Sunday, August 29, 2010


My young friend Miles has been asking that I write a blog about him. I don’t now why, but he’s a good kid and does have a sense of humor, albeit a strange one. He finds cheese amusing, so I’ll do it.

Miles is 17 years old. He’s a Bush republican, towers over people at  6’2” and weighs 145 pounds, which in and of itself is worth mentioning. His mom is a gorgeous California blond whom I’ve known for a decade or so. She and Miles’ father have been divorced a long time. Miles has a younger brother, Spencer, who is 13 and by all reports spends far too much time playing Xbox games with people he’s never met. Spencer plays sports. Miles doesn’t. Spencer is the kind of kid who, if he sees a burrow entrance  in the ground, will stick his hand in it. Miles is the kind of kid who will tell you the 103 reasons this is not a good idea. They constantly whine about each other but are best friends.

Miles has a white pick-up truck courtesy of his grandparents. He mows lawns and does odd jobs and is saving his money to buy a BMW. He wants to be a commercial real estate agent later in life and so he can make a lot of money quickly. I suppose he’ll do exactly that which is both good and bad because when he was younger, Miles was also one hell of an artist. He had a natural instinct for colors and shapes, and I have one of his framed paintings in my house.  With a little training he could be great, but chances are this won’t happen because, one, he does not want to be anywhere but the Commonwealth of Virginia, and two, artists don’t make a lot of dough.

Miles and his brother have it pretty good. There’s a creek behind their house where he and Spencer have spent a lot of time doing what boy kids do; they’ve found box turtles, salamanders, wounded birds and Civil War artifacts there. They have dirt bikes they ride when the weather’s good. They spend a few nights each month at their mother’s house and go with her to California for two weeks in the summer.

The Holidays are generally an embarrassment of riches. When they were younger, two sets of grandparents doted on them, as did their mom and dad and Christmas eve looked like FAO Schwartz on speed. I suspect things may have changed a bit since the stuff they yearn for now (computers, gaming systems, cars) is slightly more expensive than it was when they were little kids.

Pretty soon Miles will be going to college, probably nearby since he doesn’t want to leave the state. Chances are his choice of a major will be a safe one because security is important to him. He likes schedules, likes to know where he’s going, how long it will take to get there, and how long he’ll stay. He doesn’t enjoy being startled, isn’t fond of surprises. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Miles and Spencer reach different pinnacles in life.

I imagine he’ll read this with his patented goofy grin. Am I right, Miles?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I love Esquire magazine. No, that’s not accurate. I am in awe of Esquire magazine, which is full of clothes and men’s jewelry I neither want nor can afford, and unavailable plasticky women barely out of their teens. I am in awe of the fact that Esquire has been peddling The Great American Fantasy for 78 years and is still successfully doing so with a publication that is two-thirds ads and one-third cotton candy.

TGAF is alive and well and, I suspect, hasn’t changed that much since 1932, when Esquire first was published. There are other mags, of course, which pander to the American Fantasy. Playboy did, for decades, and when the going got more graphic and liberated, so did Penthouse and Hustler.

For the more constructive among us, The Fantasy might be a backyard gazebo or a motorized bicycle. I remember once subscribing to Popular Mechanics only because it promised an article on building your own sport car from junkyard parts. I don’t know if anyone actually built one of these hot-rods, but my friend Kevin and I did spring $20 for detailed blueprints of a one-man hydroplane. We built it. We ran it. We totaled it when the throttle got stuck and it hit a tree. Really. I had to bail out of the boat (we’d named it, appropriately, Insh’ Allah) and lost my glasses which made the 90-mile drive back from the Chesapeake Bay almost as hazardous as the boat ride.

And then of course there are the car mags with the million dollar Bugattis; the hunting and fishing mags with thirty-pound muskies and 20-point bucks shot with home-made blowguns; the home decorating mags with professionally shot photos that will never approximate a reader’s home; the health mags with buff and oiled bodies; the travel mags; the impossibly-rich-people mags…

And then there’s The New Yorker, in a class of its own. I give The New Yorker subscriptions to a very select few folks whom I care for deeply.

Most magazines have a voice to promote the fantasy.
·        Home and travel magazines gush. You are there with them, amazed at the sights before you, be it a top-of-the-line Bertozzoni convection oven or the coast of Northern Greece.
·        Do-it-yourself mags have a homey quality. We’re all guys figuring out how to put together the new barbecue range while having a few beers.
·        Esquire is smart-alecky, read-this-and-you-too-might-verge-on-cool.
·        The New Yorker promises a different fantasy: erudition. Read these articles and you will not only be Gotham cool (which is way better than Esquire cool) and in the know, you’ll be privy to information seldom disseminated. The cartoons are for urbane folks who get it, whatever the it may be.  The teeny tiny print of the Events columns reinforces our belief that we’re being invited to a very special soirĂ©e, an event restricted to important people, readers like us.

 If I had unlimited time and money, I would subscribe to hundreds of magazines. I would learn to keep bees and turn a lathe. I would get welding tips, build specialized bat-houses, sail wooden boats, and search for sunken treasure. I might—and this bears further thought—want to work for a magazine about magazines.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Keeping It Simple

Back in the dawn of the computer age, in the late 70s, I bought a PC. It cost almost $3,000 at the time and was as portable as such things were then, which is to say not very. The Kay Pro weighed as much as a Singer sewing machine and as far as computing went, was almost as effective. It was an inordinately complex system that required a boot-up disk, a program disk, and an empty floppy to save your work onto. The Kay Pro had no memory of its own, boasted a seven inch screen and a pre-DOS operating system. It was hooked up to a monstrously large daisy wheel printer that gobbled both paper and ribbon as if famished, and made such a racquet I could print only when the people in the next door apartment were at work.  The woman who lived across the hall once asked whether I had a firing squad at my place.

When I traveled, the Kay Pro had a seat of its own, free, and generally in first-class. The flight attendants found it cute. It had no modem, no graphics, no games save a strange biorhythm-reading program based on your birth date. People thought that was fascinating and when I took the computer to the office, they’d request their charts and ooh and aah. 

I bought the Kay Pro because I had a Philips Mycom word processor at work. It was a dedicated system as large as a Volkswagen with disks as big as spare tires. The UN agency I was with changed word processing packages yearly, so by the time we were using Word Perfect, I was a seasoned expert. It made the labor writing and rewriting almost pleasant.  The Mycom had a ‘search and replace’ capacity and that in no time at all, people were writing memos and changing important words to kumquat and banana so that a paragraph might read, “When Mr. Banana came to do a presentation on his kumquat…” Stuff like that was considered very cutting edge at the time. 

The Kay Pro, all 65 pounds of it, was miraculous.

Keep in mind that my first two books were drafted, respectively, on Underwood and Royal manual typewriters. When I cut and pasted, I literally used scissors and Scotch tape. It wasn’t unusual to have a five-foot page, marked up in pencil and pen, and retyped four or five times. I hung these pages on nails driven into the living room door. The primitive word processing features of the Kay Pro were astounding, wonders to behold.

Today, I am stymied by my $60 phone’s ability to drop calls, fade out, magically connect with the internet when I don’t want it to, and cost me $130 a month so I can be called by people I don’t want to talk to.  We have more and more ways of saying less and less.  The other machines we use daily are making our lives simple in a disturbing way. I suspect that within a generation or so, we will raise children who cannot count—much less do multiplications—or use a map, or spell.

We have already gotten to the point where we can no longer work on such machines ourselves, so we dispose of them quickly when something ever-so-slightly slightly better comes along, adding more simplicity to our lives.

Recently, a friend of mine hired a local company to set up his hi-def TV, sound system and DVD player. This person’s no dummy, but decided the opportunity cost was too great.  

Is the new simplicity letting others solve the problem? Or has that always been the case?

Friday, August 20, 2010


Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson

My fears are strongest in the morning, and they awaken when I do. I know they’ve been exercising, doing push-ups in the basement while I was sleeping, gathering force and potency as I’m resting. By the time I’m back among the conscious they’ve taken on monstrous proportions.

They run the gamut. Financial insecurity; Alzheimer’s, cancer, relapse. Age, loneliness, fear of failure at what I’ve been doing for a long, long time now—writing—and the belief that no matter what I put together, I will not be published or recognized. Fear that I will lose my home through lack of income, that I will not be playing the lottery the very week I would have won it. Fear that my friends will move away or vanish as many have already.  And many, many more.

I don’t know whether this is normal or not and I don’t remember harboring such qualms a few years ago. I speak with people who exude serenity and have no uncertainties about what may—or may not—come to them. They believe their Higher Power somehow is aware of their every twitch and desire and will come through for them, not matter what. I have no such confidence. My Higher Power’s pretty busy laying waste to the Sudan or loosing floods in Pakistan to pay much attention to me. Or at least, that’s the way I’ve been feeling the past few weeks.

Call it a step back from faith. I’ve always believed that faith is not leaping from A to B, it’s leaping from A, and lately I’ve been unwilling to commit myself to such a jump. I don’t see the safety net below and don’t trust the rescue squad to get there in time.

Buddhists believe that the whole secret of existence is to have no fear.

The one good thing in all this is, I’m pretty sure it’s all temporary. Over a lifetime I’ve had far more good things happen to me than bad ones and there’s no reason to think the trend will stop for good now. So it’s a question of conquering the fears, or, at the least, learning to live with them. There’s a lesson here somewhere but I’m damned if I know what it is…

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Movies

Movie, matinee showing     $10.00
Popcorn, large, no butter       $8.00
Large Diet Coke                     $3.00
Parking                                     $2.50

Total for 103 minutes
of so-so entertainment                    $23.50

Redbox 1 night rental                        $1.00 
Netflix                                                $7.00  for one month membership allowing rental of
three movies at a time, for as long as you want.

Movies—crowded room with sticky floor; 20 minutes of television ads now seen on a very large screen and not the better for it.  Guy two rows in front of you texting and making his very bright little telephone screen an object of intense hate. Guy behind you resting his feet on the back of the seat next to you and whispering loudly to his girlfriend, the owner of a loud and inane giggle. People two seats away in your row foraging in a paper bag for the cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, Mars bars and sour gummy worms they’ve brought into the theater against theater rule. Noisy group of children throwing popcorn at each other as parents pretend not to notice. Deafening sound effects coming through 102 giant speakers. Vertical jiggly line through first 15 minutes of the film. Explosive noises from next-door movie seeping through the walls.  Bathroom with hand dryers and no paper towels. And, my personal favorite, projectionist—exhausted exchange student from Kinshasa carrying 30 credits and a full-time job—asleep and un-wakeable in locked projection booth.

Home DVD or VHS—bathroom with hand-towels and toilet that flushes property; non-sticky floor, pause button. Good food at a fraction of the cost.  No parking fees. Adjustable sound, fast forward through the kissy stuff, replay all the good action scenes. One dollar microwave popcorn and unlimited sour gummy worms. Minimal distractions. Personal scheduling of showings, all for one low price.

There’s a pretty good chance I may never go to the movies again.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Summer Rewrites

Unforgivably Bad Writing, Part 3:  She rode astride him like a bucking bronco in the rodeo of the flesh.  Jan Stacy, Bodysmasher, Zebra Press

Unforgivably Bad Writing, Part 4: With a sigh, she took the Tater Tots and the bread out of the oven and set them out on the warm stove. Kevin O’Brien, Vicious

Toward the end of summer in the Washington, DC area, the skies cloud up daily and once or twice a week thunderstorms of frightening intensity knock down trees and send entire neighborhoods into steamy darkness. I’ve been lucky so far this year—there’s only been one blackout lasting more than three hours. Several brownouts have occurred though, and each time the television set in my basement mysteriously turns itself on and scares the hell out of me. The disembodied squeaks and groans used to be those of cartoon characters on the Disney Channel, but recently a shift has occurred. My TV turns itself on to one of the Spanish-language stations and the plaintive basement voices are accompanied by tremulous guitars and Moog synthesizers.

Summers are good times for re-writing, and I’ve been doing just that for the past few weeks. Under scrutiny is a book I wrote years ago titled Wasted Miracles. My agent at the time said he couldn’t sell it, so I serialized it on this site. Now I’ve decided that with some rewriting, it’ll be worth resubmitting.

I both loathe and love rewrites.  On the one hand, I’d like to think I’m vastly talented and my stuff needs no editing. On the other hand, I know the former statement is sheer b.s. Books are made during the rewrite process.

This is the book’s fourth rewrite. It started out more than a decade ago as a first-person mystery novel, at 572 pages grossly over-written and under-thought. My agent told me first-person was the wrong format, so (rewrite number one) I edited myself out of the book, created an alter ego and protagonist and pared it down to 450 pages. Then I realized that the plotting was heavy and sometimes dull, and some of the characters exhibited tendencies and shortcomings I criticize in the works of others. That was rewrite number two.

Serializing it was rewrite number three.

I let the book sit for a while and took it out again three months ago when I was going through writer’s block on another project.  I reread. Hmmm. Not too shabby… A little polish here and there and some technological updating might make this into a viable seller.

So now I’m on rewrite number four, and it’s mostly small stuff. I’m taking out a whole lot of words ending in ly and ious. I’m reading it aloud and what doesn’t sound good gets excised. I’m eliminating pages of back-story that may have helped me create characters but add little to plot development.  I am attempting to streamline the dialogues and rev up the action.

So we’ll see where all this leads. I’m hoping to eliminate myself from the Unforgivably Bad Writing examples above. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Me and the Mosque

My first reaction is always wrong. This is not a theory, it’s a fact borne out by years of living and an untold number of bad experiences. If I really want to behave in a sane and wise manner, I have to let my first reaction go, and wait for a better one to replace it. This may take time. More often than not, my second, third, tenth reaction are wrong too.
I bring this up because my first reaction, when hearing of a proposal to build a mosque near ground zero in New York, was wrong. I thought, yes, what a wonderful idea! And while we’re at it, let’s also build a monument to the Third Reich on the Trocadero in Paris, near the Eiffel Tower. Or perhaps an amusement park in Poland, Disney-Treblinka... Because the very idea, a mosque near Ground Zero, seemed so downright ludicrous it belonged to the realm of comedy. Saturday Night Live would have a field day with this one.

Then I read a bit more about it. Although projected to be financed, designed and built by Muslim money, the center would not be a mosque per se, more like a non-denominational community hub. There would be offices, worship areas, a pool, a daycare center and exhibition spaces. It would not even have a view of Ground Zero.

No, that still didn’t make it right. If a Muslim organization wanted to help with the healing, let it use its money for anti-terrorist education in the nations that foster and endorse radical Islam. Let them apply sujch funds to foster change in—or eliminate altogether—the governments that allow training camps, arm trade and recruitment in their countries. Yes, it’s a tall order, but who is better suited to work with Islamics than other Islamics?

This is, of course, a question of perception, but perceptions rule the world. When a group of Carmelite nuns established a convent near Auschwitz to pray for the souls of those murdered there, Jewish groups the world over protested that the sisters were trying to Christianize the Holocaust and hijack the memories of the dead. Eventually, Pope John Paul II ordered the nuns to move.

 But we’re not in Poland, we’re in America, a nation that has long prided itself on showing the rest of the world what freedom really is. Wouldn’t such a display of forgiveness and tolerance really give the finger to the bad guys? And would they not realize that, armed with such benevolence and righteousness, God is indeed on our side?

Nah. That doesn’t work for me either. Plus, the other guys really aren’t disposed to having philosophical discussions on the benefits of tolerance.

In fact, the only reason I can see for building the center is that Newt Gingrich is opposed to it.

Let me explain that statement. 

Gingrich is a neighbor—not next door but he lives about a mile away—way too close for comfort—and I run into him from time to time in a favorite restaurant.
I believe the former Speaker of the House is a malevolent troll. Everything about him is despicable, including his opinions and his ambitions to become our next President. Remember, this is the politician who was screwing a Hill staffer while giving speeches on family values, the very same man who was fined $300,000  for lying to the House Ethics Committee.  The very fact that Gingrich is against building the mosque gives me pause.

But no. It’s a bad idea to build there and the fact that Newt is milking the crisis for all it’s worth won’t change my opinion.

So after many thoughts, for once I’ll honor my first reaction. Don’t do it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Anti-Semitism, Part I

Breakfast, Sunday morning, at a place with great croissants and good coffee, the sort of venue that leads either to serious talks or absurd discussions with nothing in-between. I’ve been reading Sarah’s Key, a devastating novel if you’re French, Parisian above all, and born shortly after World War 2. I’m all three.

The novel was suggested to me by a friend who knows I am working on a book about post-War Paris.  Shorn of its tresses, it deals with the events of July 16 through 18, 1942, when French police rounded up more than 13,000 Parisian Jews on the order of the Vichy government, kept them captive in an arena called the VĂ©lodrome d’Hivers for three days without foods, water or medical help, then sent them to Auschwitz where they were gassed. It’s commonly referred to as the Vel d’Hiv massacre, and it was only a few years ago that the French government recognized the country’s responsibilities.

The nature of the event was not taught in the school I attended in Paris as a child. I never heard anyone—anyone—refer to it, not my parents, not their friends, not Jewish acquaintances whose arms bore concentration camp tattoos. 

So my playwright friend P and I started wondering about the origins of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, because the continent’s history—be it French, Italian, Spanish or German, Swiss, Belgian, Austrian or Portuguese—is rife with violent incidents, faith-based massacres, deportations and discriminations. They’re there, just below the surface, rarely spoken about yet all too obvious.

According to most scholars, anti-Semitism may date back to the third century BCE. Alexandria was then the home of the largest Jewish community in the world. Edward Flannery, author of The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism, first published in 1965, quotes an Egyptian priest and historian of the period who wrote that the Jews were expelled from Egypt for being lepers. One of the earliest anti-Jewish edicts, promulgated by Antiochus Epiphanes circa 170-167 BCE, sparked the revolt of the Maccabees in Judea. The ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described an attack on Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE in which thousands of Jews died.

In later times, passages in the New Testament were often quoted to support discriminations against the Jews, and according to Wikipedia when Rome turned to Christianity in the 4th century,  “Jews became objects of religious intolerance and political oppression. Christian literature began to display extreme hostility to Jews, and this occasionally resulted in attacks on Jews and the burning of synagogues.

“Emperor Constantine I instituted several laws concerning Jews: they were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to circumcise their slaves. Conversion of Christians to Judaism was outlawed. Congregations for religious services were restricted, but Jews were allowed to enter Jerusalem on Tisha B'Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Discrimination became worse in the 5th century. Jews were barred from the civil service and the army. The Jewish Patriarchate was abolished and the scope of Jewish courts restricted. New synagogues were confiscated and old synagogues could be repaired only if they were in danger of collapse. Synagogues fell into ruin, were converted to churches, or were destroyed.”

Skip forward many centuries to modern Europe.  Anti-Semitism is still there though better veiled. Disraeli, a Jew, becomes Prime Minister of England.

In Russia anti-Semitism intensified in the early years of the twentieth century and was given official favor when the secret police manufactured and promulgated the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This document purported to be a transcription of a plan by Jewish elders to achieve global domination by any means necessary. To this day, the Protocols are cited by Muslim authorities and other anti-Semites as genuine and used as a basis for war and discrimination.

In France, the Dreyfus Affair pitted sons against fathers. Was Dreyfus indeed a spy? No, as it turns out, he wasn’t, but the coals of anti-Semitism, never extinguished, are fanned back to life.

In the first half of the twentieth century in the United States, Wikipedia tells us, Jews were discriminated against in employment, access to residential and resort areas, membership in clubs and organizations, and in tightened quotas on Jewish enrollment and teaching positions in colleges and universities. The Leo Frank lynching by a mob of prominent citizens in Marietta, Georgia in 1915 turned the spotlight on anti-Semitism in the United States and led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. The case was also used to build support for the renewal of the Ku Klux Klan which had been inactive since 1870.
Anti-Semitism in the United States reached its peak during the interwar period. The pioneer automobile manufacturer Henry Ford propagated antisemitic ideas in his newspaper The Dearborn Independent. The radio speeches of Father Coughlin in the late 1930s attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the notion of a Jewish financial conspiracy.

In the 1940s, the aviator Charles Lindbergh and many prominent Americans led The America First Committee in opposing any involvement in the war against Fascism. During his July 1936 visit he wrote letters saying that there was "more intelligent leadership in Germany than is generally recognized."

to be continued...