Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Moving Experience

In both July and September, I helped friends move their earthly belongings, huffing and puffing large pieces of furniture from old homes to new ones. As I was assisting the transfer of an antique two-thousand pound television set from a third-floor apartment to a U-Haul truck, it struck me that the act of moving from one place to another is one of the last communal events where friends are relied upon to gather and lend a hand. It’s a form of barn-raising which has all but vanished in our urban setting.

Moving people fosters trust and new friendships—or at least that’s been my experience. When you’re on the bottom end of a refrigerator going down a flight of stairs and the guy at the top end is someone you met fifteen minutes ago, a sense of immediate trust is necessary. One stumble by the new guy and you’re apple sauce. You’re thankful when that doesn’t happen; the shared labor and sense of accomplishment—that was one heavy mother, and you congratulate each other for a job well-done—create instant kinship.  You start talking, you relate because you’ve just done a manly thing together without injury, and that’s worth celebrating! As the day progresses, you discover that the new guy and the new guy’s wife are OK people. You have things in common with them aside from the sweat and bruises. You listen to the same music, have read the same books, and remember a concert you all saw though not together.

Moving has important traditions involved.

The movee must provide a truck, unless the friends have a collection of pick-ups, vans and Toyotas with empty trunks. It’s assumed that the movee has already done a lot of work by him/herself.  It’s considered bad form to have to move boxes of books, clothing or shoes. We gather to handle heavy items: sofas and broken Lazy Boy chairs, curved Art Deco dressers made of impenetrable wood, bookshelves from a century ago and mattresses and box springs and disassembled beds made of thick and solid metals.

Gender differences are not necessarily celebrated. I have seen tiny women lifting dining room tables and strong men carrying embroidered pillows. I have never, though, seen a woman moving a piano single-handedly.  

And then there’s the food. Several years I went to a catered move. The movees had gone to a local deli and ordered a feast of cold cuts, cheeses, breads and pickled vegetables. It was all wrong. Moving calls for pizza.  It is de rigeur, as are bottled waters, cheap sodas, and beer if drinkers are involved. Drugs are not recommended for obvious reasons.

All told, moving can be a memorable experience for all involved.  We should do it more often.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Nighthawks, the 1942 canvas by Edward Hopper portraying isolated customers in a downtown diner late at night, is an emblematic work, one of the most recognizable painting in American art. I was fortunate to see it when the Art Institute of Chicago released it for a US tour and I visited it at Washington’s National Gallery twice in one week, and one more time a few days after that.

It’s a big painting, five feet across and two-and-half feet tall, a study in shadows and austere white. The diner is stark, stripped of decorations. There is one door, possibly to a restroom. The customer in the forefront does not seem to be fully there, his body melds with the darkness, and even the woman at far right is a mystery. Is she the girlfriend of the man next to her, part of a couple? The red dress she wears might be that of a prostitute, a predatory nighthawk. Or is she simply a tired worker? If Hopper knew, he never told.

In the 50s and 60s, according to art historian Sister Wendy Beckett’s American Masterpieces, every college dormitory in the country had a Nighthawks poster on its wall. Hopper’s work reflects the angst of the time; the customers, shoulders hunched, enwalled in themselves and neither speaking nor looking at one another, are icon of existential loneliness.

Almost weekly I see real-life versions of Nighthawks. The setting has not changed much though the diners have become fast-food places and the workers are no longer white-haired short-order cooks. Today, it’s minimum wage Latinos or Pakistanis. The clients are often single parents with children, a father and son, and when I see them I get the impression this is Dad’s night out with the kid. Maybe the parents are divorced and Mom has custody, so once or twice a week Dad takes his son to Subway. They eat in silence. Dad has a foot-long sandwich and the kid has a six-inch with meatballs. They don’t share bags of chips or drinks. They concentrate hard on their food and the kid makes sucking straw-in-an-empty-cup sounds. There are wadded up paper napkins—more on the kid’s side—and a cell phone next to Dad’s sandwich. Recently, in a mom-and-pop carry out, I saw an expensively dressed professional woman in tears and being comforted by her not yet ten-year-old daughter. No one paid any attention to the scene, and as I left the place I heard the woman say, “That bastard!”

I wonder what Hopper would have made of that scene…

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I have few friends, mostly by choice. Over the last five or six years I’ve trimmed away some people, nice people, I might add, but ones who in one way or another demanded too much, were opportunistic, or had little to offer. A good rule of thumb is that I don’t really want to be around folks who infringe on solitude while not alleviating loneliness.

Often, the trimming is mutual. Friendships ebb and flow, I think, as does most everything else. What is initially fascinating in a person becomes mundane. The irreverent questions might be charming at first but quickly lose their appeal, and what was at the start an endearing trait or quality becomes an irksome character defect. Someone, I forget who, once said that in the initial phases of any relationship—friendship included—my representative is meeting your representative. That makes a lot of sense. Most of us are guarded and reticent; we don’t like to share things that really matter. We allow our respective ambassadors to conduct lengthy negotiations in the hope of finding a common ground to grow on. Sometimes we find one, more often than not we don’t. Friendships—true ones—are rare and take years to erect, and though they may endure decades, they also remain as fragile as cut crystal.

There are friendships too that begin with an infatuation of sorts—a passion or fascination we thought unshared with anyone else. We’re delighted to find a kindred spirit and the friendship will endure as long as the common interest does. I’ve had many friends like that, people with whom I’ve played music, fished, hiked, studied or worked. There are also friendships built around a third person—a child, a teacher or mentor, someone ill or dying. Those are strange, temporary friendships that by definition have no future. They may serve an immediate situation but don’t have legs.

I once witnessed with great sadness the disappearance of many friendships at once. When my mother died in France, the friends she and my father had maintained over their married decades vanished. My mother had been the glue that held relationships and links together, and when she was gone so were the bonds. My father was left to fend for himself, and I was shocked by how quickly this happened. There was a lesson to be learned there. I never could quite figure out what it was, but it made me wonder if Lord Samuel, the British liberal politician, was right when he said, “A friend in need is a friend to be avoided."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

If I had a... Oh. Never Mind

It’s 1:15 in the afternoon and I’m stuck in traffic. There’s nothing unusual about this; we’re in Northern Virginia, a few miles south of Washington DC, and the area is undergoing a massive upheaval as construction for an extended subway line befouls circulation for miles around. Everywhere you turn are pillars that will support new bridges and overpasses, road torn to shreds and awaiting re-tarmacking,  closed lanes and iridescent traffic cones. I once calculated that the average speed on roads in my neighborhood is 12 miles per hour. NoVa already has a rep as the third-worst driving experience in the country and it’s not getting any better.

I’m waiting for the light to change. On my right, a huge orange machine is gouging red clay and leaving teethmarks while a portly construction worker is hitting something with a hammer. It suddenly strikes me: he’s hitting something with a hammer, just as people have been hitting things with hammers since the first tool-using anthropoid picked up a rock and hit another rock with it. The hammer is man’s primeval implement, weapon, artifact, and valued property. Hammers are handed down from father to son. A hammer’s purpose hasn’t changed in tens of thousands of years; it is par excellence, the great-great grand-daddy of all tools. Here’s a guy still enjoying the afterglow of Sunday’s Redskins victory, and he’s hammering, as untold generations did before him. How cool is that?

Hitting things is a basic human activity. We hit nails, balls, targets, and each other. The hammer is a way of making the hit more powerful, more focused, more lethal. We use the hammer to do the most basic of construction chores—securing one piece of something to another piece of something. We use it to make and pound out dents; little ones put brads into delicate woods, giant ones sink pilings into the earth and through bedrock. Hammers on anvils beat red hot metal into plowshares and swords and don’t care about the final product. It’s all in the relentless force generated by muscle and mass; hammering—it’s all repetition, and no one has really improved on the basic concept—a handle, a head, a trajectory and something to be hammered.

The hammer is a powerful symbol, too, and with its agricultural cousin the sickle, it caused an entire generation of students to hide under their school desks in fear of a nuclear attack. Pete Seeger sang that if he had a hammer he’d change the world, which came to represent the progressive movement in the early 50s and gave socialism a bad name.

I suspect hammers will continue to have a purpose and a place in society for the foreseeable future. And I also am almost certain no one will ever sing, “If I had a crescent wrench.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Turning The Page

So here I sit, a mere 12 pages away from finishing a major rewrite on a book I wrote many years ago and put away. At the time, I was frustrated by my agent’s demands that I change too many things, and when he told me he could not sell the work as it was, I laid it to rest in a clean white box with a printed identifying label and began writing something else. About a year ago, the book began calling out to me.

I have hacked away more than a hundred pages, changed the plot as well as the names of characters, and altered the way the action develops. I have led a ruthless search and destroy mission for the words ‘seem’ and ‘that,’ since both are almost unnecessary to writing. (‘Seem,’ in particular, is sneaky. In a work of fiction, everything, by definition, is ‘seem’ and it’s awfully easy to use it as a bad qualifier.) Oh, and did I mention my coldblooded hunt for any word ending with ‘ly’, such as ‘awfully,’ in the preceding line? I believe if you’re using an ‘ly’ word, you’re a lazy writer. There’s a better words available in the lexicon, but it’s too much trouble to find it and write a clearer, cleaner sentence.

I have done all these things, and more. Sentences that ran on no longer do. Split infinitives are re-united; oxymorons de-oxymized; colons and semi-colons questioned and found wanting. I guillotined clichés, defenestrated truisms and roasted chestnuts on a bonfire. I have, in fact, waged a war on my manuscript and left inky bloodstains on every page. Now I wonder why I can’t administer the coup de grace. There are 12 pages left for me to go over, and every instinct whispers, “walk away; avoid the siren call.”

My reticence is partly because a book becomes such an intimate friend—or enemy—that it’s difficult to think of living without it. And what will I do with my time now that this demanding and insolent creature has a life of its own? The bottom line is, it doesn’t need me any more and this is hard to accept… I always get post-partum depression when I finish writing something lengthy, be it a novel or a major non-fiction article.

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

Damn, I hate it when a Brit is right.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tis the Season

Any moment now the Christmas carols will start, because, as we know, the Holiday shopping season begins sometimes in mid September. Can’t get your wallets out too early, and by all accounts, it’s going to be a tough year so you can expect the malls to redouble their Jingle Bells and Three Kings. What joy!

I’ve always had problems with holidays. I don’t like Christmas cookies, and I can’t remember really having the kind of jolly time we see in old movies and read about in the press. Even when I was small in France and my parents were alive, there was a sense of dread about the Christmas season. I knew something would go wrong, and something almost always did. One year a drunk fell into the Christmas tree and tipped it over, shorting out the entire apartment building. Another year, another drunk. This one poured his glass of Scotch whiskey into my aquarium. Fish don’t get inebriated, they die. Yet another time, I decided to help with the post-party clean-up. It seemed easier to drink the half-filled glasses than empty them in the kitchen sink, so that’s what I did. In no time at all the dreadful mixture of wine and varied alcohols had me puking on my mother’s expensive Oriental rug. I fell asleep on the floor and caught hell the next day.

Coming to America, we were faced with the deadly tri-facta of Turkey Day, Christmas and Amateur Drinkers’ Night—New Year. This was enough to give an aura of desperation to September through January. Who to invite, who to spurn? The snobs came in search of a free meal and a chance to sneer at the wine; they brought insufferable children fresh out of boarding school and resentful for being there in the first place. Meals did not start until after midnight mass—a torture in and of itself—by which time a case or three of cheap champagne would be consumed as lines formed at the door of the house’s sole bathroom.

Like almost everyone I know, I have issues with the rampant commercialism of the holidays. I vow each year that I will not participate in the mass madness, and yet I do, joining the desperate throngs in search of the perfect presents. I spend more than I should and, in the end, purchase gifts I am sure are inadequate. I also buy useless stuff for myself since I figure no one will give me what I really want to get. I will not do it this year.

But as a man in the 12-Step rooms once told me, “The feeling of impending doom that you feel is impending doom.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Jean Octave Sagnier

I first wrote this three years ago.

 My father, Jean Octave Sagnier, died on September 8, 15 years ago. He was a good wise man who without being secretive hated talking about himself. He was an architectural student working as the traveling secretary of a wealthy Brit when the war broke out and he walked from the south of France to St. Malo in Brittany, then hopped a boat to England so he could join the upstart general Charles de Gaulle and become a Free French. De Gaulle assigned him a mobile radio station which roamed occupied France and relayed Allied news to the maquis and other underground forces. He told me he never fired a shot during the war. I'm not sxure I believed him. He was awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honor, for deeds that I do not know.

He met my mother in the summer of 1945 in Marseilles. She was Free French too and they conceived me that very night in the back of a US Army truck.

He was estranged from his family. I would be an adult before I was told I had uncles and an alcoholic aunt who died of the disease in the UK. He lost a younger brother during the V2 bombings of London. He never, as I recall, mentioned his own mother. I have an aged family photo taken in the 20s, three boys and a girl posing with a man and a woman standing at attention. A much later shot shows a painfully thin young man wearing boxing gloves and looking not at all ready to fight.

It was snowing when I was born in the American Hospital in Paris, and the barely liberated capital was devoid of food. Regardless, my mother craved a ham omelet. My father, using the military issue Colt he had never fired, forced the hospital cook at gunpoint to go into his own larder for eggs, butter and meat. He fixed the omelet himself, ate it, made another and served it to her. She complained it wasn't hot enough, and that would be the tenet of their relationship. They were married 46 years, nursing each other through poverty, joblessness, an eventual move to the US, cancer.

He died five years after my mother. I carried his ashes in an oak box from the US to France, and when I went through customs the douaniers were very curious as to what I was cradling in my arms. One soldier took the box, shook it. It rattled as if there were pebbles inside. When I told him he was manhandling my father's remains, he turned sheet-white, handed the box to his superior officer who in turn gave it back to me. I said these were the ashes of a Free French and the man saluted.

He was not a natural father. The growing up and education of a son baffled him. He was unlikely to give advice, did so only at my mother's prompting. He taught by doing, showing, and patience. We never played catch, never went fishing together, did not bond in the accepted way. There were few family vacations, a limited number of father/son experiences shared. He was a good and quiet man who witnessed and took part in moments of history that are now almost forgotten.

He told two jokes, neither particularly well, but each retelling brought tears to his eyes. He died a bad death and I hope he didn't suffer and I think of him every day.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fanning the Flames

Some people are thinking of having a Burn-a-Koran day on September 11th. That’s not even remotely original; we’ve always burned things we disapprove of—books, bras, heretics and witches; Jews, Moors and Christians; slum buildings and Korean stores during riots; the other guys’ fields during a war; Joan of Arc, the Knight Templars, the still-beating hearts of sacrificed prisoners (the Aztecs were particularly good at that) and a host of other flammable items, including many effigies of Presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush (1 and 2), Johnson, Reagan and Kennedy.… We’ve somehow associated burning with cleaning, an interesting connection of sorts that really doesn’t exist, ask any fireman.

The would-be Koran burners belong to the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida, a 50-member Christian evangelical church led by a Reverend Terry Jones. He made his feelings on Mahometanism perfectly clear last week when his church put up a sign that read “Islam is of the Devil!” Reverend Terry (I assume he prefers that name so as not to be confused with the Reverend Jones of Kool-Aid and Jonestown fame) has gotten a boatload of publicity for the burning stunt, which he deems a freedom of speech issue. Religious and political leaders are falling all over themselves in their haste to disassociate their faith from his, and he’s playing it coy. Maybe he will, and then again, maybe he won’t. Meanwhile, the relatively small town of Gainesville is getting ready for an apocalyptic media invasion and has asked neighboring communities for help in crowd management.

Maybe it’s the hurricane season, but this has all the makings of a good little tempest in a teeny-tiny teapot. Radical Muslims have been trampling the US flag for at least two generations and many Bibles have ended up fueling Afghani goat roasts—little is forbidden in the pursuit of religious fanaticism. What’s interesting is how many important folks with better ways to spend their time have felt the need to chime in on the subject. Yesterday (Tuesday) an Emergency Faith Leaders Summit on anti-Muslim sentiment discussed the burning-to-be. General David H. Petraeus warned it could endanger US troops in the Muslim world, as if these were not already in harm’s way. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it ‘un-American,” and in a statement that really calls for a new speechwriter, added, “I am heartened by the clear, unequivocal condemnation of this disrespectful act that has come from American religious leaders of all faiths.” Take that, Reverend Terry! What the statement lacks in grammatical transparency, it more than makes up in the number of syllables.

Here’s my suggestion: We provide the airfare to send Reverend Terry and his band of pyromaniacs so they can display their freedom of speech in a seriously Muslim country, say Libya, Chechnya or Kazakhstan. We provide matches, gasoline, and those little portable firepits Home Depot sells for $49.95. We do it on Pay Per View and we send marshmallows.

Monday, September 6, 2010


A week ago Sunday I hurt my back. I was sitting in my kitchen reading the newspaper and I sat up. WHAACK! I felt the pain like an electric shock and I froze. This my body’s instinctive reaction to that sort of hurt. Additional movement might make it worse. I have two friends with horror stories of back operations, one of whom tried to tell me, helpfully, that her troubles had started exactly the same way, so I put my fingers in my ears and went LA LA LA LA because I do believe that sometimes hearing something can make it happen.

Pain, according to the National Institute of Health, “is a feeling triggered in the nervous system. Pain may be sharp or dull. It may come and go, or it may be constant.
“Pain can be helpful. Without pain, you might seriously hurt yourself without knowing it, or you might not realize you have a medical problem that needs treatment. Once you take care of the problem, pain usually goes away.

“Back pain is one of the most common medical problems, affecting 8 out of 10 people at some point during their lives. Back pain can range from a dull, constant ache to a sudden, sharp pain. Acute back pain comes on suddenly and usually lasts from a few days to a few weeks.”

It turns out most people will have at least one backache in their life and the most common area affected is the low back, because the low back supports most of the body's weight.

Low back pain is the number two reason that Americans see their doctor -- second only to colds and flus.

In my case, I was probably sitting in one position for too long, but the NIH website gives a plethora of reasons for the pain, including:

• to the spine from osteoporosis

• Muscle spasm (very tense muscles that remain contracted)

• Ruptured or herniated disk

• Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)

• Spine curvatures

• Strain or tears to the muscles or ligaments supporting the back

• An abnormal aortic aneurysm that is leaking

• Arthritis conditionsCancer that involves the spine

• Fibromyalgia

• Infection of the spine

• Kidney infection or kidney stones

• Problems related to pregnancy

• Medical conditions that affect the female reproductive organs.

I decided it was safe to disregard the last two possible sources of the pain.

The first few days I walked gingerly. A friend gave a car-seat cushion and that helped. I found that staying in any one position too long aggravated any movement, so the more I moved the better I felt. I was told to use ice; no, heat; no, ice. I used the latter. In my fridge I found a bag of frozen peas dating from the last millennia. It fit perfectly in the small of my back bringing sweet, if numbing, relief.

I guess we’re fortunate our bodies do not remember pain all that well, otherwise we would live our lives ensconced in soft surfaces, and no woman would ever have a second child. Of course, if we did remember pain, we also might drive more carefully, not have war, and never have to watch Last Year at Marienbad again.

Because here’s the bottom line. Peanuts’s Lucy is right: Pain hurts.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

War's End

So just like that it’s done. The shooting part of the war in Iraq ends with both a bang and whimper, and we could say that the whole war is over, because what is war if not shooting? That’s the object of it all, isn’t it? Lobbing hard pieces of metal at the other guy and hoping to hurt him…

It took President Obama seventeen minutes to tell us about it. Seven years, seventeen minutes. One point five million troops, 4,400 American and ally fatalities, 32,000 wounded, at a cost of $740 billion. Notice, we aren’t told how many Iraqis died, or how much it cost them to have a dictator—a mean SOB, for sure—deposed, and a country essentially destroyed—largely because Dubya Bush was pissed off that said dictator threatened to kill Bush Senior, his daddy. The sad truth is, Dubya’s war essentially financed Al Qaeda’s growth, prompting untold thousands of young Islamists to join the terrorist ranks…

Fifty thousand troops will remain as advisers. What does a twenty-something volunteer from the States advise? “Shoot this guy, not that one?” These men and women will stay in Iraq until the end of 2011.

It seems a lot of details haven’t been worked out, though. If a bad guy (read, an Islamic terrorist) shoots at a good guy (us), is the good guy allowed to return fire? And if casualties or fatalities result, is it murder? Who takes who to trial?  It’s all pretty confusing.

The end of the war in Iraq will fund the prolongment of the war in Afghanistan, since President Obama favors one and not the other. Our troops will die in a rocky hell-hole instead of a sandy one, and the dollars saved will certainly never come back to the States to become, say, education or health care money.

And of course I’m simplifying things, using Occam’s Razor "Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate," very roughly translated as “the simpler the explanation, the better" or "don't multiply hypotheses unnecessarily” (the Latin makes me seem smart.)  Erudite books will be written about this long and costly war; blame will be assigned to Presidents, generals, foot soldiers and politicians. We’ll never get the $$740 billion back. Heck, we invaded a prime oil-producing country and the price of gas went up!

Hopefully there will be lessons learned here, but probably not many. Ever since David and Goliath, we’ve liked to throw rocks at each other and invent better slingshots—it spurs the economy, if not much else.