Monday, May 31, 2010

Making It Right?

Recently, British Petroleum has been buying full-page ads in major newspapers nationwide to tell us the company is accepting responsibility for the oil spill laying waste to the Southern coast of the nation. I suppose we should be thankful that—hopefully—BP will not, like Exxon, choose to draw out litigation for decades. But to the latest headline for their ads that reads, “We’ll Make It Right,” I say, “Bullshit.” 

What is happening as hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil leak daily into the Gulf of Mexico is more than a tragedy, more than a disaster. It’s a catastrophe of unknowable proportions. We have no experience dealing with the ramifications of such a spill. We have no clear view as to what will happen this decade, or even this century. The harm being caused will influence life on and in the Gulf—and in this and other countries—for decades to come. We are looking at a possible extinction of marine life in an area the size of Texas.  We cannot foretell the depredations as currents pick up the oil and carry it out to western Florida and, from there, south.  Make no mistake, this spill, caused by greed, carelessness, poor planning and the monumental hubris only a multinational can muster, is a planet-altering event. 

After four failed attempts to cap the flow, experts now believe the well will keep gushing until August before it is stopped and by the time this is over—if the next attempts are successful in the foreseeable future—BP will have loosed more than 80 million gallons of crude into Gulf waters.  Crude oil kills by asphyxiation or poison. Plant life gets no oxygen, fish can’t breathe, birds can’t fly and ingest the stuff while trying to clean themselves. Mammal life fares no better. The economy of fishing and beach towns essentially closes down. One tourist shop on the coast reported making $26 on May 30th, down from $800 to $1000. Expect to see the price of fish and shrimp triple as importers go farther afield to buy their supplies, which will in turn lead to the closure of mom and pop eateries. Meanwhile the fishers and boat handlers, many of whom are temporarily working cleaning up the oil, will soon be unemployed.

So the question is, how exactly will BP make this right? To the best of my knowledge, the company is hardly in the miracle-making business. No a single dead bird will rise to fly again. Fish populations, once decimated, take decades return to normal and it’s pretty unlikely that BP—or anyone else—will be around to offer work to the unemployed. Owners of vacation homes will lose both summer rental incomes and equity. Will BP be there to offset these people’s financial losses? Probably not. Look for a flurry of early activity followed by a throwing up of hands. Think Katrina. Think New Orleans which in August 2005 was partially destroyed. The city is still not what it once was. 

Somewhere in the deep dark hallways of government, BP and government attorneys are already meeting to discuss the scope of future lawsuits. Regardless of the tough talk both parties have engaged in recently, the bottom line is that all these guys are on the same side. Neither the oil folks nor the Justice Department attorneys have an interest in driving the company to the brink of bankruptcy, which means whatever the amount of payments, it will never be enough to “make this right.”  Things simply cannot be made right.  But maybe the damage can be alleviated. Payments to beach towns, over time, might be helpful. Retraining for workers who will no longer earn their livings from the waters should be encouraged, as should buybacks of homes and working boats. One thought has been to force the oil giants to put very large amounts in escrow to pay for future damages. This is not a bad notion, since the current spill will not be the last one.

No one can make this right. But maybe, just maybe, they can make it not quite so horrible.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Adieu, Jacques

There weren’t many Excalibur automobiles when Jacques Vivien bought one.  It was beige, with cream-colored leather upholstery and enough chrome to blind an Italian.  Wearing a crisp white linen suit long before John Travolta did his first spin, Jacques would park this paragon of automotive excess blatantly in front of his nightclub, Washington’s very own Whiskey a Go Go, strut upstairs, pose, glad-hand the politicians, diplomats and other affluents who streamed there and danced to bad French rock ‘n’ roll music while watching R-rated film shorts on three screens hanging from the ceilings. Did I mention that he accessorized his suits with a purple macaw?  

This was 1965 and Jacques owned Washington, DC.

He had a rep. He knew the Kennedies and flirted with Jackie. He knew Brando. The French heart-throb actor Alain Delon stayed at his beach house. People who were close to him suspected he might be gay but this was not open to discussion. He squired young women and sported a year-round tan. For a short while he owned a giant catamaran that may or may not have set a world speed record. He was charming, affable, devious when necessary, a pretty good businessman who wrote his own rules, made and lost a ton of money. He had one of the first creperies in the East Coast, and his genius lay in anticipating the next restaurant fad.
Beatrice Patton discovered him after World War II working in a hotel in Morocco. General George Patton’s widow found him smart, handsome and charming, and brought him to the States. He spent the summers at her estate teaching her French and worked in Restaurants in New York and Florida in the off-season. When he came to Washington, DC, in 1955, it was only natural that he would gravitate towards the snobbiest of all restaurants, the Jockey Club. He became maitre d’ there and the important people liked him because he was knowledgeable and discreet.  But discretion had its limits. When invited to parties hosted by Washington’s French community, he kept the guests enthralled with tales of the American high and mighty’s behaviors in his restaurant.  

In 1971 he met a gorgeous young French woman named Colette Vacher, and the two became a staple of the society pages. His good friends suspected the eventual marriage was a convenience for both parties, but there again, this was not discussed. Jacques and Coco were Washington’s It couple.

When his creperies closed (he had one in Georgetown, one in Bethesda and one in Alexandria),  Jacques gave up being a restaurateur, moved with Coco to Key West, and spent his time fishing, cooking and carving driftwood.

I just found out Jacques died last April.

Friday, May 28, 2010


There are days when nothing’s available. I’ll sit in front of the screen with violent discourses battling in my head, but not a thought emerges that’s worth writing. I have pages of notes on things to comment on, notebooks full of pithy quotes, great and powerful solutions to offer, but the truth is that my mind is a blank. Or perhaps it’s simply overloaded.

What can one say about the BP oil spill that’s now a month old? A recent column in the Washington Post claims it’s all the fault of environmentalists who, by calling for laws against drilling in protected areas such as Alaskan park land and the California coast, have forced oil companies to go ever deeper—5000 feet, as it turns out. There’s a weird, perverted logic to this, sort of like a spoiled brat saying he won’t be responsible for his actions if denied what he wants now.

What can one say about the recent decision by the Supreme Court to close its majestic front entrance to the public—a reaction, we’re told, to fears of terrorist acts. Ever since the Reagan years when Pennsylvania Avenue was closed off to traffic, we’ve seen our ability to move about in the Nation’s Capital slowly wane. We can’t fly kits on the Mall anymore, either, so another simple joy is taken away without debate. Are the terrorists winning here, even if it’s in a small way?

I don’t understand why the hours at my library are being cut back, as is the staffing, even as its neighborhood is being ravaged by urban development that wants to bring more suburbanites, more jobs, more stores, more roads, but no additional schools, teachers, police, medical or firefighting capabilities.

I’m still struggling with the concept of billion-dollar armament and the notion—now accepted—that a project’s cost will double or triple with no apparent repercussions. I’m pretty sure that a small private business that consistently failed to meet its goals and tried to soak its clients to compensate for its own ineptitude, well, it wouldn’t last long. Think of going to the dry cleaners to get your shirts and being told that sorry, the agreed upon price is no longer applicable. You now owe them not two bucks a shirt, but six.

Hell, I don’t even understand why radishes and tomatoes no longer have any taste, and why a navel orange’s skin is a quarter-inch thick.

Like I said. Overload.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Dale, One Year Later

The funeral services for my friend Dale were held a year ago today, and more and more I am convinced that life continues long after death, provided one is remembered. In Dale's case, it's going to be a long time. Rather than try to find new words, I am following the example of the late Art Buchwald (who for 25 years in November ran a column entitled 'Explaining Thanksgiving to the French') and reprinting what I wrote after Dale's funeral services, held May 26, 2009.

Dale died very early this morning at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, DC. It was a quiet event, according to his family, a transition from one state of being to another. He joined The Big Guy and it must have been a joyous encounter since Dale and TBG were on intimate terms. Dale humbly asked, and more often than not, TBG delivered.

Dale liked attractive blonds, and they, in turn, hovered around him like hummingbirds near a trumpet vine. He carried in his wallet a favorite photo of himself surrounded by five young and beautiful light-haired women and when asked why, after more than 20 years in the program he still attended ten AA meetings a week, he would pull out the photo and pass it around.  Nuff said.

Dale was a slow talker, sometimes infuriatingly so, and anyone who frequented the rooms for more than a year or three was bound to hear one of his two most moving stories. The first was about his family, which had led an unsuccessful intervention on him more than two decades earlier, and how his youngest daughter, when he turned away their help, had walked away, swearing she'd never see him again. The second was how, four years ago, he fell to his knees and recited the Serenity Prayer when he learned one of his daughters had died of an overdose.

It took him more than a decade of sobriety to get his family back, and he would tell you that if there was a single miracle that dominated his life, that was it.

Dale was a former college football quarterback, an inveterate Redskins fan, the owner of a ratty red sweater he wore eight months out of the year and that his family desperately wanted to burn, a history buff, and the only person I have ever met who routinely ordered a hot dog on a bun at restaurants.

He often parked his car spanning two spaces in the church parking lot. He touched hundreds of people in a kind and gentle way and I mourn his wisdom and his passing. We'll be the poorer without him.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Convenience? Ha!

Have I mentioned lately that I'm in a 12-step recovery program? No? Well, truthfully, I'm in two of them, one for addicts (almost 20 years) and one for all the good people who have to deal with us addicts daily (about seven years.) I mention this because it is time for my yearly diatribe against convenience stores.  

At breakfast with friends recently, the conversation turned--as it often does--to addiction and its toll. One young woman, speaking of her brother, told us he was an addiction looking for a substance. That made a lot of sense. Many have a tendency to think of addiction as a moral shortcoming focused on a particular evil: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex and pornography... Those of us most intimately acquainted with the subject know different; addictions are shifty things: once one is defeated, another arises to take its place, and the common ground of those who recover is an attitude of constant vigilance.

Which brings up one of my favorite subjects: convenience stores.

Back in the days when I was a substance abuse counselor at a local hospital, I'd always stop for coffee at a Seven Eleven on my way to work. One day it struck me that these uber-American institutions and others of their type that sell everything from scented condoms to soda crackers, were really an addict's heaven.

Think of it. Under one roof, you'll find alcohol, over-the-counter-drugs (including my personal favorites, Robitussin and Listerine), caffeine and nicotine, sugar-laden snacks, nutritionally worthless foods, porno magazines, lottery coupons and other gambling incentives, and of course ATM machines for quick infusions of cash. Most establishments are open 24-7, though in some states you cannot buy alcohol before eight in the morning.

In other words, convenience stores are designed for people who do not like to plan ahead, who are reactive, opportunistic and impulsive. Does that describe your run-of-the-mill addict?

This is not to denigrate the usefulness of such places; for normal folks, convenience stores are lifesavers, but it does serve well to illustrate that what is one man's convenience is another's folly.

Think of that the next time you're craving a Slurpee.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Off With Their Licenses!

I’m not a peaceful driver, and living in Northern Virginia, I am daily faced with some of the worst and most aggressive driving in North America. It may be proximity to the political infighting in the nearby nation’s capital, or the fact that, living inside route 495, the infamous Beltway, I am constantly challenged by rude, frustrated people whose favorite hobby is driving like idiots and skirting accidents.

Whatever. I'm not a pleasant person to drive with. My constantly running voice-over on the shortcomings of other operators, be they humble commuters or belligerent truckers can get irritating. The situation is made worse when night falls, when it rains, or when—Heaven help us—both happen simultaneously. Then the zombies, vampires, werewolves, golems and other monsters take to the road and no one is safe.

My friend S, a beautiful smart woman close to my heart and with many good opinions, recently suggested the entire driver’s license system needs a serious overhaul. She proposes a three-tier classification to both promote good drivers and keep the lousy ones off the roads.

The red license would allow holders to operate a motor vehicle on non-rain/snow days outside of rush hour. The amber license would permit driving any time during the day in any weather, while a green license holder could drive any time, day or night, in any weather. Oh, and no cell-phone use of any type—texting, talking, email, surfing—while driving.

My input to this would be that all drivers begin with a red license and, as the skill levels increase, move on to more driving rights. This is the way pilot licenses are awarded, and there are proportionally a lot fewer airplane accidents than there are car mishaps. That should tell you something.

So I think S’s notion (and mine too; I don’t believe in false modesty) is an inspired stroke of genius. Yes, it might be more complicated to monitor, but think of the lives saved, the accidents avoided, the money not spent on repairs, court appearances, legal fees and fines!   Consider, as well, how much of your time is wasted daily by inconsiderate drivers’ actions…  The rubberneckers, swervers, brake-pumpers, up-and-down speeders, line-cutters and left-lane slowpokes that shamelessly hamper your existence? Give’ em all red licenses and let them use public transport. The rest of us sane, careful and polite (most of the time) drivers deserve no less. Tell your congressperson.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Cemetery Mystery

Very few people go to the Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington, DC. Located on the banks of the Anacostia River near the razor-wired DC Jail, the cemetery is the final resting place of many American notables, including John Philips Sousa and Matthew Brady, but the most unexpected gravesite is that of J. Edgar Hoover’s lover, Clyde Tolson.

In the 60s and 70s, J. Edgar’s long-standing relationship with Tolson was the best worst-kept secret in Washington. It was common knowledge that the fearsome chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation detested Blacks, Commies, hippies, agitators and homosexuals. He kept voluminous files on everyone from JFK to Martin Luther King, and was not above threatening or blackmailing the top politicos of his era. That he was a rampant homosexual himself was well-known. There were rumors of J. Edgar wearing a red taffeta dress to secret evenings for cross-dressers, and he and Clyde could often be seen dining tête-à-tête at the ritzy Mayflower hotel where some said they had adjoining suites. No one, of course, spoke about this relationship openly for fear of reprisals. The FBI chief could make life miserable when crossed. Tolson and Hoover were inseparable for forty years, and when Hoover he left his entire estate of $551,000 to his companion. Tolson then moved into Hoover’s house.

J. Edgar’s grave is a few yards from Clyde Tolson’s. His final resting place is in the Hoover family plot, one of the rare sites in the cemetery to be surrounded by a fence. This, possibly, was done to avoid grave desecration. J. Edgar was a detested man, and in the minds of many remains one to this day.

Clyde Tolson’s is nestled in what is known as the cemetery’s gay corner. Next to him, sleeping for all eternity, are several gay war veterans, and William Boyce Mueller, the founder of the Forgotten Scouts who died in 1993.

Mueller, the grandson of Boy Scouts of America founder William Dickson Boyce, founded his organization to honor former Scouts who were gay and, according to a 1991 story in the Boston Globe, to counter the Boy Scouts’ beliefs at the time that gay men were somehow at odds with family values. An early member of the Forgotten Scouts was author Armistead Maupin.

Maupin might have found a good mystery to write about, namely, why is the grave of Tolson located in the area seemingly reserved for gays, when the man himself was never outed during his lifetime? How did this happen? Can someone in Tolson’ family, a relative with a truly dark sense of humor or perhaps an ax to grind, claim responsibility for this amazing feat of after-death change in sexual orientation?\

The Nation’s Capital is full of small and great mysteries. This is one of them.

Photo: Hoover and Tolson in 1931

Friday, May 14, 2010

The ID Card Issue

Arizona’s fear-based legislation aiming at restricting illegal immigration to the state was to be expected. Any area where the population of aliens suddenly reaches 30 percent is going to have a very uneasy 70 percent. Golden-agers suddenly faced with gangs, violence, drugs and lawlessness are going to react, and SB-1070 is exactly that: a reaction, a desire to return to return to more peaceful times when things were “as they should be.”

The real question being discussed is racial profiling. Will SB-1070 lead authorities—police or otherwise—to target brown-skinned folks? Undoubtedly. The odds are high that a blue-eyed, blond-haired illegal female immigrant from Denmark will ever end up in an Arizonan line-up… 

The law has re-ignited the national ID card debate.

The US is one of the very few developed country that does not routinely issue identity cards to its citizens. Technically, the only piece of official identification issued to a native-born American is a birth certificate and a Social Security card, neither of which are routinely carried around, and drivers’ licenses or state-issued IDs for those who don’t drive are not mandatory.

Non-native born, i.e., legal immigrants, are issued green cards and, if they eventually opt for citizenship, a certificate suitable for framing. Neither of these documents is supposed to be used as ID, though the green card often is. The quandary, of course, is that an American citizen born in the US who appears to be Hispanic will not have a green card, and may not have any identification at all. What to do then?
Both the left and the right see a national ID as yet another step towards Big Brotherism, but it’s probably time to get past that notion. Congress recently passed—with little debate—the Real ID Act, which will require that states verify every license applicant's identity and residency status, and that they store addresses, names, and driving records in a database that every other state can access. It also mandates anti-counterfeiting features for the licenses and a "common machine readable technology." In three years, licenses that don't meet the standards won't be accepted as identification for boarding an airplane, opening a bank account, or satisfying any other federally regulated use.

The Real ID Act is a giant step sideways. The law's sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) said the law "seeks to prevent another 9/11-type terrorist attack by disrupting terrorist travel." In truth, the act is primarily meant to prevent people who illegally immigrate to the United States from getting licenses.
The requirement that licenses incorporate a "machine-readable technology" is vague. Already, 47 states--all but Alaska, Oklahoma, and Wyoming--have a bar code or a magnetic stripe. Either one would satisfy the law's mandate, as would radio frequency ID (RFID), a broadcast technology planned for upcoming electronic U.S. passports. Many are against using chips with RFID in passports because, amazingly, they can be read from a distance, and broadcasting such passport data could make targets of American travelers.
How privacy concerns should be addressed is up to the Department of Homeland Security. Implementing those decisions, though, will fall squarely on the states.

According to PC World magazine, “the new law could cost the states as much as $1 billion. In addition to purchasing new machines and technology, state Departments of Motor Vehicles will have to hire new people to scan and verify documents. Virginia alone estimates that it will have to spend $237 million.
“The additional time required for verification will mean the end of being able to get a license in the same day. Even if states streamline contacts with utility companies, hospitals, and other organizations that might supply documents, adding even 10 minutes to the time required for each of the millions of licenses involved would translate into a huge new time and manpower burden.

“Aside from issues involving linked databases and stored documents, the new federal law will invalidate existing state laws meant to protect judges, police, and victims of domestic violence.”

So more thought needs to be given to the concept of a national ID. It’s bound to happen, and it will make few people happy. Whatever laws are passed have to be thought out carefully—unlike the Real ID Act, which is more than likely to harm basic rights without solving pressing issues.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


A recurring fantasy… I sell, give or throw away any item that I have not used/enjoyed/worn/listened to or viewed in the last 12 months. Unsat upon chairs, suits, cutlery and flatware, shoes, garden tools, spare car parts, VHS tapes and DVDs, musical instruments, Hawaiian shirts, dress socks. Also computer manuals, mouses (mice?), espresso makers, things that promise to chop vegetables but do a very poor job of it, clay baking pots, demitasse cups, flashlights (I have 27), thumbdrives, flashcards, knapsacks, fake netsuke, antiquated video games, decks of cards from the Iraq war, comic book anthologies, curtain rods and amplifiers.

Forty years ago I lived in two rooms and my belongings all fit into one large suitcase. I could, and did, move at a moment’s notice. A decade after that, divorced and broke, my stuff was packed in a dozen large cardboard boxes that took up most of the floor space of a dingy studio apartment. Ten years later I needed a large van to displace all the stuff I’d accumulated.

I now own more than 400 CDs, 300 of which I have listened to once and never will again. I have upwards of 100 DVDs, some so positively awful I would deny owning them if asked. There’s a roomful of VHS tapes in my basement, and even though I’ve been good about not duplicating tapes and DVDs, it’s highly unlikely that I will ever want to view Sponge Bob in my old age. I have 20 pairs of shoes and wear three, five suits and wear none, four computers, six guitars, 200 guitar picks, one synthesizer and a conga drum (presently on loan to another hoarder).

Notice that I do not mention books or tools, which are in a special category. Every year, I donate about 200 books to my local library, and every year selecting them is heartache. I love books and once found in my possession a tome in Portuguese about Brazilian agriculture. To this day, I don’t know where this book came from, as I do not speak Portuguese and am not even faintly interested in Brazilian agriculture, except—since I am politically correct—where it encroaches upon the rain forest. Tools are singular as well. When my father died, I inherited his framing vices and squares, and just yesterday I used brad hammer that had to be at least 60 years old. This being said, I have every type of tape ever made, as well as pliers whose uses can only be as torture devices.

I wonder how much I define myself by my possessions. I can’t estimate the amount of money I’ve spent to buy all these useless or one-use things and why it’s important to me to keep them. This being said, I am a big fan of eBay and have sold more than 500 items there. I’ve also bought close to that same amount, so it probably evens out.

I keep thinking that one day in the not-too-distant future, I’ll move to a one room house near a lake in Southern Virginia. No cable TV, no cell phone reception, no garage for storing useless stuff. Still lots of books, though none in Portuguese.

Now I have to figure out where to start.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Yay for Greed and Incompetence

In the last few months, it’s become obvious that, really, we don’t know what we’re doing… Consider this:

  • An oil spill that is still spilling threatens to be one of the most ecologically devastating tragedies of the millennium. We don’t know how to stop it.
  • A number of European countries—Greece is going going gone, Portugal, Spain and Italy are next—are on the threshold of economic disaster that may bring the entire global financial system down. We don’t know how to stop it.
  • An erupting volcano’s curtain of ashes closes down airport all over Europe and costs million of dollars. Nobody ever forecasted such an eventuality. We don’t know how to stop it.
  • An unsupervised computer program wreaks havoc on Wall Street and the DOW loses 1000 points in minutes.  We didn’t know how to stop it and it’s entirely conceivable that in a very short time hackers will learn how to reproduce the event at will.
What do these incidents have in common? Hmmm, let’s see how.  Lack of planning? Greed? A little of the former and a lot of the latter?

We want more oil so we can produce, purchase and export more cars, trucks, plastics, shopping bags and other petroleum-based products, most of which have a very limited use life-span and a very long biodegradable one.

Europe is going under because it bought into the American capitalistic system, complete with mortgages, credit cards, high interest loans, leases and borrowings. The basic thing to remember here is that the countries involved borrowed more than they are capable of repaying (sound familiar?), and only be securing more loans can they hope to survive.  This is called robbing Peter to pay Paul, and what it does is delay the inevitable.  What we are doing internationally is pretending to solve the problem when in actuality we’re simply passing it on to our children and grandchildren, who are unlikely to thank us for such a malicious gift.

The volcano? Some might say with questionable justification that acts of God can’t be planned for, but that’s nonsense. The history of the world is the history of survival against the elements. According to the Global Volcanism Program, at least 20 volcanoes will probably be erupting as you read these words (Italy's Stromboli, for example, has been erupting for more than a thousand years); roughly 60 erupted each year through the 1990s; 154 in the full decade 1990-1999 and about 550 have had historically documented eruptions.  But no one in the aviation industry planned for Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull  (pronounced ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl, you read it here first) even though Iceland is a major fly-over for trans-oceanic airlines. Greed or poor planning?

And last, Wall Street… There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe the greed, corruption, hubris and incompetence of Wall Street, a temple to the worship of gluttony and fiscal irresponsibility. The recent crash of the DOW, it appears, was largely caused by an unsupervised computer program designed to make lightning-quick trades to benefit large investors. According to insiders, this program will be debugged and back in service within days.

Doesn’t that just fill you with confidence?

Sunday, May 9, 2010


It’s getting hard to think, the noise is so loud. Trucks, booming bass on car stereos, sirens, unmuffled motorcycles, construction, garbage collectors, leaf-blowers and chainsaws, low-flying airplanes and traffic helicopters, a deafening and unsavory audile cornucopia that makes our days just a bit more stressful and angry, fills the air and drowns out nature. In most urban and suburban settings, we’re surrounded, enveloped, shot through and through with noise and realistically, there’s very little we can do about it. We’re at the mercy of others, be they individuals or corporate. The sale of earplugs and other protective devices, according to the Hearing Loss Association, has tripled in the last 10 years.

The noise isn’t just outdoors. When was the last time you went to an inexpensive or fast food restaurant where you could hear yourself, or carry on an adult conversation? At a such a place with friends recently, I asked if they could remember eating quietly and unhurried, and why, nowadays, the head-banging Muzac is turned to 10? One opinion is that most establishments want the customers to consume and leave. That makes sense, since restaurants thrive on high client turnover. Another (my friend Lisa’s who often reasonable) is that most dining experience will be enhanced if you don’t have to talk to the person you’re with. A third theory was that people in their 40s and younger now filter out noise almost instinctively. I wondered if they’re simply gone deaf.

At any rate, this partially explains the desire of so many iPod users to design their own noises and meet their private needs. I had always thought that, starting with the ubiquitous Sony Walkman, ear-phones and listening devices were a conscious ‘screw you’ to the rest of the world, a somewhat discreet display of asociality. Now I am beginning to understand that I need to fight back.

I just bought a pair of Bose sound-deadening earphones. I am scheming with a neighbor to put up “Quiet—Hospital Zone” signs on my street, and I have installed an air-horn on my Jeep. The latter I will use strictly for vengeance, such as when stuck in traffic behind a dump-truck.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


When I was a kid, I used to build small bombs. Sure, I called them model rockets, but really, they were explosives that never got off the ground and made a fair amount of noise. A first, I used match heads. Get a book of matches, cut off the heads with gardening shears, pack them in the aluminum tube semi-expensive cigars come in. Get a Jet-X fuse and stick that in the tube as well. Wrap it all in duct tape. Light. Run like hell.
Later, I made M-80 bombs, the purpose of which was to send trash can lids into orbit. When I was a senior in high school, I had a friend, Geoffrey, who had a thing about electricity and created a very simple time bomb with an alarm clock. At 2 a.m. on a Thursday, the door of his gym locker blew off. He was suspended for a week but proved that pretty much any fool could blow something up and not have to be there for it to happen. Geoffrey was very proud of himself and went on to a career as a pastry chef, specializing in cookie-dough volcanoes that erupt and spew chocolate lava.

All this leads me to the recent attempt by a Pakistani-born, naturalized financial consultant (get the hint? Think twice before handing over your life savings) to blow up Times Square in New York. He failed, despite having an alarm clock just like Geoffrey’s.  Before him were the Underwear Bomber—that’s a good nickname for you to carry around the rest of your life—and the Shoe Bomber. And, undoubtedly, somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, or in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, other idiots high on faith and low on know-how have already accidentally blown themselves up. For all we know, there was a Jockstrap Bomber, a Beret Bomber, a Davy Crockett Raccoon-Hat Bomber, and a couple of It’s-Under-My-Djellaba-Strapped-To-My-Genitals-Bombers. May Allah rest your nasty souls.

A few decades after my match head days, I worked for a UN organization and had occasion to fly Arabic airlines. I remember distinctly the first time I heard the pilot say we would soon be landing in Dubai, insh’Allah. Insh’Allah? God willing? No thanks. I had no interest in having God be my pilot or co-pilot. Just land the plane and let me off, please. Insh’Allah, I came to learn, is a phrase indicating hope for an aforementioned event to occur in the future.  The term is also used to invoke God’s  blessing for what you are about to do.

So here’s what I think.  It’s pretty obvious that in regards to the three terrorists mentioned above, Allah was not insha’ing. So all you guys in caves and cellars with bags of fertilizer and barbecue grill propane tanks you stole from your suburban neighbors, give your intentions some more thoughts. It’s highly improbable that your God is going to reward you with a houseful of young virgins just because you tried to blow up a bunch of tourists from Indiana. Really. I don’t talk to God every day, but this is a no-brainer.

So go out there and fertilize your lawn, invite folks for a cook-out. That’s a much better—and safer—use for the bomb-making stuff you’re playing with…

Monday, May 3, 2010

The One Hundred

Once again, I did not make Time magazine’s list of 100 very important people. That I once locked my best friend in the trunk of the family Peugeot does not qualify me. Neither do the three unpublished novels crowding my bookshelf, or that I am almost certainly the best French-born E9th pedal-steel guitar player in Northern Virginia.  It makes me wonder what I have to do to become famous.

Not that it matters. I think we long ago transcended Warhol’s fifteen minutes and now are lucky to go for fifteen seconds. Do you remember the name of the underwear bomber? The inventor of the Wallwalker? The author of The Shack?

My forays into popular culture are limited to my once-weekly visit to a coffee shop with an alarmingly large collection of People magazine. I leaf through and wonder, “Who are these folks?” I recognize Oprah because she has her own magazine and such hubris is hard to match. Ditto for a Martha. Brangelina I know because I really liked Tomb Raider and have wondered how they do the make-up to cover her tattoos.  I am finally admitting that George Clooney is a pretty good actor. I would probably be able to identify Michelle Obama on the street. And maybe Sarah Palin or Tina Fey.  But who the hell are Julie Bowen, Katie Lee Joel, Kim Kardashian, Jason Wu or Clay Boardman? Did they make Time’s top 100? Is there any reason for me to worry about my lack of familiarity with such notables? Will my life get better by knowing them or not?

It’s interesting, this need for temporary idols. I no longer watch the news on TV because truly, very little of it impacts me personally. I’m not interested in most of these people because outside our physicality (two arms, two legs, two lungs, etc.) we more than likely have little in common. Apocryphal family stories are unlikely to amuse them and my tales of woe are exactly that—my tales.

Still, making the top 100 of anything might be good for bragging rights. Also, it might get me a book deal. That’s be cool.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Burka and the Law

The best missed photo opportunity I have ever seen occurred last Christmas when I made my annual pilgrimage to the local supermall. A Muslim woman draped from head to toe in a black burka and chadri—the lace net covering the eyes—was happily window shopping and totting a pink Victoria’s Secret bag. It was a perfect culture clash.

In the last couple of years, my native Europe has been agonizing over Muslin-related legislation. The Swiss voted against allowing the building of any more minarets in their small nation, though the construction of new mosques sans minarets is still allowed; the Belgians passed a law against full Islamic face veils (the fine for wearing one is $34); the French and Italians are considering similar bans, as are the Dutch.

There’s little guiding these laws but fear. There are five million Muslims in France alone, and Islam will be the number two religion within a decade. The influx of Muslims to Europe rivals any migration of the last century, and the issues surrounding employment, money, education and social benefits are rife with anger and apprehension. The alarm over terrorism is fresh and growing. Almost every European country has been struck by acts of terror, from the killing of a filmmaker in Belgium to the subway bombings in England, to the railroad mass murders in Spain.

The other issue of course is that a burka—or a yarmulke, for that matter—identifies the wearer as different, and whereas the small round knit top-of-the-cranium cover is relatively discreet, a burka is out there for all to see, and in this world of equal rights, thin glass ceilings and Sadie Hawkins mores, why in the world would a woman want to buck the Western system and dissimulate her identity?

The history of the burka is confusing. According to Wikipedia, veiled virgins are described in Roman literature praising “the modesty of those ‘pagan women of Arabia’ who ‘not only cover their head, but their whole face...preferring to enjoy half the light with one eye rather than prostituting their whole face.’ It is conjectured that such pre-Islamic Middle Eastern face veils may have originated as a sort of sand mask in windy conditions…The masking of women's face and body may have been employed to diminish the abduction of women of childbearing age when one group was being raided by another. With all women hidden behind a veil it is argued that the chances of being taken were substantially reduced as the women of child bearing age could not be quickly distinguished from post-menopausal women in the turmoil of fighting.

“Many Muslims believe that the Islamic holy book, the Quran, and the collected traditions of the life of Muhammad, or require both men and women to dress and behave modestly in public. However, this requirement, called hijab has been interpreted in many different ways by Islamic scholars and Muslim communities.

“The Quran has been translated as stating: "O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their outergarments (jilbabs) close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and not annoyed. And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle."

“Another verse in the Quran is translated as: "And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs), and not to display their beauty except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband's fathers, or their sons, or their husband's sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their womenfolk, or what their right hands rule (slaves), or the followers from the men who do not feel sexual desire, or the small children to whom the nakedness of women is not apparent, and not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide of their adornments. And turn in repentance to Allah together, O you the faithful, in order that you are successful."

What I am waiting for is something completely outrageous.

In Virginia, some animal sacrifices are now legal when performed ritualistically for a religious purpose. I’m not sure where I stand on that, but I think manly men should create a male-only sect where one is required to expose his penis as a matter of faith. It would be the exact opposite of the burka, and make just as powerful a statement. If the issue is one of free speech—which in this country is what burka-wearers claim—then I want my free speech rights as well.

The line starts at the left.