Tuesday, March 30, 2010


There's something about rainy spring mornings. This one is more mist than rain, a damp hazy curtain shrouding the trees and street, leaving behind just enough water to make car tires squish. The colors are vibrant against a soft gray sky. There’s a millions greens, a few yellows—jonquils and forsythia—and the colorless hues of last year’s flower stalks. The lawn is patchy, I never got around to raking the leaves in the fall, but I did repair the filter and pump in the small pond and this morning I glimpsed a flash of orange at the bottom. The goldfish survived the winter. With luck, if a great blue heron doesn’t spot them, if the raccoons don’t get too curious, the fish will turn into carps and grow to fit the size of their limited environment. But the cards are stacked against them. The larger they get, the more they are likely to become not just a tasty tidbit but a full meal for my yard’s predators.

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.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


My computer died yesterday, and it must have been a painful demise. I didn't get the dreaded blue screen, or the even scarier black screen with an indecipherable message. When I tried to boot up, I got a painful whining sound, like a small animal caught in a trap. I tried several times to make it stop crying but it wouldn't. I felt as if I'd shot a songbird with a bb gun--guilty, horrified, waiting or God's wrath.

"Sounds like the hard drive's gone bad," said my favorite techie. "Nope, can't even begin to look at it until Monday morning, but you can bring it in now..."

So I did, paying the state of Virginia $3.50 to drive the eight miles from my home to the repair site.

I have a long history with computers. I bought my first one in the very early 80s, a Kaypro portable that I will donate someday to the Smithsonian. It was portable only in the mind of its creators. It weighed about as much as a Singer sewing machine, took up more space, and so impressed the flight attendants that it got its own seat in business class during international flights while I stayed in the plebe section. I took it to Africa, Europe and Asia, lugged it to hotels without electricity, let it spend three days in a chief’s house in Senegal.
It had no memory to speak of, and I remember hooking it up to a daisy wheel printer and being amazed as page after page of text flowed out.

I now own four computers—not including my phone--and not one of them really works correctly. As applications have gotten more complex, they've also become needlessly confusing. The computer I am now using is a tiny Samsung something-or-other. I wanted a simple word processor capable of getting email and searching the Internet. No such animal is readily available so what I have has a digital live camera that I will never use, a keyboard as responsive as a hunk of plywood, built-in stereo speakers (why?), and a beautiful screen-saver featuring a koi pond, lillypads and dragonflies. The command keys on the Samsung don’t do the same thing as on my other computer, so that pressing F1 or F2 is a real surprise. It took me ten minutes to figure out how to turn the capitals off in order to not write ALL CAPS, WHICH IS REALLY ANNOYING, DON’T YOU THINK?

What bothers me the most, I think, is my incredible dependence on all these things that do not work quite properly. My only real consolation is that I am probably in the mainstream. A recent article in the Washington Post says that most of us, since we cannot—or don’t want to—afford the very best of the very best, make do with the second- or third-best--items that look like top-of-the-line, but aren’t, and whose functions are limited or prone to failure. When we finally get fed up with such items, we discard them and buy the next incarnations of not-quite-what-we-want-to-buy-but-close-enough.
What I should do is become a neo-Luddite. I won’t smash machinery as the original Brtish textile workers did, but I will rid myself over the next few years of anything having more than four visible moving parts.

Actually, I won't. I'm much too enamored of the digital camera that takes better photos than I ever could, the little gadget allowing me to record myself when I play music, the Bose radio, the guitar synth. All toys, all toys that break. But I really wouldn’t mind trading a few of these amusements for things that really work well and stay working well. It’s the upkeep that will be my downfall.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Books Redux

I have a love-hate relationship with libraries. They're a haven of quiet in an increasingly raucous world; an invitation and encouragement to readers of all stripes; a  repository of information both useful and not. On the other hand, they're also a warehouse of literary tripe; a reward and incentive to writers of god-awful books; a reason for furthering the production of written works that should never, ever, see the light of day. Let's face it: any place that has 50 editions of The DaVinci Code and not one single copy of  The Elegance of the Hedgehog  really does not deserve our tax dollars.

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.

I can admit to making poor reading choices. All these books were whodunits and I should know better. But the fact is, they were all bad books, all poorly written, all designed to give the reader strong visuals without accompanying thought, instant gratification as satisfying as instant replay. They were books that shouldn't have been published, or, if published, done so only for the writers' immediate families and friends.  Instead, they had been picked by the library board because they were the favorites of lazy, indolent readers and critics fond of bad imagery.

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

Bad Language

"It's amazing," said my friend, "there's not a single person here who speaks English!" I looked around, listened. She was right. We were at a Marshall's in northern Virginia, immersed in a sea of Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Wolof. The check-out ladies wore saris and burkas. The store manager, the lone American, was trying to explain to three Eastern Europeans why the iPod kits he had for sale might not work on their units. It was taking a long time.

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

Sin--Part I

This blog is not for the faint of heart. I'll be talking about sin, lust, desire, hormones, hard and soft things, and other subjects some may find distasteful.

Here's the crux of the matter: Do we act according to rules because we believe in the rules, or because we're afraid to get caught breaking them? Which is stronger--morality or fear? Or, perhaps, are they're one and the same? How much of sin is plain stupidity? And, if enough folks committing a transgression are caught, does the wrongdoing, eventually, lose its burden?
Sin, we know, is in the eye of the believer and certainly over the centuries what may or may not be immoral has changed drastically.  We perpetually push at the edges of sin so that 
what may have been a punishable offense a few decades ago is now accepted behavior. Heresy is no longer a crime. Divorce is the norm. Theft, if large enough (think AIG bonus) is encouraged.

And going from the social to the single, how often do we amend our judgments of behavior according to the individual?   If Fred Dinglewanker drinks a bit too much every time there's a family reunion, aren't we prone to say, "Oh, that's old Freddie! He's been that way for years!" A strong worker who steals office supplies may be admonished but probably will not be fired.  In Washington DC, where I used to live, the former Mayor, Marion Barry, has managed to skirt the law for decades and get re-elected to one public office or another. His supporters  admit his shortcomings--including being caught smoking crack with a prostitute in a hotel room--but maintain that his efficacy as a public servant is more important that his transgressions.   Nevada's governor, Jim Gibbons ("I haven't had sex in 15 years!"), has been involved in so many sex and/or money outrages that it would be hard to catalog them all, yet he too gets relected. Conversely, the Speaker of the House in Utah recently resigned because it was found that 25 years ago, he had sat naked in a hot tub with an equally unclothed, of-age teen-aged girl. And here in my very own backyard, a man got 15 years for killing a cabdriver while another man got 40 years for fondling and sexually abusing a woman.

Ah well. Relative morality and adaptables rules of behavior are too much for this simple mind, particularly on the Sunday morning Daylight Saving Time kicks in. I think I'll behave oddly today and blame it on the lack of sleep.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


There's a man who, off and on for the past decade, has been attending one of my noon recovery meetings. He's an average guy in his mid to late 60s, retired I think but perhaps simply unemployed, and after talking to him a minute or two,  most people would agree: he's dumb as a post. Or, says a friend who enjoys mixed metaphors, "he's one burrito short of a Happy Meal."

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


I belong to a writers' group that meets at my house once a month, generally on a Friday evening. There are between seven and 10 of us, and we sip tea, eat cookies, and read from our works-in-progress. It's all very elegant, very civilized and convivial. Some of us have been published while others have not, and we write fiction, memoirs, history, short stories and short shorts. This month, we're all going to present six-words novels. That particular literary pursuit, legend has it, was started by a challenge thrown to Hemingway. He responded with, "For sale: baby shoes, never used." Now the genre has its own magazine and websites and hundreds if not thousands of aspiring authors.
I've found these monthly gatherings both helpful and reassuring. Writing for me is a lonely business conducted in a void, and it can be years or decades before something is published, read, critiqued. Now I have a safe--and kind--place to display my work; I have friends, we share a pursuit and a passion, we are well-intentioned and not too critical, we are encouraging and enthusiastic. And I've discovered something I never would have suspected: reading my work aloud makes me a better writer. The sound of my own voice and my own words gives me a new perspective to work from: the rhythm of what I write.

I've always known that there's a lot more to the trade than words on paper, but it's only recently that the phonics of it all have begun to come into play. There's a cadence that is short of poetry but still meaningful in good writing, and that, I think, is something one does not realize when reading to one's self.
We are evenly split, gender-wise, but here's something interesting: the women have an easier time than the men writing about their experiences and emotions. Men tend towards the prosaic--masculine words and subjects, closer to a frontal assault than to a seduction. We rarely deal with feelings; the women in the group almost exclusively describe inner tensions, tenuous situations unseen to the naked eye. The emotions are veiled but easy to recognize. The men want action. Give us steak, not soufflé.

The group just turned a year old. Some have stayed, others have dropped out, and new folks keep coming all the time. Thanks to all, to Paul, Dennis, Gretchen, Suzie, Colleen, Vaughan, Daniel. You've made my life better.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Up in Flames

Yesterday I burned stuff. I'm not supposed to, there's a county ordnance against open fires, but this actually was not open, or unsupervised.

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


It's 5:45 a.m. and the sky is navy blue. The roads are quiet and empty. The stillness will not last more than 20 minutes. This is my favorite time of the day.

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.