Sunday, October 31, 2010


Halloween doesn’t exist in France. I can’t remember any holiday that requires dress up, except for Le Jour des Rois, the feast of Kings, a one-time pre-Christian celebration during which a common man would be picked at random to become king for a day. Eventually this became the feast of the epiphany, and in France it is still celebrated with a special flat almond-flavored cake called a galette. Baked within the pastry is a fève, a tiny, hard-candy baby Jesus. If you’re lucky enough to find the fève without breaking a molar, you get to be king and wear a gold paper crown. Then you select a queen, and everyone drinks too much wine and gets tipsy. In recent times, if a woman finds the fève, she selects a king. France, after all, is a modern country.

The only holiday where a trick might be played is April Fool’s. Hardly seen here anymore, it is taken seriously in France and, for inexplicable reasons, is called Poisson d’Avril, April fish. It’s a day of practical jokes, the most hilarious of which is to pin a paper carp to the back of someone’s jacket. Why this is funny has always eluded me.

In my years here, I have seen Halloween virtually disappear, which is sad. Very few people come to the door nowadays, and if they do they’re small children accompanied by adults. There have been too many milk-carton stories of kids disappearing and understandably moms and dads are concerned, so that what once was a slightly scary time for adolescents haunting the darkened streets of their neighborhoods has morphed into an accompanied trip to the mall where kids go from store to store begging for candy. Or maybe it’s simply that the anti-sugar and pro-dentist forces have finally won.

I’m always tempted to give out radishes. They’re my favorite snack food, low-calorie, high-fiber, and satisfyingly crunchy, but like the rest of the population I buy bags of nutritious candy bars instead since I don’t want my home toilet-papered.

Halloween is the first of the dreaded fall and winter quintet that includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s day. All, in one way or another, are celebrations of excess: specifically food, credit, inebriation and pink things from Victoria’s Secret.

Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pagans and Sobriety

A couple of days ago I went to a 12-step meeting for pagans. There were 10 of us, none outwardly pagan-looking, more like a cross-section of suburban shoppers at the strip mall. There were no spells, incantations or secret rites. We were there because for one reason or another, each of us had found reason to have difficulties with the Judeo-Christian aspect of 12-step programs in America. To wit, we do not want to say the Our Father prayer which more and more often is recited at the end of meetings. We do not like the concept of an anthropomorphic Higher Power. We do not want a Christian agenda attached to our recovery.

The meetings I normally attend have changed over the years. Many people no longer share, they testify. They thank Jesus for their sobriety as if He himself had driven a limo to their home and taken them to their first meeting.  My HP did not. I am not sure whether He/She/It is even aware of my existence and if so, whether the vagaries of my life are important enough to warrant divine involvement. I don’t think so.

I am also bothered by the fact that being so outwardly and aggressively Christian, the healing programs are alienating other cultures and faiths. I know Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, Muslims and a Zoroastrianist or two, Wiccans, agnostics and atheists who value their sobriety as much as anyone. Their faiths are essentially denigrated by the notion that the Christian god is The God and must be invoked if soberness is to follow.

I don’t expect things to change. Years ago I protested about the prayers and suggested a group rethink its recitations, and I was pulled aside after the meeting by an elderly lady who waved her cane aggressively in my face and snarled at me “Don’t even think about it!”

Ah, Christianity!  God bless her…

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Powerlessness is one of those notions you hear bandied about in 12-step programs. We pay homage to it, congratulate ourselves on our deep grasp of the concept, practice it whenever we can, and shrug our shoulders at events we deem beyond our grasp.  We are powerless over people, places, things, the weather, the neighbor’s irascibility, and the fact that gasoline will be twenty percent methanol within a short time, thereby fouling any car that still has a carburetor.

Powerlessness is an interesting idea. It’s linked to almost all organized religions and most people have adopted it without even being aware. When Mark Twain in a celebrated speech said, “We all grumble about the weather, but nothing is done about it," he perfectly illustrated the concept of powerlessness. We bitch, whine, complain, mumble and rumble, but in the end events—including weather—occur as they will.

But, as a friend once commented, “We may be powerless, but we’re not helpless…”  I take that to mean that yes, I very well may get hit by a bus in the near future, but if I opt not to walk in the middle of the street, I can improve the odds of not getting run over.  For the most part, I can choose to be out of harm’s way, thereby bettering the chances of survival. If, however, I choose to go into what another friend calls “the idiot spotlight,” i.e., dancing the tango in the middle of I-66,  I’m going to get flattened.

The powerlessness/helplessness conundrum slices through pretty much everything we do. If I accept that my best efforts are just that, and not necessarily deserving of miraculous results, then I have “helped” the outcome of a situation as best I can and am not in need of the idiot spotlight.

Lately, I’ve felt powerless over agents who don’t read my stuff or return calls. Such a lack of basic courtesy infuriates me.  My temptation is to bombard them with emails and phone them incessantly, but then an agent friend of mine tells me he routinely has thousands of pages of manuscripts to review… I’m sure successful agents handle dozens of writers and are deluged with manuscripts, so my harassing won’t serve a useful purpose. Powerless, damn it.

I still have to work on this stuff. I’ve gotten better over the years, but I’m a long way from achieving serenity and acceptance of all things. Like anything worth getting, it’s a long slow process, and I’m impatient.

I remember a Seinfeld episode where George’s father tries to reduce his stress by yelling, “Serenity now!”  

Maybe that’ll work.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Phillippa Foot

Phillippa Foot passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe old age of 90. If her name doesn’t leap to mind, and if you haven’t read her book, Natural Goodness, or Vice and Virtue, her biography, well, you’re excused. There’s not that much room left nowadays for philosophers, and she spent the better part of her life exploring issues of virtue and ethics. She went back to the roots of Aristotelian thought which considered not just the consequences of an action, but the character of the person performing the action. The quote of hers I’ve always liked best is, “You ask a philosopher a question and after he or she has talked for a bit, you don’t understand your question any more.”

She is perhaps most well known for her exploration of “the trolley problem.” You are the driver of a runaway trolley that will kill five people if you do not switch tracks. If you do, however, the trolley will hit one person who will die. Judith Jarvis Thomson, an American moral philosopher and metaphysician, took this concept and spun it around. As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by dropping a heavy weight in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you - your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

Another, more relevant example: if you had the opportunity to come up with a cancer vaccine that would save millions of lives, would you be ready to sacrifice hundreds of lives to develop it?

These are fine moral distinctions that can argued until we’re all blue in the face and die of asphyxiation. But they’re important. They stand at the crux of what we call societal thinking and behavior. Such questions are at the basis of any war, and most conflicts. What are we willing to sacrifice to achieve a beneficial end, and how much of such sacrifices can we stand before we decide our actions are no longer tolerable by society.

And here’s another thought: If we do not interfere with the runaway trolley, whatever happens, we can’t be blamed. The deaths of the five victims are an act of God. If, however, we manage to change the trolley’s direction so that it kills only on person, that death is our responsibility—it would not have occurred had we not acted.
Personally, I hope Phillippa Foot is up there talking with whoever is making the big and small decisions, and asking him for clarifications on a number of ethical issues. And I hope there are some answers for her.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

France, Italy, Gypsies

When I was a little kid in France, it was common knowledge that children who were bad would be taken by the Gypsies. I’m not sure what the Gypsies did with all the nasty French kids; maybe it never happened and maybe the Gypsies simply had a bad rep.

Now France and Italy are cracking down on Gypsy camps and expelling thousands from the two countries. It’s wrong, but in a period of high unemployment, failing economies and nationalistic fears, the Gypsies are a perfect target. They’re easy to spot, since they set up camps in dilapidated mobile homes and trailers generally outside large cities; their children are home taught and this lack of schooling is often seen as the root of Gypsy woes; they’re insular and refuse to be integrated with the larger native population, and yes, they’ve been tagged as inveterate criminals. Whether it is sane or not to paint an entire minority in such a manner is beside the point. In Paris and Rome, Gypsies have been credited with running purse-snatching gangs who prey on tourists and native alike, using either fleet-footed children or teen agers on mopeds. In other countries they run used car lots and chop shops; and they’ve been documented as traveling hundreds of miles to run roofing and paving scams.

The Romas have many names. In the UK and the United States, they’re often called Irish Travelers or Pavee. The French call them Romanichels and Tziganes; the Germans Yeniche. To Armenians they are the Lom people and in Asia they’re the Lyuli and Dom.

There are between 10 and 12 million Romas in Europe. Some 200,000 were exterminated by Hitler during World War 2. According to a recent article by the Associated Press, “The European Union has a directive on racial equality, sponsors biannual summits on the Roma's plight and funds aid projects. But critics say there is no continent-wide will to fix the problem, and it took France's crackdown on the Roma — cast as part of the conservative government's fight against crime — to awaken mainstream European concern.

“France, which has its own local Gypsies with deep roots here, also has a very small Roma population of newcomers from Eastern Europe, estimated at up to 15,000.”

France, a mainstay of the EU, considers itself a beacon of human rights, so many Europeans were shocked in July when French President Nicolas Sarkozy's office described camps of Roma newcomers as sources of "illicit trafficking, deeply disgraceful living conditions and the exploitation of children through begging, prostitution and delinquency."

France has a long-standing policy of expelling Roma newcomers, but Sarkozy's attack, and the ensuing expulsion of more than 1,000 Roma back to Bulgaria and Romania, drew new scrutiny. On Sept. 29 the European Commission began proceedings to take France to court over the expulsions.

This is good. Both France and Italy should be taken to task for their actions against the Romas. Intolerance of any stripe does not serve any nation well. Hopefully, other countries, including the US, will step in and make their discontent known. And hopefully the Romas themselves will see that the world has changed. The recession and their blinkered ways do not mix well and the time for Gypsies to be well, gypsies, is over.

Friday, October 8, 2010


A few days ago I was sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and some insane pudgy man with spiky blonde hair was on television yelling out the secret to making egg rolls. The TV set was bolted to the ceiling with a sign that said “Please Don’t Change the Channel” and “Ask the Nurse for Assistance.” I looked around at the other folks waiting and I couldn’t see so much as one single person paying any attention to the fat chef. I could see any number of people who seemed very annoyed at the noise. Some were trying to read, others to doze. Even the receptionist was flashing dark looks at the oversized cuisinier. To make matters worse, minutes earlier an orderly had told us the doctors were running up to an hour behind, which meant most of us were essentially being held hostage by the cooking channel.

I wondered what the purpose of the TV was. Certainly, it couldn’t be entertainment. No one was smiling, and I had the feeling that out of sheer spite, none of us would ever eat an egg roll again. I asked the receptionist if we could at least change channels but she said the remote was lost and we were not allowed to stand on a chair to do it manually. I asked her if she, at least, liked the show, and she told me she didn’t even notice it, which was a lie. She had been doodling little fat chefs with spiky hair on her calendar.

I think maybe the powers-that-reign at my HMO have decided that noise is better than no noise. Maybe if we are occupied hating the noise, we will be too busy to complain about the long wait, the $30 co-pay, and the lack of any magazines save the one put out by the HMO and the AARP monthly.

It made me wonder about the value of silence.

My home is quiet. Even though I own enough CDs to stock a small store, I rarely play them. I detest Muzak, loud trucks that belch black smoke, sirens and horns, people who shout and commercials where the decibel level is 50 percent higher than the show I’m watching. I think ear buds are pure evil—we’re raising a generation of Future Deaf People of America, and I don’t think that’s good.

But then again, I used to play in rock ‘n’ roll bands, so my hearing is already shot, and if I were thirty years or so younger, I wouldn’t listen to me about anything, much less a complain that the world is too damned loud.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Rights vs. Rights

What do you do if one inalienable right bumps up against another inalienable right? It’s the old irresistible force/immovable object argument played out once again as varying groups battle over the US Constitution’s intent.

In this case, we’re dealing with a small assembly of fundamentalists, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas. These people believe God is angry at the United States for a number of transgressions, including homosexuality, abortion, and other perceived sins. God, they say, is punishing us by killing American soldiers overseas. Lately, the group has taken to picketing military funerals with signs that read “God Is Your Enemy” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” The church comprises mostly members of the Phelps family, many of whom have gone to law school and are eager to test the limits of free speech and expression. Their leader, Fred Phelps, dislikes gays, Blacks, Jews, most Christians, America, immigrants of all stripes and anything else that doesn’t agree with his “you have sinned and God hates you philosophy.”

There is no doubt the actions of the group are repugnant. Creating a disturbance during a funeral—any funeral—is a hideous way of protesting against something you don’t agree with. The family of a dead soldier being interred deserves better than to see and hear disparaging comments about the loved one no longer with them. They have inalienable rights too: the right to worship without being disturbed, and the right to privacy.

Surely the Founding Fathers could never envisage that the document they were drafting back in 1787 would ever be challenged in such a manner. Nor, I think, could they foresee that the media—the free media they championed—would rush to the side of the Phelps family.

Here’s the thing… The media is terrified of any encroachment of its right to free speech. And so, much like the National Rifle Association’s fear that any control of firearms could one day lead to a banning of guns, the media has decided that any action that could eventually be seen to encroach on free speech must be challenged.

This is ridiculous. We’re not allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not allowed to preach sedition, or foment murder, or join an enemy that the country is battling. All these things could be seen as challenges to freedom of speech but they’re not. They are common sense rules that any group must abide with if it is to live in a peaceful and cohesive manner.

It’s truly disappointing that the stalwarts of the press are so shortsighted they cannot see the difference between apples and oranges. And it makes me sort of embarrassed that I was once one of them.

Friday, October 1, 2010


The economy must be getting better—suddenly, I’m selling a lot more stuff on eBay than I have for the past couple of years. Admittedly, they’re small items, the leftovers of a busy life, consumer items that no longer please or have been superseded. I sold camera batteries to a buyer in Moscow, a CD instruction manual for a home recording system to a Mexican in Guadalajara, a pair of truly awful fake gold cufflinks to a lady in Arizona. There have been nibbles on a couple of larger pieces, including chromed tail-lights for a Harley Davidson motorcycle, the locking mechanism for the passenger door of a Jetta, and an assortment of sunglasses collected over years of Florida travel. I’ve bought six cars, two motorcycles, a trailer and three pairs of inline skates on eBay, and only two purchases were lemons, so I think I’m running about the same average as if I’d bought used locally.

I‘ve been selling stuff on eBay for more than a decade and, to the best of my estimate, have concluded more than 1,000 transactions. I have 100% satisfaction rating, and only twice did I have to use strong language to get satisfaction on a deal. Interestingly, both involved cars. My specialty has been electric and acoustic guitars and amplifiers. I got to be fairly knowledgeable, but when the economy crashed, so did the sale of instruments to would-be rockers and folkies. I know all the ladies at the local post office since I come in two or three times a week with odd-shaped packages going to strange countries.

In recent time, there’s been a move to try to tax eBay transactions. After all, this is a billion dollar, largely un- or self-supervised industry with millions of auctions going on concurrently. A wealth of dollars change hands every second and Congress is smacking its lips in anticipation. But there are some issues involved.

eBay, after all, is nothing more than a glorified international garage sale. Yes, quite a few businesses sell on the site, but these must abide by the standards and laws governing commerce, and they pay taxes on profits. The brunt of eBay sales remains individuals with single items or home-based “stores” that are nothing more than email addresses. If the government decides to tax eBay trade, it will eventually have to begin taxing yard and moving sales, door-to-door Cub Scout enterprises and the local lemonade stand. That’s unlikely to happen. And eBay has some strong supporters who vote. Whether there are enough to make a difference is not something an elected state official will want to test. Which is as it should be. My experiences with eBay have been overwhelmingly positive, and if it ain’t broke, don’t tax it.