Monday, December 30, 2013


I've never considered myself particularly smart. I have a head full of largely useless information (what's a reluctant flyer? Know about the divine proportion? Who is Исаак Озимов?) but I've never had the conventional shrewdness that knows how to make money, produce worthwhile investments that work, or purchase properties that accrue in value. In fact, as I've stated in earlier blogs, my motto is "Buy high, sell low." I'm often good at starting projects but find it difficult to finish them; my initiatives have a pretty high burn-out rate. I have never mastered the piano, learned to ride a unicycle, climbed a real mountain or learned to speak Esperanto.

My ambitions have been relatively limited: I’ve always wanted to write. Then I wanted to get read, and achieve a small measure of fame. Now, I’d like to not worry overly about money, or health, both of which in my case are shaky.  So basically, I don't think I'm dumb, far from it. I’ve come to accept (and happily so) that what I have is an often unfocused curiosity, perhaps an inquisitiveness that is simply focused on the wrong thing. I write about stuff few people want to read about and have been told more than once that I don’t see the forest for the trees.

What I find interesting seldom is, to most people. Have you ever considered, for example, the speed at which we process remembered information and segue from one thought to another? This has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. For what it's worth, according to Johns Hopkins University, the speed of one thought broaching another is around 300 milliseconds, which is how long it took a volunteer to begin to understand a pictured object. Add to that another 250 to 450 milliseconds to fully comprehend what it was. Total speed of thought: between 550 and 750 milliseconds.

More interesting, even, is how our minds (or at least mine) begin by pondering the recipe for Grandma's pineapple upside down cake and, in mere flashes of time, go through a series of steps and thoughts without our volition to end up contemplating Stalin’s politics, and whether the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds lyrics were drafted when John was stoned or indeed did have something to do with Julian Lennon's favorite schoolmate.

How do we do this, and why? What possible reason can be found for this aimless leapfrogging of notions, one after the either, with no apparent rhyme or logic? Practitioners of kundalini yoga would tell you that thoughts freed of intellect represent the first step towards a liberation of the being. Buddhists might echo this in their own way with the concept of ‘mindfulness’ which, if I understand it correctly (no guarantees there) is a very brief state of awareness that exists just before conceptualization. In other words, we enter this state before we focus our mind on an issue or thing, before we objectify it and segregate it from the rest of existence.

This, I think, is good. It does not necessarily lead to productive inspirations, useful notions or wisdom of any type. In fact, it may do the exact opposite by creating a small, formless universe where our brain gets a chance to rest, to have fun, to flex its neuronal muscles. Or perhaps it's just a sign that I am suffering from a pleasant form of Attention Deficit Disorder.

There's a story told, possibly apocryphal, of Albert Einstein and a lesser known physicist talking at a cocktail party. In the middle of their conversation, the physicist whips out a small notebook and scribbles a few words, then turns to the already famous scientists and says, "You really should carry a notebook as I do, Professor. I use it to note down good ideas I may have during the day." Einstein looks at his colleague sadly, shakes his head. "It wouldn't work for me," he replies,  “in my entire life I've only had one or two good ideas."

So that's it. I'm like Einstein.



Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas 2013

It is Christmas. Yesterday I spent 40 minutes waiting in a checkout line to buy many cans of Chunky Giblets in Gravy, which my cat likes. I’m not sure what a giblet is, though I assume it is not something I would eat myself.

On Christmas Eve I:

·        added a few lines to the script of a play I am trying to write. I have never written a play before, but a local producer thought there might be an idea when we discussed the notions of existentialism. I volunteered to try to put together something, a sort of theater-of-the-absurd piece, such as were popular in Paris in the 1920s. Think Marriage on the Eiffel Tower or Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But probably not as good…
·        cleaned my house. Really cleaned. The kitchen and bathrooms are spotless, and most dust bunnies have either fled or fallen victim to the vacuum cleaner. There’s always something Sisyphean about such chores, but it’s still satisfying.  
·        went to the gym and had coffee with a friend. I exchanged text messages with another friend who is spending the holidays in Minnesota, and considered myself lucky to be here in Virginia where it is not snowing. The temperature is dropping though, and my basement, where I work, is getting chilly. It’s going to be time to beat a retreat to the upstairs which is always a good ten degrees warmer.
·        made beef stew. It’s amazingly easy. The French call it Boeuf Bourguignon and add wine to it, but it’s just as good sans alcohol. It simmered all night and is truly tasty. I will freeze some and hand it out to carnivorous friends.
·        disposed of some 50 magazines I have either read, not read, or planned to read, except that by now they are no longer relevant. I get magazines that have little to do with my life. Make tells people how to create stuff the use of which I don’t fathom. Wired speaks a completely different form of English than I do, sort of alien, really, as if a different language was established when I wasn’t paying attention. Sports Car Sales tells me what automobiles have been sold for tens of millions of dollars, which I don’t quite understand. The cars are trailered everywhere and never driven, seldom seen outside of international concours where everyone dresses in white and sips champagne. The vehicles seem to be passed from one über wealthy Arab from Dubai to an even überer collector in Japan.  Personally, if I had a 1934 Voisin Guillon Élégance Saloon, I would drive the hell out of it and take it to Starbucks so kids could admire it.
·        wrote a blog-and-a-half.
·        did a ridiculously small, water-wasting laundry.
·        read about 50 pages of Guy de Maupassant’s La Maison Teylier, the story of a village brothel and the women who work there.
·        ate a half-package of Mrs. Smith flank-cut fish sticks, which is my latest comfort food.
·        watched about half of the movie Elysium where Matt Damon has all sorts of tubes and metal thingies implanted to become a sort of poor man’s Terminator. Jodie Foster is a baddie, which she does extremely well.
·        tuned my pedal steel guitar, which is no small job.  There are 20 strings, eight pedals and four knee levers that all need minute adjustment. The trick is, none of these elements are tuned exactly to a particular note; all are either slightly sharp or flat. This is called tempered tuning, supposedly invented by Bach (The Well-Tempered Clavier) because he did not like the way some notes, played together, sounded. All told, tempered tuning takes about an hour, but when it’s done, there is not a guitar in the world that sounds more distinctive.

I am thinking that I have spent the majority of the last 20-or-so Christmas eves by myself, and this is OK, though it took some time getting used to it. Most people have families and I am a family of one, which for the most part is good. Only rarely does the solitude become loneliness, and when it does, it is only in passing.  

Today, Christmas Day, is bright, cold, sunny, and very, very quiet. The traffic on my street has thinned to almost nothing. My house is warm and smells of spray wax and laundry soap. I am on my third cup of espresso, contemplating having a bowl of stew although it’s not even ten in the morning, and life is pretty good.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

And Now the News

Some days are more thought-provoking than others, speaking of news.

A recent Washington Post had an interesting story about an Army general who, during a high-level diplomatic mission to Russia, stayed drunk for the entire time and apparently consorted with women of doubtful mores and integrity. Whether these ladies were seeking information or money is unclear. They are described as young, comely, and eminently available. Other members of the mission are quoted as saying the general’s behavior was openly outrageous, and a few worried that the ladies in question might have been soliciting secrets rather than sex.

As a writer of fiction, I immediately see this as a ploy. The general was not drunk, merely acting that way in an attempt to lull the Russians into thinking he was a lush whose knowledge of matters hush-hush could be exploited. But the General, in truth a stolid and sober man, would use the opportunity to sow seeds of disinformation that would fool the commies.

Or maybe not.  Maybe he’s just a drunk, another one of those highly ranked military men who, lately, have been acting badly.

A second story dealt with the Republican Party’s embrace of Phil Robertson, one of the stars of the Duck Dynasty television show. Robertson looks like both members of ZZ Tops put together, which is to say not particularly attractive. He recently told us that homosexuality was a sin in the eyes of God, a step above--or below--bestiality.  So of course some the high-visibility GOP pols--think Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and such--have flocked to Robertson’s side and declared him a savior, which is pretty funny. Notwithstanding his five minutes of fame, the man makes duck calls for a living. How this makes him an expert on human sexuality is doubtful, but personally, I’ve always thought Republicans were sexually a little… repressed? So perhaps it makes perfect sense, and if Cruz is elected to the highest office, we might see Robertson as Secretary of something-or-other. Possibly Environment?

According to this week’s New Yorker, a few years ago in Saudi Arabia, where women’s rights are essentially non-existent, King Abdullah issued a decree allowing female staff to work in certain stores as clerks. In 2011, the country’s Labor Ministry allowed the list of shops to include those selling cosmetics, lingerie, undergarments and wedding dresses. A year later, a group of clerics told the Labor Minister during a meeting that they would pray for his death by cancer if he did not rescind the order. Now, I’m not a man of any cloth, muslin or otherwise, but I seriously doubt wishing a man dead by cancer is anywhere in the Koran.

In other news, Daniel Snyder, the embattled owner of the Washington Redskins football team, recently flew to an insolvent Zuni Indian reservation to see first-hand the poverty there. Does this have anything to do with the movement to change the team’s name from Redskins--seen by some as slur upon native Americans--to something less offensive? Don’t know, don’t care.  But it should be noted that also in Washington, DC, is a high school football team called the Frogs, in honor of the school’s French founders.

I’m perplexed by the DC police officer who recently tried to kill his wife using a metal light fixture. It sort of bothers me that the man in question was assigned to the School Safety Division.

And last but not least, a diplomat from the world’s largest democracy (as India likes to bill itself), was recently arrested in New York for grossly underpaying her nanny and possibly lying to immigration authorities. This is not unusual within diplomatic circles. Not that many years ago, an Asian diplomat family residing near my house in Northern Virginia was sent home for having what were essentially slaves working for them. The thing about the Indian woman in question is that she is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights who was quoted as saying that “India always believes in encouraging its women…” When it’s not abusing them, I guess.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Madame Sokolov

When I was a kid in Paris, my parents would occasionally ask the one-floor-up neighbor at 3, rue de la Terrasse, to babysit me.  These were rare occasions that I always enjoyed, since Madame Yelena Sokolov's apartment was far more interesting than the one I lived in, and she always addressed me as Jeune (young) Monsieur Thierry.

Mme. Sokolov was the daughter of a White Russian refugee, and she claimed a direct if confusing link to Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, the last tsar of Russia. She smelled of lavender. Her white hair was always up in a tight bun; she had high cheekbones and, in her youth, must have been stunning. My father occasionally flirted with her--or tried to. She was not particularly amenable and, in retrospect, it is clear she thought my family was one step up from barefooted serfdom.

Mme. Sokolov fixed herself three complete meals each day and never ate leftovers. Sometimes, when I was in her apartment, she would set the table for one with two forks, two knives, three glasses and two linen napkins--one for the main course and one for desert, which was usually sherbet in a silver cup. I was never invited to sit at her table. I had a special small chair, and was given a tray to balance on my knees, which I did fearfully. She served me minute amounts of her own minute servings. I remember veal in a sweetly bitter sauce, fish so white it dazzled the eye, tiny potatoes no bigger than grapes. Everything she cooked, she consumed. When she ate, it was with both hands on the table, holding a fork with the tines pointed downward, and a small, very sharp knife. Her back was absolutely straight, and if mine was not, she would mutter, “Le dos, Jeune Monsieur Thierry. Le dos.”

I remember thinking it must be very sad to always cook for one's self.
Now I do it two or three times a week, sometimes sadly, other times not. I seldom set the table, though I always sit and think eating while standing is a crime of taste. My cooking repertoire is rather limited. I make a good Salade Niçoise and decent shepherd's pie. My ratatouille is famous. I occasionally bake, more often grill, and on rare occasions invite people to my home to eat.
Sometime back I told a young friend--a lovely mother of two and accomplished businesswoman--of Madame Sokolov's lonely culinary exploits, and where I had seen aloneness, my friend saw a wonderful expression and reward of the self. She may be right.  Madame Sokolov never once evinced the slightest hint of melancholy. She was proud, kind in a manner that no longer exists, self-contained, her manners impeccable. She had an elegance that brooked no nonsense and the manners of an exiled princess which, for all I know, is precisely what she was.

I have no idea what became of Madame Sokolov.  Her name, it turns out, is among the most common in Russia. It is cited in a 1920's book titled "The Last Days of the Romanovs." Grigori Sokolov is a celebrated pianist.  Alexander Sokolov is a champion armwrestler. Authors, painters, and several families in Minnesota also bear the name. I doubt her history will ever be known. But I think of her teaching manners to a small child of another culture, cooking alone in a minuscule kitchen, among the last of her class and bearing, a proud survivor of the Russian revolution. I hope she was celebrating herself.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Women go “awww.”  Men go “ewww.” This, I have decided after decades of research, is the prime difference between the genders. Occasionally a woman might say, “ewww,” (and here I am thinking of Marie Antoinette coming to terms with hygiene issues at Versailles), but a heterosexual man will never say, “aww.” It’s simply not in our genes. I have heard gay men say “awww” once or twice but I don’t know if they were mocking women. It’s a possibility. Attila the Hun never said either “awww” or ewww.”  Neither did the late Mrs. Ceausescu or Mrs. Sitting Bull.  Eva Braun probably said, “awww” whenever a brood of German shepherd puppies dismembered a non-Aryan.

“Awww” is a woman’s best, catch all, single syllable word. It implies a special sort of appreciation generally associated with cuteness or sometimes gallantry. It applies to infant clothes, cute potty chairs, Fiat and Mini automobiles when driven by other women. “Awww” comes out during baby showers. It’s occasionally uttered when a man says something nice but not necessarily true (“Your shoes look just like Manolo Blahniks, even though you got them at Walmart.”) In such cases, “awww” is often accompanied by a squeeze of the hand or a peck on the cheek. A really good “awww” is sometimes paired with a gentle and appreciative tear.

In recent times I’ve heard “awww” whenever the antics of a new kitten are mentioned, even when said kitten does something alarming or disgusting or both (“He knocked over Granny’s Ming vase and then crapped in Grampa’s slippers.”)  The size of the animal is crucial. “Awww” could conceivably be applied to a pony, but never to a horse unless it is one of those dreadful miniature horses bred in Turkmenistan. Elephants, whales, hippos and rhinos get no “awwws” but a lion cub might as long as it’s not killing something. When it does, it gets a “ewww.”

“Ewww” is largely male. When a buddy barfs in the alley behind the restaurant after eating three dozen wings and drinking eight or ten Buds, his friends go, “ewww.” Women go “ewww” when driving past roadkill. They might go “ewww” if another woman they don’t like is wearing a particularly tasteless outfit or an unflattering bathing suit, or if they’ve recently discovered that the same woman is now dating a bodybuilder. (If a man is dating a woman bodybuilders, his friends are likely to say “Wow!”) Women might say “ewww” at raw oysters but not at sushi.

If a woman’s “ewww” is directed at feline hairballs or dog poop, it is understood that the accompanying male will clean it up without making supplementary sounds of his own. Luckily for males, “ewww” is rarely voiced when dirty diapers are the issue. A woman might go “awww” when seeing a homeless bag lady, then “ewww” if the lady gets too close and, it turns out, smell bad, but there are relatively few instances were both might be used in the same sentence without some exclusionary clause.

The good thing about both “awww” and “ewww” is that neither calls for any degree of finesse, and one cannot be mistaken for another. And the more I think about it, the more I believe in the distinct probability that the entire English language might in time be reduced to these two expressions.


Monday, December 9, 2013

Of Sequels and Prequels

Most authors go to the well once too often in their careers. In recent times, I’ve had occasion to read the latest novels in series featuring the same characters and on three separate occasions, I’ve been disappointed.

From the author’s point-of-view, of course, the temptation is great. If plopping a character into a story has worked once, or twice, why not three or four times, or, for that matter, 15 or 20 times?

Well, one reason is reader fatigue. Even John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom became wearisome (and had the good grace to die) by the fourth book. The master of the genre, John D. McDonald, had to rely on increasingly intricate--and unsatisfying--plot twists to keep things interesting by the time his 21st Travis McGee novel was published.

McDonald’s heir to the throne is most probably John Sanford, author of the Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport, a hard-bitten multi-millionaire cop working out of Minneapolis. There are currently 23 Davenport books, and the last one, Silken Prey, deals with the political and criminal events surrounding a Congressional election in Minnesota. It’s a tough read that only the most ardent Davenport fans will find satisfying. Lucas is now married, a father of three and wealthy beyond the imagination of most cops. He wears British suits, French shirts, and handmade shoes, and none of this frippery serves to make a dull plot even remotely interesting.  It’s the first Sanford novel I’ve struggled through and was relieved to finish.

I’m still working the third installment of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Rebecca Wells’ first two books (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Little Altars Everywhere) about the adventures of a group of  irrepressible women friends in Louisiana won acclaim for her freshness of prose and  wonderfully drawn characters. Her third in the series, Ya-Yas in Bloom, is an unfortunate prequel to the other two books. Unfortunate because it is little more than a collection of so-so short stories, and because authors in general are well-advised to stay away from prequels.

Prequels are what authors write for themselves to establish the life paths of their characters. More often than not, prequels are folders--paper or digital--with notes, notions, and the character traits, both mental and physical, of the personalities involved in the fiction. They are development tools, not so much the brick and mortar of a literary creation, as the hammer and trowel that help build what will become a book. Sadly, they’re rarely good enough to be books by themselves.  Such is the fate of Ya-Yas in Bloom. The manuscript--notes and random tales, actually--should have been allowed to stay in a desk drawer or the inner recesses of a laptop computer. It’s a frustrating book full of spoiled children, drunk and irresponsible parents, and not-really-that-funny situations. I’m not that sure I’ll be willing to spend the time to finish this one.

I had the same feelings reading the last Bridget Jones novel, Mad about the Boy.

Helen Fielding, a British writer, began in 1995 to chronicle the life of Bridget, a fictional 30-something single Londoner looking for love. The layout was original. Jones lists pounds gained or lost, phone calls made and received, glasses of alcohol and wine imbibed, pills taken and--in time--intimacies (shagging, actually) accomplished. When Bridget Jones’s Diary appeared, it was a novelization of Fielding’s weekly columns in a Brit newspaper. The book was a huge success. There was, of course, a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason where our heroine meets the man she will marry. The second book is as charming at the first, and Fielding should have left well enough alone.

Mad about the Boy finds Bridget widowed. She is a hapless, confused mother whose life seems to revolve around generally distasteful if not frankly idiotic online relationships. The edge of her desperation is sharp enough to cut, and the zaniness found in the first two books is now labored and witless. Bridget sole bridge to reality is her cell phone, and there’s only so much humor one can generate with Twitter and text messaging. In the end, the book is depressing and quotidian and will do nothing to further Fielding as a chronicler of her times.

And so a request to three massively successful authors, John Sanford, Helen Fielding and Rebecca Wells:  Folks, stop coasting. It’s time for new material.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Explaining Thanksgiving to the French

For decades prior to his death last year, Art Buchwald's column, Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post did not run it this year, so I will.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.
One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .
Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pélerins ) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content.
They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Américaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pélerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing thePélerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pélerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pélerins.
In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pélerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maïs was raised by the Pélerins than Pélerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.
Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.
It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilomètres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :
"Go to the damsel Priscilla ( allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action ( un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe ), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.
"I am a maker of war ( je suis un fabricant de la guerre ) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar ( vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant ), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."
Although Jean was fit to be tied ( convenable à être embalé ), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow ( rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse ).
At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" ( Ou est-il, le vieux Kilomètres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)
Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" ( Chacun à son gout. )
And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.
No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Driving While Asian

This is a reprint, occasioned by the fact that earlier today an Asian woman in a large, silver SUV, blithely made a left turn in front of me from the center lane of the road. I honked, stood on the brakes, shouted something I would not wanted my mother to hear, and stalled my car out. The woman either did not see me, or chose to disregard my outrage, which simply will not do. Call this my revenge.

This is will be unashamedly politically incorrect. I don't care. I'm an immigrant and have earned full rights to criticize other immigrants. It says so in my naturalization certificate. So let me say a few words about DWA, Driving While Asian.

I realize saying 'Asian' is like saying 'European' and Heaven forbid anyone lump the French, German and Italians into one general category, but what the hell, I plan to do this with Asians, even as all Asians hate the Japanese, many hate the Chinese, and no one ever admits to being Cambodian. Here's my complaint: where do these folks learn to drive? Do they ever actually take and pass a driving test and with who? Asian driving instructors?

On an almost daily basis, I have a close encounter of the worst kind with Asians behind the wheel of their SUVs or vans. They turn left from the right lane, drive three miles under the speed limit while talking on their cell, wander heedlessly all over the road. Occasionally, they stop dead in the middle of the street to drop off passengers, oblivious to the unhappy beeping of cars behind them. And since I am being a chauvinist, I might as well be a sexist: these cursed drivers are mostly young or middle-aged Asian women.

Some of the shortcomings, I understand, are cultural. What is the norm in the West is not so in the East. Here, for example, we flash our high beams as a measure of courtesy, an implicit "yes, please, go in front of me." In many Eastern countries, flashing your headlight means, "I will let you rip my liver out with your bare hands before I allow you to pass."

Augustus Cho--he's both of Asian descent and Chairman of the Chapel Hill Transportation Advisory Committee--wrote in the Chapel Hill News & Observer, "Most FOBs ("Fresh Off the Boat")--primarily international graduate students and the new, legal immigrants--lack driving experience before arriving. They did not drive in their homeland; it was too expensive and/or dangerous. Instead, many are learning now, on our roads, trying our patience.

"Amplifying the quandary, their driving is dictated more by their cultural state of mind (i.e., not stopping at STOP signs, "No cars there") than the proven rules of the road. The automobile may be a Western invention but the drivers in question have an Eastern mentality.

"Furthermore, the lack of automobile history implies equal lack of proper road infrastructure. Most roads are narrow: visualize paved alleys, barely wide enough for two vehicles. Such is used for walking, pushing carts, storing excess inventory by stores, children playing, parking and yes, driving. The motorists have no choice but to hold up traffic to let people on and off. Though here now, their ingrained customs are not easily changed."

Does that make me feel better? No. Less critical? Nope. I've always believed that immigration is--or should be--an act that encompasses serious cultural changes. You come to live in a new country, you learn the language, the laws, the habits of your new environment. As an immigrant myself, I am totally opposed to multi-language ATMs and bi- or tri-lingual signs in national parks advising visitors that the park is not a trash dump. I don’t go to restaurants where the staff doesn’t speak English, nor do I think my state’s driving manual should be translated to make it easier for a non-speakers to get a license.  

As H.L. Mencken once said, "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." So learn the language, drive like me (most of the time) and don't turn left from the right lane.

Friday, November 15, 2013


So why didn’t you vote?  How could you not vote?  OK, some of you--very few, I might add--may have had a worthwhile excuse. You moved and your voter card didn’t get to your new house in time; you’re convicted felons; you’re not a citizen; you’re younger than 18… But the majority of you lazy cusses have no excuses.

In Virginia, the percentage of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 has dropped by six points in 12 months. The percentage of women dropped by two points, while (I am proud to say) the percentage of people in my age group rose by four points.  Still, only 43 percent of you in the Old Dominion chose to vote.  Forty-three percent. Geez… In 1989, it was 67 percent.

What’s the matter with you? Really, did you think retro-thinking Robert Cucinelli would lose by a landslide?  He lost, but not by much. This is a guy who wants to ban birth control pills and roll back women’s rights to the 1960s.  Your general laissez-faire attitude almost got him elected.  Congrats.

What’s incomprehensible here is that the people in Northern Virginia were deeply affected by the Republican- and tea party-led government closure. Here was an opportunity to truly show what you thought of the insane situation caused by these people and instead you chose to stay home and watch reruns of CSI and Matlock.

Something’s gotta be done to get your butts in gear.  Here are a few suggestions.

  • Make voting compulsory, just like jury duty. That’s draconian, some might say, so perhaps we should just make it law that registered voters have to show up at the polling booths and, if they don’t want to vote, mark their ballots with that intent. If you don’t show up at the polls, you get fined. The first election year alone will probably generate enough fines to lower the national debt.

  • Hold elections on weekends. That way, the excuse that people can’t vote because they have to work (which we know is bs anyway) becomes invalid.

  • Work out the kinks on internet/phone voting.  If the smart people who produce The Voice can do it, it can’t be that difficult.  

  • Turn off the cable channels. When you vote, you’ll get a personalized code you can enter on your computer to get service back. Don’t vote? Tough. No Homeland for you.

  • Reward young people for voting. Give them a day off from school or work. Perhaps then we’ll be able to start instilling the notion of how important voting is.

A long time ago when I did quite a bit of traveling thorough the developing world, I was fascinated by the deep desire of people to elect their own. In Africa, in the Near East and Asia, it wasn’t uncommon to see lines hundreds of yards long snaking through villages on Election Day. I have a suspicion that even here in the United States, until very recently, people made a concerted effort to have their voices heard and their choice of representatives elected.

Our willingness to avoid voting can and will have increasingly serious repercussions. The most obvious is that, as the center no longer goes to the polls, the leaders will be elected by the far right and far left fringes, and will represent the interests of those elements alone. You can look forward to a nation governed by adamant pro-lifers, NRA freaks, survivalists, big money, and special interests groups. Is that really what you want?

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Worst Eatery

The worst eatery in the entire world requires a membership card.

I use the word ‘worst’ judiciously. It has been my privilege or misfortune to eat in a number of places both here and overseas that easily could--but do not--earn the title. In Senegal, a few miles outside of Dakar, there was a roadside stand that served mystery meat with hair in it. Or maybe it was fur, I don’t know. The person I was traveling with, a young African man who spoke five languages more or less fluently but could not write any of them, ate with relish. He pushed a full plate towards me and when I demurred, admonished me for my squeamishness. In Nepal I was served something that had small eyes in it. One, I’m pretty certain, blinked. In Bangladesh I made the mistake of eating a fish dish that sent me running for the bathroom and staying there for the balance of two days. None of these places, however, could match the eating area at Costco.

Yes, Costco. Let me explain.

At Costco, you stand in line, order food that is limited in scope, generally tasty, and outrageously inexpensive. I recently went there and for $5.19 got a very large and loaded slice of pizza, two huge hot dogs on buns, and two soft drinks with unlimited free refills. Another $1.75 got me a good-sized container of frozen yogurt with a healthy dollop of strawberry preserves.  Had I wanted a Caesar salad, a churro, a strange pastry with chunks of chicken in it, or an Italian sausage, I would have paid less than four dollars per item.  

To qualify for all these goodies, I have to be a Costco member, which is $50 yearly. It’s not a bad deal since the store does offer good prices on a number of household items and food if you’re willing to buy in quantity, which explains the very large number of shoppers--mostly Korean and Vietnamese--who trundle what look like Home Depot lumber carts loaded with fifty-pound bags of rice, cans of tuna fish large enough to bathe in, entire flanks of animals I imagine were once either cows or pigs, and cartons containing the dismembered breasts of an entire mid-Western chicken farm. And of courses there are tires, motorcycles, guttering, roofing supplies, books and DVDs, lawn furniture, electronic pianos, decks, and the occasional small boat or two.

But back to the food. It’s not bad.  As a matter of fact, it’s pretty good road food. I have been addicted to their hot dogs for years though I have given up on the Italian sausage. So how does the store deserve the ‘worst eatery’ title?  Well, this may be petty, but I really resent the fact that the relish machines never dispense relish. I really don’t like the linked plastic tables that are rarely wiped down (personally, I’ve never witnessed an actual Costco employee performing that service), and on more than one occasion, my feet have stuck to the floor; only a concerted effort have freed them from the Superglue consisting of spilled condiments mixed with highly sweetened lactose products.

Since Costco does not offer those nifty little cardboard carriers with their foods, you learn to juggle. My personal best is two hot dogs, two cokes, a salad and two slices of pizza. Amateurs routinely drop (and leave) their meals on the floor, adding to both the pungent atmosphere and the environmental stickiness.

Also, I’m pretty certain mothers bring their newborns to Costco there for the express purpose of letting them wail. There is always at least one baby having a breakdown at Costco. Sometimes there are two, and once there were four. Maybe they didn’t like the food…

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Me, my Kaypro, and James Joyce

In 1978 I bought my first personal computer.  It was a Kaypro, and with the attendant daisy-wheel printer, it cost me close to $3,000, a fortune in those days. It ran on floppy discs, and since the machine pre-dated DOS, the operating system was something called CPM, which I think stood for Control Program Manager.  Booting up the Kaypro was like starting a Stanley Steamer automobile.  Wait until the machine warms up (really!). Insert the CPM disk into one of the two drives. The PC whirrs and gasps for a minute or two. A prompt appears in the tiny green seven-inch screen. Insert Wordstar word processing program disc (no spell check, grammar check, accents, thesaurus, etc.) and wait for that to boot. Write.  Manually save often as the entire system is likely to crash. When finished writing, save to a third floppy disc and hope for the best.

Printing was another ordeal. The daisy wheel demanded paper with perforations on both sides, and if these did not perfectly match the printer gears, disaster was sure to follow. If all went well, the printer would clatter loudly enough that the neighbors complained; the printout would fall untidily to the floor. It was important to stop the process once in a while and re-align the perforation and gears, otherwise the printing would get skewed, the daisy wheel would get stuck and eventually punch a hole through the paper.

All in all, the Kaypro was a primitive piece of equipment. It weighed 30 pounds and in spite of this was deemed portable; it was about as large as a Singer sewing machine, and often was given its own seat on airlines. It was hailed as the latest thing in microprocessor technology, and was slow, cumbersome, and prone to error. I loved it. It replaced the ancient manual typewriter on which I’d been working for years and enabled me for the first time to do multiple drafts of a document without retyping and dabs of Wite Out.

At work, we were just getting word processing through monstrous machines made by Phillips. The Mycom computers came with attached keyboards and some basic WP commands on a program called Mass 11. Search-and-replace was a wonderful innovation for all the office wits who would substitute the word ‘kumquat’ for the name of their bosses when typing memos. Information was kept on very large floppy discs that would magically erase themselves if brought too close to a magnet or an automatic door.  In one case, when a secretary transported a divisions’ entire workload on a rolling cart and took an elevator from one floor to another, every single morsel of information on the discs was somehow blasted away by the elevator’s magnetic safety mechanism.  Those were fun times.

It struck me yesterday, as I toiled on my seven-year-old HP deskstop unit, that one of the inadvertent victims of the word processing computer is the manuscript. Now that everything is done on-screen, the hand-edited, scribbled upon and smudged original manuscript is a thing of the past.  And that’s a shame.

Few writers still write by hand. The computer has opened the doors to both talented and talentless individuals who can--or cannot write--and do so anyway. Some may keep actual paper copies of the finished products of their toil, but none, I think, keep copies of every change and edit.  Chances are we will never again see how the work of a new and noteworthy author progresses from rough draft to finished product. As we get increasingly digitized, we’re losing the path that in earlier days showed us how a work evolved, how characters grew, situations changed and plots developed. That’s really a great loss for the students of future literature.  

James Joyce, possibly the greatest English-language novelist, wrote and scribbled in the margins of the original manuscript of his masterpiece Ulysses. A couple of years ago, a special edition of Ulysses was published with all the marginalia included. The draft of the original book, along with a number of others master works by celebrated authors, is on display at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library.  

Draft works edited by their creators date back hundreds of years and are to be found in most important museums. There are even a couple of websites selling original manuscripts, and the prices have been rising steadily. The works need not be from celebrated long-dead authors. A collection of Oriana Fallaci’s notes, manuscripts, and various documents, was sold three years ago for $29,000.

Soon, original manuscripts from our era will not be available at any price. That’s a serious and irremediable loss.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lou Reed

Lou Reed died today. He was 71.

In the winter of 1973 I had the dubious pleasure of interviewing him. I was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and Reed had released Berlin, not one of his best albums (Rolling Stone called it “brutal literary bombast” and I’m not sure what that means), but it was doing well in Montreal. My boss at CBC, who desperately wanted to escape the backwaters of Washington, DC, and go back to Canada, had no idea who Lou was. I did. I had worn out his Velvet Underground album, the one with the peelable banana on the cover and Nico, the gorgeous model whom Warhol forced to sing, even though she had even less voice than Brigitte Bardot. (The Velvet Underground & Nico, when it was originally released, sold about 10,000 copies.  It was to have as much influence on popular music as did Sgt. Pepper, the Stones’ Satisfaction, and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.)

It was snowing the night of the interview, and I picked Reed up at the downtown Holiday Inn where he was going to be staying with his band. He arrived late. The van from New York had gotten stuck in traffic. I was waiting in the foyer and saw him enter holding his guitar case, and I’m pretty sure he would have been happy to skip the interview. When I introduced myself--beard, hair to the shoulders and aviator sunglasses--he shrugged, said something to a band mate, and sighed, “Let’s go.” He was paler than white, dressed completely in black, with black eyeliner, black nail polish, hair dyed flat black and, yes, a truly dark and crappy attitude. He mustn’t have weighed 120 pounds. He didn’t have a coat and I lent him my jacket.

I drove him in my Honda Accord to the National Press Club where CBC had its recording studio and he didn’t say a word. The interview didn’t go much better. Reed was monosyllabic. He didn’t want to talk about Berlin, or his band, or his friendship with Warhol and John Cale. He allowed that Nico “was a strange person” but said he actually didn’t know her at all. She wasn’t a musician or a songwriter, and those were about the only people Lou was interested in at the time.

I don’t think Reed was being either recalcitrant or arrogant. I think he was bored. Too many silly interviewers had asked him too many silly questions, and he was never one to focus on the past. By 1974, he’d been free of Velvet Undergound for four years. Nico, Cale, Sunday Morning--one of the most beautiful rock ‘n’ roll ballad ever written--and even Sweet Jane, which he would record several times over and keep playing for almost four decades, all that was history.

The next night I saw him at the Kennedy Center, a long way from the Bowery places he used to frequent and one of the oddest venues he must have ever played. He was small on stage, uninspiring and uninspired. The band was listless; he stood stock still at the microphone like a frozen marionette with too many strings and I don’t think there was even an encore.  

Reed only had one Top Ten single, his anthem, Walk on the Wild Side, which when it was released had to be cleaned up for AM radio. Yet few would doubt that his compositions, both music and lyrics, were as important as that of the Beatles, or the Stones. Without Reed, such acts as David Bowie, U2, Sonic Youth,  R.E.M, Chrissie Hynde and Ric Ocasek might have made it to the stage, but not with the same rawness, or the same impact.

Reed was a drugger and a drinker, an addict of large proportion and an alcoholic who documented his own life through his music. Never once did he apologize for whatever chaos his habits may have sown.

In time, he got his act together, got straight, married, divorced, remarried. He became a Tai Chi expert. He wrote increasingly poetic songs, some stark, others orchestral. He produced albums for mainline artists and became, perhaps, the most famous performer to never play huge venues, even as his following became international. He never strayed from who he was.

He once said, “My bullshit is worth more than other people’s diamonds.”  

He’ll be missed.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Lurid Tales, Desperate People

A couple of days ago I finished the first draft of a new novel, Lurid Tales, Desperate People, set in Northern Virginia and documenting the largely empty lives of seven women and five men. It’s been tremendous fun, and for once really easy to write.  In fact, from start to finish, the book took less than eight months to draft and its 43 chapters fell into line painlessly, with an ending that left no loose ends and did not rely on the hated deus ex machina

Lurid Tales is a short book, barely 260 pages long, with a not-too-contrived plot. About three months into it, the characters got legs--they began to move about on their own; they told me what to write, and where to take the book. Some characters defined themselves by their patterns of speech; one, in particular is a master of malapropisms. Another is the beneficiary/victim of massive elective surgery; a third is obsessed by past and present slavery.

The men, though necessary to the plot, are far less important than the women who clearly dominate this book. I’ve had a long-held belief that females in real life are all-around tougher and more interesting than males, and creating and working with female characters has always been easier for me than dreaming up men. The guys in Lurid Tales are dressed up trashcans--generally vile, manipulative yet simple-minded. Mostly, they want to get laid, mostly they get caught and suffer the consequences. The majority of the women characters, though no less shallow, have at least an inkling of morality.

Now that the brunt of the book is done, I’m struggling with post-partum depression. I want to keep writing, create sequels, and get a deeper and more rounded knowledge of Briotta, Josephinetta, Shhoney (not a typo) and Lyubonka, the Ukrainian au pair porn queen. These ladies, after all, became my family for almost a year and I’m pretty sure their plotting to achieve a better social standing is a reflection of my own insecurities.

Part of the joy of writing Lurid Tales is that it is set in my own backyard. McLean, Virginia, is two hundred yards from the less wealthy Falls Church, where I live. According to Wikipedia, McLean had a total population of 48,115 as of 2010 and Business Week ranked it as one of the wealthiest zip codes in the United States with a median family income of $188,682. It is home to hordes of diplomats, members of Congress, and high-ranking government officials, partially due to its proximity to Washington DC, and the CIA.  The Kennedys, including Jackie and Ethel used to live here, as did Queen Noor of Jordan and Amha Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.  Says Wikipedia, “McLean is known for its many upscale homes, as well as for its high-end shopping, such as at the nearby Tysons Corner Center and Tysons Galleria. Land values in McLean are among the highest in the Washington area.” Among McLean’s more celebrated current citizens are (unfortunately) Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, Lewis “Scooter” Libby (come on, now, you don’t remember Scooter? He was Cheney’s Chief of Staff), and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. There’s also a scattering of Representatives, Cabinet Secretaries, retired generals, mega-billionaire business people, and my personal favorite, the largely toothless Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals hockey team.    

So really, setting a novel in McLean wasn’t difficult. What was challenging was making fiction as believable as the everyday around here, and creating characters somewhat more appealing than the town’s real-life denizens.

My agent likes it, which is encouraging since he rarely likes what I write--it isn’t commercial enough.

I’ll keep you apprised on the fate or Lurid Tales, Desperate People. In the meantime, it’s back to The Cancer Club, a book I started writing about a year. I’m just beginning to get a handle on it.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Battling Cancer: A New Strategy

Here is a statement of fact: When a man reaches a certain age, he will no longer throw underwear away, ever. These garments might be ripped, worn, moth-eaten, stained, shrunken or bagged out, and rendered elastic-free by too many washes.  No matter. We will keep--, no, we will hoard them, greeting them in the morning like old friend, Cloroxing them once or twice a year in a vain attempt to regain whiteness but actually only weakening the fibers.

What occasionally occurs, if a woman lives in the same space, is that she will throw them away when the man is not home. If she has a kind heart, she will replace them with new jockey shorts or briefs, again, when the man is not home. He may, or may not, notice the changing of the guards but in any case, the exchange will be wordless.

Today I have made a small step for mankind and a giant step for men by getting rid of every single pair of jockey shorts and boxers that have been in my possession for years, and perhaps decades, and replacing them with 15 pairs of brand new, assorted color undies from Target and Walmart. And while I’m on the subject, I will say openly that Costco deeply disappointed me with its extremely limited selection of men’s underthings, which occupied less than a third of the floor space devoted to women’s vibrantly colored and designed panties and stuff. There may be room for a discrimination suit here.

Anyway, the deal is that I have come to the conclusion that my bladder cancer was probably caused by my underwear. At least partially.

As readers of this blog know, two years ago this month I was diagnosed with this nasty disease. Since then, I’ve undergone a number of surgeries to remove recurring malignant tissue, generally followed by a form of chemotherapy called BCG. The Bacillus Calmette-Guérin treatment relies on the direct injection into my bladder of a solution containing sheep tuberculosis. On average, BCG eradicates cancer in 70 percent of those treated. I haven’t been among that 70 percent yet, but I’m still hopeful.

I might add here that I have not smoked or drank alcohol in a couple of decades. In the past six months, I have just about given up eating meat. I am juicing organically produced veggies and fruits daily and drinking the vile concoction in one, long draught. I no longer use artificial sweeteners, caffeinated coffee or tea, or any number of ‘white’ products: rice, flour, pasta, refined sugar. I have given up my membership of the California Sun Tanning Center.

What does this have to do with the wholesale trashing of an entire drawer of undies? Everything.

Giving up all these things, along with the BCG, should’ve banished my cancer for good. I was thinking that all this nasty stuff happening in my midriff should have ended by now, and as I pondered, I came to the realization that what encircled my loin(s) had remained unchanged for years! The underwear, by crikey!  The underwear!

Throwing out the old stuff was surprisingly painless. I packed everything in a trash bag and dropped it in the big outdoor garbage can without so much as a whimper. As I write, my new undies are bouncing around in the dryer, getting to know each other, and I’m hoping alliances might form in the chest of drawers.

I’m pleased because the entire process was a lot less painful than was surgery and BCG. I’m pretty sure this will work. It sort of has to. I don’t have anything else to throw away.   

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tales of the Juicer

My friends Julia and Maxey, knowing of my cancerous issues, recently lent me a juicer. Julia and Maxey are both smart and beautiful women who have been juicing for years. The machine now in my kitchen was Maxey’s when she went to college. It sort of looks like R2D2 with a spout and is eerily quiet for something that can reduce a giant, hard  carrot to mush. I have already had one nightmare where the juicer is chasing my cat while humming the Star Wars theme song.

Jack LaLanne’s name is on the front. You remember Jack, the original Hollywood he-man. He swam the Atlantic Ocean at age 105 and then retired to Malibu and developed his own line of healthy eating machines.

Jack’s creation weighs 15 pounds, has a 3600 rpm high induction motor and a stainless steel blade that would make Dr. Joseph Guillotin envious. It will take in kale, celery, apples, carrots and a variety of other veggies (I drew the line at beets) and spit out a copious, bile colored liquid, the taste of which reminds me of my initial venture at playing football (not a sport played often in my native France), getting tackled, and ending up with a mouthful of dirt.

The very first time I used the Jack Lalanne Pro Juicer in my kitchen, thick liquids exploded from pretty much everywhere and painted my t-shirt and shorts, as well as my kitchen ceiling, with small globs of orangish vegetation. The second time I was more careful. I made sure every aperture save for the spout was sealed, and the experiment went much better, though the taste was roughly the same. Friends have suggested I add lemon, ginger, vanilla extract and vodka (this from a truly clueless person) but not bananas (they’ll mush up the works) or yogurt. Also, once the juicer has done its work, the result must be drank (drunken) within ten minutes for maximum efficiency. What is left after juicing is a sort of multi-colored Brillo pad that I am sure could be converted into vegan burgers by people other than me.

Ideally, only organically grown vegetables and fruits should be used.  This makes perfect sense, as juicing a chemical-laden apple or pear only means you’ll get a concentrated dose of whatever noxious fertilizer kills fish in agricultural run-offs. This means you have to shop in stores that charge 1000% markup for runty and splotchy (but pure) veggies. Luckily, kale is a mainstay of juicing, and, organically grown or not, it is inexpensive. I used to feed kale to my iguana who was so healthy he attacked me whenever I tried to be friendly.  Kale’s taste, however, is truly toxic. Imagine liquefied and concentrated topsoil, with worms.  Only the toughest can endure kale by itself, and even Julia and Maxey, hardened juicers both, have to mask its venomous flavor.

I’ve learned about the Dirty Dozen, conventionally grown celery, peaches, strawberries apples, domestic blueberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach, kale and collard greens, cherries, potatoes, imported grapes and lettuce.  According to, “these tested positive for at least 47 different chemicals, with some testing positive for as many as 67. For produce on the ‘dirty’ list, you should definitely go organic — unless you relish the idea of consuming a chemical cocktail.”

The produce on the Clean Fifteen list “bore little to no traces of pesticides, and is safe to consume in non-organic form.” This list includes onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, and sweet onions

So all right, now that I’ve made fun of Jack, juicers, juicists, etc. , here’s the thing: I’ve only used the machine four times and I feel better. Last night, for the first time in months, I slept an undisturbed six hours.  I expected some monstrous intestinal distress and haven’t had any.

Thank you, Julia, thank you Maxey!  I’m sold.


Monday, October 14, 2013

The Terrorists on Capitol Hill

C’est quoi, Obamacare? My sister Isabelle, who is a composer of operas and lives in a lovely apartment near the Moulin Rouge in Paris, has recently taken an interest in the present American craziness. This is because the European media--radio, TV, newspapers and internet--are having a field day with the US Government shutdown. Over there, something happens to upset the citizenry and people take to the streets, turning over a Citroën or two on the Place de la Concorde and possibly shutting the government down for a forty-eight hours. But the government shutting itself down? Closing museums and national parks and research facilities nationwide? The government not taking care of business? How crazy is that?

I tell Isa that Obamacare is a law passed quite a while ago to ensure that people have health insurance.

Il n’y a pas d’assurance nationale? She asks. I try to explain that no, the United States is perhaps the only developed country not to have a national health insurance system in place. I tell her about Medicare and Medicaid which are designed to help people over 65. Under that age, you’re on your home.  I also tell her that a couple of years ago my monthly medical insurance bill was more than $500, not including prescription drugs. Since I am a family of one and self-employed, there was no one helping me with this large yearly outlay. Isa is amazed. Insurance has never been a concern for her family. When she was pregnant with her children, the state paid the bills, saw to it that she had a decent period of recuperation, and later offered all sorts of assistance as her children were growing up.

Alors? Ils sont fou ou quoi, ces politiciens ?Qu’est ce qu’ils font ? What are they doing? That’s hard to explain too. They’re essentially futzing with the welfare of the nation and trying to ensure that an initiative passed a while back will not get the necessary funding to become effective.

Isa says, Donc, ces politiciens, ils ont pris le pays otage. I answer that yes, that’s a good way of looking at it. The elected officials on Capitol Hill have indeed taken the country hostage.

Comme des terroristes, Isa concludes. Indeed, just like terrorists.  Our Congresspeople--the ones put in office by that very small minority of Americans who do their civic duty and actually vote--have taken the country hostage.

Incroyable, says Isa.

Oui, je sais, I tell her. I know. It is incredible.

Et les gens ne font rien? No, for the most part people aren’t doing much at all to protest the government shutdown.  There’s been little public outrage, no demonstrations in the streets, save for some military veterans in the Nation’s Capital who took the metal barricades baring entry to museums and memorials and dumped them in front of the White House. This lack of involvement by the citizenry astounds the Europeans, who take to the streets almost as a national sport.

Incroyable, says Isa again. Vraiment incroyable. And I have to agree.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Shame and an Outrage

I went to Arlington National Cemetery yesterday because once a decade or so, it’s good to realize that an awful lot of people made the ultimate sacrifice so we could be here now.  What surprised me was that the place was open for business.  It is, after all, government run. It should have been closed, like the rest of the country.

If you’re not from around here, meaning the Washington, DC area, you might not know that Arlington Cemetery covers 624 acres of land in Virginia, just across the river from the Nation’s Capital.  Twenty-seven to 30 funerals are held there daily. It is the last resting place for some 265,000 citizens, mostly men and women of the armed forces, and their spouses.  There are also a lot of Senators, cabinet secretaries and politicians of medium or little importance. JFK and his two brothers are buried there, as is Jacky. So are Audie Murphy and Pierre L’Enfant.  The Army’s Old Guard stands watch, and the cemetery is also the site of the Unknown (actually, now known) Soldier. The eternal flame is there too, currently under repair and fed by a large propane tank.

But back to the government.

Doesn’t the fact that Arlington Cemetery was open imply that the government has a lot more respect for the 265,000 dead than for the 800,000 furloughed government workers and the millions of Americans impacted by the furlough?

The government shutdown is more than simply a shame; it’s an outrage, a sharp slap in the faces of the citizenry. How it was allowed to happen is demonstrative of a system on the brink of failure. And the fact that hardly anyone has taken to the streets in protest is further evidence that the apathy is not just on Capitol Hill, it’s in our homes as well.

The US has an appallingly low voter turnout for local and national elections. In many areas, the ones who go to the polls are the fringe element of the right and the left, and the people they elect represent their interests. Many have an abiding dislike, if not an outright hate, for government as a whole. Congress knows this. It caters to that element. Our elected representatives also know our memory is shot. Come the next election, we will have forgotten that this country was brought to a stop by a group of men and women--our elected officials-- bent on having a tragic pissing match.

We deserve better than a bunch of yoyos in expensive suits, which is pretty much what we have now. Their actions demonstrate an appalling lack of respect for both the nation and its people.

Next time around, go and vote. Throw the bums out. 




Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Les Cons (The Morons)

“Ils font quoi?” This from my sister Isabelle who lives in Paris and is a composer. “They’re doing what?” I have just told her about the US government shutdown, a concept so alien to the rest of the civilized world--and possibly the uncivilized one as well--that it defies description. “It has to do with the budget,” I tell her in French, to which she asks, “Ce sont des idiots?” and I have to answer yes.  They are indeed idiots. Who else but idiots, the ones the French call les cons--the morons--would get into a pissing match so severe that the welfare of millions of citizens goes by the wayside?  This sort of behavior is as completely mysterious to the French as was Bill Clinton’s censure by Congress for the Lewinski affair. Oh, wait. Wasn’t it the same bunch then and now, just a different form of idiocy?   


“Ce sont les fou qui ont pris l’asile,” she says, and once again I agree. The inmates are indeed running the asylum. It seems the notion of being a public servant has been forgotten by our elected cons who appear blind to the fact that never in American history has Congressional approval been so low.  In fact, according to the Gallup poll people who have been tracking approval since 1974, “just 10 percent of Americans said they approved of how Congress was handling its job last August -- the lowest ratings ever recorded.”  That was last August, when the government was at least making a stab at working.  But now?



I’ve been trying for years to get my sister to come and visit, but she’s pretty adamant in her belief that the US is not a safe place to be a tourist.  She reads about the crime here, the mass killings that have become routine, the criminals with automatic weapons, and she reasons, possibly correctly, that her apartment near the Moulin Rouge in Paris is a safer bet than my house in the Washington suburbs.


She may be right. Almost exactly 11 years ago on October 14, 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Beltway Snipers, shot and killed a woman shopping at a Home Depot, and wounded another man before continuing their killing spree. That store is less than two miles from my home. The duo went on to murder a total of 10 people and wound another three. After the initial flurry that always follows such dreadful events, it was business as usual as far as gun control goes. My sister thinks that America’s fascination with guns is “comme des enfants qui jouent aux cowboys,” like children playing cowboy, except with real bullets. It’s difficult and fruitless to argue with that reasoning.


Being bi-national, I’ve always been in a position to defend the French while in America, and the Americans while in France.  When visiting France over the last decades, I’ve had to explain Vietnam (why would the Americans want to get their butts kicked there? Couldn’t they learn from the French whose asses were handed to them at Dien Ben Phu?); Nixon and Watergate (so he lied? What’s the big deal?); Ronald Reagan (you guys elected a really bad actor to be your president?); Monica Lewinski (see above); Iraq (what weapons of mass destruction?); the Busch/Gore presidential election (even the French wouldn’t cheat like that!); baseball (this is a sport?); Budweiser (this is a beer?); and a multitude of other foibles.


This latest one, the actual closing down of the American government? I’m not even going to try.  

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Is there anything more demeaning than a paper hospital gown? Every time I have to wear one--which has been far too often--I feel as if Cristo has attempted and failed wrap me. There was a middle-aged man at the hospital where I went yesterday morning, he was walking along the corridor looking for a rest room with his pale naked butt sticking out of the gown.

And what about catheters? I’m amazed no one has picked up their comedic potentials. They deal with pee, which is funny, and penises, which are always good for a laugh, and they make you walk funny and wear a frown as you do, because nobody, nobody, has ever smiled with a catheter inside them. Walking funny, we all know, is comedy gold. I’m sorry to say I’m not sure how much of this can apply to women while remaining politically correct, so once again being pc may lead to lost opportunities.

Yesterday, as the catheter implanted in me the day before was removed by a male nurse, I said all medical personnel should have to wear one of these humiliating devices at least one day out of the year. The nurse shuddered, said, “I don’t mind surgery; the only thing that scares me is having to wear one of those things.”

Also, I think Catheter would be a really great name for a little girl.  It sounds almost biblical: “And Catheter did say go forth and procreate safely because I am one with you, deeply held and the cause of relief and distress…”

So here’s what happened: It all went as planned. The day of the surgery, I got to the hospital at 6:15 a.m., driven there by my friend Paul who has now seen me through a half-dozen such procedures. I changed into a sky-blue hospital gown and was told to lie down on a gurney, shielded from the world by a curtain hanging from the ceiling.

A bunch of people came to see me.  Nurses, nursing assistants, two anesthesiologists, one anesthesiologist’s assistant, a person who put in the IV, and a guy pushing a mop around the hallway. The latter was possibly the friendliest of the lot.

I signed many papers, which is hard to do when you’re lying down. I didn’t have time to read them but I accepted the fact that if anything at all happened to me, including but not necessarily limited to an alien abduction, the hospital would not be responsible. I gave up my pants, undies, short, wallet and phone. I was festooned with little sticky pads attached to wires that went into a machine that beeped and burped. I went ahhh with my mouth wide open three times. I listened to the sounds endemic to a medical establishment, hurrying footsteps, rubber wheels on linoleum, pinging of machines, public address announcements, the wailing of an injured child, greetings from one nurse to another, telephones, faxes…

At 7:30 they hook up the IV and start the anesthesia drip (I’ll find out later they filled me with opiates, which truly pissed me off as I had specifically requested they not use opiates on me), and suddenly it’s 10 a.m., I am in the recovery room and I can feel the catheter scratching my urethra. My mouth is cottony, my eyes sandy and my groin hurts.

I wait. I wait some more.  Now that the operation is over, no one is particularly interested in my state of being. A nurse asks how I am, I say, “Just peachy…”

Around 10:45 the surgeon comes by.  This is unusual and I worry but he says everything went well, and it doesn’t look as if what he has taken out is invasive. Good news. Better news, he has already injected me with the chemotherapy solution. Intravenously, it makes you deathly ill, but shot directly into the bladder; there are few side effects save for a burning sensation that ebbs and flows.  I may not need to go through the six-week course of chemo.

It’s done.