's a longhair Burmese so he should be all right. I am waiting for the apocalypse.

I wonder if someone erred seriously with the ice-cube in the toilet bowl rule. You know, "Ice cube, ice cube in the pot; gee I hope it snows a lot..." You haven't heard of this? It's very scientific, and well drawn by Richard Thompson, the creator of Cul de Sac. Anyhow, I wonder if some New Zealanders didn't get carried away and dump a whole 7/11 party bag of ice into their toilets. That would explain everything.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Scripts in Disguise; Bad News for Kindlers

I just finished a book that was not meant to be read--it was meant to be filmed.

This is a rising trend among authors and publishers, and it's a bothersome one. Readers are no longer the prime target for a lot of fiction--movie producers are. In other words, what we're often buying is not really a book in the old-fashioned sense, it's a script outline drafted in 300 pages to snare a movie deal. I don't really want to name the book or the writer. I'm not a critic, and unless I get really angry about an author's shortcomings, it's not my job to badmouth. But I do get riled by becoming a beta tester against my will.

Here's a good way to spot a hardcover movie script.
  1. The protagonist's name is Rick O' Shea, or something equally evocative.
  2. The lead character is patterned on an existing movie hero. If he/she walks and quacks like Indiana Jones, it's a movie script.
  3. The same character has some exquisite secondary talent no one else has, and this gift has nothing to do with the plot at hand. Think Pulitzer-winning poetry, or Segovia-like guitar skills.
  4. More than three deus ex machina situations in the first 100 pages.
  5. The President of the United States is involved in a passing manner. He acts and talks like Morgan Freeman.
  6. The fate of the free world is in question.


Here's a little Associated Press item I found discouraging.

" said it would agree to sell electronic versions of Macmillan books, even at prices it considers too high.

"The retailer said Sunday in a posting online that it was in strong disagreement with Macmillan's push to charge higher p[rices. Under Macmillan's model, to be put in place in March, e-books will cost from $12.999 to $14.99 when first released and prices will change over time. Amazon wants to tamp down prices to fend off competition. But Macmillan and other publishers have criticized Amazon for charging $9.99 for best-selling books on the Kindle, a price publishers say is too low and could hurt sales of hardcovers."

There's more on this in a Washington Post story you can read at but none of it augurs well for Kindle owners, who will probably end up paying more than ever for their e-books.