Saturday, April 28, 2012

New and Improved!!

I love catalogs and always have. When my family first came to America, catalogs and comic books were the stuff of English 101 for my mother and me. They had excessively long and mighty words, fabulous, extraordinary, amazing, improved, powerful, convenient and always the basic most, best, never before, for the first time,  greatest, and one of my personal favorites, limit one to a customer!!!
            Catalogs were America on shiny newsprint and in full color. They promised us that everything this bright new land of untold wealth had to offer could be had cheap, now, without guilt and, it seemed, almost without payment. You didn’t have to save up anymore because only five low monthly payments of four dollars each, plus postage and handling and the treasure was yours, why wait? Why indeed?
            My mother went for the seed catalogs from Burpee and it was there my father discovered Big Boy Tomatoes!  Two of our tomatoes feed a family of four! And yes, it looked as if they could, those impossibly large vegetables—or were they fruit—that defied gravity as they hung from the vine, juices oozing from the page and dyeing your fingertips red. Twenty varieties of tomatoes large and small, round and oblong, red, orange, and every shade in between, and carrots a foot long, radish that grew in profusion, white eggplants, white eggplants!!
            My father bought pieces of slate because the watermelons and honeydews ordered from Burpee would need a place to rest as they grew to outlandish proportions. He bought stakes and cages and nets and rabbit repellent, and my mother planted marigolds around the vegetable garden because she had been told the flowers warded off pests.
            From the toy catalog sent directly to my home address I bought the ordnance box full of plastic soldiers, molded in the perfect likeness of those helmeted American boys who had saved Europe and made the world safe for tomato growers. Two bucks got you fifty soldiers, and five bucks got you the soldiers, plus half-a-dozen guys with bazookas, infantryman who crawled or lobbed grenades at the hated Nazis and Japs, two Jeeps with drivers, and a comic book history of the undefeatable US Army.
            I still get catalogs, and I still fall victim to their bombast. My hands-down favorite is the 58-pager from Heartland America, offering little steamer ovens for ball park quality hot dogs in your own backyard! (as opposed, I suppose, too making them in your neighbor’s backyard.) I am tempted by the solar powered carriage lanterns that burn like flickering candles!, and it’s tempting to strike it rich with this new and improved metal detector! Never mind that the exact same ad ran on the back of Superman comics in the 60s; one could be led to believe that time and time alone is enough to make something new and improved.
            Shortly after I bought my first car, I got an automobile accessory catalog and sent in $20 for a fuel efficiency booster that promised increased mileage and more horsepower for my junker. It took only minutes to install the thing between the carburetor and the air filter and when I stepped on the gas, I was pretty sure that the strange wooshing sound now emanating from my car’s engine was the resonance of added muscle. A week later, an article in Popular Mechanics debunked the fuel efficiency booster as useless and potentially harmful to engines.  In a catalog I received today, there’s an ad for the Fuel Dr. FD47 Power Conditioner. JL from MN says, “I am seeing a 24% increase in fuel economy!”  I am tempted to believe him JL; I have never met anyone from MN who had reason to lie to me.
            Since I’ve gained some weight in recent years, I tempted to spring for the Williams Power Shape Shirt, which will give me the smooth lean look I’m seeking without dieting or exercising. The shirt, which appears to be a pretty standard undershirt with heavy elastic straps sown around the belly, is great for class reunions, weddings and interviews!  Funerals too, I assume, though this is not stated in print.
            Golf clubs, wireless telephones, watches worth hundreds but here for $29.95, massagers, super-slim leather wallets, knives, a toilet safety support system that fits around the bowl, complete with magazine rack, a natural salt crystal lamp that helps purify the air, reduces stress, relieves respiratory problems and more! I want them all. Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New Stuff

My parents never bought a new car during their entire 20-year stay in the US. It wasn’t that they lacked the money—they didn’t—or that my mother was not envious of the luxury models driven by some of her friends—she was. They stuck to second-hand vehicles because, (1) what her friends often drove were new Mercedes, and, having fought in and survived the war, neither she nor my father would ever buy a German car (and not so secretly savaged those French people who did), and (2) my father was by and large a luddite.  He believed in simplicity, in things that could be fixed with pliers, a screwdriver and if need be, a hammer.
As such, he insisted on manual windows, doors that did not lock electronically, radios with dials and no pushbuttons, and manual transmission, though he gave in on the latter when they bought a third-hand Lincoln. He was also willing to admit that power steering might prove useful when trying to parallel park a two-ton automobile, but he didn’t like it.
His philosophy was simple: the more there is to break, the more will break. He didn’t trust gadgetry and was fanatically opposed to planned obsolescence, which he found offensive to man and God. Things should work, he believed, and when they didn’t they should be repaired quickly and economically.
I remember that one day my mother drove her friends around in the Buick he normally took to work. The car was fitted with a small electrical motor that moved the front seat forward and backward to accommodate the driver.  My mother adjusted the seat to fit her, and the motor died with the seat inches away from the steering column.  There it stayed. No amount of coaxing would budge it, and my father, who in the States had developed somewhat of a paunch, could no longer fit in his own car. He sold it, and the name Buick was never mentioned in our household again.   
When I bought my first automobile, a two-year-old Austin America, the first thing my father looked for was what could break. He could only find fault in the two-speed windshield wipers which, of course, ceased working within a month.
I wonder what he would think of the current times, where the technology we’ve embraced is unfixable and largely disposable.
The newer cars my friends buy boast power everything, are cell phone- and iPod-ready. They have 20-CD-players and stereo controls that will befuddle a sound engineer. One friend has a fax machine in the front and two DVD players in the back, one for each kid. He had a flat recently and didn’t know his expensive SUV had a spare tire.
I recently threw out an old but perfectly good television set not because it was broken but because I finally gave in to the siren song of HDTV, Blue Ray and multiple speakers. I am the first to admit that the change between old and new is startling, but to rid myself of something operable that a decade ago cost $300 still bothers me. Sets like that now go for $25 at the Salvation Army…
What’s also sad is the demise of the tinkerer, the guy down the street who could tune your ride, change the tubes on your crackly radio, fix the washing machine and install chains on your rear wheels in a matter of minutes. Can any one, seriously, fix an ailing smart phone or tune his own car today?  I recently peeked under the good of a five-year-old import. The engine was under a plastic shroud to protect the gadgetry, effectively preventing its owner from doing the most routine maintenance.
Like my father, I’ve never bought or owned a new car. Of the three I have, the newest dates from 1989. I can, and do, work on it. I like it that way. And I’m a little worried about my new fat-screen, high definition, internet- and Netflix-ready, Surround Sound-capable, 87,000 channel television. I’m pretty sure no one I know could fix it if it broke.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Be warned.  There is a possibility of strong language sneaking into this blog.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for idiots. All those nice folks who work for the federal government are walking a little less tall these days, and it’s a shame. The overwhelmingly majority comprises perfectly nice folks who earn a fair paycheck and would not think of abusing their positions.  Then, of course, there are the others. The idiots. I use the term with a degree of sagacity.

First, the US Secret Service… These people, by and large, are heroes willing to take a bullet for others who often are not worth one. Recently, a passel of Secret Service men were sent to Cartagena, Colombia, to prepare for and ensure the safety of the President during his visit to the Summit of the Americas.  While there, the men went to a strip club and engaged the services of prostitutes. Prostitution is legal and regulated in Colombia, so technically these US government employees were not breaking the law, but being the Puritans and hypocrites most lawmakers are, the Senate long ago dictated Secret Service regulations with clauses to ensure the agents will behave in a moral fashion that will not embarrass the US. Hence, no playing hide the wiener with the locals.

Personally, I have nothing against the world’s oldest profession. That the US agents decided, after a night of drinking, to take some ladies of the evening back to their hotel, smacks of idiocy, but is forgivable. That an agent would, the next morning, choose to argue about money owed for services with one of the prostitutes is beyond cretinism and truly unpardonable. Here I might add that the women involved were not one-thousand-dollars-a-night call girls. We’re talking thirty bucks here and hell of a way to end a career for civil servants whose raison d’être is putting their lives on the line.

Not quite as titillating is a minor scandal involving the General Services Administration which pretended a Las Vegas bash was a training conference. Although the GSA is, literally, in charge of procurements, there were apparently no prostitutes involved, but unfortunately for some civil servants, what went on in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. To wit, a senior regional GSA official (do we need to name names here? Nah…) hired his wife to throw a $800,000 bash that included mucho booze, spa suites, and a mentalist, for employees who each received a commemorative medal to reward their attendance. Ok, that’s pretty stupid, but not as idiotic as official’s wife who posted photos of the parties, the suites and the boozery on her Google+ account.

There are other idiots involved as well, notably the media.  In the case of the Secret Service fiasco, journalists and reporters of all stripes took joy in unearthing the minutest details of what has come to be dubbed Boomboomgate. The story made the front pages of almost every newspaper in the States. Coverage of what was of true importance—the meeting of Obama with several South American leaders—was relegated to the papers’ inner pages.  Similarly, chroniclers took the easier and softer route when taking potshots at the GSA for a single, shameful event, when the bigger story lies in unearthing the truth regarding taxpayer moneys spent on a host of poorly engineered GSA-approved purchases.

Wow! Look at that! I went through my entire little rant without calling anyone an asshole!  Progress, not perfection.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bad Cells

Message 1  March 20, morning.   Hello!  Can you let me know the results of the post-cancer tests performed last week? Thank you, TS.

Message 2  March 21, morning.   Mr. S: It appears the order for the cytology test was cancelled by the lab, I'm not sure why. Please go to any Kaiser lab in the near future to complete the test. Send another message like this one week after the test is done to review.

Message 3  April 6, morning.  Hello, have my test results come in?

Message 4  April 6, late morning.  The cytology test showed a few abnormal cells. Doctor K recommends you have the test done again and a cystoscopy with him in mid to late June.
The schedule for June is open. Call us now to make the appointment. Go to the lab one week before the appointment to complete the test, the order is in our system.

Message  5  April 6, early afternoon. Hi. Thanks for the response. That's a rather scary test result. What, exactly, does that mean? Is the cancer still present or reappearing? Any information would be welcome. Thanks, TS

Message 6  April 6, late afternoon. The test does not identify specifically if the cells are cancerous or not. Inflammation can cause a similar result. You need to be closely monitored.

What do you mean, “closely monitored?”  How closely, exactly? And if I need to be monitored that closely, how come I have to wait until June to get another test? What if STUFF happens between now and June? This makes no sense at all.

But by now, of course, it is late Friday afternoon and no one is in the doctor’s office.

Abnormal cells… I’m sure I have more than a few abnormal cells in my body, as well as asocial cells, depressed cells, paranoid cells and a few cells that have gone plain bonkers over the years for lack of anything better to do,  So I must remain calm, more will be revealed…

Except that probably not. When I was first diagnosed late last fall, the doctor refused to use the word cancer and so I used it first and even after those two dread syllables were put out there, he kept waffling. A shrink I know suggested the good doctor might have issues with the word, which of course led me to have issues with the doctor.  And how did they lose my test results in the first place? What kind of a place loses test results and doesn’t even tell you about it?

Retreat into peace, serenity, even breathing. Attempt Buddha-like stillness.  Imagine good cells battling abnormal cells and winning. The good cells have tiny white hats and look like Roy Rogers, except for those that have breasts and look like Dale Evans. The bad cells resemble Richard Boone, the mean-looking actor who was Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel. But wait! The abnormal cells don’t play by the rules! They’re ambushing the little white-hat cells! So much for visualization. This has a strange sense of déjà vu to it. 

I imagine the good cells have small bazookas and they’re blowing the bejesus out of the Paladin cells. I can almost feel the tiny explosions!  Go little good cells, go!

Monday I’ll call the doctor again, try to get some more information, find out what kind of for-real-ammo will work. More later.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Going Postal

Monday morning, 10 a.m., I am in line with a half-dozen others at my local Post Office. There are four clerks, three of them women—two Vietnamese and an African-American supervisor—and one man, Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh is a Sikh, and today he looks as if he is in great gastrointestinal pain.  Every movement elicits a furrowed brow, a hissing sigh through clenched teeth. He is a large brown man with a large hooked nose, a worker whose movements are so slow and lumbering that whenever he retrieves a package from the rear of the PO, he is gone long enough to make his clients think he is on a chai break. I have known Mr. Singh close to a decade now, and we pretend not to recognize each other.

At the station next to him, USPS employee Ahn Nguyen, a petite woman from Saigon who came here after the war, attempts to serve the needs of an American matron. The lady is on the phone to the garage where, it appears, she dropped her car off earlier. She is also talking to Ms. Nguyen. Her attempts at multitasking are failing horribly.  Ms. Nguyen’s features have taken on an air of Buddhist tranquility, even though I know she is a devout Christian whose three children attend the local Catholic school.

Says the woman, “I don’t understand why I need new brake pads! My husband said the brakes are in perfect condition and he should know, he’s Navy captain serving in Afghanistan…” There is a pause during which she adds, “I need a book of stamps, the ones with the musicians. How much will the pads cost? That much? Oh my God, that’s just too expensive, and this letter has to get to California by tomorrow afternoon.”

On the other end of the phone, I sense tempers are flaring. The woman raises her voice, as if talking to a deaf person or someone whose command of English falls short of basic. “No, no! It must pass inspection. My husband said it would, and you’re trying to take advantage of me!” Phone cradled between head and shoulder, she is trying to extricate three large envelopes from a Trader Joe shopping bag. The envelopes are getting snagged on the bag’s handles. She shouts, “Just a minute!” and, using both hands, rips the bag open, hands the manila envelopes to Ms. Nguyen and says, “Media mail, please!”

Mr. Singh has put his This Station Closed sign on the counter and is watching Ms. Nguyen’s developing situation with interest. The African-American supervisor is no longer in sight and the number of people waiting is now an even dozen, including a mother pushing twin toddlers in attached prams. Ahn Nguyen has taken a step back, like someone forced to deal with a crazy person.

“There’s no need to raise your voice,” says the woman into the phone, her voice rising. “Yes, I know the inspection is a month overdue, but that’s no reason for you to try to rip me off. Also, I need to exchange the stamps, please. I told my five-year-old daughter I’d get the ones with cats on them. Do you have those? The cat ones? No. No, don’t do any repairs. I’ll pick up the car this afternoon. What? Let me speak to your supervisor!”

At this precise moment, the African-American USPS supervisor comes in from the back room, hears the word ‘supervisor’ and hurries forward. “Is there something wrong, ma’am?”

The woman with the phone says, “I told them not to make any repairs!”

Ms. Nguyen’s small and toothy smile is frozen, and Mr. Singh leans forward. “Quite right, madam! You should not allow yourself to be bullied! Put up a good fight, I say!” Having contributed to the situation, he checks his watch and shambles off painfully.

I am now next in line. I have a package to pick up, three to drop off, and I, too, need stamps. The woman is still cradling her phone between head and shoulder though she’s no longer speaking. Her eyes fall on the twin toddlers. She grins, takes the change Mrs. Nguyen has left on the counter. The woman smiles, counts the nickels, quarters and pennies, drops them into her purse and tells the supervisor, “Now I need to get some broccoli.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Paris, 1992

It was near my parents’ apartment in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Opera, and for reasons to this day unknown it was my father’s favorite restaurant. Shortly after my mother’s death when the world was still chaotic, he, wifeless and still uncomprehending, decided we should go there and seek memories of her, as if these were scarce where they had lived a dozen years.

My sister and I wondered if this was a good idea but he was adamant. The restaurant served cous cous and only cous cous, with an array of meat and vegetable dishes meant only to enhance the grain. The place was run by an Algerian man and his wife. They knew my parents and had learned of my mother’s death that very morning and they reacted as North African Muslims do, with real tears, embraces and the panacea of food.

It was a tiny one-room establishment, with the giant cous cous pot and the four burner gas stove off to the side. Six tables, a linoleum floor with a pale lost motif eroded by years of wear, posters of the Mediterranean depicting what could have been Oran or Algiers or any other coastal city of the South. The owner stirred and tossed the grain while his wife sautéed peppers and onions and mergès, the thin lamb sausages endemic to North Africa. Every minute or so she would cast a sad glance our way and shake her head, then toss another handful of greens into the pan. There was something ageless about the food’s preparation, a knowledge passed down through generations of cookery, of ingredients, of bright blue flames barely controlled and pinches of spices and herbs.

We spoke quietly; there was no music. The street noises were muted and I think a thin rain was coming down, more mist than water, and the streetlights glowed with halos. The other customers—a middle-aged Muslim couple with an amazingly quiet child, two older men playing checkers at a corner table, and an elegant and misplaced couple, possibly Germans or Austrians—all seemed engrossed in their food, their game, the warmth of the small room and the moments at hand.

My father drank a lot that night, an unusual behavior for a man who seldom finished his evening scotch and water, and I thought, good, he’ll sleep, he’ll have a night of peace. He ate happily, told stories of meeting the woman he would marry, of the Free French and the war and the desert, and the malaria that would plague him his entire life. I, of course, recounted for the hundredth time my realization of many decades earlier that he and my mother had met in July, married in January of the following year, and I’d been born in March, two months after the marriage and nine months almost to the day of their first encounter. The story always made him laugh and he would pretend innocence, accuse me of poor mathematics, and then shrug his shoulders in that Gallic way that brooked no argument and encompassed all understanding.

After dinner my sister went home and my father and I returned to the apartment that was now his alone. The church service and funeral would be two days’ hence and I sense the presence of hundreds of mourners, the handshakes and murmurs of condolences, the embraces and tears and the sermon, the unfortunate panoply of death, none of these would affect him, and they did not. He sat in the front pew back erect, and he hardly blinked. I don’t know and will never know what he was thinking.

Twenty-four hours later, I return to the cou cous restaurant for lunch, this time by myself; my father has been taken in hand by one of his oldest friend, a widower as well, and they will go to an expensive restaurant and spend the afternoon touring one of those tiny museums Paris delights in, perhaps the one dedicated to locksmiths, which houses the collection of locks Louis XVI enjoyed working on before a mob dragged him off.

In the cous cous place, I come to the realization that I will have to bring my father back with me to the States. He won’t fare well by himself in Paris. He will live in my house in Virginia and we will work things out somehow. The harvest of this decision is a sudden feeling that my mother is at rest for good and for well. She is no longer worried. Her husband will be taken care of. And I am no longer worried either.

I eat the cous cous, the merges, the fried peppers. The owner hugs me again, and we argue over his insistence that my meal is on the house, and I can’t help but notice that the offer did not come three days ago when there were three of us eating. Life is normal once more.