Thursday, February 28, 2013


Judging from the latest news, the consensus in the English speaking world is that it’s permissible to chow down on Ferdinand or Babe the blue ox, but not so much on Flicka or Black Beauty. Elsie’s okay for sliders but Man o’ War isn’t. And let’s not even mention the awful things we do to Porky Pig. How strange, these epicurean preferences…

Now it can be told: I was raised on horse meat. I have kept this tidbit of personal history largely to myself, sharing it only with good friends or squeamish people I wanted to disgust, but it’s true. In the larger cities Post-war France (that’s post WWII), horse meat was regularly eaten by the populace since other forms of protein—beef, pork, poultry or fish—were unavailable. Also, I should add here in the interest of full disclosure, I drank mare’s milk since cow’s milk couldn’t be found. Mare’s milk is thin, watery and greyish blue. It tastes like nothing and has few redeeming qualities save nourishing colts. To the best of my knowledge, it’s not even nutritious enough to make cheese. Oh, before I forget, I’ve also eaten rattlesnake (South Carolina), termites (West Africa), raw fish and octopus (US and Asia), chocolate-covered grasshoppers and ants (imported from Central America), pan-fried worms (Florida), calf brain beignets (France. The thought of those still make me retch), chicken livers (ditto), tongue (ditto cubed) and, while camping in Southern Maryland, very large mosquitoes (accidentally). My late father was once forced to eat sheep’s eyes by Touareg tribal leaders, and there’s a faint possibility that in the late 1800’s, my great-grand-uncle on my mother’s side feasted on someone’s thigh while serving as an attaché in one of France’s African colonies.  If we are indeed what we eat, I shudder to consider my ancestral origins.

In regard to horsemeat, it seems we are guilty of a certain hypocrisy. Not that long ago, North American wild stallions were herded into canyons and culled, often using semi-automatic rifles. We’re perfectly willing to sacrifice equines to feed our animal companions (neither Fluffy nor Rover discriminate, I’m sure), and yet we find it (I can’t resist this) hard to digest eating them ourselves. So let me tell you what I remember…

Horse meat is tough, stringy, grey when cooked, and odiferous. I recollect my mother grilling it in our Parisian kitchen and the smell would spread and linger through every room of the large apartment. It was almost as bad as the rank odor of roasting mutton, another delicacy I was subjected to in childhood.  The Breton maids who lived in the upstairs garrets of the apartment building where I was raised would spend afternoons making sausage, an arduous process that involved pounding the horsemeat with wooden mallets, mincing it and mixing in suet, then adding copious amounts of sea salt and garlic. Was it good? Honestly, I remember it as being just as savory as any $15-a-pound Italian sopressata sold in gourmet stores. At the time, in a country trying to find its post-war footing, horsemeat provided sustenance when little was to be found.

Times are different now, though I can’t quite understand the furor over the horsemeat scandal. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows 145 bug parts and 5 rodent hairs per jar of peanut butter and 105 fruit fly eggs in a jar of spaghetti sauce. Also, 20 maggots in a can of mushrooms.  Me, I’d rather eat a horse.



Monday, February 25, 2013

The Great Health Care Swindle

I’m tired of cancer, exhausted of thinking and talking about it, bored with my experiences and those of others.  I am tired of having my ears perk up at the mere mention of the word, written or spoken, and I am really weary of the post-surgical listlessness that has taken me over. The good news is that, according to The New Good Doctor (TNGD) I am at least for now clean. I have dodged a bullet. Undoubtedly, other bullets are on the way but for now I’ve bought some time to do the things I need to do, even if I am not completely sure what these things might entail.

What I have been doing is writing, cleaning house, reading, sleeping far more than I should, and making beef stews that get better and better with practice. I’ve seen a few friends but not many. I am fascinated by the economic contortions the country—and the world—are going through, and vaguely amused by the doomsayers. Folks, let’s face it, not a single major or minor national economy is going to fail. If the Greeks are still above water financially, the rest of us are probably going to come out OK.

All these gyrations, though, have left me wondering about the merchant class, which I define as the large group of business people who create nothing and essentially resell what they have purchased for a slightly—or criminally—higher fee. I’ve always found it fascinating that in cultures predating the Industrial Revolution, the merchant class was considered, well, about as low as you could get, really, often below the peasantry and far beneath the military, the intellectuals and the clergy.

Then I began reading an exposé by Time magazine on the health industry, which includes hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, giant technological concerns like GE that make medical testing equipment, resellers, insurance behemoths and smaller businesses such as ambulance service and aftercare rehabs. I recommend the piece to anyone who’s been in the hospital, is scheduled to be, or has a loved one there.

The more I read the story, the angrier I became. What we have in the health care world, as we all know, is an ungovernable quagmire that is rapacious beyond the imagination of mere mortals. The $2 aspirin tablet and $4 Band Aid are barely the tip of the iceberg; hospitals, both for- and non-profit are fortresses of theft, duplicity and what can only be called flagrantly immoral conduct. Clients are fleeced by a system that no one is willing to explain or change. There are tales of $50,000 emergency room visits for stomach aches, even as hospital administrators are paid millions to protect the status quo. What we’re dealing with are financial slaughterhouses designed to fleece the trusting and the ill who are already largely incapable of defending themselves. In fact, they don’t even know they’re being swindled.

Thousands go bankrupt annually because of medical costs and needless tests ordered by doctors who want to maximize both their fees and those charged by the hospitals which they—the doctors—might partially own. Often, the tests will be performed supposedly to avoid medical malpractice lawsuits, but the fact is that over the years, both Republicans and Democrats have torpedoes grassroots efforts to limit such suits, or institute best-practice systems that would make doubtful lawsuits more difficult to press and less profitable. What we basically have is a perfect storm of perfidy that involves every person in the system, except for the patient.  

I seldom recommend reading or trusting the mass media. But you should read this.

Monday, February 18, 2013


And so, four days after the latest cancer surgery, things remain a bit iffy. From hospital sign-in to release, the procedure was flawless. I counted a total of 27 people who came to speak to me. The most interesting of the lot was a lady who asked to see my driver’s license to make sure I had not sent a proxy to the surgery, an interesting concept I had not given thought to but will certainly consider the next time around.

Everything was clockwork, and when I was sent home in late afternoon, I was grateful for the economy of movement displayed by the hospital, but surprised that, once again, the surgeon had left the premises without telling me exactly what the procedure had achieved. This I will not learn this until next Thursday, leaving me a full week to address fears and concerns.

There’s not too much discomfort but when the pain arrives as it does in waves of three, I have to grit my teeth and hold my breath. Luckily it passes quickly. I haven’t wandered too far from my house though I did make an emergency trip to Subway for a couple of foot-longs. Friends have been kind, but I have not really been kind to them. I have no wishes to see anyone, to be reassured, to discuss options and an uncertain future.

What I have done is submerge myself in writing. I am rereading Clavell’s Shogun; I have ordered Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy on Amazon; I am watching reruns of The Office. I am debating whether I should once again try to master Halo on the X-Box.  I am reminded of Jimmy Buffet’s great line, “my nose runs, my feet smell, and I don’t love Jesus.” That sounds about right.  

On a whim I Googled post-surgical depression (PSD) which seems to be a bona fide disease, so maybe that’s what’s going on. It has led me to avoid the phone calls and texts from concerned acquaintances or at best respond monosyllabically. I’ve not opened the door to three drop-by visitors, and watched five complete seasons of The Office, which after repeated viewings still make me laugh. I plan to do nothing tonight save segue from Shogun to Noble House and further figure out the mysteries of Netflix which, after much trial and error, I managed to install in my house.

I have supplies, unlimited gallons of tea and coffee, eight assorted muffins and a complete make-your-own-enchiladas kit, both gifts of concerned friends.  Also, four packs of frozen shrimp and eight cups of instant Thai soup.

I might just stay indoors for a long while.




Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Surgery and Housecleaning

I sweep the kitchen stoop, dust bookshelves, vacuum the living room and under the bed where there’s enough discarded fur to make a spare cat. I empty the trash; scrub out the toilet bowl and Ajax the sink. I am going to the hospital in three hours for the fourth cancer surgery and although this small cleaning frenzy is ridiculous—I will probably be home tonight or tomorrow—it’s also necessary.  Call it the clean-underwear-in-case-of-an-accident syndrome. On the very off-chance something unfortunate happens, a slip of the lancet, say, or a stoned out anesthesiologist who turns a valve the wrong way,  I want to make sure my home is presentable.

Actually, it’s simply something to do. I am packed—toothbrush and dentifrice, spare socks, loose sweat pants, iPad, phone, chargers, one pack of gun (forbidden, I’m sure) and two books—and I have read as much as I can. Words on a page crawl and for once cannot hold my interest.  No food or liquids since last night so even the morning newspaper-and-coffee ritual has been interrupted. I have checked emails, paid all my bills, fed the cat extravagantly, emptied the recycle bin, started the recalcitrant Jeep and let it idle for ten minutes. I have left a hidden key my good neighbor. Again, just in case. This is all familiar territory.

I remain scared.  There’s a small ball of dark anticipation in the pit of my stomach. The next 24 hours will be spent in the domain of the depersonalized medicine practiced these days. There will be a host of anonymous nurses and aides asking the same question over and over. I will tell an indifferent anesthesiologist that, since I am in recovery, I metabolize drugs more rapidly than your average non-addict. I will say I would rather not wake up in the middle of the surgery, as has happened twice before when I was not dosed properly. Last year, I got into an argument with the anesthesiologist who told me it was all in my mind. I said no, it’s all in my liver, the organ that deals with drugs of all kinds and, in my case, goes through restricted substances like a house afire.

I abhor the entire process and keep a tenuous hold on gratitude.  All this is meant to heal, not harm.

I leaf through the New Yorker, field a few text messages from friends wishing me well. Almost forgot to empty the bathroom wastebasket; do that. Wipe down the kitchen counter and scrub out a tomato paste stain from the last time I made pasta. Look longingly at the espresso maker.

Ok. I’m ready.

No. Wait. I’m not.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Writing About People, Places & Things

So after writing some 500 blogs on varying subjects—some with a modicum of wisdom and others not—I recently culled what I thought were the best hundred or so entries and created a collection titled Writings About People, Places & Things. I edited the thing, formatted it to the demanding specifications required by Amazon’s Kindle, bought a photo and created a cover, and on Thursday lofted the thing into the ebook universe. It’s available at http:/

I did this partially because I believe some of the writing is worth keeping, and largely because in a couple of days I will go in for the fourth surgical procedure to arrest a cancer that apparently does not wish to be arrested. Though I am trying to enter this latest foray with a positive attitude, I have to admit the whole thing is getting old. I was initially diagnosed more than 18 months ago, declared cancer-free and then not-so-much cancer-free two times following a battery of follow-up tests. This, I know, is often the way cancer works, and it has left me, scared, depressed, and resigned.

The one positive aspect of this situation is that I have been writing more than ever.  I have three uncompleted projects that need attention and I am determined to finish them within the year. I plan to demand St. Martin’s Press shower me with dollars and an international book tour, but if the editors there do not consider the works worthy (inconceivable, I know, but the world is a strange and unfair place) I will self-publish.

If you are reading this blog, do me a favor: please download or sample Writings About People, Places & Things on your Kindle, Nook, PC, or pad. Write a review and help me foster some interest among readers. I’d really appreciate it.  Thanks!

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Not that long ago, moving the discussion from gun control to mental health would have been called diversionary, a silly attempt by the firearm pushers to avoid the real issue that yes, guns do kill people, and it’s not only demented folks using guns who kill people.  Unless, of course, you’re willing to look into the mental health of all those people who claim to be sane and still own enough firepower to put a small town in danger.

What I think is that over the course of a few millennia, we have discovered that killing others is no longer a daily necessity to the pursuit of normal living and contentment. We are seldom threatened; one of the blessings of living in the United States is that most of us feel safe and are, by and large, free of paranoia. Yes, there are wars, but no declared ones are currently being fought in the US save, perhaps, for the war on drugs. That one is being waged by trained lawmen who, in spite of the dangers inherent to of their profession, may never draw their service revolver in the entirety of their careers. The wars on poverty, obesity, illegal immigration, creeping English Ivy, illiteracy, rats, Burmese pythons, leaping carps, and other invasive flora and fauna are not dependent on bullets and powder for victory.

So I wonder, wouldn’t it be safe to say that a lot of gun-owning people are actually the ones who are whacked? Isn’t it possible that someone whose happiness depends on a machine that shoots out a killing projectile might have issues that may or may not have anything to do with manliness and penis length, with violence and a need to overpower others? And isn’t the guy with the collection of assault weapons simply saying, “Mine is bigger than yours”?

A recent story in the Washington Post reported on a popular 53-year-old pro-gun blogger whose most telling quote was, “Once you put a gun on, you gain situational awareness. I felt grown up. It was like a coming-of-age thing. I felt like an adult.”  The man, well-to-do and urbane, followed this with, “You can control time down to 1/1000th of a second.  It’s a Zen thing.” Holy crap!  I swear that, years ago when I was a substance abuse counselor, a man who loved heroin used these exact same words to describe his addiction.

What addicts do at all cost is protect their addictions. What the gun folks appear to be doing is very much the same thing. And like addicts, they skate around the issues, change the focus of the discussion, blame others, and refuse to take responsibility for their actions.

I’m in favor of establishing Alagun Anonymous, and a sister program (Al Agungone) for all those unfortunates whose lives are made wretched by the gun addicts. Where’s Bill Wilson when we need him?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Five Finger Discount


When I was much younger and still prone to drug and alcohol excesses, I used to steal stuff. It was sport, not necessity, and I stopped when I got caught. I had been eyeing a pair of Ray Bans at the local sports store and decided to try the old sunglasses-on-top-of-the-head ploy--you know, wear them around as if they're yours, and walk out of the store. But I got nabbed by a lady cashier who threatened to have me deported and that was that.
Even now, I occasionally fantasize stealing, imagining exactly how I would get this or that item out of the store without paying for it. It’s mildly entertaining if I have too much time on my hands.
I bring this up because I saw a woman stealing last week. I was at one of those giant hangar stores that carry everything from bicycles to bacon when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a well-dressed white woman in her forties stuff a large Brie cheese into her handbag. She was neither furtive nor hurried. She picked it up, read the label, put it in her purse. There were people around but I'm pretty sure I was the only one who noticed. I followed at a distance and saw her take another large piece of cheese, a pack of smoked turkey slices, a tin of ham and a box of Belgian chocolates. Everything went into her large red leather purse. If she noticed me noticing her, she chose to ignore it. Eventually, she pushed her shopping cart into a check out line, paid her money and left.
Not once was I tempted to call security. Obviously, she had a ham and cheese jones. Maybe her husband—she wore a wedding band—was in dairy product rehab. Maybe she had a large family to feed. Maybe she wanted to surprise a lover.
I estimated that she spent about a hundred, stole about fifty. I assume she got a thrill from it, felt perhaps that she was getting even with something or someone. I somehow doubt that she really needed the stuff.
According to statistics, retail theft is up, with the incidence of food theft rising daily. No surprise there as the cost of daily living spirals out of control. Gasoline theft is at an all time high as well, and in my neighborhood, many stations have instituted pay-before-you-pump starting at dark. I have not researched cheese theft per se and so can't tell you whether that's up too.
I imagine it's kind of tough for stores. How far can you go protecting your merchandise without alienating the customers? Where do you draw the line? Will you really prosecute Gammie for stealing batteries? (Yes, that's from Seinfeld.)
A friend who used to work security at Safeway told me about a family that would enter the store in the early morning, cause a diversion by knocking over a stack soup cans or fruit, then stuff their respective pockets during the commotion. Soon, they were well-known throughout the area and one morning all five of them were arrested—Mom, Dad, three children between the ages of twelve and seventeen. While Dad and the kids went for basic staples—hamburger meat, Polish sausage, Eggos and such, Mom specialized in high price items. When the police searched her, they found $400 of fois gras and filet mignon.