Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Luck, Revisited

“What God is particularly good at,” says my friend EC, “is kicking you in the stomach.”  There’s not much sense having a Nietzschean discussion with E on this point. She’s had a tough few months. She got ill and it was worst than she’d thought, a pneumonia that exhausted her sick leave and drained her bank account. Even as her insurance kicked in 90 percent reimbursement, the cost of the three-day hospital stay almost made her faint. Her parents had to help her pay the difference, which led to some grumbling and ill feelings that a 35-year-old woman should be able to pay her own bills and not ask a mom and dad on fixed income to give her money.  Shortly after she recovered her boyfriend informed her things just weren’t working as well as they should and they should split. No discussion ensued—it was done over the phone and that was that.

E read the piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about luck and told me that until the last couple of years she had felt, if not lucky, at least not unlucky. She’d been married very young and divorced more or less amicably a few years later. They still sent each other birthday and Christmas cards after he’d moved to the West coast to become a screenwriter. She had thought of maybe moving to Florida but in the end stayed in NoVa because her friends were here, there was some support and an acceptable retail job in a local mall.

Things started going to hell when her dog died, about two months before the pneumonia struck. The boyfriend was understanding for about a week and then he suggested she go to the animal rescue place and get another animal and she thought this was pretty insensitive. She’d had the dog 12 years and you don’t get over a loss that quickly, but she didn’t say anything.  Then she got demoted from being one of the shift supervisors at the store to salesperson. The place, one of a hundred outfits in a nationwide chain, was trying to trim its budget and the boss told her she was fortunate, she was keeping her job, even if it was at a reduced salary, when others were losing theirs. She’d still have medical coverage, which was the only reason she stayed. A blessing, as it turned out.

So the boyfriend bailed on her, and then her car, an aging Toyota with busted springs, broke down and the garage she took it to said repairs would cost about two grand, which would totally wipe her out. Luckily E had a bike and a friend fixed it up for her, inflated the tires and greased all the cables, so she had a way to get to work, which wasn’t too far from where she lived. The third day pedaling to her store, she parked the bike in the bike rack in the mall’s parking lot and came out after her shift ended to find the rear wheel crushed. Someone had hit the bike with a car and, of course, not left a note.

All of this is why she said God is particularly good at kicking you in the stomach. I tink she’s right.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Weight of Words

Our country is [tubby] obsessed with weight. In developed nations, and perhaps for the [pudgy] very first time in the history of humankind, we have reversed an age-old [fat] trend: the skinny people are generally well off while the [heavy] ones are poor. This is a revolutionary [jowly] reversal based on improved agricultural output mated with [piggy] a transportation system that works cheaply [rotund] and around the clock. Add to this the climbing calorie count [overweight] of basic staples, and we have [corpulent] an America that has become [obese] and unlikely to change.

Food, in many instances, has become [bloated] an addiction. It has its own 12-step programs and literature, and there exists [stout] a counter-food movement that promises weight-loss [elephantine] without effort. And if you are wondering why there are so many words in brackets, it is to [beefy] demonstrate that while the Eskimos may have hundreds of [massive] words for snow and the French dozens for making love, Americans [roly-poly] have developed an extensive vocabulary to describe those carrying too [porky] much weight.

I have friends whose weights have [hefty] become the focus of their lives. Almost everyone I know has, in recent times, [ample] followed one diet or another. Diet books [chunky] are routinely on the best-seller lists, and there are television channels [rubenesque] devoted entirely to the sales and promotion of pills, potions, secret balms and lotions designed [large] to make folks shed pounds.  Millions—not, billions—have been [stubby] spent on exercise machines that gather dust in dens and basements. Movie stars and athletes [husky] have launched impressive second careers with exercise videos, [lardy] and the greatest compliment one can bestow nowadays [porcine] is to say to another: “You’ve lost weight!”

There are more words: bulky, chubby, bearish, lardy, hippy, full, generous, huge, substantial, enormous, bovine, fleshy, plump. All the words cited above where found without the aid of a computer or dictionary, and there are certainly a dozen more that I can’t remember but have heard use to describe someone who might be all of the above.

An entire vocabulary based on poundage.  How very strange.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Adieu, Sharp,

It’s a sad moment when a man’s very first electronic organizer dies, as mine did earlier today.

I bought my Sharp OZ-7600 in 1991 when it was the hottest new thing on the market. With a whopping 32 KB of memory, 12 different functions, alarms, world clock and a removable calculator card, it put all other such machines to shame, and continued to do so until the advent of the Palm Pilot in 1997. Even though I bought a Pilot, I relied on the Sharp to keep all my telephone numbers, appointments and to-do lists. I took it to France when my mother died, and recorded the names and addresses of everyone who attended the funeral so I could send thank you letters later. I had a little brass nameplate made in case I lost it, which I did. Someone sent it back to me, with a nice covering note telling me they were so impressed with the little machine’s handiness that they’d gone out and bought one.

The Sharp went with me to Europe, Asia and Africa. My nephew, a gearhead of first magnitude, tried without success to buy it from me when he first saw it. My father was fascinated by it, and being a man whose life had been spent largely tethered to an old Royal manual typewriter, he found it almost inconceivable that so much information could be packed into such a small package.

I replaced the three large button batteries endless times and took to traveling with a half-dozen of the things in my suitcase.  This got me into trouble in Senegal, when a custom agent refused to believe these button-like metal discs were actually used to power something. He drew his pistol and escorted me to his boss, an imposing man who asked if I was a spy. I said I was not and some 10,000 CFA Francs later, the airport authorities allowed me to proceed to my hotel in Dakar.

In Kathmandu I spilled a full glass of Nepalese scotch on it. The paint on the case softened and I feared all was lost. I opened the Sharp, pulled out its guts and allowed them to dry on the windowsill of the Yak and Yeti Hotel. The next morning the little LDC screen glowed confident and happy.

For the past decade or so, as new phones superseded themselves and became tiny mainframe computers capable of awesome and often useless miracles, the Sharp stayed on the dresser in my bedroom. Once in a while, I checked an address in Europe, or a rarely used telephone number.  There was no way of transferring the information from Sharp to PC. The little cable designed to do this had never worked, and its business end did nt have a corresponding and accepting receptacle on my desktop.

This morning, I went to my Sharp to get my sister’s address in Paris. No response. The screen stayed a lifeless, scary grey. I changed the batteries. A message told me to unscrew the metal plate covering a fourth, hidden backup battery whose existence I had never suspected in the 21 years of ownership.

I did so. The screen blinked twice and read, Memory Cleared.

My Sharp OZ-7600 is now as unsullied with information and virginal as the day I bought it.  It is, in effect, brand new.  And totally useless. C’est la vie.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


Luck, it is said, is when opportunity meets preparedness. The definition has a nice, orotund feel to it; it is a pronouncement Dr. Phil might utter as a live TV audience nods its aggregate head.

I’ve been thinking of luck recently, while listening to a CD recently released by Adele, the British singer who is all the rage for sounding like Janis Joplin if the latter had never discovered Southern Comfort and Wild Turkey. Adele swept the Grammy Awards, I’m told, winning Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year and a couple of other categories. Her album, ‘21,’ has been number one for more than 20 weeks. She is golden.

The thing is, in three decades of on-and-off playing in bands, I’ve heard a dozen voices as good as hers, and at least another dozen that were a whole lot better. Her songwriting skills are adequate as well, but no more than that, and once again I’ve known a plethora of other artists whose ways with lyrics were astounding and wholly unrecognized. This is not intended as a put down of the 23-year-old singer. I’m sure she’s worked very hard to get where she is, and practices diligently to stay there. But lets face it, she’s been lucky.

On the other side of the coin is someone like Amy Winehouse, whom I considered a truly amazing talent when she first appeared some three years ago. Could her ascent and even faster decline be considered frighteningly unlucky?

Luck and faith share an uncomfortable stage. Those who believe will tell you luck does not exist at all but is a product of faith and prayer, an outcropping of spirituality; the faithless and luckless are one and the same. The hard-liners, born-again and extremists believe not only that luck is a reward of conviction, but that ill-luck is a just comeuppance for those whose faith is uncertain. Luck, then, is not good fortune or destiny, but rather the just dues of worship.

Me, I wonder. I’ve known wonderful talented luckless people. A friend of mine, an amazing singer and lyricist who pays the rent by walking the dogs of her better-off neighbors, got a record contract a year or so ago. Days before she was scheduled to begin recording, the company declared bankruptcy and left town, owing its signed artists tens of thousands of dollars. 

I think of The Shack, and of William P. Young, who I interviews has said he never meant to write a book but did so anyway to teach Christianity to his son. His novel became an international bestseller, was optioned to be made into a movie, and earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. The rewards of faith, some might say, or just plain old luck?

Then I think of The Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  Toole submitted his manuscript to Simon & Schuster, where noted editor Robert Gottlieb thought Toole talented but felt his comic novel was essentially pointless. Despite several revisions, Gottlieb remained unsatisfied, and after the book was rejected by another literary figure, Hodding Carter Jr., he shelved the novel. Depressed and feeling of persecuted, Toole ended his life by running a garden hose in from the exhaust of his car to the cabin. Some years later, his mother brought the manuscript of Dunces to the attention of novelist Walker Percy, who ushered the book into print. In 1981, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

How’s that for luck…

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Cause for Concern

There are things, I believe, that should disturb us. An ad for Louis Vuitton, for example, showing Bono and Ali (his wife) with their LV bags, having recently alit from a small plane in what I assume is the Serengeti Valley in Tanzania. They are alone. She looks watchful in her silk blouse—there are, after all, lions and hyenas in the Serengeti not to mention harmful insects and elephants. He is standing in what can only be called a Christopher Columbian pose, scanning the horizon, guitar case in hand and inevitable dark glasses shielding his eyes from the harsh African sun.  He’s dressed rather warmly for the occasion, adorned with a long red scarf—what others might call a muffler—in case a blizzard strikes.

The ad is delusional in so many ways that it verges on the grotesque, and I wonder what its creators want us to assume. That the Bonos travel light? That they’re there for a concert? That we should emulate the look and the expenses involved in flying the couple to a remote place for a photo shoot? Or is it that the bags will transform us into responsible rock stars capable of saving a continent from its own self-destruction… Personally, I like Louis Vuitton. When in Bangkok in the 1990s, I purchased a full set of LV bags for $125.

More disturbing, and far more serious than the posing of a singer and his spouse, is the disappearance of box turtles from the east coast. I am entirely serious here.

Back when I first came to the States, the yellow and black box turtle was both ubiquitous and delightful.  They were everywhere, and it was impossible to go for a walk or hike through the Maryland woods without encountering a slew of these gentle creatures. Every back yard had one or two. The Post brothers, six hooligans of varying ages who lived next door to us, had discovered that one could drill a tiny and painless hole at the edge of a  turtle’s shell, slip a string through it, and essentially leash the animal. I remember setting up a posse of small boys who thought this was wrong. We crept into the Post yard at dawn and freed all their captive reptiles, sniping the strings and depositing the turtles back into the woods. This may have been one of the first at of eco-rebellion in the Washington area.

Box turtles are hardy creatures. Potential natural predators can’t break through their carapace; they can live to be 50 years old and it was thought until recently that 98 percent of them managed to survive from year to year. 

The turtles are vanishing because an animal disease called ranavirus has run rampant, killing both reptiles and amphibians. Salamanders and tadpoles are falling prey as well as turtles in the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) area, and scientists are worried about the potential ramifications on the rest of the environment. The ranavirus can kill a turtle in as little as four days, and empty a pond of tadpoles in a week.
The disappearance of the salamanders and tadpoles has a seriously deleterious effect on the immediate ecology of an area. Without these small amphibians, insects flourish.  Ponds become lifeless and the food chain among animals is disrupted as creatures used to feeding on the amphibians—birds and mammals—must find new sources of nourishment. The frog population vanishes.

At this point, there’s nothing we can do to stop the ranavirus. Scientists who have been tracking its effect on the animal population report that diseases of this nature normally die out of their own.

Which is more than you can say for Louis Vuitton ads…

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Safety and Security

Independence Avenue in Washington, DC, is one of the city’s main arteries, running from the Potomac River up to the Capitol and beyond. The Department of Agriculture is there, the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and the HEW building. It’s also the site of a number of the Smithsonian’s museums: the Freer, Air and Space, American Indian, Hirschhorn and others.

None of the government buildings are open to the public. You need passes, badges, proof of employment. There are large, 3-foot-tall concrete blocky impediments alongside one side of the avenue, designed to prevent angered motorists from driving their cars in the buildings’ lobbies.  The museums have metal detectors and guards who, if you set off the detectors (belt, shoe buckle, and for all I know tin ears) will wave their magic wand before clearing you for entry. 

In other words, the bad guys have won: security measures and traffic blockages have become so commonplace in our nation’s capital that we hardly notice them anymore. On Capitol Hill on a bright winter day, there were more cops than tourists. The former were everywhere, riding motorcycles and bicycles, on foot and in squad cars, and this on a day when Congress was in recess.

The problem of course, is that we’re now in a chicken-and-egg situation. Have all these measures really deterred the bad guys? Or are the bad guys not that interested in wreaking havoc in Washington, finding it cheaper and more expedient to blow up their own citizens in the Middle East?

There’s very little accounting in security work—it’s taken for granted that the more we take (possibly non-existent) threats seriously, the better we are.  Although once in a while it’s reported in the media that some deluded citizen has been arrested for trying to send money to a terrorist group in some unfortunate war-torn semi-nation, we do not get a monthly report on the actions of the various tax-funded governmental security groups. In fact, we don’t even know how many groups there are.

According to an article in the Washington Post, “The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”

A quick count comes up with the following:

·                        National Security Council--Foreign relations and activities of foreign terrorist factions
·                        Council of Economic Adviser--Economic response and recovery from terrorist attacks
Direct Intervention & Prevention
·                        Department of Defense - Provide direct military response
·                        Federal Bureau of Investigation - Locate and arrest terrorists inside US and coordinate with international law enforcement agencies
·                        State Department - Negotiate with foreign countries - preserve coalition against terrorism
·                        Treasury Department - Locate and freeze funds of terrorist groups
·                        Coast Guard - Patrol U.S. ports and waterways
·                        Immigration & Naturalization Service - Patrol borders, controls entry into the US by foreign nationals
·                        Customs Service - Locate & seize smuggled weapons, explosives, biological weapons, etc.
·                        Drug Enforcement Agency - Control drug trade (drug trafficking known to be a source of funding for terrorist groups)
Intelligence/Information Gathering
·                        Central Intelligence Agency - Gather terrorist information in foreign countries
·                        Federal Bureau of Investigation - Gather terrorist information inside USA
·                        National Security Agency - Intercept all forms of terror-related communications
·                        Defense Intelligence Agency - Coordinate intelligence efforts of military branches
·                        National Reconnaissance Office - Launch and monitor surveillance satellites
·                        Special Operations Command - Gather information on terrorist locations and defenses
·                        US Space Command - Monitor US and Canadian airspace
·                        Treasury Department - Gather information on worldwide terrorist financial assets
·                        Securities and Exchange Commission - Detect stock trading in support of or related to terrorist groups
Preparedness & Recovery
·                        Federal Emergency Management Agency - train and equip local emergency service providers - coordinate all federal recover efforts
·                        Office for Domestic Preparedness - Train local fire and medical responders
·                        National Guard - Provide local security - Assist in recovery efforts
·                        Joint Forces Command - Reserve Units - Provide military support to local agencies
·                        Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms - Train local agencies in explosives handling
·                        Centers for Disease Control - Identify and isolate cases of bioterrorism-related disease
·                        Department of Health & Human Services - Assist local agencies respond to large-scale acts of bio-terrorism
·                        Environmental Protection Agency - Respond to acts of chemical warfare
·                        Nuclear Regulatory Agency - Protect nuclear facilities - respond to radiation-related attacks
·                        Agriculture Department - Protect safety of food supply, crops and livestock
·                        Food & Drug Administration - Provide information on and testing of bio-terrorism disease medications - monitor safety of food supply
·                        Transportation Department - Ensure the safety of US transportation system
·                        Veterans Administration - Provide backup hospital space and medical treatment
·                        National Infrastructure Protection Center - Protect critical computer networks

Now mind you, these are entities that do not belong to the Department of Homeland Security.  Feel any safer now?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Games Won and Lost

The kids moved well but couldn’t shoot. They ran from one end of the court to the other with style and grace, but when it came to making points, the ball went under or over the hoop. The final score after an hour’s play was 16-14 for the white team.

I was there because a friend’s son was playing. The 14-year-old wasn’t as tall as most of his teammates but he had the kind of hustle coaches notice and appreciate. He tried four shots, scored one, ducked under bigger kids and protected his turf ferociously. Though his team had the best player, they lost anyway. I suspect the loss had something to do with a reticence to share the ball. Time and again, one kid or another would go the length of the court, thread and elbow his way through the competition and miss the easy lay-up. The two or three potential three-pointers never made it either.

The game was held in the gym of a Northern Virginia high school, a monstrous space that accommodated four basketball courts, all in use by competing teams so that play took place in a cacophony of referee whistles and dribbling balls. Parents sat in folding chairs or leaned against the gym walls and watched their kids dribble shoot miss, dribble shoot miss. The coaches—parents themselves—occasionally showed a hint of temper but the parents were mostly laconic, a sigh here, a shake of the head there.

These weren’t high school teams. A parent explained to me that when a high school has a two thousand-plus student population, only the very best get to compete with the school’s own teams. The rest of the hopefuls end up playing on inter-county teams like the ones I was watching. The problem, said the parent, is that they only get to practice once a week. The rest of the time, the school teams take up the courts or fields. It’s serious business with scholarships to top colleges riding on the success of the school’s athletic program. In an area with spiraling college tuition costs and associated expenses, schools like the one I visited to see a game need to foster the talents of the very best, often at the cost of the not-quite-very-best.

It struck me that this was sort of sad, this shutting out of average kids in favor of the superstars. We’re starting the weaning out too early. Admittedly, the high schools are wedged in a Catch-22 situation.  High-visibility schools with superlative athletic programs lure the best athletes, and not necessarily from the immediate area. Such school can demand higher budgets, which re-enforces their reputations. As outstanding athletes move on to colleges that pay their tuition and room and board,  the schools are able to justify the time spent on the top tier players at the cost of the less gifted.

I’m not sure if this helps or harms the academic programs, but I do know it persuades the average kids not to participate in school sports activities. Somewhere along the line here, we’ve forgotten that sports are games, and games are supposed to be played as children play them, for the shear fun and enjoyment of running around with other kids your age,  and having a good time.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Universal Concerns

It’s almost a truism to say I am the most important person in the universe, or at least in my universe. Simply put, my universe will cease to exist the very instant I cease to exist. There may be memories of it in other peoples’ universes, and these may last a month or a year, but for all good purposes, when I go, so does the world.
 In the past year or so, my universe has been bounced around some, personally and professionally, as well as emotionally and physically. I’ve been struggling with the writing and wondering if, in the end, it’s at all worth it. There’s not that much call for the stuff I do anymore, not a great deal of interest among readers, and, possibly worst of all, there are increasingly few publishing houses or editors willing to invest the time necessary to make good writing better and great ideas irresistible. What we’re left with, too often, is mediocre writing and sub-par plots. That readers accept this as the norm is discouraging and the future for what used to be called literary fiction is looking bleak.
 There has also come the brutal realization that all in all, most universes—mine included—are simply not that interesting. In fact, they’re mundane, quotidian, and disturbingly average. Mine does not fascinate others and has ceased fascinating me.
 The problem is, it’s a little late in life to re-appraise decisions I made decades ago when my very first newspaper story was published (in the Washington Post. A story about suicides at Christmas), or when I got the contract for my first book and danced in the street were I lived. At that time, writing was the only choice. Now, with the explosion of other media, writing as a trade is beginning to resemble the buggy whip of a bygone era. Not much call for those either, these days.
 Health issues haven’t helped. Even though the cancer I had last year is now gone thanks to successful surgeries, I am discovering that its aftermath lingers. The healing has taken longer than I expected, and I am constantly fatigued. I’m not sure how one recovers emotionally from such a danse macabre. Generally, I get past stuff by writing about it, but I don’t want to write about cancer anymore, it’s self-serving and downright boring and in fact, compared to the illnesses of others, it was pretty small stuff.
 A good friend whose affliction was meaner than mine often talks about how long it took her to get her bearings back—two-an-a-half years.  That seems like a long time and I find my patience is thinner by the day. A drabness has set in that I do not like. I watch the folks in my life come and go of their own volition, and I’m daily striving to give up the control of things I have no control over.
 On the plus side, global warming is doing its thing and the first daffodil shoots are out. The Japanese red maple I transplanted last year appears to be surviving. We may actually get through the winter without a paralyzing snowstorm. I had a pleasant breakfast with good friends. No doubt about it, things could be worse.