Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day, 2012

It is the second day of an interminable Memorial Day weekend, and those without families to escape from, those who have not been invited to grilled festivities, who do not have a second home at the beach, on a mountain or near a stream, those who are, essentially, invisible, are gathered at a local Starbuck sipping ice tea and eating 300-calorie pastries that are strangely tasteless. They are on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop, where there are tables but not enough umbrellas, so some sit in the sun as their plastic cups sweat beads of ice water on exposed thighs and knees. They are male, they are female, young, old, and ageless, and they do not speak to one another because doing so would be an admission of loneliness. They read, they talk on the phone, they stare at an empty parking space until a car pulls into it, then find another empty space and stare at that. They are the holiday orphans. 

Rolling Thunder is in town, tens of thousands of bikers, mostly on large Harley Davidson, who come to the Nation’s Capital to ride their bikes in a large loop around the Mall, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court and the Vietnam Wall to remind us not to forget the POWs and MIAs of the Vietnam War. Are there still POWs and MIAs in Indochina? You’d think so, but according to internet sources, there aren’t, and so the gathering of the biker tribes is more of an occasion to show off the new bike, trike, or old lady.  Since dawn this morning the rumblings of the motorcycles have dominated the day, a long, low, throaty snarl, an apocalyptic sound, as if the machines really have taken over, and their intentions are not goods.

The riders are mostly weekend bikers and some have trailered their machines from far away just to ride the four-mile loop. A lot of the men are heavy, as are their women, and their machines are festooned with fairings, chromes, antennas, American flags. Many have pony tails to keep graying hair from their faces as they ride. An entire cattle drive must have supplied all the leather on display. There are some real, old-fashioned bad guys there too, Hell’s Angels and Pagans, Bandidos and Vagos and other groups wearing filthy sleeveless denim jackets with club colors in the back and patches sown on commemorating other gatherings in Florida and Nevada and Texas.  Some of these groups dislike each other intensely, and their rivalries have led to gang wars and death, but today there is a truce. There will be no violence in honor of those who have served and not returned.

Years ago I wrote a book about bikers and their rides, and I interviewed a range of people from the Motorcycle Maids, whose average age is in the upper 70s, to the Dikes on Bikes, whose club name is self-evident, to Hell’s Angels in California, who were a strangely orderly and conservative group. All had a love for their machines that bordered on the obsessional, and I remember speaking to one biker’s wife who said the one thing she really hated was the oil stains on her carpet.  Her husband parked his machine in their living room every night.

Today is the unofficial beginning of summer. Pools and water parks open. So do miniature golf courses and the local one is mobbed.  The holiday orphans go to neither. They clean house or apartment, do yard work if yard there is.  They pay bills and catch up on their emails. They take long walks, ride their bicycles; they try to look as if being alone is perfectly OK but know deep down that it’s not. Behind the rumble of the motorcycles, there’s a deeper silence.

Monday, May 21, 2012


Everyone I know is exhausted; an overwhelming tiredness is scything young and old alike. A 20-something editor tells me she wakes up feeling as if she hasn’t slept at all; a 40-year-old librarian complains of nodding out at her desk each afternoon at the same time; a long-standing friend now in his 60s tells me he begins to think of bedtime at five in the afternoon. There doesn’t appear to be a white- or blue-collar difference here and gender plays no role. Butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers, computer wizards, real estate agents and day traders are all struck by the same lassitude. And, they all say, it has nothing to do with the intensity of the work they’re involved in. The weariness strikes during the weekends and holidays and vacations. It doesn’t respect age, sexual affinity or occupation.

I can’t help but notice that a multi-billion dollar industry of energy drinks was born at about the same time as the general exhaustion set in, and I wonder how that came to be. When did the mid-afternoon cup of coffee (or tea) give way to the tiny bottle promising a five-hour energy boost? There are shelves of such potions in convenient stores and I’ve watched young men and women buy these products by the handful. One told me he drank four bottles of assorted energy enhancers a day, and TV ads suggest we switch from our morning coffee to the far-easier-to-gulp-down little bottles that require no brewing, no heating and no sweetening. That these concoctions have no soul, no spirit or history to them is overlooked. We’re no longer looking for taste, we’re seeking a form of artificial alertness; legal uppers, as it were.

Something is going on, is What I Think.  So I spoke to friends whose opinions I value and this is their reports.

From Dani, who maintains a fiendishly tough training regimen and has among the cleanest diet of anyone I know. We have to be constantly on. With IM, email, texts, tweets and all the other methods of instant communications, there’s not a moment’s rest. Also, our food is processed and loaded with sugar, which really is a poison.

From Iben, who works for an environmental NGO. We are never satisfied with what we have and are always yearning for more. Our egos are out of control and living in a constant state of want is exhausting.

From Lisa, a special ed teacher. We are actually working harder than ever. People routinely skip lunch, work after hours or come in on weekends. Since there is no job security anymore, an average worker will put in longer, unpaid hours just to stay employed.

From Terry, who spends most of his days on the road. People drive more then ever and with increased traffic and increased speeds, we have to be more aware. That’s tiring. Also, he adds without a smirk, there are now tens of thousands of Asian women drivers putting the lives of other drivers at risk.  Watching out for them and avoiding their onslaught is in and of itself exhausting.

I have my own theory, which includes all of the above, as well the belief that by polluting, indeed poisoning, our surroundings, we have created a chemically dangerous environment 
that saps our strength. The daily noise of living—the trucks, the backup beeps of earthmoving equipment, the clatter of plates in restaurants, the Muzak, iPods, the sheer loudness of our daily existence is both dangerous to us and exhausting. I also think that living as we do in an electronic miasma of beta, gamma, and God-knows-what-other-Greek-named rays and emanations can’t possibly be good for us. Cell phones have been more or less exonerated, but what about all the other invisible emissions—radio, television, microwave, X-rays, ultraviolets and infrareds?

It’s all too strenuous to think about and I’m going to go take a nap.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Humility in Two Acts

(1) It is still in the last millennium and I have been practicing a form of martial arts called Shorinji Kempo for several years. I am not particularly skilled at it. I started training in my mid-30s, far too late to become a really good practitioner, and try as I may my body is too old for the throws and falls and twists. But I love it. A few months earlier I tested for my black belt and it is still new and stiff around my waist.

I am, with other kenshis, members of my Kempo group, at a dojo in upstate New York. I have been assigned the task of teaching the basics to 50 little kids all under the age of 12. Many are the sons and daughters of kenshis much higher ranked than me, and I am ready for this meaningful responsibility.

Martial arts are excellent for kids, and, properly taught by someone who understands that hitting is the least of the skills involved, they can instill respect for adults and training partners, with the utmost reverence afforded to the sensei.  Today, I am the sensei.

The children are in five lines of 10 each. In response to my barked orders, they kick, block, punch, feint; they kiai and look fierce, their tiny bare feet stomping on the sprung wooden floor.

From the corner of my eye I can see one of the kongo zen monks who has come from Japan and is visiting Kempo dojos throughout  the country. He is standing a few yards away, a small Asian man in the traditional long brown robe of the Kempo elder and I can tell from his faint smile that he approves of my teaching methods. He approaches me, we bow and exchange the clasped hand greetings of the kenshi and at that very moment a small boy in the first row raises his arm. He is looking for advice, for wisdom, eager to grasp in his own small hands the skills I have mastered.  I am ready. The boy opens his mouth and asks, “Sensei, where’s the bathroom?” I become the bathroom sensei for the rest of the weekend and several months thereafter.

(2) It is a cicada summer. They have returned on one their seven-year cycles and the air is vibrating with a buzzing drone as tens of thousands of insects celebrate their brief lives.

I am in South Riding, Virginia, with the two young sons of a friend, and we are talking about Buddhism. I have been Buddhist for many years although I rarely go to services; some time back I attended weekly rites at a Vietnamese temple oddly located next to a gun range. I have done some reading and discussed the state of the universe with other Buddhists and for me the entire philosophy boils down to this: Don’t screw with others; be helpful when you can.

I am explaining this tenet in larger terms and Miles, the older of the two, seems mildly interested. Spencer may be interested as well but I’ll never know. He is laconic, and even though not yet in his teens permanently presents the hint of a wise guy smile.
At my feet, one of the cicadas is trying to rid itself of its shell so it can do what cicadas are created to do every seven years and it’s having a difficult time. The buzzing gets intermittent as the insect weakens, and in a Buddhist moment, I pick it up, gently free it of its carapace and throw it in the air so it can fulfill its destiny. From nowhere, a fat red-breasted robin swoops down above our heads, hit the cicada like a fine-feathered cannonball and flies away, smug and now well-fed. Nature is red of beak and claw.  Spencer says, “Cooool,” with an air of wonder I have never seen him display. Miles nods his head sagely and mutters, “Buddhism, hun?”

Humility is truth, wrote Erasmus. I guess there’s work to be done…

Monday, May 7, 2012


I suppose I could be angry in spite of the good news, but I’m trying to curb my resentments. I’m in good shape… No recurrence of cancerous cells, and the abnormalities found in earlier tests were—gee, what a surprise—caused by the two surgeries themselves. I am somewhat struggling with the fact that all this could have been revealed many weeks ago when the first exam results came in, and with a simple phone call or email from the physician’s office, my mind would have been put to rest. Unfortunately that didn’t happen and it came down to an exchange of emails culminating in an overheated phone call with the doctor who assured me all was well.

When I first came to the States, my parents found Dr. Zeibert, a four-foot-tall woman from the south of France who had been practicing medicine in the Washington area for a decade. She took us in hand, gave us check ups annually, came to our house when someone was too ill to drive to her office. Dr. Zeibert was widowed or divorced, I never found out which, and she had a dislikeable son whom my mother was certain would make a great friend. The full (totally naked) annual physicals at her hand were a source of great embarrassment, (note to parents: make sure the physician dealing with your children is of the same gender as your children) but Dr. Zeibert was quick and efficient. At the time, I was persuaded her son had access to the medical records she kept and knew everything about everyone. I think of her now and then and wonder how she might have fared in this era of impersonal medicine…

So I am well but somehow can’t seem to reboot. My thoughts wander to the bad, the worse and the worst. I am regretting decisions made decades ago whose fulfillments are today’s realities. I am angry at the unfairness of it all, and upset by the realization that I will not accomplish all I wanted to, or even a fraction of it. I am envious of the success of others while troubled by such an emotion. I’m sleeping too much, eating too much, thinking too much, and none of those activities serve me well. And I’m not writing.

That truly concerns me, since writing has been my safe place, the one thing I could do through thick and thin. Right now, it seems pointless.

It will pass. There are still three books out there eager to be sold, and three more that need to be written. Plot and characters beckon. The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. OK. Here I go…

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Death in the Neighborhood

When my ex-wife M and I first bought the house I still live in, on what was back then a quiet and remote road. We met Cora Crown, the owner, an aging white-haired lady with a predilection for green shag rugs, who took us for a quick tour of the backyard.  There wasn’t much to see: a two-car garage, which appealed to me, and an undeveloped lot behind, which appealed to my ex. The place was near a good school for M’s two kids, not too far from a highway that would take us to our workplace in Washington, and, most important, affordable.

The search for a home had been arduous. M was Asian and there were some things she would not countenance. Weeping willows were one, since they brought bad luck. Houses built on a corner lot would never have a proper spiritual aura. No running streams too close, and, most important, no recent death on the property.

It looked like a done deal until Cora Crown, standing in the middle of the backyard, pointed to a spot a few feet away and said, “That’s where Fred, my boyfriend, dropped dead four years ago. Coronary. Big one. Fell like a stone…”

It took days to persuade M that, since the death had not properly occurred in the house, Fred’s spirit was nowhere near and the dwelling would not be haunted. We bought, moved in, tore out the green carpeting and made a home.

Eventually, M and I divorced and I bought out her share of the house.  About a month later, Maria, the matriarchal Armenian neighbor on my right, died. That house was home to Maria and her three daughters with whom I had become friends. Maria spoke rudimentary French as the family had lived in Beirut before moving to the United States, and she delighted in offering me strong, bitter coffee and small, hard cookies. She missed the city, she said, but liked her garden and the large elm trees in the back.

Maria died at home after a long and undefined illness. I was a pallbearer at her funeral and remember thinking the coffin should have been heavier. Eventually the sisters moved. One married, another left the country, and the third went to New York to work for the United Nations.

Two years later, Jim a retired civil engineer who lived on the other side of me, died as well. Jim was a smoker, and even the diagnosis of lung cancer couldn’t get him to quit. He left his house to his Russian bride of three years, and she sold it to a young couple whose main interest, it seems, is digging up the front yard for no apparent reason and revving the engine of their monster Dodge truck. They’re still there.

A year after Jim’s passing, the oldest son of the people living across the street died of a heroin overdose. They were from Iran, the wife a classic beauty, the husband a cigar-smoking Washington bureaucrat of indeterminate power. The man walked a small, noisy dog twice a day; in the afternoon, the wife entertained other women who drove late model BMWs and Mercedes. That a child from a good family in an overwhelmingly white suburban neighborhood could die in such a manner shocked the other neighbors. The Iranian family was gone from the house in less than a week and a little time later four young people, roommates, took it over.  They rarely mowed the lawn or trimmed the hedges, and within months the place took on a dissolute appearance with too many cars and garbage cans out front. The roommates, too, would move, and in four years the house across the street saw a Korean family, a single, older man who constantly tinkered with his car, and a young Chinese couple with three kids.  I never really got to know any of them.

This preoccupation with death in the neighborhood comes, I think, from fears that my cancer may have returned after a brief respite. Recent tests showed abnormal cells (see 4/14 blog) and tomorrow there is a scan, followed by more scoping by and encounters with a doctor whom I like less and less. I’m afraid.

More than likely, this is what many friends call the wreckage of the future.  Still, it makes me feel fragile and far too aware that even in the better neighborhoods, life is a terminal disease. You always die from it…