Monday, December 31, 2012

All Things French

When I was a kid and first came to America with my mother and father, they quickly discovered that the Washington area, though provincial, had:

  • Two French doctors (one male from the South of France, one female, from the North)
  • A French dentist
  • Three French real estate ladies
  • Two French lawyers
  • One French accountant
  • One French-language book store
  • One French butcher
  • Two French handyman (though one was really Algerian)
  • Several young French women who worked as maids, housekeepers and nannies
  • A French lycée
  • A French music teacher who played several instruments, none particularly well
  • Two very ancient ladies of indeterminate nationality who spoke elegant French and had a curio shop in Georgetown.
Further search found a Hungarian surgeon who spoke French and dispensed prescription drugs with a certain abandon; a deposed French Premier and his wife (parents of the French dentist and one of the French real estate ladies); a gay restaurateur and his equally gay girlfriend who were ‘married’ for propriety’s sake; another doctor (ear nose and throat); a French-speaking Brazilian veterinarian who when invited came to dinner with her pet boa constrictor;  and a French Auto mechanic who refused to work on anything but Peugeot and Renault cars.

This was above and beyond the complement of French reporters, military men and diplomats that any capital city would harbor.

Food- and drink-wise, there was wine, of course, though rarely in the liquor stores. These carried a red alcoholic liquid so sugary it ran thick when poured, and the French families drinking such an abomination did so secretly. Good wine was shipped in, or purchased from diplomats who got their monthly allotment duty-free via the eagerly awaited diplomatic pouch. Twelve times a year, my father would visit a friend who worked at the French consulate and return with five or six cases of scotch, brandy, and assorted liqueurs, as well as a dozen bottles of decent Beaujolais and Medocs.

What was not to be found anywhere was bread, and this was a serious concern. There were rumkors that a bakery in faraway New York knew how to make croissants, but no baguette, batard or ficelle  existed within hundreds of miles of Washington, and the feeble attempts to make such a staple at home always failed. There were no cheeses, either, save the noxious Velveeta which my mother once mistook for a block of furniture wax, nor were there patés,  rillettes, escargots, saucissons, boudins, smoked salmon, quiches, nor even the makings of a decent cassoulet.  

I thought of this yesterday as I gazed at the cheese counter of a local food store, where for admittedly outrageous prices, one can purchase European goods once unheard of in this country. I spied a tiny wedge of Roquefort going for $17 and possibly worth it if it was real, since true Roquefort is of limited production and aged only in the French caves of Cobalou in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Even more surprising was a smidgeon of Epoisses from the Côtes d’Or at $23. I am gratified that it took only a half century for Americans to discover the delights of truly stinky cheese.

Even more surprising is the wealth of baguette-like breads now on sale. Little ones, big ones, ones made of rye and whole wheat and even sourdough, which to the best of my knowledge is still unknown in France.  Add to this patisseries, the Napoléons and éclairs and choux á  la crème.

I have still to find a pet de none, precisely translated as a nun’s fart, a very light fried beignet that for decades has inspired guffaws from French schoolchildren. Perhaps some things are best left in France.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Long Ago Christmas

Many years ago I lived in a big dilapidated house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, across the street from a hospital with constant ambulance traffic, though it seemed no cured patients ever left the place. There was a Chinese carry out restaurant three doors down, and a laundromat where the machines malfunctioned and sent cascades of foamy water into the street.

We had a rotating cast of odd and odder people on the top two floors. The downstairs apartment was rented by a newly married and devout Jewish couple, both attending Georgetown University. She was twice her husband’s size, and he never spoke.  At any given time, up to a dozen youngish men and women rented rooms in the place, with a remarkable lack of sexual activity among them. In fact, I remember the waiter who lived in the floor above mine lamenting that if there was a sexual revolution going on, he had yet to find the front. The people there were nevertheless infused with a spirit of non-conformity, or perhaps total conformity for the times. We smoked a lot of dope, drank sugary wine from gallon bottles of Gallo, brewed potfuls of sour coffee, cooked vast quantities of pasta and tried to define what our futures would be. I drove a little silver Nissan convertible sports car with a loud eight-track cassette stereo and every Dylan song ever recorded, as well as some Moody Blues for lighter moments.

Michael was a photographer working at the Washington Post. I worked there too. Martha was an airline attendant; Christine was trying to break into modeling at a time when black models were a rarity. Narji, who smelled of horse liniment and kept a Western saddle in his bedroom, wanted to be a circus performer. Michael’s younger brother, Bart was going to make a fortune dealing dope, more specifically marijuana and procaine as he was afraid selling cocaine, the real stuff, could get him into serious trouble. Joe, who worked at a nearby Safeway stocking shelves, was perfectly happy to stay there. He had figured out that after 20 years, he’d be making enough to buy a place in Florida where the rest of us could come to vacation. It seemed like a plausible plan at the time, so we were encouraging, even as we urged him to steal food and laundry detergent for us from the Safeway. Musicians came and went and Saturday nights were often a cacophony of electric guitars, bongo drums and harmonicas. The songs Joni Mitchell, Tim Buxley and the Stones were savaged. Candles flickered, the wine flowed and people slept on the floor. It was, in many ways, the best time I had in my life. Until Christmas rolled around.

By December 21, most of the people had taken cars, buses and planes to be with their families and the house on Massachusetts Avenue became a bastion of crushing loneliness.  There were more ambulances and more sirens wailing. I would go to Jenkins’ Hill, a nearby bar owned by an acquaintance, get stupidly drunk on Irish coffees, stagger home in the wee hours and then, blasted by caffeine, lay awake in my bed until it was time to go to work. I would do this for the entire holiday week, surviving on street-vendor half-smokes during the day and Chef Boyardee ravioli at night. It was not a pretty sight. In early January, the room-mates would return with stories of epic meals and dysfunctional families. I would tell them of my adventure with a pot of pasta left to smolder overnight on the stove, which explained the strange smell in the kitchen.

One early spring, the third year I was in the house, it all began to fall apart. Marty announced she was leaving; she’d be moving in with three other flight attendants in a townhouse closer to the airport. Narji got a job at a stable in Maryland and left behind only a faint aroma of leather and saddle soap, though weeks after his departure we found a bag of filthy and reeking laundry in the back of his closet. Bart simply vanished leaving all his belongings behind. We feared he’d been killed in a bad dope deal but Michael wasn’t worried. He told us that was how his brother behaved; sometimes he simply left town.  Christine fell in love with a soul singer and followed him to Detroit. To this day I am still not sure whether Michael seduced the young Jewish woman who lived downstairs, or vice versa, but they ended up in bed together, and the thin, silent husband found out—or perhaps she told him. One morning soon thereafter a regiment of young, wiry men wearing yarmulkes and work gloves converged on their apartment and the couple was gone by late afternoon. Michael was not home that day, so the young husband, in a Lutherite epiphany, Scotch-taped a list of wrongs done him on my room-mate’s door. The waiter moved to New York, and Safeway Joe found a managerial position at a Food Lion in the Virginia suburbs. My Datsun convertible caught on fire while sitting at a red light on Massachusetts Avenue. Smoke poured from the air vents and the car expired with muted hissing and popping sounds.

For a month or two, various people and friends of friends were at the house for a day or a week. One absconded in the middle of the night with the living room curtains and the entire contents of the fridge. In May, the owner of the place sent a letter saying the house had been sold and the tenants had two weeks to leave.  

Seven months after that I drove by and the house was gone. In its place were three small townhouses and a six-car parking area.

Michael died in a car accident six years later. I never did see Bart again.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ten Questions for the NRA

Ever since the Newtown massacre, I’ve had disturbing image of Mr. Preston, my high school English teacher, toting a Glock. Mr. Preston was a spindly, tight-lipped man who once told me I was the best French student in his English class. His compliment launched my writing career, though it did not escape me that I was also the only French student in his class.  Mr. Preston was known to have bad reactions if his class was unruly. He would yell, harangue and occasionally throw blackboard erasers at his pupils. He once drew three large Xs with an indelible Magic Marker on the forehead of a particularly rambunctious teen.   

This has led me to wonder about the obscene proposal put forth by the National Rifle Association that teachers and principals should be armed while at work. I use the word obscene selectively. Until recently, I thought it connoted some sort of offensiveness, with sexual overtones. Now I see it as better defined by the Encarta Dictionary: disgusting and morally offensive, especially through an apparent total disregard for others' rights or natural justice.

Enough etymology, I have several questions for Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA.

  1. Who decides which teachers/administrators will be selected? Will it be voluntary or mandatory? Will it be included in their résumés?
  2. Who screens the teachers and roots out the pederasts, molesters and the potentially violent?
  3. Who trains these newly armed persons; who pays them, buys guns for them. (Here, a suggestion: Let the NRA and the gun manufacturer pay for all of the above. Let them also be responsible for the inevitable lawsuits, hospitalizations, funeral costs, psychological treatment and any other negative outcome of putting so many more weapons in people’s hands.)
  4. Where will the weapons be kept during the school day? Will there be a gun locker in every classroom or a sort of armory closet in the hallway? Or will the teachers keep them in their desk drawers next to the cheese and cracker treats and the breath mints? Might they simply wear the guns in holsters during classroom hours?
  5. Do the teachers/administrators take the guns home at night? Will they be given gun safes for their homes?
  6. Will every school have an armed guard during off-hours and vacation days to deter would be gun thieves?  Because make no mistake, there will be gun thieves.
  7. And what kind of weapons are talking about anyway? Assault rifles, automatics, single shots or sawed-off shotguns?
  8. What will be the protocol? Shoot first, ask questions later? Try to reason with the assailant as others draw a bead on him?
  9. Will they be shooting to kill or merely to wound?
  10. And of course, will the official shooter benefit from Good Samaritan laws? This is bound to be a hotly contested issue.
So those are the first 10 questions. There will be more.

And now for a request. Mr. LaPierre, on behalf of millions of French people, I respectfully request you change your name to something less Gallic sounding. You’re giving a bad name to a nation that long ago realized that guns do indeed kill people, and frankly, we want nothing to do with you.


Monday, December 17, 2012


Not too long ago, a man whose name I have deliberately forgotten wrote a book whose title I have also deliberately forgotten endorsing the concept that laws restricting gun sales and ownership actually promoted gun violence.  

This makes as much sense, of course, as suggesting one diet by having a fridge full of lemon meringue pies, or dealing with alcoholism by stacking cases of Jack Daniels in the drinker’s living room. It’s the kind of rationale the National Rifle Association as well as the powerful gun lobbies will happily espouse, and it is sheer crap.

Guns kill people. That’s what, for the most part, they’re designed to do. The idea is to send a fast-traveling projectile through someone else’s soft tissue with corresponding consequences. Yes, there are hunters, and yes, there are target shooters, and collectioners, and others who may have a legitimate reason to have guns, but they’re the minority. Unless we as a nation are at war at home and protecting ourselves from invading enemies, a lot more people are going to be injured by guns than will be protected by them.

It struck me during the latest outrage—yet another mass killing, this time mostly of children—that one of the appeals of firearms is that you don’t your hands dirty. They work from a distance. You will not be plastered by the victim’s blood and guts, and you can walk away with the crease in your jeans unsullied. That’s appealing, this idea of doing dirty work without getting soiled, and it goes a long way towards explaining why I have never seen a headline that read, Man Armed with Baseball Bat Kills 15 or Knife-wielding Youth Goes Berserk at Mall.

I don’t own a gun. If I did, it would be in a locked gun cabinet, and if my home were invaded, I would have to politely request that the offender allow me to put my pants on and get my guns from the locker, unfasten their trigger guards, and load them. Then we could get down to business. The point here is that gun safety is a handy oxymoron. If a weapon is to be used in an emergency, it has to be close at hand. If it is close at hand, it can be found and used by people whose mental capacities are doubtful at best—children, depressed teenagers, vengeful husbands.

Worldwide, seven out of the top 12 gun-related mass killings have occurred in the United States. Despite this, I fear that within days we will be back to business as usual. It’s merely mildly comforting to think that only a socially challenged miscreant would think of killing kindergarten children with a semi-automatic weapon, and, by definition, it is probably true.

The harsh reality is that our political system thankfully makes it impossible to chart the movement of would-be criminals, be they sane or not. But we can take away these people’s weapons, or render them unavailable. We can also enact legislation that makes any criminal activity involving repeating firearms worthy of a punishment so stringent that it will make anyone contemplating such a crime think twice. You want to knock over a 7/11 using your Glock? Think about spending the next 50 years in prison.

We can institute buybacks. We can insist that the same restrictions involving buying and driving an automobile apply to guns. If you want a weapon, learn how to safely own and operate it; be licensed; carry insurance so that if the weapon is stolen and used in a crime, some of the damages might be covered. Control the flow of ammunition, and make its purchasers identify themselves and sign a release guaranteeing that no crime will be committed with their purchase. If one is, punish the buyer who did not take the necessary steps to stop its theft or use.  Tax the hell out of firearms, and make sure the tax—like that on a car—is paid annually. Close gun shows where guns can be purchased with no other qualifications than cash on hand. Once a gun-related crime has been tried, destroy the weapons involved. Apply the three-strikes-you’re-out laws not to drug users but to gun wielders. Personally, if I have a choice between a pothead walking the streets or a guy with a gun, I’ll take the pothead any day.

Yesterday evening in his speech in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama called for ‘something to be done’ without specifying what that something may be. Let that something be gun control. As it stands, any measures taken will not see results for years to come. Let’s start now. It’s already almost too late,




Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Just for the record, the neighbors on my right are delightful people. We exchange information on tomato blight, the state of the world in general, and the fact that the street we live on has unfortunately become a thoroughfare. I watch their house when they’re away; my cat has adopted them, and vice versa. When they found out earlier this year that I had cancer, they brought over pastries. You can’t have better neighbors than that.

The neighbors on my left are spawns of hell from one of those former Soviet bloc countries that has four syllables without vowels and sounds like a sneeze. I don’t know how many of them live in their three bedroom house, but there are six used Japanese cars in various states of decay parked in their driveway and on the street. When they first moved in a decade or so ago, they cut down the two large cedars flanking their house, thereby giving me an unobstructed view of a wheezing AC unit and their trash and recycling bins.  Then they painted the house bile yellow with puke green trim, and began building a grape arbor that they never finished. The four-by-four posts that were supposed to anchor the trellis are now festooned with poison ivy vines, and the cement sacks left behind have disintegrated and formed large, grey puddles of stone on their lawn. The family, I have noticed, also collects road detritus, which is the only way to explain the array of empty plastic bottles and Mickey D wrappers festooning their front yard. Last year, an inflatable Santa on their front stoop ran out of air and collapsed on the lawn, a sight to frighten small children who might believe old Kris Kringle had been assassinated. The carcass remained in their yard until Easter.

Here’s what sealed the deal, though. About a month after they slithered into the neighborhood, the man of the house asked to borrow my truck, a gorgeous old Chevy Suburban that I had customized inside and out. When he returned the vehicle, there was a sizeable dent on the left rear fender. He denied having anything to do with it, claiming it was there before. It wasn’t. I let it go. Three weeks after, someone in the house took up the drums.

I’m a musician. I’ve played in bands since I was 16, and over the years I’ve been subject to my fair share of cacophony. My experiences have also led me to believe drummers are unusual people to begin with—anyone whose avocation is beating on the stretched skins of dead animals with sticks is bound to be a bit strange. In fact, I can say that, after having been musically involved with at least 20 drummers over the decades, I am convinced drummers are marginally dangerous people with deep anger issues. The one next door has never once managed to carry a four-four beat. What comes from the neighbors’ basement is an explosion of meaningless sounds resembling mines going off in a war-torn country. There’s a full set of cymbals, too, which he/she whacks with primitive abandon.

Twice I’ve been at their door to complain about the noise. I’ve written letters and threatened lawsuits. The neighbors lull me into a sense of complacency by ceasing to drum for a week or two, and then starting again with added fury.

We are at war.

I have no plans for an outright invasion, but I’m a big believer in guerrilla tactics, which include the possibility of using a blower to move leaves from my yard to theirs while they are worshipping their evil deity on Friday nights. That’s all I have come up with so far, and I welcome suggestions.  Stay tuned.



Wednesday, December 5, 2012


For the past several years I've been getting my hair cut every six to eight weeks or so by a very nice Ethiopian woman. The challenge is to somehow dissimulate my growing bald spot without making it too obvious, and she does this well. I seldom have to wait, and the shampoo, haircut and conversation run me twenty dollars, which in these days of $400 jeans and $90 tank tops is a pretty good bargain. For a few days I can forget that the top of my head is slowly getting more naked, shiny, and prey to the elements.

In the time that I've known her, Beylanesh has dated, married and become the mother or a gorgeous baby boy. Now she is divorced, having declared her ex-husband a good-for-nothing never-do-well. She is charming and petite, has a wonderful smile and likes to talk. Today, I realized for the first time that I never have had a good grasp of what she's talking about, and vice versa. Part of it is accents, part of it is culture, but a major reason for our lack of tangible process with the spoken word is that we have agreed to miscommunicate. It's easier that way.

During our first few encounters, we spent the better part of the twenty or so minutes she works on me saying, "What?", "Excuse me?" or, "Sorry, I didn't get that." It took three sessions under her scissors  for me to understand that Ethiopian women often have names ending in 'nesh,' which means 'you are.' I love knowledge like that. Beylanesh, for her part, learned that I sell used cars. I don’t, and how she got to that knowledge is beyond my understanding, but I've grown comfortable with it. She asks how business is and I say it's not doing well. She nods and between snips comments, "It's the weather, the economy. Afghans are not buying camels in the summer months. Starbucks hot chocolate. Ronald Reagan." Or at least that's what I think she said. Today, she also told me that her mother barbecued the couch.

Our misunderstandings are safe. Beylanesh probably goes home to her son and her mother and tells them I tried to sell her a camel. Nothing will come of this, and it will affect neither of our lives. But what is it about communicating that has become so complicated and error prone?

Just recently, a friend and I exchanged a phone call after a long silence, and both of us realized we had misinterpreted an earlier conversation, and that the misunderstanding had caused consternation and sadness. We made amends and we made peace, but some of the harm lingers. Did my friend really say that? And what, exactly, was meant by that choice of words?

Something like 80 percent of communications is non-verbal, which explains all the misunderstandings originating with emails and phone calls. We rely on body language, eye cast, the furrow of a brow or the set of a jaw to understand what is really being said to us, and while the friends whom I love deeply will know what is going on in my world without a need for words, most communications remain haphazard, as likely to fail as not. It's the nature of the beast. Words--unlike numbers that are set and definitive--at best convey only a semblance of what we are trying to put forth; they're often more enemy than friend, and I very much doubt any two people in the world speak exactly the same language. On occasion, I find a word in French will come closest to what I want to say, but if I'm talking to an English-speaker, this won't help much. It works the other way if I am in Europe.

So what are we to do... Silence is an option I exercise on occasion; in the past I used to travel from home and made it a point not to talk for several days. It was restful and regenerating. Not communicating on purpose has its advantages: you can't be misinterpreted if you have nothing to say. Or perhaps you can. As always, there are contradicting thoughts. Confucius called silence the true friend that never betrays. A few hundred years later, Francis Bacon said silence was the virtue of fools. Personally, I like Mark Twain best: It's better to keep my mouth closed and let people think I am a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.



Monday, December 3, 2012


I have a love-hate relationship with libraries. They're a haven of quiet in an increasingly raucous world; an invitation and encouragement to readers of all stripes; a  repository of information both useful and not. On the other hand, they're also a warehouse of literary tripe; a reward and incentive to writers of god-awful books; a reason for furthering the production of written works that should never, ever, see the light of day. Let's face it: any place that has 50 editions of The DaVinci Code and not one single copy of  The Elegance of the Hedgehog  really does not deserve our tax dollars.

Nevertheless, I go to the library at least once a week. The head librarian and I have a nodding acquaintance. She is a large lady who rules her domain with heavy-handed fairness and does not brook talking, cell phones, too-loud iPods, or laughter larger than a snigger. Occasionally, she look over my selection of books and nods, a high accolade. She has been at my library 18 years and wisely has no other ambitions.

I once asked her what she thought of most of the recently published works displayed on special tables right near the entrance.  She looked around to see if anyone could overhear, then said in a hoarse whisper, "Vulgar."

And she's right, of course.

Last week I checked out five books, each by a 'New York Times Best Selling Author.' The titles were catchy--the trend for some time has been a geographical/historical name followed by a word like 'sanction,' or 'covenant,' or 'convention,' or 'pledge'--and promised exciting reading.

The first book I gave up on by page two. The hero, a black belt mountain-climbing martial artist archeologist who discovered  Something of Frightening Importance was being chased by a Beautiful Woman With a Gun.  "Why are you doing this?" our hero asked his pursuer. "Because I must," she pouted. Buh bye...

The next book has our hero--same general type as hero number one--kill a foreign spy and throw his body off an Austrian ski-lift, then rappel down a conveniently placed telephone tower and escape in an Expensive Hand-built Italian Sportscar.

In book three, a super-secret submarine sinks after having discovered Atlantis beneath the ice-cap. Can you guess where this tale will go?

Book five opens with: Matt Dingleberger thought he might use his gun, but used his fists instead. This is about as close as one can get to "It was a dark and stormy night" and remain reasonably comfortable.

I can admit to making poor reading choices. All these books were whodunits and I should know better. But the fact is, they were all bad books, all poorly written, all designed to give the reader strong visuals without accompanying thought, instant gratification as satisfying as instant replay. They were books that shouldn't have been published, or, if published, done so only for the writers' immediate families and friends.  Instead, they had been picked by the library board because they were the favorites of lazy, indolent readers and critics fond of bad imagery.

Books--and reading--have always been about escapism, and we learn from them by default. What we really seek is a different world to which we can travel again and again. A good book takes us to places perhaps familiar, perhaps not. A bad book leaves us at the station. We read to remember and we read to forget.

There are far more bad books than there are good ones, and unfortunately it is true that you can't judge a book by its cover. Would that we could; there'd be fewer disappointments.

But then, sometimes you get a surprise. In the history section, I came upon a three volume set called The Cartoon History of the Universe.  Conceived and written by cartoonist/mathematician Larry Gonick, the black-and-white drawings tell a long yarn of discovery, war, peace, nation-building, inventions, sex, and cruelty, all recounted with gentle clarity and borscht-belt humor. Every home should have this collection. It'll delight adults and familiarize younger readers with a past now only rarely taught.

These are, as Amos Alcott would say, "Good books which [are] opened with expectations and closed with profit."


Friday, November 30, 2012


I love Esquire magazine. No, that’s not accurate. I despise and am in awe of Esquire magazine, which is full of clothes and men’s jewelry I neither want nor can afford, and unavailable plasticky women barely out of their teens. I am amazed by the fact that Esquire has been peddling The Great American Fantasy (TGAF) for 80 years and is still successfully doing so with a publication that is two-thirds ads and one-third cotton candy lite.

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

For the more constructive among us, The Fantasy might be a backyard gazebo or a motorized bicycle. I remember once subscribing to Popular Mechanics only because it promised an article on building your own sport car from junkyard parts. I don’t know if anyone actually built one of these hot-rods, but my friend Kevin and I did spring $20 for a set of detailed PM blueprints of a one-man hydroplane. We built it out of two-by-fours and marine plywood, painted it blue and white and bolted 40 horsepower Johnson outboard to its rear. We ran it and it was scary fast, skimming the water like a dragonfly. We totaled it when the throttle got stuck and it flew from water to land and hit a tree. Really. I had to bail out of the boat (we’d named it, appropriately, Insh’ Allah) and in the process lost my glasses, which made the 90-mile drive back from the Chesapeake Bay almost as hazardous as the boat ride.

There’s a plethora of car mags with the million dollar Bugattis; hunting and fishing mags with thirty-pound muskies and 20-point bucks shot with home-made blowguns; home decorating mags with professionally shot photos that will never approximate a reader’s home; health mags with buff and oiled bodies that have never tasted meat; travel mags that encourage visits to African war zones; impossibly-rich-people mags…

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

Most magazines have a voice to promote the fantasy.

        Home and travel magazines gush. You are there with them, amazed at the sights before you, be it a top-of-the-line Bertozzoni convection oven or the coast of Northern Greece.

        Do-it-yourself mags have a homey quality. We’re all guys figuring out how to wire the new garage door while having a few beers.

        Esquire is smart-alecky, read-this-and-you-too-might-verge-on-cool. But really, deep down, it’s pretty much worthless.

        The New Yorker promises a different fantasy: erudition. Read these articles and you will not only be Gotham cool (which is way better than Esquire cool) and in the know, you’ll be privy to information seldom disseminated. The cartoons are for urbane folks who get it, whatever the it may be.  The teeny tiny print of the Events columns reinforces our belief that we’re being invited to a very special soirée, an event restricted to important people, readers like us.

If I had unlimited time and money, I would subscribe to hundreds of magazines. I would learn to keep bees and turn a lathe. I would get welding tips, build specialized bat-houses, sail wooden boats, and search for sunken treasure. I’d play my guitar a lort better and recreate Van Halen licks while cooking a turducken. I might—and this bears further thought—want to work for a magazine about magazines.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death last year, Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. I am told the Post  is not running 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 (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing thePelerins, 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 (mais). 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 mais 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 etudiant ), 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 a etre emballe ), 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.

Monday, November 19, 2012


So there was this Hotmail account I opened a while back and forgot about. Not unusual; at the time, my regular account was on the fritz and so for a week or two I was using the new one, then when the old one started working again, I promptly forgot my Hotmail presence.

I checked it this morning, and there were 472 messages which I assume means I am a popular guy, a fact originally ascertained in an earlier blog about me and Google. What amazed me about the messages was their wonderful variety, and the fact that some people out there really do care about me and my well-being. Why else would they encourage me to:

  • Sign on to SeniorPeople (which I find a tad insulting)
  • Sign on to, though I’m not Jewish
  • Sign on to Christian Mingle, which sounds a little bit risqué
  • Sign on to Asian dating and for all I know, Senior Aging dating
  • Sign on to a couple of other services that promise nights of delight with women who live in my very own neighborhood and are invariably blonde and a third my age.  
I was also touched by these strangers’ willingness to give me thing for free (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron), asking only for some basic information such as my age, gender, and credit card numbers. Had I been willing, I could have gotten:

  • A free fifth tire if I bought a set of four
  • An amazing array of printer supplies—paper, cartridges, cables and wireless thingies
  • An almost free education at the University of Phoenix (I like the symbolism. The phoenix [me] rising from my own intellect-free ashes)
  • And also from Florida Tech University, an online concern that promises me a raise, which I could well use
  • A staggering array—and I mean thousands—of free coupons.
  • A membership to Curves, even though I’m a guy and I don’t think they’d let me through the doors.
What I think most got to me, though, was all these people’s concerns for my health, and I wonder, do they know I had cancer? And if so, how? Are they reading my blogs? That would be OK. Do they have access to my medical records? That would not be OK. At any rate, I’ve now learned I can:
Cure diabetes, psoriasis, high blood pressure, athletes’ foot, toenail fungus, halitosis, bad eyesight, poor hearing, hair loss, acne, impotence, and drooping breasts. Really. Without surgery or exercise…
  • Start melting my fat away with raspberry ketone, or even better
  • Blast it away with foods that kill fat, or perhaps
  • Romance it away with saffron, who is either a spice or a girl. And finally, I can
  • Buy a sort of male girdle which, when I put it on, will obviate the need to blast or melt anything at all.  Nothing against saffron, but being a pacifist at heart, I think I like that option best.
The offers go on and on. Payday advances, life insurance (which I can’t really get. The cancer again. I know, I tried), mole removal, child development courses, solar panels, gadgets to improve my gas mileage (I assume they’re talking about my car and not me personally). Here were many, many more and after a while I did wholesale deletions, pages at a time, and so it’s possible that I overlooked some life-changing information.

Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you. I have not yet availed myself of this wealth of products and information, but I’m pretty sure I will in the near future. So keep those messages coming, folks. Don’t know what I’d do without you…

Monday, November 12, 2012


My parents died decades ago. They were good people who’d both fought in the Big One, and when they came to America, the country was still a land of welcome, wonders and innovations. They left Europe behind, abandoned the sooty streets and grey buildings of Paris to find a yellow clapboard house in the suburbs, with a yard and a driveway and an outbuilding for the garden tools and mower that my mother—being a city girl—did not know how to use until she was shown. They spent a bit more than 25 years here, became citizens who voted and appreciated what the land had to offer, and then they returned to France with what I think was a sigh of relief. Not that there was anything wrong with the States—there wasn’t—but they were French to the core and wanted to be in Paris where as newlyweds they were improbable radio stars, the main characters of the GI John et Janine show, where Janine saved the day and GI John, a not overly bright American soldier, basked in the love of his wily French wife.

We all anticipate our parents’ death, but when it comes and make orphans of us, it’s never quite what we expect. My mother died in 1992 at the American Hospital in Paris where some 46 years earlier, she’d given birth to me.  My father died in the States four years later. He never fully got over his wife’s passing.

I always thought somehow one or both would send me a sign from Over There, but they never have. In fact, their total silence is almost disturbing.  Almost everyone I know who has lost parents has told me that at some time they felt the parents’ presence nearby, reassuring in times of sadness or stress. Some have said the presence was almost physical; they were touched or kissed or hugged by long-gone family members, and were never quite the same afterwards.  Call it a spiritual experience, or a miraculous moment if you believe in such.

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was certain one or the other would come to advise and reassure. After all, they both went through it too—my mother died from hers, my father recovered from his—and they must have had words of wisdom ready to go.  My father was stoical about his diagnosis when he was in his early 50s. He had weathered a war; people had shot at him and he had shot back and I always had the impression he would be ready to go at any time. My mom panicked over his illness but bore her own with amazing courage. She was playing bridge with her cronies up to the end, never letting on that she was in frightful pain. In fact, I’m not sure she ever told my father the full extent of her illness, or that she’d been diagnosed with liver cancer, a killing version of the disease. Though she knew her death was impending, for good or for ill she opted stay silent almost until the end.

But no. There’s been nothing, not a word or touch or breath, not even an intimation that there may be something out there. I guess that 21 years ago when I spread my mother’s ashes on the green grasses  of the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and followed the same ritual for my father years later, well, that was it. Whoever and whatever they were was subsumed by the greater universe. Whatever individualities existed simply ceased to.

That’s strange to me. I’m not religious but I’d like to think something—other than the fading memories of us that are held by others—remains after our death. And maybe it does and I simply haven’t been privy to it. Whatever. I suppose if they’re up there and want to get in touch, they know where I am better than I know where they are….


Thursday, November 8, 2012


I’ll try to be modest about this, but, well, humility be damned, the fact is I have about 40 pages of Google devoted to my humble self. I didn’t even know I was this famous. It comes as a total surprise, and unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I thought I’d say a few words…

First and foremost, a big shout-out to the Google elves who labored through the seasons to gather this wealth of information about me. Thank you, elves. I am unworthy. I don’t know how you found out about the interview I gave following the Algonkian Writer Conference held in 2004, and why the interview is posted more than eight times. Perhaps you thought I voiced some truly meaningful things, but I think it more likely that the redundancy elf may have taken time off that day.  

There’s the standard stuff listed—books published and for sale on Amazon for a penny plus shipping; a couple of Washington Post stories from the last millennium; some World Bank documents from the decade I spent there; and a review I wrote of a cheaply made slide guitar. There’s where I live, and since I am a member of a couple of car clubs, what I drive.

I was fascinated by the entry titled Meaning of Thierry Sagnier if only because this is something I have spent months, no, years, trying to figure out. Imagine my excitement as I clicked the site—someone had done their research on the meaning of me—and my subsequent disappointment at the tag: No Results. Does this mean Google has decided there is no meaning to my life? And how did Google know I’ve felt this way from time to time? Does this mean my occasional feelings of less-than are vindicated?

I also discovered I am a supplier of manufactured precast concrete products in Sarasota, Florida. This took me by surprise. I have a vague inkling as to what precast concrete is, but it’s obvious I have been leading a double life, unbeknownst even to myself, messing around with cement and other hard substances.

I was pleased to see my European heritage was represented.  There are numerous entries in French, and some, I am sad to say, lead to impostors. Gonzales Sagnier Thierry lives in La Rochelle, a port city in France, and appears to be an attorney. Another Thierry Sagnier lives in Aubagne. He is 39 and seems to be in much better shape than me, but I have a lot more hair. My most surprising find was a porn site with revealing shots of actresses Melanie Thierry and Ludivine Sagnier. I was not featured.

I really didn’t count the entries, but I estimate that, at ten per page and some 40 Google pages, there are approximately 400 of them. That’s downright scary since I am unable to conceive of 400 interesting things about myself.

As much as I appreciate my blogs being mentioned and disseminated, I’m beginning to wonder what’s next.  Google, I know, is trying to gather as much information as possible on every one of its users. We—Googlers—individually and together are a multi-million dollar database. I know that, using Google Map, I can check on whether my car is indeed in my driveway. I suppose that within a year or two, I should be able to see whether I left the stove on or forgot to turn off the shower.

In a way, I suppose, we have come full circle, back to the villages or neighborhoods of our ancestors, where everyone knew what everyone else was doing and there was very little privacy to be had.  Now, it’s on a worldwide basis.

I’m not sure this is good. I am toying with the idea of creating an alternate personality and seeing how quickly Google can catch on. I have a feeling the elves aren’t quite as smart as they think they are. 



Friday, October 26, 2012


When I was a kid I improved my English comprehension by reading Mad magazine. The publication was an icon, the last of the EC Comics line famed for its gore and cleavage, and in the 1970s it had a circulation of more than two millions. This was without advertising, wants ads, subscription cards or any of the other revenue-makers that allowed other publications of its type to survive.  Mad, published seven or eight times a year, was in a class by itself and though its competitors, namely Cracked, tried to emulate the satires and parodies that were its hallmark, no other publication had as much an impact on adolescent readers. Mad, since it was a magazine, could avoid the stifling Comics Code Authority, and so lampooned everything—movies and TV, politics, families, educators, and the school system. It was shameless and incredibly cruel dealing with celebrities; it skewered parents and siblings, lecherous uncles and tippling aunts. It had a particularly wrathful affinity for Disney characters and once ran a piece on Darnold Duck who, after wondering why he had only three fingers and always had to wear gloves, decided to murder the rest of the Disney crew.  Al Jaffee, Mad’s longest-running contributor, was once quoted as saying, “[Mad] was designed to corrupt the minds of children. And from what I'm gathering from the minds of people all over, we succeeded.” It did so by never patronizing its young readers, never trying to persuade them that everything was going to be all right. In fact, the mag’s vicious and talented crew was pretty certain everything was going to hell in a handbasket regardless of what grown-ups said, and lovingly chronicled the trip.

Mad’s  young 1960s readers would a decade later have a hand in ending the Vietnam war and expelling Richard Nixon from the White House. For me and thousands of other mostly-boys, Mad allowed a flirtation with risky language and risky thoughts. None of us wanted to become the ‘What, Me Worry?” kid, Alfred E. Neuman, the magazines big-eared, gap toothed and freckled mascot, but we could appreciate his malicious disregard for those who wielded power. We too wanted to kick authority in the crotch, make fun of the jocks who beat us up and give the finger to the mean girls who approved. We were the kids who didn’t quite have the balls to cherry-bomb the school toilets but cheered on the idiots who did.  

Mad still exists, though it is now in color and, sadly, has been forced to accept print ads.  Still, it has survived Cracked which went under in March of 2007, and National Lampoon, an emerging-adult publication with more prose than pictures, that folded last millennium.

In my time, Mad pioneered the use of the word ‘crap,’ which was considered daring. Today, the word ‘bitch’ is in common use, as are ‘WTF’ and references to farts and threesomes. This, I suppose, is normal. Language changes and what was taboo a generation ago is common parlance today. The essence of the magazine hasn’t changed, though. It still hates celebrities and did a wonderful spread on Justin Bieber. One on the Kardashians is in the offing (I can hardly wait). Meanwhile, a compendium, ‘Certifiably Mad by the Usual Gang of Idiots’ has a brilliant hack of Harry Potter, a ‘50 Worst Things About the Internet,’  ‘A MAD Look at Lady Gaga,’ and ‘The Walking Dud.’

AT $7.98, ‘Certifiably Mad’ is a bargain.




Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Usless Debates

I didn’t have the heart to watch the third presidential debate. I watched the first two and was unnerved, appalled, saddened and angered. Now I’m just curious: Is there really any reason to have these events anymore? Do they prove anything, aside from the fact that both men are sort of idiot-savants capable of memorizing and spewing out meaningless statistics? What, exactly, was accomplished?

During the first debate I saw an autocratic schoolyard bully throwing his weight around. The President looked sort of like Alfred E. Newman, accommodating and fragile, attempting to show that good manners might win the day. They didn’t. I didn’t think Romney ‘won’ because he intimidated the debate’s ancient arbiter; rather he struck me as a man unused to being questioned by lesser being, and we are all, in his eyes, lesser beings.

Obama came to the second debate with advice ringing in his ears: be more forceful, less compliant. There were more meaningless statistics. Does anyone really know what a billion means? A trillion? I don’t. I measure numbers by their relationships to my life and while I can fathom a million or two (there are multi-million dollar homes not far from where I live; a Bugatti Veyron costs a million), when the zeros start piling up into the double digits, they cease to bear any relationship to my life. The friends I spoke to after the debate feel the same way, and some of them make pretty good money. My point is that it’s easy to throw numbers around. Anyone can do it; it’s political white noise, and I would have thought—and hoped—that both the President and the Governor had more on the ball, that they wouldn’t have to resort to such cheap tricks.

What bothered me the most, I think, is that the staged encounter between these two politicians gave them both the opportunity to wreak havoc with facts and figures, further confusing the really important issues the nation faces. Both Romney and Obama were equally guilty of massaging statistics to fit their needs, whether speaking about the debt, unemployment, defense spending or the GM bailout.

What I wanted to hear was Obama saying, “OK, folks, let’s get down to brass tacks here. The Governor is a pretty smart guy, but in the US, smart guys are a dime a dozen, and many of them have the bad habit of speaking out of both sides of their mouths. Kinda like George, here. Oh. Sorry. Mitt. Who the hell names their kid Mitt? But I digress. Elect me, and you get a man serving his second term. I know the office—hell, I’m already President! I’ll work my ass off. I know the job, and I’m not going to be seeking re-election so I’ll be able to spend the time working for you.” Here, he would turn to Romney and smile graciously. “Elect the governor and he’s going to spend the first two years in office going—pardon my French—‘What the f**k!’ Then he’ll spend the next two years trying to get re-elected. You think he’s gonna have time to take care of the nation’s business? Dream on…”

But Obama didn’t say that. In fact, neither of them said much of anything new, and what they did say isn’t to be trusted, skewed as it was so serve their political needs.

In the end, I did like Obama’s suit better, and I didn’t think much of Romney’s 1961 haircut. I suppose that’s all I’ll have to vote on.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Goblin Fart Bread

The price of the bread I usually eat for breakfast recently jumped from $3.99 to $4.99 a loaf.

There’s nothing special about this bread. It’s not baked by Third World children in search of self-expression, and no part of its cost is passed on to charities. It’s a round loaf, unsliced, about ten inches across, and since it’s baked without preservatives and I don’t keep in the fridge, it goes bad within a matter of days. Oh, and it’s pumpernickel.

Pumpernickel, incidentally, is not in and of itself a grain and there are no amber waves of pumpernickel swaying in the American breeze. It’s just rye, though the name has an interesting history. 

According to the highly trustable Straight Dope website, “pumper” is from High German and means ‘to break wind.’ “Nickel” is derived from the name Nicholas, often given to devils and goblins. So ‘pumpernickel’ is the devil’s fart, possibly because being high fiber, it creates gases as it passes through one’s body, and it’s difficult to digest.

But this is not an etymological discourse, even though the origins of pumpernickel’s name bring a new twist to breakfast.

A one dollar escalation in a four dollar staple item is a price increase of 25 percent. Rye, to the best of my knowledge, has not become a rare agricultural treasure like truffles or the tasteless lichen scraped from the sides of cliff by small Asian men dangling from baskets. Nope, rye is just that, a modest, cold weather grain whose harvest of millions bushels is used largely in the baking of bread and the distilling of whiskey.

So why the sudden price increase? I asked the baker in my local food store and he didn’t know. There had been no announcement. One day, the bakery’s computer spat out price tags that read $4.99, the next day it was a dollar more. He volunteered that he, personally, hadn’t gotten a raise that might account for the price increase, and neither had his cohorts manning the ovens. No one, he added, was driving a Mercedes. His crew bakes an average of a dozen loaves of pumpernickel daily, a couple more on Saturdays, and these are generally sold by 6 p.m.  Leftover loaves are sold at deep discount or discarded the second day. According to sources that for obvious reasons must stay anonymous, the cost of producing pumpernickel bread is around eighty cents a loaf, when you count the ingredients, packaging, the salary of the baker, and the power used to fire the oven and run the giant mixer that kneads the dough. Add wastage, at a liberal ten percent, and transportation costs of the grain, say another ten percent. That’s still  long way from $4.99.  

So just for the hell of it, I found the store manager, who wasn’t even aware of the price increase but volunteered to check her computer. Same thing. Citing her Econ 101 class, she started to tell me about guns and butter, or, in this case, pumpernickel and butter. She did not make a convincing case and was aware of it, so after a minute or so of discourse, she went to check on the bratwurst and knockwurst in the pork product aisle.

It struck me that in earlier times and other nations, such a drastic change in the price of bread would have led to revolution, or at least loud demonstrations in the street. Here, not so much. In fact, the baker told me, no one else noticed the bread suddenly paying buck more.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. A while back, 12 ounces of assorted bagged lettuce and greens were $2.69. Now they’re $3.89. Same lettuce, same bag, same weight, different price. Hydopronic tomatoes, largely tasteless and colorless fruit (or is it vegetable? The argument rages on among aficionados) now cost as much as vine grown.  At this rate, I’ll be eating unadorned kale (which has neither risen nor fallen) three times a day within a few years.

What this proves, among other things, is that bread is no longer the staple it once was. Very possibly, the present American staple is the Big Mac, and you can rest assured that Mickey D is not about to slap at 25% increase on its most celebrated concoction. It also demonstrates that the prices of niche foods, which I suppose is what pumpernickel bread is, can be manipulated at will. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bread vanished altogether in the near future, just as the inexpensive decaf ground coffees like Bustello and Pico disappeared from supermarket shelves in my area about a year ago.

I’m not sure what consumers can do. All I know is that whether the price increase applies to tasteless hydroponic tomatoes or farting goblin bread, it stinks.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Adventures of Paul and Todd

I don’t personally know Paul Broun. I’ve heard he’s a doctor, though to my relief  I understand he’s not actually a practicing physician. He’s a Republican, a representative from the great state of Georgia, and he believes that the earth was created in six days by God some 9000 years ago. He believes this very firmly, going so far as to tell a crowd at a church banquet that anything deviating from this theory is “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

“God’s word is true,” Broun said, according to a video posted on the church’s website.   "I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

In case anyone doubted the depth of his beliefs, he added, “"You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says."

Rep. Broun, aside from being a physician, also has a B.S. in chemistry. In his speech, he credited the Bible with governing his approach to government. “What I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it,” he said. “It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

Honestly, I pretty much don’t care what a person believes.  For centuries, a lot of folks thought the world was balanced on the back of a giant turtle supported by four standing elephants. At about the same time, people in Europe thought the earth was the center of the universe, and you could be burned as a heretic if you held other views.

What bothers me, I guess, is that Representative Broun is a highly-placed member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee HSSTC). In fact, he’s the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight which “has general and special investigative authority on all matters within the jurisdiction of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

That raised some concerns. And when I found out Representative Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri is also a member of the HSSTC, I gave up all semblance of calm. Akin, you might remember, is the gentleman who said that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape" because their bodies have "ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The exact quote was:  "From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist."

Akin’s statements are harder to forgive than Broun’s, possibly because they’re even more outrageous and cannot be ascribed to a faith of rock-hard density, and possibly because the Missouri Congressman (and Senatorial candidate) has a comb-over that is famous throughout the Washington area, a place that generally feels people with comb-overs should keep their opinions to themselves.

What I think is that the doctor Akin refers to when speaking about rape and pregnancy is Dr. Paul Broun. It’s the only thing that makes sense. They probably met someplace on Capitol Hill, which is a rather small area with a lot of comb-overs, and they recognized in each other kindred spirits. Then they decided to take over the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

By now, all of us should be shuddering.   


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Inelegant and Rude

We are in an inelegant and rude age.  If I look for definitions of the word ‘inelegant, I get ‘unstylish, unsophisticated, tasteless, vulgar, unpolished, clumsy’ and ‘awkward.’ If I dig a little deeper, in a thesaurus, say, I find ‘gawky, graceless, maladroit, ungainly, splay,’ and ‘uncouth.’ I particularly like the word splay, which I did not know existed until a few minutes ago. The Encarta dictionary defines inelegant as ‘lacking grace, sophistication, and good taste in appearance or behavior.’ Which I think pretty well defines these times.

I dislike today’s über relaxed styles. I’m offended by 14-year-old girls with uplift bras that have little to lift, and 14-year-old boys trying to emulate pimps. The fact that we have taken baseball caps and made a fashion statement of wearing them backwards makes as much sense to me as crotchless men's underwear. I am only slightly placated by the fact that in the 16th century, it was considered elegant for aristocratic ladies to grow their pubic hair long and tie bows and ribbons in it. Two centuries later, the height of fashion was false eyebrows made out of mouse skins. So maybe being a kid who likes to wear his pants around his knees is OK. He doesn’t know better. We can’t say the same for buyers of high-end jeans who have made a utilitarian pair of trousers into largely useless pre-faded pants that will never see a day’s hard work. In fact, I’ve often wondered about the purpose of a $200 a pair of denims. Is the wearer pretending to be a worker among workers, or mocking the working class as a whole by implying his pants are worth more than a day’s labor and are dry-cleaned? It’s all pretty mysterious.    

What irks me more than the uselessness of fashion in our times (though I am relieved we no longer use cod pieces) is behaviors that seem to have crept in at about the same time we started inventing more and more ways to say less and less. I find it incredibly odd to see a young couple sitting at a table, each engrossed in their phone or tablet. I wonder about young parents whose children are running amuck in public spaces, and it strikes me that I have never seen anything like this in Europe.  Perhaps Pamela Druckerman, author of the bestseller Bringing Up Bébé, is right in thinking that “the French, (who in her world are educated professionals living in the Paris area) handle pregnancy, childbirth and early childhood better than obsessive, competitive American hyper-parents.”

I am certain as well that inelegance has crept into the way we drive nowadays. We’ve become aggressive, rude, impatient and careless. We talk on the phone and text while at the wheel, and think nothing of blocking intersections and driveways. Statistics show that cops are issuing more moving violations, and traffic courts throughout the country are handling more cases than ever. For a while, road rage was front page news. Now we seem to have accepted its existence as part of living here, much as we’ve accepted handguns, mass murders (defined as the killing of more than five people), greenhouse gases and tasteless tomatoes.

So inelegance and rudeness are close cousins. Public Agenda, part of The Pew Charitable Trusts, found in a study that “most Americans surveyed say rudeness is on the rise in our society and 41 percent admit they too are sometimes a part of the problem. Unhappiness with reckless drivers, cell phone abuse, poor customer service, swearing and litter came from big cities and small towns in all geographic regions as large majorities of Americans say they believe life truly was more civil in the past. And American business is paying a price for the lack of manners - nearly half the people surveyed (46 percent) say bad service drove them out of a store in the past year.

“Among the report’s key findings were:

·        79 percent of Americans say lack of respect and courtesy should be regarded as a serious national problem;  

·        73 percent believe Americans did treat one another with greater respect in the past;

·        62 percent say that witnessing rude and disrespectful behavior bothers them a lot and 52 percent said the residue from such episodes lingers with them for some time afterwards;

·        Six in 10 believe the problem is getting worse, and;

·        41 percent confess to having acted rude or disrespectful themselves.


One of the more noteworthy findings in the Public Agenda survey was how little respect rudeness has for boundaries: experiences with bad behavior were virtually the same whether one was from the North or South, rich or poor, living in a big city or a small town.


Gee. We’ve finally found something the entire country does well.