Tuesday, March 30, 2010
The trunk of a dead tree—a weeping willow that capsized three years ago—spans a large part of my backyard. Last fall I tried to move it so I could mow and I disturbed a nest of mud daubers. A phalanx of them came after me, stung me a dozen times and chased me around the house as I searched frantically for an unlocked door. I tore my shirt off as I ran and later, when I retrieved it, found the carcasses of ten yellow and black wasps still enlaced in the fabric. Mud dauber attacks happen to me every second or third year.
I planted the willow tree some eighteen years ago following my mother’s death in Paris.. When my father passed away, I put in another willow, a corkscrew, and both trees became quiet monuments to my parents’ lives. When the original willow fell, it did so with great gentleness, harming neither other trees, nor the garage or house. I took that to mean something—my mother’s last gift to me, perhaps—and left it lying there. For one summer it kept sprouting vertical branches and I hoped that it might regenerate, but it didn’t. When Florence, my outrageous older sister, succumbed to cancer in Paris, I planted three crepe myrtles next to the pond. Last year, as close friends departed, I added two more bushes, a lilac and a redbud.
The winter was brutal. My area had more snow than far more northern climes, and the temperate vegetation we have here suffered greatly. Cedars split, boxwoods were flattened, bamboo bent to the ground and cracked. One pine tree died, and a Dutch elm far in the back lost a major branch. For awhile, I was concerned that my roof might collapse. The architecture here is not designed to withstand the great weight of four feet of snow, but the roof held though at times it moaned like a mortally wounded man.
It’s been raining all day. The overweight raccoon whose family nightly raids my trashcan was soaked, the birds are hidden in the branches of the blue spruce, and my cat is reluctant to face the outdoors. I can hear the wet whooshing of traffic on the nearby Dulles Access Road. One blessing: the construction crews who are hammering a new subway line have not manned their pile-drivers today, so there was, if not silence, at least an absence of the rhythmic construction booming that gives me a headache.
I’ve had a day largely by myself save for lunch with friends, and I’ve come to appreciate such spans of time. Today, it’s not loneliness, it’s solitude.
Monday, March 22, 2010
Nevertheless, I go to the library at least once a week. The head librarian and I have a nodding acquaintance. She is a large lady who rules her domain with heavy-handed fairness and does not brook talking, cell phones, too-loud iPods, or laughter larger than a snigger. Occasionally, she look over my selection of books and nods, a high accolade. She has been at my library 18 years and wisely has no other ambitions.
I once asked her what she thought of most of the recently published works displayed on special tables right near the entrance. She looked around to see if anyone could overhear, then said in a hoarse whisper, "Vulgar."
And she's right, of course.
Last week I checked out five books, each by a 'New York Times Best Selling Author.' The titles were catchy--the trend for some time has been a geographical/historical name followed by a word like 'sanction,' or 'covenant,' or 'convention,' or 'pledge'--and promised exciting reading.
The first book I gave up on by page two. The hero, a black belt mountain-climbing martial artist archeologist who discovered Something of Frightening Importance was being chased by a Beautiful Woman With a Gun. "Why are you doing this?" our hero asked his pursuer. "Because I must," she pouted. Buh bye...
The next book has our hero--same general type as hero number one--kill a foreign spy and throw his body off an Austrian ski-lift, then rappel down a conveniently placed telephone tower and escape in an Expensive Hand-built Italian Sportscar.
In book three, a super-secret submarine sinks after having discovered Atlantis beneath the ice-cap. Can you guess where this tale will go?
Book five opens with: Matt Dingleberger thought he might use his gun, but used his fists instead. This is about as close as one can get to "It was a dark and stormy night" and remain reasonably comfortable.
Books--and reading--have always been about escapism, and we learn from them by default. What we really seek is a different world to which we can travel again and again. A good book takes us to places perhaps familiar, perhaps not. A bad book leaves us at the station. We read to remember and we read to forget.
There are far more bad books than there are good ones, and unfortunately it is true that you can't judge a book by its cover. Would that we could; there'd be fewer disappointments.
But then, sometimes you get a surprise. In the history section, I came upon a three volume set called The Cartoon History of the Universe. Conceived and written by cartoonist/mathematician Larry Gonick, the black-and-white drawings tell a long yarn of discovery, war, peace, nation-building, inventions, sex, and cruelty, all recounted with gentle clarity and borscht-belt humor. Every home should have this collection. It'll delight adults and familiarize younger readers with a past now only rarely taught.
These are, as Amos Alcott would say, "Good books which [are] opened with expectations and closed with profit."
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Earlier that week, I'd noticed my local ATM now offered instructions in five languages, and this was not for the lost tourists' benefits. I live in a bedroom community some distance from the Nation's Capital and the nearest place of interest is the National Rifle Association Museum some five miles away. While hiking a trail near the Potomac, I saw that anti-littering signs put up by the National Parks folks were in English and Spanish.
The US, it turns out, is increasingly catering to its non-English population, not quite realizing that in other circumstances, this might be called enabling, not helping.
When my family and I came to this country in the last millenia, only my father spoke English. He'd been raised in London and had an elegant British accent. My mother and I had barely mastered "yes," "no," and "where's the bathroom?"
My mother went to Americanization school--that's what it was called. State Department wives volunteered to teach it and it included lessons on English usage, shopping, American mores, what to do and, more important, not to do. I learned English reading Bugs Bunny comics and watching Father Knows Best, Red Skelton and late night wrestling. Back then it was considered of tantamount importance for immigrants to learn to blend in, to become citizens of their adopted nation.
Now we seem to have forgotten something most other nations have known for hundreds of years--that a single, national language unites, and that conversely, different tongues within one set of borders foster nothing but trouble.
Separatism, the bane of any united country, thrives on linguistic differences. Just ask the Basques, Quebecquois, Bretons, Flemish and any number of other minorities seeking to secede from their host countries and form their own enclaves. A united nation speaks one language, a divided one, several.
This is not to suggest that minorities lose their own identity. On the contrary: there is no shame in having pride in one's origins, in celebrating differences as well as similarities. Accepting and building upon others' strengths is what made the US the powerhouse it became in such a short (historically speaking) time.
But for communities and government organizations such as the National Parks to encourage the use of languages other than English in daily life is foolish. It promotes our differences and, in the long run, will serve only to alienate both the native-born and the newly arrived.
As H.L. Mencken once wisely observed, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"
Amen to that.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
I recount this with all the due charity and kindness I can muster for a fellow 12-stepper. I am not trying to be mean, snobby, superior, or even cynical, but when this man shares at meetings, a great and silent sigh arises. Heads droop, eyes close, people nod off as if on Valium. Simply put, the cheese slid off this poor guy's cracker a long time ago.
But here's the thing--he looks rocket-scientist-smart. As a matter of fact, he could be one of those white-coated guys whose photo you see in books about the Manhattan Project or DNA research. He could have discovered tachyons, judging from his high Einstein brow, and his piercing blue eyes would have you believe he's doing calculus in his head. But the fact of the matter is, he isn't. Despite his Nobel Prize physiognomy, I suspect he's challenged opening refrigerator doors or shoveling snow.
So appearances are deceiving. A couple of days ago a friend told me a blond joke and I realized that all the blond women I know are super-smart, or at least way smarter than I am. They're self-sufficient, successfully juggling homes, families and business; they make it look easy though most of them work very hard at it. I know (blond and other) women in recovery who have had to start over multiple times and shown both brilliancy and a toughness of spirit few males could claim. Pound for pound, I'd wager, women are smarter than da men in every way (Harry Belafonte said it, not me.)
And so, I wonder, where do we get our talent for making instant assumptions based on appearances? From our parents? From our geography? From gender?
I remember reading a book--title long forgotten--stating that each wave of immigrants to the US would look down upon the following wave. Irish denigrated Italians, Italians returned the favor with Poles, Poles with Latinos, Latinos with Asians, Asians with Eastern Europeans. I've always thought such behavior was based on fear--of losing work, money, neighborhoods, national identity. It was assumed that the next wave was less literate, lazier, more dishonest, untrustworthy and crime prone, in a word, threatening. We assume the worst. Which, of course, leads me to a favorite saying, that to assume makes an ass out of you and me.
Get it? No? You must be a recent arrival...
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Friday, March 5, 2010
What I did was buy big metal garbage can from Home Depot. I drilled about 50 large holes around the base and voila, a portable incinerator. Cheaper and more thorough than shredding, safer than recycling, spiritually satisfying. And it's hard to steal an identity from ashes.
I burned 20 years' worth of eBay sales records, old birthday cards, letters, utility bills, credit card statements, bad story ideas and worse story development, rough drafts of unpublishable material and other flotsam and jetsam of life. Twenty years went up in smoke in approximately 30 minutes, and come spring I will sprinkle the ashes where I have my tomato plants and green peppers. It was... odd. There are a lot of memories to be found in the collection of paper one accumulates over two decades. Not necessarily good memories, either.
I struggle against being a pack rat, and being a writer I am persuaded that future biographers will need every vestige of information they can find if their Boswellian task is to be realized. So ridding myself of all this documentation was also coming to terms with some harsh realities. I will not be biographed, and the relics of my personal history will not interest anyone. I have no children or grandchildren of my own to pore over the residues of my life, no one to ooh and aah over ancestors pictures, which is just as well. It hasn't been that interesting a life.
I kept the letters I received from my parents, and from a best friend who died long ago. I kept the copies of letters I had sent to my late sister, Florence. She was too sick to write back, so my writings are the only record I have of her life. I kept all the rejection slips of a lifetime of submissions to editors who were not interested. I kept the draft of a novel written 15 years ago and still showing a hint of promise. I kept the drafts of all the songs I've written, even the crappy ones, as well as a few newspaper clippings.
The ancients knew the purifying power of fire. My file cabinet is 35 pound lighter and rejuvenated.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
The Mr. Coffee espresso machine ($19.95, K-Mart) is spewing out an excellent cup of Pico Decaffeinated ($3.95 a can, Giant) that I sweeten with four (yes, four) Splendas (free, courtesy Starbucks). The tail-end of a sourdough baguette ($2.25, Trader Joe's) is in the oven. It will be slathered with a wedge of Camembert ($3.98, Safeway). This is the good life.
I get the paper from the driveway. The delivery man (there is no such thing as a paperboy anymore) has been kind this morning. Usually he tosses my Post under the bushes and I need a rake to bring it in but today his aim is off. The paper is in the middle of the drive, not even under the car. A sky unbruised by clouds is lightening. Temperatures will be in the 40s, enough to melt the snow that remains from the Great Blizzard of Aught-Ten.
I read the headlines. Washington, DC's, former mayor, Marion Barry, is in trouble again. He's a city delegate now, accused of accepting a low-dollar kickback from a former mistress to whom he'd awarded a work contract. Some two decades ago, Barry was caught by the FBI smoking crack in an expensive hotel room with a prostitute. He served some time but this did not end his career as a public servant. The black population of the District has kept him in office for more than 40 years now. I met Barry once when I lived downtown. He had a great, warm smile, and he took my hand in both of his when we shook, as if we had been lifelong friends parted by a tragedy.
There's a story about a retiring senator decrying the present state of politics. He's quitting because the system doesn't work. Greece is going down the financial tubes; Spain might follow. France is saying "I told you so" and the Brits are responding with "nyah nyah nyah." Is Obama the next Jimmy Carter? A local priest is accused of child molestation (this is buried in the Metro section) and Madonna (front page, Style) will testify before a House Committee on the state of Rwanda. She is apparently a Rwanda expert. Rob Lowe seen at the Four Seasons dining with his mother-in-law and the DOW is down 47 points. Unidentified male found dead in his burning car near the Suitland Parkway; Prince George woman waving a samurai sword in the middle of rush-hour traffic arrested. Ten teen-agers from a local high school charged with possessing and selling heroin to their classmates. Tiger Woods says he's sorry, again, and his apologies are analyzed on the front page, the sports section, and Style. All are in agreement that Tiger is a lying sack of sh*t unworthy of the public adulation heaped upon him. No one has really spoken to Tiger but that's immaterial.
I read the comics. I do this every morning with more care than I devote to the news. I am, after all, powerless over people, places and things, but I can and do have an opinion on the worthiness of certain strips. I am not a fan of Judge Parker and wonder why Apartment 3-G is no longer published. I still read Peanuts. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and Snoopy are more than 60 years old... Cul de Sac always elicits a smile; Agnes never does. The other strips are judged on a daily basis and often found wanting.
A second cup of coffee, not as satisfying as the first but still pretty tasty. This is my favorite time of the day.