Friday, December 30, 2011

A long time ago when I was writing my second book, one the characters I was trying to manipulate into committing a heinous crime said to me, “You can’t make me do that.” This might seem surprising, an invented being rising from the pages to address his creator, but judging from what my writing friends say, it’s a common occurrence. 

This particular character was named Norman. He was a gay gossip columnist for a well-known newspaper and he’d never done anything more violent than sling pointed verbal criticism at the nouveaux riches and the events which they frequented and he had to attend.  What I wanted was for Norman to kill somebody—the plot in my novel required it, and Norman was more than recalcitrant; he flat out refused. His logic was unassailable: I had not constructed him to do this. There was nothing in his make-up that suggested a capability for mayhem. Indeed, Norman was a quiet soul more given to reflections on the state of modern poetry than to ever considering manslaughter and violence.  

What to do… The book had been rolling along with almost 350 pages finished and having Norman not perform as intended would really screw things up. Somebody had to off the bad guy, and quickly.

In the end, I had to rewrite a couple of chapters. Norman stayed the gentle soul he was from the start, and I altered Marylin, the main female character enough so she could bludgeon the bad guy without complaining, so it all worked out and everyone (except the bad guy) ended up living happily ever after.

The way I write often involves having characters that are not sure of where they’re going—because pretty often, I don’t know where I’m going either. Even if I have a general plot idea, details don’t emerge or firm up until I’m actually faced with a situation I have to resolve. Plus, I like characters more than I like plotting, so I’m far more likely to bend plot to fit characters than vice versa.

This may be because I’m one of those people who concur with Samuel Johnson that fiction is limited to a few plots “with very little variation.” In fact, I’m convinced there  are only seven plots available:
  1. (wo)man versus nature
  2. (wo)man versus man
  3. (wo)man versus the environment
  4. (wo)man versus technology
  5. (wo)man versus self
  6. (wo)man versus the supernatural
  7. (wo)man versus god/religion

Christopher Booker, author of Seven Basic Plots—Why We Tell Stories believes these plots deal with:
  1. Overcoming the ‘monster’
  2. The quest
  3. Journey and return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. Rags to riches

But even with limited plotting, there are unlimited characters to be created. In fact, the palette of human behavior and emotions allows us to construct an endless series of fascinating and believable characters whose lives evolve within the seven plot lines. That’s the fun of writing.

I try to listen to my characters. When I don’t, the story line gets into trouble and becomes less than readable and short of realistic. And the thing I’ve come to accept is, pretty often my characters know more about my writing than I do.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Five weeks ago the small post office that has served my community since the 1950s closed. There was no fanfare or good-bye party, just a printed sign on the door telling customers to go to another facility a couple of miles away. The people who had PO boxes were instructed to find another way to get their mail, and just like that a small part of the neighborhood vanished.

As post offices go, this one wasn’t much. It was located between a second-hand computer store and a Korean dry cleaner, just across from a Sunoco so it always smelled of gasoline and motor oil. Two windows, one wrapping table, a rack of mailing supplies that more often than not was found wanting. The round institutional clock had been taken away some years before when an efficiency expert persuaded the postal authorities that it was better for customers not to see how long they’d been waiting for service.

The employees knew just about everyone by name and conversely, we knew that Miss J was quick and efficient while Mrs. T liked to talk and took her time.  We knew whose kid had just graduated from George Mason, had returned from Iraq, had gotten married or divorced. We knew Miss P was a flirt who went on cruises every other year in search of love and romance. Mr. O’s told us his wretched Toyota had once again broken down at the bottom of the hill.

 I’d been going there for years to ship stuff I sold on eBay—guitars, amps, effect boxes and microphone stands—and once showed up with four used Porsche wheels with tires, all enclosed in cardboard and rolls of packing tape. I was sending them to a buyer in California. Miss J clucked and laughed, then told me I really shouldn’t have bothered wrapping them. I could have sent them as is, that is to say buck naked, as long as the address and postage were visible. Live and learn.

The post office closed because the entire enterprise is losing money at a frightening clip. The USPS lost more than $5 billion in 2011, and needs to shed about $20 billion in annual costs by 2015.  There is talk of ending Saturday deliveries, and overnight delivery of first class mail will probably cease as well. We—the customers—are partially to blame. Email, instant messaging, tweeting and all the other ways we have to communicate in an impersonal manner have taken their toll. Add to this the preferential treatment given to mass mailings and advertising, the increased cost of gasoline, salaries and maintenance costs and the demise of post offices throughout the land was inevitable.

On December 13th, the USPS agreed on a five-month moratorium on closures while lawmakers try to figure out a way to overhaul the system. That’s good, I suppose, since some POs tagged for closing were in truly rural areas that could not afford UPS or Fedex. The small space that was my post office is to be rented out to a dollar store. I suppose there might be a need for such a place where I live. 

Mrs. T took the closing as an opportunity to retire. Miss P now works in the giant sorting facility in the town next to mine. Miss J, her talents and efficiency finally recognized, was promoted to an office job within the Services. She works not too far away but told me she misses seeing her customers. Mr. O retired too and was given a bonus. He had his Toyota towed to a junkyard and bought a second-hand Lexus.  Life goes on.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On Writing (Again)

I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid—five years old, to be exact—and it has been the mainstay of my life. Every serious job I’ve had has involved putting my thoughts and opinions on paper. I’ve been a reporter and free-lancer for some fairly important newspapers, an editor and contributor to magazines, a ghostwriter, pamphleteer, the voice of a UN radio operation and an addiction counselor whose written diagnosis influenced the care of clients. I had the very good fortune of working in the newsroom of the Washington Post during the Watergate era and years ago spent many afternoons with a late celebrated Senator and poet trying to write a novel. I’ve had a few books published, though not enough, and a few more are either looking for home or still writing around in my head.

The thing with writing is that it’s a feast or famine deal, and while I know a couple of  fiction authors who have made some money—and in one case, a lot of money—the rest of us have at best a tiny chance of scrawling our way to the top. There are fewer fiction writers making a full-time living at their trade than there are professional football players actively in the game, and I remember reading some years ago that if you averaged out the income of all writers, from the lady who edits the church bulletin to the super heavyweights like a King or a Patterson, you’d come up with a very sad figure, something on the order of $400 annually.

Still, there’s nothing else I would rather be doing.  I was trying to explain to a friend recently that I don’t really believe in talent. I fact, I have a really blue collar view of writing: It’s a trade you practice and get better at over time, much like plumbing or carpentry or electrical wiring, but with less of a pay-off . If you do it long enough, you’ll get good and with a bit of luck (this is where the talent part just might lie) the muses might smile and make you better than good. And like in any trade, there are the enfants prodiges, the ones who seem to have it in them, that ability to tell an entrancing tale and weave a fabulous spell without even trying very hard.  The rest of us have to work it.

I don’t know where ideas come from. I know some of them are better than others, they have legs and walk.  I’m in the process of writing my sixth book, but I’ve started writing dozens of others which have had no future at page fifty or a hundred; they splutter  and die like and old car running out of gas. I keep these literary dead-ends handy because you never know, what lacks life one day will be brimming with it the next. 

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once said of music and lyrics that everything is floating out there, and it’s a question of grabbing and hanging on tenaciously. That sort of makes sense, something like Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Or perhaps Ambrose Bierce, “There is noting new under the sun but there are a lot of old things we don’t know.” 

So there it is. Writing is magic of the most plebeian kind, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


It has been six days since my doctor declared me cancer-free, and my, how quickly one forgets… Which, I suppose, is a blessing. If we could remember every fear, every scrape and scratch and anguish, we’d most likely never get out of bed. The body does not remember pain—that’s why women are willing to bear more than one child—and the mind, generally in a short while, forgets abuse as well, or for most of us compartmentalizes it in such a clever manner that we overlook memories of pain. We have a vague remembrance of discomfort, we recollect that an event was difficult, but we cannot bring up the actual distress in all its glory.

Nietzsche waxed at length on this concept, albeit tying it to morality rather than pain. “I have done that, says my memory; I cannot have done that says my pride and remains adamant. At last, memory yields.”  Our memory yields constantly to convenience and expediency. It is fully malleable, capable of being influenced long after the fact, opportunistic and amoral.

I’ve always been fascinated by memory. Why can we recall faces but not names? Why and how do we remember certain events and forget others, how can we remember numbers and addresses for only the necessary minutes before writing them down, why are  memories of childhood often more vivid than those of yesterday’s events? When my father was succumbing to the cruelties of Alzheimer’s Disease, he once started sobbing about a baby burning and remained inconsolable for hours. It took me almost a week of gentle probing to understand that he was remembering the death of his younger brother in London, killed in 1944 by a German V 2 rocket that destroyed the family house. That had happened 60 years earlier. But ask my father what he’d had for lunch that day and he would draw a blank. 

Me, I have scars that are barely visible, and the pain of which I can’t recall, other than it was serious—a phosphorus burn on my left foot, the cicatrix left by motorcycle wrecks, a half-moon mark on the middle finger of my right hand, the result of an inadvertent moment while working with a router.

More recently, the pain associated with the healing from two operations is still fresh in my mind, but it’s waning. I remember that it made me stand on tip toes and hold my breath as it rolled over me.  On a few occasions it made me cry. This was barely a week ago. I imagine that in a month or so all that will be left is an intellectual memory. Which I suppose is good, as I wouldn’t want to be lugging all that luggage around. So maybe that’s a good comparison. We only have a carry-on’s worth of physical memories at once, something we can stuff under the seat or overhead when we travel our personal paths.

It could be worse….  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Today is the solstice, the shortest day of the year and my personal favorite 24 hours. I love the pagan implications, the circumference of seasons; it is the beginend. A lovely word.

My friend Kim Peter has for the last decade graced his acquaintances and companions with a collection of his favorite verse. I always look forward to it, and this year crib it shamelessly.

But first, for my francophone pals, my favorite, in French, albeit one season late. From Baudelaire’s Chant d'automne:

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres ;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts !
J'entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

Tout l'hiver va rentrer dans mon être: colère,
Haine, frissons, horreur, labeur dur et forcé,
Et, comme le soleil dans son enfer polaire,
Mon coeur ne sera plus qu'un bloc rouge et glacé.

J'écoute en frémissant chaque bûche qui tombe
L'échafaud qu'on bâtit n'a pas d'écho plus sourd.
Mon esprit est pareil à la tour qui succombe
Sous les coups du bélier infatigable et lourd.

II me semble, bercé par ce choc monotone,
Qu'on cloue en grande hâte un cercueil quelque part.
Pour qui? - C'était hier l'été; voici l'automne !
Ce bruit mystérieux sonne comme un départ.

And now Kim Peter’s selection:

From ‘The Prelude’, by US poet Matthew Zapruder
Come to the edge
the edge beckoned softly. Take
this cup full of darkness and stay as long
as you want and maybe a little longer.

From the Chinese poet Wu Wei, translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Deep in the mountain wilderness
Where nobody ever comes
Only once in a great while
Something like the sound of a far-off voice.
The low rays of the sun
Slip through the dark forest,
And gleam again on the shadowy moss.

From ‘Moment’, by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanaugh (nature as theater and a brook and birds as actors)
Everything’s in its place and in polite agreement.
in the valley a little brook cast as a little brook.
A path in the role of a path from always to ever.
Woods disguised as woods alive without end,
and above them birds in flight play birds in flight.
The moment reigns as far as the eye can reach,
One of those earthly moments
invited to linger.

‘The New Song’, by US poet WS Merwin (would that we all could say so much in so few words and with so little [read: none] punctuation)
For some time I thought there was time
and there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it for the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then
there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We're Alone. No We're Not. Oh, What the Hell...

My friend David D, an app mogul, computer wunderkind, NASA Ambassador and tireless proponent of science and space exploration, has a theory. We are mechanical beings, he thinks, miraculously though not divinely sentient, and he proposes that future research will prove we are indeed alone in the universe. He does not believe in reincarnation, or that there is more to existence than what we have during our short tenure on earth. His belief in a supreme being is an attenuated one and here we share a certain commonality, though I am at best uncertain of what I think most of the time. If I have a god, it is one of my non-understanding. More often than not, I think there might indeed be something up there, but I’m not sure he/she/it gives much of a damn for what happens here, or, for that matter, elsewhere.

In the past few years, I’ve tended to some of the beliefs propounded by Cathars, the 12th century heretics of the Languedoc region in France who saw the material world as largely nasty. Cathars were hunted down mercilessly by the church for promoting the notion that matter was evil, and that Man (Humanity) was an alien sojourner in an essentially malevolent world.  Therefore, the main aim of Man was to free his spirit, which was in its nature good, and restore it with God. The Cathars allowed women to be perfecti, i.e., priests (an idea I completely endorse). They did not believe in a Last Judgement, accepted reincarnation, and thought souls could take many lifetimes to reach perfection before their final release.

My stand on reincarnation is one based on the assumption that nature recycles—flesh, bones, bark and grass, almost everything but plastic shopping bags from Safeway, so why not souls, if indeed souls exist…

The discussion came up as David and I compared notes on health issues during a recent telephone conversation. David has suffered far worse ills than mine, and done so with amazingly good grace and courage. I have known him almost thirty-five years and seen his life and those of his loved ones go through some truly tough trials and come out victorious, often with a smile—admittedly a wry one—and a degree of acceptance I find hard to emulate. He’s a man worth listening to.

But if he’s right about us being one-of-a-kind in the universe, what a waste! I prefer to believe the place is teeming with life, and I wrote a novel about this theory many years ago. That being said, I’ll add that in spite of all the tales of aliens kidnapping humans, I’m pretty we’ve not been contacted yet, or even discovered. Our tiny galaxy and minutely small solar system is the equivalent of the Marshall Islands—lost in a deep and wide sea and far from everything that might breed life. And then, of course, having seen the terrible mess we’ve made of things in the last two hundred years, who would want to come and visit?  If I’m going on vacation, I have no desire to spend my time and money in the slums and sewers of some ill-begotten, unkind and unfriendly society.

So go or no god, reincarnation or one-shot deal, I’m coming to the conclusion that we’d better make the best of our vertical years. There are only a few of them, and, as I’m noticing more and more, they go by fast. I think someone else said it first but what the hell. Live long and prosper.   


Monday, December 12, 2011

Cancer, Round 2

Bout Two was worse than Bout One, though I had been told it would be far less intrusive or painful. In fact it was the opposite—more hurt and a wider area affected—and today, after having the catheter removed, I am feeling as close to normal as I could hope for.

This time around the pain rolled through in waves of three, starting with a faint urgency that would build in seconds to an all-pervasive throbbing lasting close to a minute. It felt as if some giant dark flower was forcefully blossoming inside me, taking up all the vacant space that might exist in the middle of my body. Then, after a while, the petals would close to form a tight, round ball of discomfort waiting for its next bloom.

Ha! This is as close to lyrical as I’m allowing myself.

As usual, my friends came through. You know who you are and I love you for caring.

No great epiphanies this time around. Pain hurts. Cancer sucks. Doctors and nurses do their best, I am sure, but their necessarily dispassionate behaviors are not reassuring and don’t allay patients’ fears. Telling a man in pain that he should relax is largely ineffective, which I think would have been realized by now after a couple of millennia of care-giving.
It was fascinating to watch what was nothing short of a medical assembly line that would have made Henry Ford proud: booties and hairnet, check; IV, check; anesthesiologist pep talk, check. Then it’s being wheeled to the OR with the attending nurses making jolly about bad driving. When the surgeon asked how I felt, I said, “Scared.” He responded with, “I am here,” a strangely Lafayettish comment, I thought at the time.

I had to explain on seven different occasions (I counted) why I did not want narcotic or opiate pain killers, and I was lectured by one nurse on why I was wrong. I stuck to my guns and relied on Tylenol rather than the oxycodone they wanted to give me.  No courage there—I am terrified of getting re-addicted to pharmaceuticals, and my fear leaves no margin for error.

Today, as I was disrobing, the attending nurse said, “Here, you can cover yourself with this.”  She gave me a paper pillowcase.

More to come.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


HOLY CRAP!  The cancer surgery I underwent in late September cost $10, 849.62.  OK, I only had to pay $100, but I repeat, holy crap!  We’re not talking an extended stay here, or meds, or special post-op treatments. No private room, no ambulance, no three star meals (fishsticks and Jello were my lot). The TV was stuck on the QVC channel with the sound off, which was probably a blessing…

Not that everyone wasn’t really nice and professional. I had two (2) anesthesiologists, though I don’t know why, and the only thing one did was basically let me know the hospital would not be responsible if his colleague accidentally knocked my teeth out, a statement I found neither reassuring nor endearing. I don’t have a breakdown of the bill, so I don’t know if anesthesiologist number one charged me for his warning. I hope not.  But the fact remains that I was in the hospital for approximately seven hours, and five of these was waiting for the operating room to be free of a person with far greater problems than mine. My surgery actually took about an hour, and I spent another two hours being monitored in the recovery area by a bevy of nurses whom I am pretty sure are on fixed salary.

So how did we get to such a princely sum? Did someone sneak in a Department of Defense hammer ($1200) or a Pentagon toilet seat ($4325)? A Congressional junket to Malaysia?

According to one recent report, Americans spend approximately twice as much as residents of other developed countries on health care and one trained medical billing advocate says that over 90 percent of the medical bills that she has audited contain "gross overcharges". A report published in The American Journal of Medicine states that medical bills are a major factor in more than 60 percent of the personal bankruptcies in the United States, and of those bankruptcies that were caused by medical bills, approximately 75 percent of them involved individuals that actually did have health insurance. One study found that approximately 41 percent of working age Americans either have medical bill problems or are currently paying off medical debt.

Meanwhile, profits at U.S. health insurance companies increased by 56 percent during 2009, and according to a report by Health Care for America Now, America's five biggest for-profit health insurance companies ended 2009 with a combined profit of $12.2 billion.

Here are a few more disconcerting facts…
  • Since 2003, health insurance companies have shelled out more than $42 million in state-level campaign contributions.
  • Between 2000 and 2006, wages in the United States increased by 3.8%, but health care premiums increased by 87%.
  • There were more than two dozen pharmaceutical companies that made over a billion dollars in profits in 2008.
  • The chairman of Aetna, the third largest health insurance company in the United States, brought in a staggering $68.7 million during 2010. Ron Williams exercised stock options that were worth approximately $50.3 million and he raked in an additional $18.4 million in wages and other forms of compensation. The funny thing is that he left the company and didn't even work the whole year.
  • The top executives at the five largest for-profit health insurance companies in the United States combined to receive nearly $200 million in total compensation in 2009.

I suppose that in light of such figures, $10, 849.62 is a piddling sum and I suppose I should be grateful. According to one doctor interviewed by Fox News, "a gunshot wound to the head, chest or abdomen" will cost $13,000 at his hospital from the moment the victim comes in the door. Get shot in the head and get shot in the wallet. There’s a crime being committed here, but I’m not sure what it is….

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Here’s something strange: neither the fans nor the players sing the national anthem at football games anymore. As a matter of fact, they don’t even bother mouthing the words. Instead, a local or national celebrity is brought in to perform an operatic (or rock, or country, or R&B) version of the national hymn while the crowd looks bored, munches hot dogs, and drinks beer. They stand, but not at attention.

This is odd to me.  I’m not overly (or underly) patriotic. I live in the US and often find myself defending incomprehensible French interests, and when I’m in France, I am always cast in the role of supporting perplexing American actions. I know the first stanzas of both the Marseillaise and Star Spangled Banner, and all in all, I really prefer the wording of the former. The imagery is quite vivid—impure enemy blood coursing French furrows and irrigating wheat and such—and the music more stirring. Francis Scott Key’s ballad, it’s widely admitted, is perhaps the most un-singable anthem of them all, even worse than, say, Italy’s  Inno di Mameli (Mameli's Hymn), or Egypt’s Biladi, Biladi, Biladi (Egypt! O mother of all lands, My hope and my ambition, How can one count The blessings of the Nile for mankind?)

When I was a kid in Paris, patriotism was a given, though in both far subtler and more obvious ways than is now current. We did not sing our anthem in school, but we learned all about its author, Rouget de Lisle, who not only wrote La Marseillaise but also served in the American Revolutionary War. We attended the giant veterans’ marches on Bastille Day, the 14th of July on the Champs Elysées and saw firsthand the wounded survivors of World War I and II. The gueules cassées, men with terrifying, war-caused disfigurements paraded down the street or were pushed in their wheelchairs by volunteers. There was no escaping the harvests of war.  The reality of conflicts was never far away—here a plaque to commemorate the execution of a hundred youths by German firing squads, there a monument to the men and women killed in a dozen conflicts. War and its aftermath, I suppose, are closer to the surface in nations that have been conquered and seen the enemies march past their homes.

Perhaps as a nation gets more diverse in its make-up, as it embraces more cultures and mores, the simple things that might originally have symbolized unity, such as a national anthem, have a tendency to become less important. I suppose this is particularly true when a oneness of language is not sought, when the most simple demands made of citizens are made not just in English but in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean or Arabic. Because lets face it, the Marseillaise would lose as much impact in English as The Star Spangled Banner would in French…

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I haven’t written much lately because I hurt my back and can’t stay in one position—except totally supine—for any length of time. I’ve been rendered idiotic by an unpleasant mélange of Flexiril and ibuprofen, and I curse a lot. This, health-wise, has been a pretty crappy year.
So I read, I putter when I can, I avoid driving if at all possible since it takes me a full minute to get out of a car—any car.  Also, I watch football.

I pay little attention to NFL games; I used to be a Redskins fan since I live in the Washington area, but that team is so woeful, and the owner such a sorry individual, that I’ve lost all interest. I have, however, developed a fondness for college games, even as I know nothing about the teams, save that Penn State is involved in some sort of child sex scandal, which I am frankly not that curious about.
Here’s what I’ve discovered:
  1. There are actually three teams involved in any one game, the two playing and the referees. The latter have their own agenda and run up and down the field as much as any single player. They are basically spoilsports who insure that players show no joy in scoring; they make bad calls, at least two or three times a game and, I am absolutely positive, invent new rules as they go along.
  2. The rules themselves often make no sense. I understand that some are there to protect players from physical harm, but most simply hinder a game’s progress. That an hour-long game should take three hours to play is pretty silly on the face of it. And that the last two minutes take up 20 or more minutes of time is downright ludicrous.
  3. Is there any single person in the world of sports less needed than a punter? No.
  4. I can understand flogging truck and chips during games, but hair products?
  5. Without beer there would be no football. I see a time in the not too distant future when teams will not be associated with geographical areas. They’ll belong to breweries.  It won’t be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’ll be the Budweiser Buddies or the Mighty Miller Lites or maybe even the Heineken Huns. Note to franchise owners: I could root for a team call the Huns
  6. Commentators are often players who have outlived their usefulness, or coaches no one want to hire. I like the way they critique the games’ participants and staff, as if they know each and every individual involved. Obviously, all these people live together and share a great deal of information that we, the spectators, are not privy to. I have no idea what commentators are talking about seven-eighth of the time; their language is English only in the most basic manner. I don’t know what a hook formation going through the line is. 
  7. I really like it when refs get bowled over by a player. It makes them seem more part of the game.
  8. I can understand multi-million dollar contracts for players. Most of these guys are shortening their life-span by playing, and more than a few will suffer brain damage for our entertainment. I do not understand multi-million dollar contracts for coaches who mostly chew, spit, grab their crotches, or do all three in one smooth movement.
  9.  And lastly, football is the quintessential American game. Violent, in your face, made for TV, and largely irresistible.    

Monday, November 28, 2011

Tis the Season To Be...

Holidays are a bad time for addicts. Ask anyone with a predilection for abusing alcohol, drugs, food, sex, emotions and expenses and they’ll tell you: the holidays inspire the sanest among them to drink, eat, and spend far past their abilities. There is too much food, too much stress, too much alcohol, too many contradictory feelings and passions and not enough moments or money. For those who have learned the necessity of taking life one day at a time, there are far too many expectations of joy, ideal families and friends, life as it should be but seldom is. And for the newly arrived, the ones whose search for sanity and sobriety is a recent one, the holidays verge on the deadly.

Right around Thanksgiving, people come into 12-step rooms in search of miracles, or, short of that, basic answers to basic problems. Attendance swells and some meetings are standing room only. How does one handle the family issues that resurface every year at Christmas? In many families, problems that have cropped up for decades and longer are never really sorted out; there is a silent consensus that the uncomfortable will not be brought up, making gatherings of parents and children—no matter what age—at best painful if not unbearable. How does one deal with favoritism, the addictions and addictive behaviors of others, the shortcomings, the codependence and enabling that characterize  unwell families when one is trying to battle one’s own shortcomings, or perhaps simply attempting for the first time to come to terms with them?

Said one friend, “There are times I get physically ill. We get together on Christmas Eve. My father is a belligerent and often abusive drunk, my mother pretends he isn’t, and both my siblings act as if nothing at all is amiss. I’m 52-year-old woman, I have twelve years of sobriety behind me, and when I get put into that situation, I regress to being a terrified ten-years-old.”   

Some cut family ties entirely, a painful choice sometimes forced upon them. “I don’t want my kids seeing stuff like that,” said the father of two boys, remembering a Christmas when “my brother got so drunk he fell into the Christmas tree and tipped it over. The rest of the family acted as if it was a great joke. Something like that has been happening every single year.”  Others work around the problem. “I show up with my wife at her parents’ house at nine on Christmas morning. Her dad hasn’t had time to get drunk yet. We get a cup of coffee and exchange presents. We’re home with our own family by 11.”

Many create new families comprising sober friends, many more gather in twelve step rooms across the country where Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are served and meetings run 24 hours a day. The celebrations of those in recovery are often quiet, introspective, sometimes lonely. They seldom get much publicity…

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death three years ago, Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post will not run it this year, so I will.

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as Le Jour de Merci Donnant. Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pelerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content. They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (la Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pelerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them.

The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pelerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pelerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maï was raised by the Pelerins than Pelerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration. It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant: "Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning. "I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."
Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse). At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" (Ou est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance?) Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun a son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do. No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well-fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Someone I know slightly came up to me today and said, “So I hear you’re feeling poorly… Are you dying?”

If I’d had my wits about me, I would have launched into my standard Philosophy 202 lecture about how we’re all fading from the moment of birth because life is a terminal disease, you always die from it. But I was kind of taken aback by the question, so I answered, “I don’t know…” Which is the truth, as I have no idea what small or momentous events are taking place right now in the little ecosphere that is my body.

When I got back to my car, I suddenly thought, “Jeez, maybe I really look bad!” So I checked in the mirror and no, I looked pretty much the same way I have for the past year or so.  Whatever is happening inside, if anything, has not chosen to manifest itself on the exterior. I’m sort of glad about that; it would be difficult to live in McLean as a leper of sorts.

The comment, the more I think of it, will join others that well-meaning individuals have made regarding my situation. My favorite to date was the nice woman who told me I was lucky, it could have been ovarian cancer. I wanted to respond that not having ovaries would probably preclude that particular illness, but I didn’t, and I’m proud of it. I also liked, “Oh, my mother had that!  Nothing to it!”  Good on your Mom, dude! Another friend wondered whether I’d started drinking again. I haven’t and don’t plan to, unless they discover that alcohol can cure what I have. That’s never happened in the past so I don’t see it happening now. My second favorite was another lady who told me with great certainty that my situation was due to using too much Equal.

Here’s the thing, though: Everything said has been with the best of intentions. And for that I’m grateful, so keep those comments coming, folks!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Cancer Funnies

As Thanksgiving nears, I have been trying to find a good way to bridge the gap between having cancer and being grateful. Sadly, I have been less than successful. I remain pissed off, sad, scared, resentful and angry. And then I found that several websites have cancer jokes and while most weren’t even mildly amusing, these three made me laugh!
A man isn't feeling well, so he goes to see his doctor. The doctor examines him, and then asks to speak with his wife. The doctor tells his wife that her husband has cancer. The wife asks, "Can he be cured?" The doctor replies "there's a chance we can cure him with chemotherapy, but you’ll need to take care of him everyday for the next year -- cooking all the meals, cleaning up the vomit, changing the bed pan, driving him to the hospital for daily treatments, and so on". When the wife comes out to the waiting room, the husband asks her what the doctor said. The wife answers, "He said that you're going to die".
Mike O'Leary goes to his doctor after a long illness. After a lengthy examination, the doctor sighs, looks Mike in the eye and says, "I've some bad news for you... you have cancer and it can't be cured. I give you two weeks to a month." Mike, shocked and saddened by the news, composes himself and walk from the doctor's office into the waiting room. There he sees his son, who has been waiting.
Mike says, "Son, I have cancer and I've been given a short time to live. Let's head for the pub and have a few pints." After three or four pints, the two are feeling a little less somber and soon are approached by some of Mike's old friends who ask what the two are celebrating. Mike tells them they’re drinking to his impending end. He tells his friends, "I've only got a few weeks to live as I have been diagnosed with AIDS."

The friends give O'Leary their condolences and they all have a few more beers. After his friends leave, Mike's son leans over and whispers, "Dad, I thought you said that you were dying from cancer. You just told your friends that you were dying from AIDS."

Mike replies, "I don't want any of them sleeping with your mother after I'm gone."
A patient visits his urologist for testicular cancer and expresses concern about being able to perform after the operation. The patient was also worried about chemotherapy. The doctor said "I too had testicular cancer a few years ago. Ten days after the operation I made passionate love with my wife, and forgot all my worries. Try it and see for yourself." Three weeks later the patient returns and thanks the doctor effusively. The doctor says "I'm glad my advice helped." The patient thanks him again, and as he's leaving says, "By the way Doctor, you have a really beautiful house."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Books, Good and Bad

I read a lot, too much perhaps, as I should be spending less time reading and more time writing. I read a bit of everything, though my preferred form is novels, and these are as often good as they are bad. I have a wealth of both, though lately the bad ones have ended up in the library donation cart, and I am making a concerted effort not to enter used bookstores or roam through the cut-rate racks at Books a Million.
Reading is nothing more—or less—than enjoying a brief relationship with the author’s imagination. In some cases, you get infatuated and have a fling; in others, you fall in love and over the months and years get to know the author’s mind more intimately; you return,  you reread; you discover in the works discreet assets and quirks you may not have noticed the first occasion. You spend time together; you wonder what if. You hope for more and you hope you will not be disappointed by your next encounter.
I don’t know how many books I’ve read, but it’s in the thousands, yet only a handful of authors have truly moved me. I have reread John Updike’s Rabbit books at least five times and think no other American writer better describes the state of being common and quotidian. Harry Angstrom’s Everyman travails are so deeply felt and so well described that on more than one occasion, I have simply stopped reading to lengthen the enjoyment of what I’ve just read. Earl Thompson with his gritty Garden of Sand trilogy was a master at describing a life gone bad from its inception and the struggle to become average. His boy hero is so essentially all-American, an Okie Arkie Cracker with ambitions to greatness and a life that insures no gain will come without great suffering.
Among the classics, I’ve reread Dickens, Stevenson, Dumas, and Rafael Sabatini. As a kid, I went through three editions of Scaramouche. Slightly older, I thought long and hard about Camus’ hero, and stayed up late with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Much older, I recognized the genius of Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky and the overwhelmingly European attitudes of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Then there are the books whose literary merits are dubious at best. These are the great-great-grandsons of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that 150 years ago presaged the rise of the mass market paperback, words and basic plots available to all with no pretense at anything other than the most fundamental entertainment. Think DaVincy Code or Grisham and King, or in earlier times, Harold Robbins. 
Sometimes—admittedly rarely—I read a book that infuriates me. This happened a while back when a film-making acquaintance asked me to consider writing the screenplay for a book he had optioned. The book had an island/beach title, Bahamas, or Malibu or some such, and it dealt with spies, lovers, jewel thieves, drug runners and a host of other villainous characters in precarious situation. By page 294, it became obvious that the author had no idea how to resolve the various plots twists. The book was some 300 pages long, and on the penultimate page, the author put all his characters in a beachside restaurant and….blew up the boiler, killing everyone.  Possibly the most egregious use of deus ex machina  in modern literature. I was so angry I tore both covers off the book and sent the remainder back to the publisher with a nasty note suggesting the returned pages might best find their way to an outhouse.
More recently, I finished a novel titled A Reliable Wife, the plot of which is simple—woman with a past lies about it to ensnare rich old man. Stylistically, the author has a way with words and images, but a proper editing would have knocked a hundred pages out and still the thing would have been over-written. This being said, A Reliable Wife received riotous reviews from mainstream critics, and this goes to show that one man’s good read is another’s Sominex.  Luckily, I also began reading We, The Drowned, a spectacular epic of the sea by Danish author Carsten Jensen, so my faith in the written word is restored. Write on!  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Ed's Island

Many years ago I had a friend, Ed, an entrepreneur who owned a recording studio in Washington, DC, where the likes of Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly Parton and Cheech and Chong had cut tracks.
Ed was a charmer—young, vibrant, good looking, one of those guys who has as many ideas in a day as the rest of us have in a week, and even admitting that most of these ideas weren’t any good,  he was still a fascinating person to have around. He was well plugged in to the music business and could almost always get you into sold out shows and backstage afterwards. Keith Richards once called Ed at home at three in the morning to ask that the studio be opened so he could record a few hot guitar licks.
Ed’s biggest idea was to buy an island. He had found one off the coast of Maine and it was for sale for $100,000, a massive amount of money at the time. He wanted to gather investors from among his friends who were mostly musicians, artists, writers and singers lucky on any given day to have shoes that didn’t leak and a five-dollar bill in their jeans.  I was married at the time to a woman who had a good job with a steady income, and I was making decent money as well free-lancing for a bunch newspapers and magazines both inn the US and overseas. Owning an island was a pretty cool notion.
But it wasn’t simply owning an island; this would be a political and social statement, a move away from a city and a nation that appeared mired in scandal and obfuscation, a chance to start everything again.
Details never really bothered Ed. At the time, he was planning to marry his gorgeous blonde cousin and they were living in a cabin on the estate of an impoverished landowner. He was proud of his relationship with this woman, and was going to challenge Virginia law that prohibited sanctioning such a union. They wanted to have children on the island, which they would home-school while living off the land. When others pointed out that winters might be harsh in the North Atlantic, Ed would point out that Edland, as he named the island, had plenty of firewood. Food? Fish and lobsters, potatoes he would plant, and apples from a long-abandoned orchard. Ed even had plans for an acre of two of tobacco so he wouldn’t have to stop smoking, as well as a vineyard for wine. He would bring in a diesel generator and enough fuel to last through the cold season, and I’m sure he and the cousin planned on keeping each other warm.
I was thinking of Ed and his island because this is the season I would rather be Elsewhere, but of course I have been Elsewhere and, as Jack Kerouac once wrote, no matter where you go, there you are.
One day I went to visit Ed and found the studio padlocked. A few calls revealed that he’d absconded with the studio’s working fund, as well as a sizeable recording down payment made by a famous rock band. I never saw him again.
A couple of days ago I was in Ed’s neighborhood. I hope he’s OK, and that he and the cousin had children, which I guess would be both direct offsprings and second cousins. I Hope he’s happy and that he’s an islander.
So here’s to you, Ed, to Edland, and thanks again for the Stones tickets!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Social Ineptness

Yesterday my friend Kim Peter Kovac (henceforth known as KPK) and I tried to set up a Facebook account for this blog. Well, actually that’s not really the truth. KPK did the work while I drank his excellent coffee and played with one of his three humongous Maine Coon Cats. I occasionally asked inane questions to make it look as if I knew what was going on but I think KPK saw through this early in the game.

We managed to set up something, but when I came home and tried to access the new page on my own computer (KPK used his Mac to set up the account), it was zilch. The page came up but it was empty and no amount of mouse work or cursoring helped. Facebook insisted on sending me back to my personal account which I established years ago in a moment of blind madness, and the stuff I thought we had put on an Epiphanette page was gone. Poof, into the ether…

Here’s the deal—Call me a Luddite, but I really don’t like Facebook. Or Twitter, Tumblr, Myspace, Zoosk®, Linkedin, Yammer, in short, any of the programs designed to let people know where I am and what I’m doing. I never liked their predecessors either. I can see their potential uses and I have no issue with Twitterrers and their ilk, but it ain’t for me. I don’t like the lack of privacy, or that photos, information, facts and fiction about me could spring up on anyone else’s computer at the asking.  Yes, I know I can keep people out, I can unfriend them (which sounds positively hostile and sneaky) and I can even put my Facebook page on hold but that’s not really satisfactory.

Earlier this morning in a fit of righteous anger over the system not responding to my very simple requests (the picture I tried to upload, for example, was too small!), I deleted my account entirely. Man, that felt good!  I will now proceed to rebuild something that is all about my writing (which is the interesting part) and not at all about me (which is the boring part).  I think it’s possible to do this but I’m not entirely sure.

There’s probably a Facebook for Dummies book out there. The fact is, it’s not that simple to do stuff unless you have the time to spend learning the system. What, for example, is the difference between ‘liking’ something, and being a friend? And if there is a difference, why? How can I block Mary Beth—whom, I may like—from telling me in detail that she walked her dog this morning and plans to have a root canal this afternoon? And do I need to know that Cunégonde is in a relationship with René? No. Really. I don’t.

So here goes. With luck, I will be able to set up a page called Epiphanette which will feature this blog and others, and serve a launching pad to advertise Wasted Miracles, a novel I recently put on Kindle, Apple and Nook. I have no illusions. The probability of failure is high, particularly for a technologically challenged person like me, but it’s worth a shot, nothing ventured nothing gained, etcetera…

Oh, and I forgot to mention that one of my short stories, Les Peaux Rouges, just got published in the Chrysalis Reader, a pretty good annual literary magazine. I’m not sure if it is online yet, but you can check the website, Or you can buy the magazine at better bookstores…

Thursday, November 3, 2011


I have a large book of New York Times Sunday crosswords puzzles in my upstairs bathroom. I solve—or try to solve—them without a great deal of success, and I do them in ink. Since I am not blessed with either a phenomenal vocabulary or better-than-average puzzle-solving skills, however, I also have a couple of Wite Out pens for when I make mistakes. I never, ever, look at the solutions in the back of the book, preferring to leave a puzzle unfinished rather than cheat and look at the answers. I rarely actually solve an entire puzzle, and when I do, it is cause for a small celebration.

Friends have told me this is a rather interesting quirk. I have others.

When with a lady friend, I always walk on the side closest to the road. I was taught this by my father who told me that in case a runaway carriage (or automobile) leaped from the street to the sidewalk, I, and not my companion, should take the hit.  Also, not so long ago when the underprivileged did not have access to bathrooms, they routinely tossed the contents of their chamber pots out the window. I am supposed to take that hit too. And they say chivalry is dead.

I cannot write unless my bed is made, and dishes washed and put away.

I dip radishes in salt before eating them. Or rather, I did. Now I try to avoid salt.

I do not, ever ever, watch daytime television. Unless it’s a football game.

If I am to be honest, though, these are truly minor quirks, tiny aberrations in an otherwise humdrum life.

According to Bob Fenster’s book, They Did What? Things Famous People Have Done, the 18th century English poet William Blake liked to read his poetry aloud to his mistress while both were naked, while writer Henry Miller enjoyed playing naked ping pong with his girlfriends.

Enrico Caruso wore a necklace of anchovies around his neck in the belief this would protect his voice from the two packs of cigarettes he smoked daily, and Carmen Miranda never wore underwear beneath her amazing costumes. Busby Berkeley’s musical production numbers always featured dozens of chorus girls. They were allowed to show daring décolletage but he insisted they all wear skin-colored patches on their navels. At the beach, F. Scott Fitzgerald would bury his feet in the sand so people couldn’t stare at them.

Following Frank Sinatra's death in 1999, his daughter Nancy spent six days preparing his coffin for the funeral. Among the items packed in his casket? Tootsie Rolls, Wild Cherry Life Savers, chewing gum, and cotton balls soaked in cologne.

I like to wear a black tutu to bed.

That's not true. Just seeing if you were paying attention...

Any quirks you’d like to share?   

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Whole Lot of People

A couple of days ago, the seven billionth human was born. The likelihood is that he or she is from Tamil Nadu, as this Indian state has one of the most explosive population growth in the world, but it’s equally likely that this new tiny earthling might be Chinese, French, or Texan.

We are a fertile breed. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “For the last 50 years, world population multiplied more rapidly than ever before, and more rapidly than it is projected to grow in the future. In 1950, the world had 2.5 billion people; and in 2005, the world had 6.5 billion people. By 2050, this number could rise to more than 9 billion 

“Anthropologists believe the human species dates back at least 3 million years. For most of our history, these distant ancestors lived a precarious existence as hunters and gatherers. This way of life kept their total numbers small, probably less than 10 million. However, as agriculture was introduced, communities evolved that could support more people.

“World population expanded to about 300 million by A.D. 1 and continued to grow at a moderate rate. But after the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, living standards rose and widespread famines and epidemics diminished in some regions. Population growth accelerated. The population climbed to about 760 million in 1750 and reached 1 billion around 1800.”

The PRB continues, “In 1800, the vast majority of the world's population (85 percent) resided in Asia and Europe, with 65 percent in Asia alone. By 1900, Europe's share of world population had risen to 25 percent, fueled by the population increase that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Some of this growth spilled over to the Americas, increasing their share of the world total.

“…A billion people were added between 1960 and 1975; another billion were added between 1975 and 1987. Throughout the 20th century each additional billion has been achieved in a shorter period of time. Human population entered the 20th century with 1.6 billion people and left the century with 6.1 billion.”
In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus studied the nature of population growth in Europe and claimed that population was increasing faster than food production. He feared eventual global starvation. Of course he could not foresee how modern technology would expand food production, but his observations about how populations increase were important. Population grows geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8 …), rather than arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4 …), which is why the numbers can increase so quickly.

The PRB states that, “If a country's population begins with 1 million and grows at a steady 3 percent annually, it will add 30,000 persons the first year, almost 31,000 the second year, and 40,000 by the 10th year. At a 3 percent growth rate, its doubling time — or the number of years to double in size — is 23 years. The growth rate of 1.2 percent between 2000 and 2005, when applied to the world's 6.5 billion population in 2005, yields an annual increase of about 78 million people. Because of the large and increasing population size, the number of people added to the global population will remain high for several decades, even as growth rates continue to decline.”

We’re living longer, though not necessarily better, throughout the world.

And here’s something else that’s interesting. If we agree with the United Nation’s belief that 50,000 BC is the approximate beginning of the human race, when the world population was two, a possible total count of all humans who have ever lived will near 108 billion.  That’s a whole lot of people.