Monday, December 31, 2012

All Things French

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Long Ago Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ten Questions for the NRA

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 17, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, December 12, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

We are at war.

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



Wednesday, December 5, 2012


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Monday, December 3, 2012


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

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

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

And she's right, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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