Thursday, December 30, 2010

Buh Bye 2010

So it’s been an interesting year. Or maybe not even that. Feh. On the plus side, I finished writing a book, sold a short story to a good fiction magazine, wrote something just about every single day, met new people, some of whom were worth meeting, while others were not.  I also composed a bunch of songs and music. A few will have a future, and some will serve to remind me of things best left behind. I learned new licks and forgot old ones, touched base with old friends and lost recently-made ones whom I thought might last. I saw promising relationships whither while others prospered.

I’ve played music with people far more talented than I am and benefitted from the experience.

The writers’ group of which I am a member has been a godsend—talented people willing to listen and encourage in an occupation that is frighteningly solitary and very lonely at times.

No major illnesses but a bunch of niggling stuff that forces me to keep my $800+ a month health insurance with the local HMO. Bell’s palsy (WTF?), shingles, allergies and infections; a few weeks of flu and a back out of whack. But I am exercising—or trying to—every day, and if this is not as instantly rewarding as it would be in a perfect world, at least it does seem that the fit of my butt in the bucket seat of my car is not quite as alarming as it was prior to the sit-ups, squats and curls.

On the downside, construction of a metro push-station (WTF 2?) erupted behind my house, destroying a very nice copse of trees and driving out deer, fox, raccoons and other wildlife while making deafening thumping sounds from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., weekends included. The deforestation now allows me an unhindered view of a major thoroughfare. No doubt the paltry value of my ‘60s-era home has fallen sharply, but I am told this is the price of progress. Am I pissed of? Yes, assuredly. This is one of those moments when practicing acceptance is not only necessary but life-saving.

On the downside as well is my next door neighbor who has taken up the drums. He is not a gifted musician; I will leave it at that.

I attended some 200 12-step meetings and will celebrate 20 years of sobriety and abstinence in a couple of months. Other than breathing and eating, I can’t think of anything I have done with any degree of regularity for two decades.

I’ve gone on some wonderful hikes, and while walking next to a canal, was accompanied for half a mile by a young beaver swimming upstream. I almost stepped on a 60-pound snapping turtle and saw bald eagles roosting high in trees next to a river. I was stung a dozen times in less than 15 seconds by angry mud daubers. That hurt and took a couple of weeks to heal.

I have worked hard at disarming resentments new and old, and have only been partially successful. I think there are people who are natural sons (and daughters) of bitches. They may be here to test our forbearance and ability to remain calm during storms. Or maybe not. I do know this: such people exist and they take up space.

I have no idea what the coming year will bring, but that’s the fun of it all, isn’t it?

Best to one and all, and may 2011 bring you all the happiness you deserve.

May the road rise up to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain fall softly on your fields. Old Irish Blessing


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Days After Christmas

Yesterday, in the parking lot of the upscale hardware store near where I live, workers were grinding up the unsold Christmas trees, each conifer tossed tip-first into the chute and reduced in seconds to chips and sawdust. Earlier, they’d taken the giant plastic red bows and the colored lights down and a couple of kids not wearing Santa hats any more were using leaf blowers on the pine needles and twigs. The noise was far-reaching, a combination of angry bees and more angry bees looking for something to attack. There were a couple of spectators there, people with little to do on a post-Christmas morning, a middle-aged woman walking her dog, an older couple holding gloved hands.

“Seems like a waste, doesn’t it?” The man had a round face, powder blue eyes and steel-rimmed glasses. I agreed, but then I have always thought that sawing down trees to provide a couple of weeks’ worth of decorations is sort of foolish. The middle-aged woman picked up her dog, a miniature something or other, and held it to her chest. The dog didn’t like the noise the shredder made and squirmed in the woman’s arms so she squeezed him tighter. Another tree went into the machine. “This is really disturbing,” she said. And it was, though I couldn’t really tell why. The man nodded, “The day after anything is always kind of sad.”  His wife smiled sadly in agreement, added, “We haven’t bought a tree since, when? 1985?”

If Thanksgiving is the national holiday of over-consumption, then Christmas is the one most associated with misuse of resources. One year I decided to see how many catalogs I received in the months of November and December (I think there was a Seinfeld episode where Kramer did this.)  I stacked them up daily under my kitchen counter and in the days before Christmas the pile was 32 inches high and weighed 16 pounds. The catalogs were all glossy and most came from stores where I had never shopped. A lot of them advertised items I didn’t know existed and would not buy either for myself or as a gift for another, items one might have problems re-gifting. According to news releases from the postal people, catalogs are the main reason it now costs the average non-commercial consumer almost a half-buck each to post a letter or pay a bill.

That stuff is recycled is beside the point. A tree reduced to sawdust will never be a tree again—nor, for that matter, will a catalog. Over the past couple of years I have tried to get my name taken off mailing lists, but with catalogs it’s more difficult than it is with spam. Somehow, my requests to not be mailed tons of unwanted material are seldom honored. I am sure that, from an advertising standpoint, there is a valid reason for this, but I can’t quite fathom it.

Next year, I plan to begin sending the catalogs back to their stores of origin. Maybe tie a brick to the one from Bed Bath and Beyond, just to see what happens. Gift-wrapped, of course.

Friday, December 24, 2010


According to the Washington Post, the area I live in has succeeded in having the highest median annual income of anywhere in the States. One hundred thousand dollars per household, to be exact…. That’s median, which means that about half of the people make a ton more than that.

In my neighborhood, there are very few cars more than a year or two old. The high school kids drive new Jeeps—the poor ones, that is; the wealthy ones have Landrovers—and Lexus (Lexi?). The homes are a mixture of post-Korean War bungalows built in the early 60s for returning GIs, middle-income two- or three-story brick colonials, McMansions, and ridiculous manor homes redolent of new money and poor taste. Increasingly, these are built on small lots so that yard space comprises a three-foot strip of lawn in the front (some are Astroturf) and a fenced-off bricked-over square in the back just large enough for a stainless steel Crown Verity eight-grill barbecue and a fire pit.

The communities with real money—McLean, Fairfax, Great Falls, Loudon—are peopled by cabinet-level government employees, brokers, attorneys, land developers, dotcom millionaires and plastic surgeons whose mates often are real-estate agents. There are malls everywhere, as well as Porsche, Aston Martin and Bentley dealerships, and a local coffee shop sells individually-wrapped marshmallows for two bucks each. You can buy ostrich eggs and fifty-dollar-a-pound cheese at the local gourmet food store and the mechanics at the area Ferrari dealer charge $190 per hour.  Despite all this wealth, local public libraries recently had to curtail both their hours and their staff due to budget cutbacks.

On the other side of this shiny coin, we find that we have among the worst traffic in the country. Political scumbags like Newt Gingrich pollute our local restaurants. The roads are Third-World at best, and the public education system is sadly lacking. We also have snakeheads—the Asian fish that devours all other species—and, thanks to the estrogen in our waterways, largemouth bass with both male and female sex organs. The National Rifle Association and its crazies are in our backyards buying the politicians’ votes to allow firearms in national parks and the unregulated sale of semi-automatic weapons at gun shows. And 15 years ago, a few miles from my house, workers in a lab full of monkeys almost set loose the Ebola virus.  You can read all about in the 1995 bestseller, The Hot Zone.

Oh. And our hockey, baseball, basketball and football teams are all on a losing streak.

So once again, I ask you: Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Life and Opacity

There are times when I feel opaque, almost transparent.  All emotions I have had that could be expanded have been spent, for good or for ill, and whatever I believe I am capable of teaching has been taught ad nauseam. Maybe it’s a function of age, this strange repetition of feelings, events, history, passions and sensations. The core of me says everything I listen to has been said too many times before, and even in music, there are only 12 notes, and every possible arrangement has been composed, hummed and played. I finally understand the full meaning of Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Obviously, even Shakespeare was willing to rehash these older feelings, (oh how I hate to quote Shakespeare… So déclassé) in Sonnet 59, when he wrote:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.

This sense of not-quite-déjà-vu is insidious. If everything has been done, thought, written and said, then what’s the point? Is life really a simple replay of all that’s already been accomplished?  

Christopher Booker, a British writer and founder of the magazine Private Eye, believes all literature—and here I would add all life—hinges on a few simple plot lines.

The first is Overcoming the Monster.  From Beowulf to modern horror novels, we strive to defeat something bigger and more evil than ourselves. The second story line is Rags to Riches, where we better ourselves along accepted social lines. Then we might go on to plot number three, The Quest, or the search for meaning which will almost certainly involve plot line five, The Voyage and Return. All this may bear traces of both or either Comedy and Tragedy and inevitably as spring follows winter, leads to Rebirth, or perhaps salvation. In more recent times and bowing to changes in modern literature, Booker had added two more entries, Rebellion (think 1984) and Mystery.

From my standpoint, plot lines one through seven perfectly exemplify modern lives. Some of us will live at least two of them, and many of us will exist and struggle through three or more. They repeat themselves, though wearing different costumes and playing different roles. Death, romance, work, play, family and friends, even faith, are cyclical. We pretend to see newness where there is none because doing otherwise will take the wind out of any ship’s sails.

Hmmm. I have no more deep thoughts today, nor even shallow ones, and it’s time for the brown rice holidays.

But give this some thought: out of the seven, which ones are yours?


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Faith, Religion and the Solstice

I’ve always envied and feared people who claim to have a direct line to their god. Envied because, lets face it, it must be kind of neat to have a Higher Power you can ring up like you can Uncle Stan in Minnesota, and feared because the hubris involved in having God that close to you is nothing short of phenomenal.

I was thinking of this recently after a 12-step meeting turned into a glory hallelujah get-together and made a few participants, myself included, very uncomfortable.

You can generally spot the non-Christians at meetings pretty easily. They speak of faith, rather than religion; they don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer; they shrink back into their chairs when someone ‘testifies’ and invokes Jesus as his or her personal savior. For them, God is an acronym for Good Orderly Direction, which is a conviction of its own.

My personal belief is that my God doesn’t listen to me much.  In organized religion, one gets around that stumbling block by telling the adherents they’re simply not smart—or tuned in—enough to know God’s will. This explains all the tragedies that occur around us, the events that can only be described as mythically unfair—think Haiti, think Bangladesh, think starvation and disease. We are basically too dumb to understand the underlying reasons for calamity and heartbreak in the grand—and beneficent—scheme of things.  We are also told not to pray for our gratification but for that of others, which is a neat way of saying “don’t expect much.” And though God is always responsible for the good things in life, His/Hers/Its reasons for allowing evil are, you got it, beyond our understanding. 

My faith comes and goes. I believe that true faith is the equivalent of true trust. You leap from A, not from A to B. Faith is taking chances, and welcoming change. Most of the time I am loathe to do so, since change can have some unforeseen side-effects.

Enough of this. Tonight is the winter solstice, one of my favorite days of the year. Each 24-hour period from today on and for the six months will carry a few extra minutes of sunlight. The moon tonight is huge and sacred.  I imagine Druidic and Selenite celebrations are being held the world-over. 

Happy solstice to one and all.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas Wars

Three or four houses down and across the street from me lives a wealthy fellow in a very large home on a quarter acre of land. I’ve never met him, but my mailman tells me he is Arabic and involved in marketing cell phones. Every three or four months, an 18-wheeler semi delivers a new car, sometimes a Lamborghini, other times an Aston Martin; also a Smart Car, a Mercedes and a Landrover. I have never actually seen my neighbor, though I did knock on his door once out of sheer curiosity.

Throughout the year, a battalion of workmen toil on the house and land. A line of 30-foot spruces has been planted, and a gate erected either to keep the expensive cars in or other people out. The house has been painted twice in four years, and the driveway repaved with hexagonal tiles that I imagine must be very slippery when it rains.

Two weeks ago, this neighbor decided to beautify the neighborhood by illuminating his land and home with, oh, maybe a zillion blinking, flashing, blinding multi-colored lights, eight-foot candy canes, giant (and I would think empty) refrigerator-sized gift boxes wrapped in tinsel and bows, and a full complement of colored elves. The latter line the driveway and appear to be quarrelling over the candy canes, but I can’t be sure of that.  The effect is that of a Wal-Mart on ecstasy and I believe the display has caused a road accident or two in the past week.

Two doors to my left, meanwhile, a new neighbor has also planted candy canes though these are more modest and aligned in a fashion remindful of a graveyard. In and of itself, that’s OK, but the effect is all the more macabre because of an inflatable Santa that has sprung a leak. Erect and proud in the evening, the bearded Saint Nick is a spread-eagled red and white corpse by morning. I don’t know if this is intended. In Northern Virginia, some people have very strange senses of humor. Not good, strange.

A few blocks from me in a different but adjoining neighborhood, a Christmas display skirmish has been raging for more than two decades. One family lives in a post-Korean War house of the type built by the thousands in Virginia for returning veterans. In the front yard is a permanent 15-foot tall Statue of Liberty festooned with flags. At Christmas, the statue is joined by a helicopter-riding Santa, Snow White and eight (I’ve counted them) dwarves, Bambi, what I think may be the Keebler  elves, the three little pigs, and an inflatable Redskin football player. The mélange is draped with lights that emanate enough heat to melt the surrounding snow.

Next door to this is a veritable museum of woodworking wonders. I have no doubts whoever lives there has several scroll-saws buzzing year round. The yard features wind mills of assorted sizes, derricks, wishing wells, two small Japanese bridges spanning nothing, a kissing Dutch boy and girl who move with the breeze, three weather vanes, a life-size crèche and a 1975 Volkswagen Beetle painted in a Stars-and-Stripes motif. At Christmas, decorative lights are spread like kudzu over the entire front yard for that undulating look that may make some folks seasick.

Is this a great country, or what?    

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sins of Omission

Recently, a national pizza chain started advertising a new pie with extra cheese baked into the crust and promised its customers, “You won’t be able to stop.” In light of the national obsession with obesity, I thought this was either an amazingly ballsy or amazingly stupid ad. In the end, I think it’s both.  It isn’t the first time that advertising promotes excess, of course. I remember a few years ago a campaign to sell potato chips with the same gusto and message—“You can’t eat just one!”

Pizza is one of those foods with a high degree of instant gratification. With fat, salt, and sugar (in the pizza dough), pizza-makers hit the holy trinity of addictive chemicals most of us long for in what we eat.

All this leads me to wonder why preaching overindulgence in food is acceptable.

Any ad campaign pushing beer or cigarettes in the same manner would be banned quickly. Imagine, “Budweiser! You Can’t Drink Just One!” But then, come to think of it, isn’t ‘lite’ beer marketed so we can indeed consume more? Hmmm. TV ads, we all know, are inherently deceptive. They seldom show fat people stuffing themselves, nor drunk people swilling the product being pitched. They never tell you about the opportunity cost of the latest gadget you must have, nor that a new car depreciates the moment it is driven off the lot. We are not told that cholesterol-laden foods are deadly, not about the potential dangers involved in drinking. Ads never tell you about hidden costs, either. Some, like come-ons for various drugs, do indeed issue warnings, but in such a way that they are either anodyne, or (the four-hour erection from Cialis) laughable.

But back, for a moment, to the concept of advertising toward excess.  All advertising is basically designed to (1) wrest your allegiance from one manufacturer of a product to another and (2) make you believe your life will be enhanced by the purchase of the item being advertised. Along the way, some ads will provide a trickle of information about the thing at hand, but since a little information is a lot more dangerous than no information at all, it’s often better for the ad to gloss over even the most basic of practicalities. What ads can do is target your weak spot. Food, for example.

Advertising is the ultimate realization of what the Catholics call ‘a lie of omission.’ It does not mislead overtly, it simply fails to reveal the whole truth. Telling people their taste buds will be so enchanted that “you won’t be able to stop” is perfectly OK but only if you add “until you have consumed thousands of calories and added to your cholesterol.”

Real truth in advertising would be a boon to American saving accounts. Imagine if, before buying an expensive big screen TV, you were told: “This product will not make the insipid shows you watch any better!” Or, when purchasing a car, you were informed that, “You will still be a lousy and accident-prone driver,  more likely now than ever to kill yourself and others since you have a new and more powerful vehicle.” Or, as you contemplate a box of donuts, “This product is made with sugar, the most addictive known to man, according to the Food and Drug Administration.”

Wouldn’t that make you think twice? No? Me neither.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Nurturing Resentments

I have resentments. Against the cable company, Wall Street, my broker, my neighbor who recently bought a set of drums and practices several hours a day while managing to never keep an honest beat; the newspaper delivery people who toss the morning rag so that it slides under the prickly bushes lining my driveway; the metro planners who decided to build a booster station almost in my backyard and destroyed a perfectly lovely copse of woods to do so. People who treated me shabbily—particularly people I trusted—rank high on my list of resentees (yes, I just made up the word but it works). These include makers of promises not kept, those congenitally late for everything, gossipers with bad opinions of me (gossipers with good opinions can slide), ageists, and, well, the list is long and varied and quite colorful.

I tend to my resentments much as my late father did the orchids he lovingly grew in a small greenhouse built off the side of the family home. The flowers were exquisite and costly things that demanded patience, attention, a vast degree of love and understanding, and special fertilizer that at the time had to be mail-ordered. He spent at least an hour with his flowers each day aerating the soil, shaping, pruning and inspecting them for aphids, ants and mealy bugs.  My mother never understood his passion. He wouldn’t display the orchids openly in the house, so what was the use? She reasoned other chores needed to be done, but she tolerated his zeal. My father was a handsome and charming man whose smile captivated many. There were far more noxious hobbies he could have espoused.

 The old line is that having resentments is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. There’s truth to that. I’m particularly prone to anger against bad drivers, but the fact is, the Asian lady who cut me off this morning during rush hour traffic is not even remotely aware of my existence. The hour I spent obsessing over her lousy road skills is wasted. I did not get even, I did not get vengeance, I got frustrated.

In the last decade or so, I’ve gotten better about letting the small stuff go. Ankle-biters no longer dominate my life. I can wax philosophical about the minute vagaries of day-to-day existence. It’s the big resentments that still give me problems.  They take up much too much space and don’t pay rent.

Still a lot of work to do there….