Wednesday, June 27, 2012

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Used

Hemingway is reputed to have written that--a life in six words. Wish I were that succinct.
For the past month-and-a-half I have not been able to string words together in a passable way. I read somewhere that writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair but I think there may be a bit more to it than that. Writing, in and of itself, doesn't mean much. Like almost Everything, it has been devalued so that now (1) everybody can write (and read) and (2) what most writers write isn't worthy of being read. Including my stuff, for all I know.
And while we're talking about writers, I'll tell you that I know a lot of them--novelists; tech folks who put out those incredibly complex computer manuals and others who write and edit the legislation of the land. There are a screenwriter or two, a playwright
specializing in children's theater, a couple of poets. I know one splendid young woman whose books are so amazing and beautiful that she should be a household name but isn't. There are Pulitzer Prize winners from the old days at The Washington Post, and a science fiction author who has won the top prizes in the genre. I even know one lady who writes dirty limericks, though the buyers' market for that is pretty slim. The writer most widely distributed--if not read--of them all, though, is the author of the safety warning found on every can of Duron paint manufactured and sold throughout the North American hemisphere.
Some write by the pound, others specialize in haiku-like brevity. Every writer I know follows some rite of creation. The woman whose fiction I so admire sits among orchids, wearing earplugs. A few must be hungry, one cannot write a single letter unless he as just been fed. A novelist friend can only write in his bathrobe. It is old and needs replacing, but he is persuaded that his talents will vanish if the bathrobe disappears. When he washes it--twice a year--he will stand by the washing machine until the cycles are done. He dries it outside because he wants the terrycloth to benefit from the sun's Vitamin D.
My friend C does a set of calistenics, running in place, followed by deep breathing and stretching exercises before hitting the keyboard.
Interestingly enough, none of the writers I know smoke, though a lot drink and do other drugs. All in all, writing is the height of self-centeredness.
One of my recent books, Wasted Miracles, comes in at 389 pages, and contains 79,742 words. Another of my novels is set in Paris just after World War I. It is 456 pages long after editing. I look at such numbers and think of the conceit necessary to produce a book. I am amazed by the fact that I believe, really believe, readers might spend several hours over several days wandering through a world I invented and peopled.
I've always wanted to be a writer. For me, there is no higher calling.
When I was a child in Paris, kids my age played cowboys and Indians, small Gallic Roy Rogers and Gene Autrys. I copied the poems of Minou Drouet and claimed them as my own.
You probably haven't heard of Drouet. In 1955, she astounded France--and a good part of Europe--by writing charmingly adult poems. A brouhaha followed. Was she for real? Were the verses penned by adults?
Charles Templeton, a CBS reporter, recalls: "Minou Drouet's mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn't spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.
"One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry. Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was
argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother--a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate--was the author of the verses.
"The controversy became a cause celebre. The French Academy of Arts and Sciences decided on an experiment to validate or to dismiss the claims made for the child. Minou was placed in a room behind one-way glass. She was provided with paper and pencil, and after she was alone and incommunicado, given three subjects to write about. She did as she was instructed and the results were
scrutinized. There could be no question; the poems were the product of a prodigious talent. Jean Cocteau, the eminent writer and film-maker, commented: "She's not an eight-year-old child, she's an eight-year-old dwarf.”
I copied some of Minou's poems in longhand onto my cahier d' ecole and showed them to my mother who, herself an author, thought she too had a genius on her hands. She called her friends, who called their friends. Could there be another Minou Drouet in the Sagnier household?
Things were getting out of hand. I was forced to confessed the truth. It was possibly the hardest thing I ever had to do, and I decided there and then that, no matter what, from then on whatever I wrote would be my own.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

It's Baaaack....

….but smaller and coyly called “a recurrence.” Cancer, it seems, is tricky, sneaky and amazingly resilient. A bit of it showed up again in my bladder some six months after the twin operations that were supposed to have rid me of malignant cells, and four months after the surgeon and urologist declared me cancer-free.  This latest development was feared but deep down unexpected.

The first time I was diagnosed with bladder cancer, I walked home from the doctor’s office and stopped four times to eat. I’m sure there was something symbolic about this but it escaped me then and still escapes me now.  This time, I played tennis with a friend for about a half-an-hour until the record-breaking heat broke us. Then I went home, starred at my pond for a while, fed the fish, watered plants. I spoke to a couple of people, read a book about Dr. Petiot, the serial killer who held Paris in thrall during the German occupation. I fixed a salad and picked at it, played a couple of games of solitaire and studiously avoided working on a book that needs work. I tried and failed to take a nap. In the end I watched three episodes of Wired which didn’t help one way or another but made me glad I didn’t live in Baltimore.

The doctor who performed the cystoscopy yesterday is the same one who has operated on me twice. The probe showed something only he could recognize, and he sought to reassure me by calling the growth ‘trivial,’ which somehow is not a word I would ever associate with cancer. He will operate again, he said, in a couple of weeks, as soon as he returns from a conference to be held in France. The humor of his travel plans—he’s going to Paris, my home town—is not lost on me.

I wasn’t particularly friendly to the doctor when he came into the examination room. I’d been prepped by a disinterested nurse, an experience I am now used to but one that remains demeaning. My blood pressure was sky-high, a not uncommon thing when under stress. I watched the clock on the off-white wall; saw the seconds, then minutes tick away. Time being relative, I felt I waited an eternity, though it was only a half-an-hour,  and my brain did its very best to conjure up the worst possible scenario: the cancer had spread to other parts of my body and I was going to die a horrible death probably even before getting home to feed the cat.

So when the doctor arrived, I may have growled at him. He smiled hesitantly, said, “You’re always glad to see me, aren’t you?”  I bit back a stupid reply, asked about the blood tests. My kidneys, he told me, were fine—no renal failure on the horizon, but as he manipulated the camera in my bladder, I saw him pause and knew something was wrong. He went “Hmm” a couple of times and it is never good when a doctor goes “Hmm.” Never.

He told me the news and tried to reassure me.  The next operation would be a walk in the park, he promised, five minutes and I’d be as good as new but I knew this wasn’t entirely true. He’d said that prior to the second operation and that was as nasty a time as I’ve spent. So I’m not all that confident.

The feeling of somehow being visibly soiled has returned. Yesterday I left a gathering of friends early; today I blew off breakfast with people I have known for years, and a solstice cruise on the Potomac. I am wondering what my body is doing and why it is manufacturing harmful cells.

Crap. I’m scared again…

Monday, June 18, 2012

At a Loss for Words

Sometimes when I’m listening to boring people speak, whether one-on-one or in a group situation, and the mind-numbing factor is hovering around 10, I try to count the number of times the person speaking says, “You know.” The winner, to date, was a bearded man in his 40s who uttered it 132 times in just over four minutes. I think he was talking about power tools.

I’ve read somewhere that by using phrases such as “You know, “See,” “Get it,” and other meaningless expressions, we’re basically buying the time necessary to think of what to say next. This is necessary because most of us don’t think in complete sentences, or even bother to finish a thought before expressing it. In other words, our brains start something they don’t yet know how to finish—an idea, a concept—and the streaming is not quite as quick as we’d like. So we fill in the blanks.

I think, as well, that we’re losing the ability to express ourselves, and that’s serious. 
According to etymologists and speech researchers, in the past 50 years, the working vocabulary of the average 14 year-old has declined from some 25,000 words to 10,000 words. Says David Orr, a professor at Oberlin, “This is not merely a decline in numbers of words but in the capacity to think. It also signifies that there has been a steep decline in the number of things that an adolescent needs to know and to name in order to get by in an increasingly homogenized and urbanized consumer society… It is no mere coincidence that in roughly the same half-century the average person has come to recognize over 1000 corporate logos, but can now recognize fewer than 10 plants and animals native to his or her locality.”
The decline is not consistent across the full range of language but concentrates in those areas having to do with large issues such as philosophy, religion, public policy, and nature. Sadly, vocabulary has probably increased in areas having to do with sex, violence, recreation, and consumption. Basically, we’re losing the capacity to say what we really mean and ultimately to think about what we mean. Our ability to articulate intelligently about the things that matter most is eroding.
"That sucks," continues Orr, “is a common way for budding young scholars to announce their displeasure about any number of things that range across the spectrum of human experience. But it can also be used to indicate a general displeasure with the entire cosmos. Whatever the target, it is the linguistic equivalent of duct tape, useful for holding disparate thoughts in rough and temporary proximity to some vague emotion of dislike.”
It’s not just teen-agers, young adults, immigrants or the poorly educated. What we have now is an epidemic of incoherence evident in our public discourse, street talk, movies, television, and music. "We are all engaged," wrote Abraham Hershel, one of the leading philosophers of our times, "in the process of liquidating the English language." The lyrics of popular-music lyrics are often pre-Neanderthal groans. The conversation on TV talk shows should embarrass intelligent four-year-olds. Politicians routinely (and proudly) mangle logic and language in less than a paragraph, although they can do it on a larger scale as well.
Add to this text messaging, and a host of other social media instruments that further seek to reduce thoughts and expressions to misspelled syllables and 140 characters of texts and we’re left with communications that are barely above the grunt level.   
You know?

Monday, June 11, 2012

State of Disrepair

In the Washington, DC, area, gridlocks begins at 2 p.m. and lasts until 8 p.m. or so, as hundreds of thousands of commuters leave the city and head north towards Maryland and south to Virginia. The major roads have High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes but not enough drivers pay attention, and after a while you know exactly at which exit ramps the cops will be waiting, so you avoid these by detouring through residential neighborhoods to the great displeasure of the folks living there.

Recently, driving through rush hour traffic was unavoidable, and I started noticing the commercial vehicles around me. A lot of vans owned by plumbers, electricians, and heating and cooling companies. Tow trucks and roofers in pick ups festooned with ladders. Computer repair guys in spiffy little Toyotas or Smart cars; engine parts delivery people, and on both sides of the road, garages specializing in foreign cars, radiator repair, bodywork, electricals. It seemed as if two out of three commercial vehicles on the road were involved in repairs of some sort. There were so many garage and gas stations that I stopped counting.

Then, on a particularly rutted and pot-holed section of the highway, traffic stopped dead. Within minutes, there was a cacophony of horns, and drivers leaned out of their windows to see what the problem was. Two hundred yards down the road and overlooking a major intersection, a traffic light had broken down, the signal stuck on blinking red. At that very moment, it struck me that we’re a nation that has accepted disrepair and shoddy original construction as a fact of life. No burning bush there—this is a nation of conspicuous consumption and even more conspicuous waste. We routinely discard stuff that has stopped working—televisions, computers, washing machines, dryers, cars and trucks—because it’s easier to replace than it is to repair, and most of us are incapable of tinkering with stuff as our fathers and grandfathers did. But when did this particular philosophy take hold? When did we come to allow and expect the things bought with our hard-earned cash to break down and become unusable?

I’m as guilty as the next person—I recently put a perfectly working TV out on the curb because I bought a new flat screen. I’m not a born re-cycler, and I always wonder how it came to be that we are now buying stuff which we know won’t last. Houses too, if you look at the cheaply built townhouse developments that dot the landscape and are never meant to outlive their mortgages, much less be passed on to future generations. Pretty much everything is temporary, and often in need of repairs.

That’s weird to me. I have more than my fair share of crap in my home, and I’ve been working diligently over the last few years to rid myself of the cheap stuff. My place, if unassuming, is pretty sturdy. It was built in 1964 when it sold for $29,000. It has brick and mortar, steel windows, a poured concrete driveway. When I bought it in the 90s, I re-shingled the roof, changed the furnace and air conditioner, and put in new appliances in the avocado green kitchen.  A few years later I put in double-paned windows the replace the un-insulated steel ones. Cross my fingers, but everything still works.

I haven’t owned a new car in more than two decades partially because I think the gadget-laden automobiles sold today don’t have an acceptable life-span. I have furniture that has lasted centuries and is still usable; the clunky stereo system through which I play my music is antiquated: big speakers, components for the radio, cassettes and CDs.

More and more it bothers me that we have come to associate new with better and old with unsatisfactory.

I don’t want stuff I have to repair, I want stuff that lasts.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Yawnnn, revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that everyone I know is exhausted. I spoke with a few friends about this and here’s the recap:

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.

Speaking with more friends, I got these thoughts:

From Jacob, trainer. We’re completely out of equilibrium. Most of us are dreadfully out of shape; our diet sucks; the air we breathe and the water we drink are full of harmful chemicals.  We fail to establish a good balance among the elements that make us who we are—physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and trying to wrestle with this imbalance is exhausting.

From Nancy, web designer. Part of the problem, I think, is that the professional turf we protect to maintain our lifestyle is getting ever smaller, more specialized and complex. We struggle to keep up with the latest developments in our dedicated fields and it’s almost impossible to be on top of things. Too much info, too fast. We can’t keep up.

From Thomas, whose father worked for 43 years for the same company. Thomas,37, is on his fifth job in seven years. The work environment has changed drastically since I got my first post-college job when I was 24. There’s no sense of loyalty on either the workforce or management side. People get let go with a week’s notice, or leave with a week’s notice. There’s no sense of employment safety anymore, and while some people may find that challenging, I’m pretty sure most of us aren’t very comfortable in that kind of environment. I don’t like waking up thinking today may be the last day at the job I’m doing. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night.

From Paul, playwright. Fear. It controls our lives. We live in a constant state of being afraid of almost everything—finances, relationships, work, the environment, you name it, we’re afraid of it. Fear is tiring, it’s not an emotional state that can be maintained for long periods without doing us serious harm.

This last theory appeals to me. We’re in fear of tomorrow, of losing the stuff we have and the stuff we don’t even have yet. We fear for the future. Fear is grueling, strenuous, fatiguing.

Now here’s what I find interesting. Even as we stumble around in a state of near-exhaustion, we’re living longer than ever before.  Advances in the medical arts keep us above ground for ever-more years, but is it worth it? What’s the point of chugging down energy drinks if it is simply to exist and not truly enjoy our lives?

I’m thinking of writing a magazine article on the subject. Have any thoughts? Share them here. Thanks.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

A Plug for Monarchy

Her Royal Highness the Queen of England is celebrating 60 years of ruling.  I am impressed, pleased, amused, and very respectful.  I might add here that a Fleur-de-Lys flag flies above my house. Why? Because I am at heart a royalist. I think George W. (Washington, not the other guy) missed the boat when he was asked to be king of America and declined. Nowadays, it seems to me most folks whom we have elected or named to positions of vast influence have been sadly lacking in honesty, mores and experience at serving the public trust. So why not rely instead on professionals, i.e. a royal family well-versed in presenting the country's best side, promoting commerce, and, generally, staying above the party politics and special interests that permeate government today?

The Royalist Party of America--yes, there is one--makes an excellent point in stating that "to create a true sense of trust between the governed and the government, our nation's leader must be above the politics of the day, beholden to no special interest group, and free to do what must be done for the good of all Americans, not just the party he or she leads."

This makes sense to me.

Today there are some 28 countries with operational royalty. Of those, 25 are constitutional or parliamentary monarchies. The three that aren't--Oman, Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, all absolute regimes--are admittedly not your best example of effective and interest-free government, but the others, including Belgium, Denmark, Morocco, Spain, Japan, the U.K., and Sweden, have learned that it's not a bad thing to have your country represented by entities that are neither Wig nor Tory, Republican nor Democrat, Socialists nor Reformists. In modern times, the whole concept of monarchy is based on having an entity of long-standing and respectable history that will act or react intelligently for the well-being of the country involved.

I'm not fooling myself--the US will not turn into a monarchy of any kind in the near or far future. But think of it: what if there were a royal family here to take care of all the ceremonial stuff, the handshaking and medal-giving and baby-kissing and spelling bee officiating? What if the President and VP could really attend to the nation’s business instead of spending thirty percent of their time at egg-rolling ceremonies and concerts by deaf musicians?  Wouldn’t that serve the nation well? And what if, instead of completely changing everything and almost everyone every four or eight years, we had one entity we trusted and listened to, one individual (or a family of individuals) who could provide a thread of constancy to the business of ruling. Wouldn’t that be useful?  There are lessons worth learning from the kings and queens of history. Some were damned good leaders, the type of folks we need around now.

Back to my royalist flag for a moment. So what happened is that at first I hung the Fleur de Lys flag upside down above my house, which I suppose would have made me an anti-royalist. It wasn't my fault.... It was dark and cold, my fingers were numb.

The next day, when it was flying properly, my next door neighbor on the right side knocked on my kitchen door. He's a stocky man from the former Soviet bloc who solemnly detests his other neighbor, who is from the same former SB country. He asked if I was not taking chances flying this odd flag; someone had told him such a thing was illegal and he didn't want to hazard having the secret flag police maybe making a mistake and knocking on his door. I reassured him that it was perfectly OK but he seemed less than convinced. I caught his wife, who is a dentist, and his two Goths kids starring upwards with fear in their eyes. I spent some time on the Internet looking for the Virginia law that might apply, but it's hard to find a law permitting something since most laws are designed to be preventative.

A few days later there were men cutting down the bamboo in the vacant lot behind my home. The stuff, it seems, has invaded nearby storm drains and caused minor flooding. My neighbor came over again and asked if I was sure about the law because the guys with the chainsaws cutting down the brush were obviously setting up a listening/viewing post, and this made him very uncomfortable. He asked politely whether I would consider taking the flag down and hoisting the Stars and Stripes. I demurred. Time passed. The men with chainsaws have gone away. The secret flag police has not swooped down upon us, which tempts me to believe there may be more royalists in positions of power than we know.  Is this a great country or what?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Summer Sunday

“The summer Sundays are the worst,” says Marcy, bouncing three-year-old Andy on a blue-jeaned knee. It’s one in the afternoon. She’s already been to church and to her 12-step meeting for women, the one where the kids are watched over for an hour in an adjoining room. After that, she goes to Starbucks for coffee with some of the other mothers and they take over one of the big central tables and talk about their week.

According to Marcy, the talk is always pretty much the same. A lot of the women are single mothers in low-paying jobs and just last month the county once again reduced the amount of food stamps people in their social category get. There was outrage around the table but no plan for action. A few spoke with priests and probation officers, and fewer still got some foodstuff from their churches—nothing perishable, sodas, cake mixes, cans of soup and peas and corn. On Fridays, some dentists’ offices hand out free toothbrush and tubes of Colgate

The women admit they’re largely invisible. The fathers of their children aren’t around. Some are in jail or prison, others have simply vanished. One or two women have mates doing construction out of state, but by and large they make do by themselves.

Sundays are the worst because for most people it’s family day which is tough when there’s no family, so once a month in the spring and summer a dozen or so women get together, buy burgers and hot dogs and buns and softdrinks and maybe a case or two of Bud Lite and go to a park and have a picnic. They have to leave the beer in coolers in the trunks of their cars because nominally you can’t consume alcoholic beverages on state or county property. They don’t mind that though they’ll all laugh and tell you what a big deal the men make out of a rule like that. If the men are around, some of them act like badasses and flaunt their cans of Bud, which is pretty silly. “Dumb bastards,” says Marcy.

The kids play on swings and slide and the adults keeps an eye out for potential weirdos, and all in all every one has a pretty good time.

Marcy wears a wedding ring but will readily admit there never was a ceremony. She and her then-boyfriend Joe woke up one morning a couple of months before Andy was born and decided they would be married, and so, as far as they were concerned, they were. They both figured it really wasn’t anyone’s business but their own. Then Joe, who had 18 months in NA and a job delivering car parts to garages, Joe met a Japanese car mechanic who every day at six a.m. before work got fixed up at a methadone clinic. Joe and the mechanic got along well, though Marcy didn’t like the man, he tried to grab her ass once when Joe wasn’t in the room and then pretended he was drunk, it was an accident. The mechanic told Joe he could set him up with some meth at a really good price. Joe could sell most of it and make some nice money and still have a little left over for Saturday night. Joe never mentioned any of this to Marcy, she found out about it after he was busted, his very first day as a dealer and he sells to a narc. Joe had a few priors, nothing really serious, a couple of drunks-in-public, a reckless driving charge he never bothered to contest so there was a warrant out, and that was that. It was in September, a month when the county decides to get the dealers off the streets because school just started and the yellow “This Is a Drug Free Zone” don’t scare anyone very much, so Joe just got caught up in the sweep, and there was enough meth to justify a possession with intent to distribute. A felony, that, instead of just holding which would have been a misdemeanor.

Marcy’s pretty certain she and Joe will not get back together. She visited him twice and that didn’t go well. She sent him a couple of letters but he hasn’t responded and he never showed much interest in little Andy from the start.  She has a pretty good sense of humor about it all. “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke” is the philosophy she operates by right now. She’ll get by, she and the other women look after each other.

All of which explains why Marcy is spending the day with, Andy, whom she plans to take to a friend’s community swimming pool later in the afternoon if it doesn’t storm, which the morning paper says it will.