Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Frenchies

Time magazine this week announced its 100 Most Influential People in the World. Once more, I am not amongst them.  I suppose I should have expected it; one doesn’t really get noticed working from one’s basement.

This year, Time selected a Nigerian movie star, an Australian mining magnate, a Russian politician, a couple of actors, a bunch of fashion mavens and a slew of industrialists. Notable by their absences are bicyclist Lance Armstrong and Bladerunner Oscar Pistorius, both men whose feats electrified the world not that long ago and then were accused and deemed guilty of serious wrongdoings. We are merciless with our heroes.

Also not listed were a few people I know personally and find deserving.They are worthy of notice, and so in the grand tradition of Michael Scott’s Dundee Awards, I have created the Frenchies and with this blog announce the First Annual Frenchy Awards for Commendable People with Whom I Am Acquainted (the FACPWIAA).

My friend A, who is a theatre wardrobe mistress traveling the US, was on a bus recently in some Western city, Tucson or Austin I think, when she found herself surrounded by a bunch of drunks. A is petite, read tiny, and the situation was getting threatening. The bus driver stopped the vehicle and told the drunks to behave. They didn’t. He threw them off. Many of them were young and brawny; there was only one of him, rather oldish and stooped, according to A. A small victory for common courtesy, and the Unconditional Valor Frenchy for bravery.

O, whom I met some months ago, like me came to the US at a young age. She’s a writer of gentle and moving tales, a busy woman with a full life and a houseful of rescue dogs she fosters until a new home can be found for them.  Last we spoke, there were six dogs and three cats. Though there are occasional donations, O cares for these discarded companions in her home and from her own pocket. She writes a blog, and is hereby awarded the Kindness Towards Four-Legged Friends Frenchy.

J is the nurse who for the past six months has been administering my Tuesday-morning chemotherapy. She’s Valkyrie-like, from central Pennsylvania, and she has the dark sense of humor I appreciate, as well as sure and gentle hands. I also like that she doesn’t sugarcoat facts, and her directness has been a boon when compared to the general evasiveness I’ve encountered from other medical people during this two-year adventure. I should probably establish a special Frenchy Award for compassionate medical people (and an anti-Frenchy for the really inept ones) but I’m too lazy. J gets the Caring Hands Frenchy award.

Some years ago, M established a writers’ group that meets weekly and has nurtured the talents of authors young and old. It’s not an easy task, somewhat akin to herding feral cats. On any given Wednesday night, two dozen novelists and writers of short- and medium-length fiction meet to critique each other’s works. There’s good stuff, medium stuff, and once in a very rare while, what I unkindly consider to be some really vile stuff, but that’s just me. M has provided a truly valuable service to this area’s creativity, and done so with humor, patience and conviction.  He gets the Frenchy Award for Sustaining Local Arts and here is a shameless plug for his Arlington Writers Group,

T repairs computers for a living and for the past three years has been taking discarded machines, upgrading them, and through international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) sending them to schools in developing countries. At last count, he has sent 310 laptops abroad.  Now he is swamped, and has requested anonymity since he cannot take in any more computers, as he lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment already chockfull of screens, keyboards, tablets, cables, and the occasional first generation Kindle and iPad. T gets the well-deserved Technology Frenchy.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Three-fingered People I Have Known

Years ago I remember going to a reception, one of those things where you meet two dozen people and can’t remember a single name. I think it was to celebrate the twentieth wedding anniversary of a couple whose vows seemed threatened from the moment they were made. They had patched a good life together in spite of a rocky and adulterous start, defying both doubters and odds, and they had invited their hundred closest friends either to share the happiness or go deeder deeder deeder to all the cynics.

The reason I remember the event at all is that I was introduced to a young man and when I shook his hand, I realized he was missing two fingers. This was totally unexpected and I managed not to recoil, or make a face, or go, “Whoaaa.” I’m sure I must have had a reaction, though, and luckily he was far into his cups because he did not have a counter-reaction and we ended up having as good a conversation as one drunk and one non-drinker can have about something that did not matter.  I forgot about the incident until very recently when a fellow writer described one of his fictional characters as missing a pinkie finger. I told him my story, and noted that such a depiction is indeed nifty; there’s no need to go farther in the portrayal because by creating a physical eccentricity, the author has successfully defined his personage with minimal hoopla and maximum effect.

And then I thought further.  Many years ago I played in a band that had a three-fingered drummer who would duct-tape his drumstick to his hand and wrist. I wish I could say he was a great drummer but he wasn’t. In fact, he was downright lamentable. Since he could not bend his taped wrist, the tri-digit hand had neither finesse nor subtlety; it banged away on the snare and drowned out cymbal and crash, high hat and cow-bell. Then the fully fingered hand, trying to keep up with its accomplice’s decibel level, would play louder and louder until nothing but cacophony and confusion reigned. Whether on ballads or three-chord proto-punk, the noise quota was the same. I took to wearing ear-plugs when the band practiced. On top of it all, the drummer was an irascible musician prone to fits of anger and noisy frustration. It wasn’t a good fit and he soon quit the band.

When I was a kid in Paris, one of my heroes was my great uncle Clovis Répaud who lived downstairs in the same building as my family. Oncle Répaud was a survivor of the Western Front trench fighting in World War I; he had been shot and while unconscious, rats had chewed through his boots and taken three toes off his left foot. His dog Soldat was similarly afflicted, having lost its right front leg to the wheel of a horse drawn cart.  Both man and dog had the same rolling gait when they went for walks, a fact not lost on other strollers who treated them with great respect.

Nowadays it’s rare to meet anyone with visibly missing appendages and it’s probably politically insensitive to even write about it. So I’ll stop here.




Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Two p.m., downtown Washington, D.C., where the road construction and repairs never stop.  My friend Jim and I are sitting at a Chinese restaurant chopsticking our way through dishes of moo shoo pork and garlic beef. Jim is the best-read man I know, a former publisher and editor, a casual bon vivant, and we are talking about heroes and coming to the disturbing realization that there are none left today.

He remembers as a child being taken by his father to see a parade in London for Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, the British nobleman who in World War II was in command of all ground forces for Operation Overlord, from the initial D Day landings on June 6, 1944, to the end of the Battle of Normandy. On May 4, 1945, the Field Marshall, accepted the German surrender at Luneberg Heath in northern Germany.

When I was a child, my father took me to Louison Bobet’s parade on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Bobet’s fame was decidedly un-Montgomery-like, as it came atop a racing bicycle. He was the first truly great French rider of the post-war period, and he won the Tour de France three times in a row from 1953 to 1955. Bobet was a gentleman though not a nobleman. He was one of three children born above his father’s bakery and got his first bicycle when he was two. Within mere month, or so it is said, little Louison was routinely riding the bike six kilometers. By the time he retired from racing in 1958, he had ridden more than 400,000 kilometers.

Both nations, devastated by war, were in dire need heroes. In Great Britain, Montgomery came to personify England’s steadfastness and refusal to give in.  In France, a country that had given in too quickly, Bobet signaled a renewal of faith, and on his slim shoulders he bore French pride with both dignity and unease.

Where have all the heroes gone? Are there any left? Certainly not among the people we now venerate, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. According to Webster’s, a hero is an individual of distinguished courage or ability admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities; any person who has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal; and in antiquity, an individual possessing godlike prowess and beneficence who often came to be honored as a divinity. Sadly, I can’t think of a single example in our times.

And yet people act heroically every day, but we somehow either do not hear about it, or their fame is so fleeting it fails to even approach Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes. Instead, we’re told to idolize captains of industry, pop stars, overpaid athletes and people without notable accomplishments—individuals famous simply for being famous.

Need proof that the heroes are a vanishing breed? New York’s Downtown Alliance sponsors the Canyon of Heroes Parades, the classic and celebrated ticker-tape pageants that run along Broadway from the Battery to City Hall. There have been 205 parades honoring champion athletes, pioneers of air and space travel, soldiers, sailors, sea captains, firemen, heads of state, politicians, journalists, and a virtuoso pianist. The first one was held on October 28, 1886, for the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Of the last 10 parades, eight have been for football, baseball or hockey teams. One was for Sammy Sosa when he tied—tied, mind you, not surpassed—the single-season home run record, and another, on November 16, 1998, was for the Senator John Glenn and the crew members of the US space shuttle Discovery. The last parade held for war heroes was June 25, 1991, for Korean War Veterans.

The trouble is, heroes are not teams or groups, they’re individuals. So where have all the heroes gone?

In his book, Heroes of My Time, the late Harrison Salisbury says, "We do not live in the age of heroes. This is not the era of Jefferson, Lincoln, or Commodore Perry. Nor even of Charles Lindbergh. The politicians of our day seldom remind us of Franklin D. or Eleanor Roosevelt. Athletes signing five-and ten-million- dollar contracts do not resonate as did Babe Ruth."

Today’s heroes are not chosen, they are thrust upon us, cosseted by press agents, delivered to us bright and shiny on television’s entertainment news or with too many inches of superfluous print in People and Us magazines. Neither are they homegrown. We will not meet them nor know them; they have never lived next door…

And yet we must have heroes, they are necessary to our well-being, to our national psyche, to our beliefs that the epic and superhuman can be attained.

How can we find the heroes we need?


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ha, I Say

So this may be the best card I have received in many months. Sent by my friend Lisa who gave up life in the big city to be in some godawful alligator- and toad-infested Floridian backwater where the sinkholes and poodle-gobbling Burmese pythons abound, not to mention 12-foot-long Komodo lizards that have taken over bankrupt housing developments.

Personally, I find this card hilarious and to the point. I’m glad a card-maker (this is by That’s All and a portion of the proceeds will benefit the fight against ovarian cancer) has come to terms with the fact that yes, us cancer folks do feel we’re better than you… We are noble, we face adversity with a firecracker grin, we are, in a word, beings made superior by the abnormality of our nasty, invasive cells. Think of us as Christians battling heathen Saracens.
In other words, deal with it.
(Oh god, it's so sad to know without a doubt that somewhere, somehow, someone will read this and take it seriously and send me either an insulting comment or suggest I drink three glasses of carrot juice a day. If you are this person, I can only recommend restraint of pen and tongue. Really. Have a nice day.)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Plots and Life

There are times when I feel opaque, almost transparent. All emotions I have had that could be expanded have been spent, for good or for ill, and whatever I believe I am capable of teaching has been taught ad nauseam. Maybe it’s a function of age, this strange repetition of feelings, events, history, passions and sensations. The core of me says everything I listen to has been said too many times before, and even in Western music, there are only 12 notes, and every possible arrangement has been composed, hummed and played. I finally understand the full meaning of Ecclesiastes 1:9, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Obviously, even Shakespeare was willing to rehash these older feelings, (oh how I hate to quote Shakespeare… So déclassé) in Sonnet 59, when he wrote:

If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child.

This sense of not-quite-déjà-vu is insidious. If everything has been done, thought, written and said, then what’s the point? Is life really a simple replay of all that’s already been accomplished?

If life is stranger than fiction, and fiction is too often representative of life, then the truth of it all might be found only in the footnotes, and lets be honest, who among us has time for footnotes, prologues, epilogues or addenda? Most of us read pages diagonally, getting the gist rather than the details. We want the meat and potatoes, not the parsley lining the main course. In fact, we get sort of impatient if the heart of the matter is obscured by the writer’s garnish.  And that’s OK, for the most part. After all, no less an authority than Christopher Booker, a British writer and founder of the magazine Private Eye, believes all literature—and here I would add all life—hinges on a few simple plot lines.

The first is Overcoming the Monster. From Beowulf to modern horror novels, we strive to defeat something bigger and more evil than ourselves.

The second story line is Rags to Riches, where we better ourselves along accepted social lines.

Then we might go on to plot number three, The Quest, or the search for meaning which will almost certainly involve plot line four, The Voyage and Return. All this may bear traces of both or either Comedy and Tragedy and inevitably as spring follows winter, leads to Rebirth, or perhaps salvation. In more recent times and bowing to changes in modern literature, Booker had added two more entries, Rebellion (think 1984) and Mystery.

From my standpoint, plot lines one through seven perfectly exemplify modern lives. Some of us will live at least two of them, and many of us will exist and struggle through three or more. They repeat themselves, though wearing different costumes and playing different roles. Death, romance, work, play, family and friends, even faith, are cyclical. We pretend to see newness where there is none because doing otherwise will take the wind out of any ship’s sails.

Hmmm. I have no more deep thoughts today, nor even shallow ones, and it’s time for the brown rice and egg whites.

But give this some thought: out of the seven plots, which ones are yours?




Monday, April 1, 2013


The nurse is tall and Teutonic, blonde with a head-circling braid remindful of Heidi in the Alps. I fear she might burst into song. She is in her early 30s, a single mother, and she comes from a center that specialized in pediatric urology. Today she is wearing a face mask and struggling into latex gloves that will almost reach her elbows. I ask her why this change in attire. In the past, she has administered the weekly chemo treatment without such accoutrement. “Tuberculosis,” she says, snapping her gloves on. “I’ve got a kid. I can’t afford to take chances.”

She injects about 20 cubic centimeters of BCG (Bacille Calmette-Guerin), a liquid containing a TB culture. It burns and stings and I catch my breath. BCG is a vaccine invented in France and used against tuberculosis. This is my second session and four more, one a week, are scheduled.

Hmm, tuberculosis… No one knows exactly why the treatment works on bladder cancer. The belief is that somehow the TB cells irritate the bladder, thereby producing an autoimmune reaction that adversely affects the invading cells.  Personally, I believe the TB and cancer cells simply don’t like each other much and the former will try to destroy the latter, and vice versa, sort of like warring factions in an African country. We’re not sure why they’re fighting, but there’s a high body count. The BCG treatment worked for me one time some eight months ago, and for a short while my cancer vanished. Three months later it was back again…

Tuberculosis itself is an interesting disease with a history. According to the National Institute of Health, “Evidence of tubercular decay has been found in the spines of Egyptian mummies thousands of years old, and TB was common both in ancient Greece and Imperial Rome. Since that time, scientific advances, including the discovery of the tuberculosis mycobacterium and the development of new drugs and the Bacille Calmette-Guérin vaccine, caused TB to lessen its grip on mankind during some periods of history. However, TB never completely let go. Today, TB remains one of the leading infectious disease killers around the world. Emerging drug-resistant strains of the disease are presenting a new challenge in the ever-changing battle to control and prevent TB.” And, says the World Health Sciences website,

  Someone in the world is infected with TB every second.

  One third of the world’s population is currently infected with TB.

  5-10% of people who are infected with TB (but who are not infected with HIV) become sick or infectious at some time in their life.
Ain’t that just peachy.

On the positive side, a lot of famous people have suffered and/or died of TB, including all three Bronte sisters.  A brief list of sufferers would also include:

Frederic Bartholdi, French sculptor
Alexander Graham Bell, Scottish inventor
Sarah Bernhardt, French actress
Luigi Boccherini, Italian composer
Simon Bolivar, Venezuelan revolutionary
Louis Braille, French inventor
Anne Bronte, English novelist
Charlotte Bronte, English novelist
Emily Bronte, English novelist
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, English poet
Robert Burns, Scottish poet
John C. Calhoun, American politician
John Calvin, French theologian
Albert Camus, French author
Anders Celsius, Swedish astronomer
Charles IX, French monarch
Anton Chekhov, Russian author
Frederic Chopin, Polish composer
Stephen Crane, American author
Eugene Delacroix, French painter
Fanny Dickens, sister of Charles Dickens
Marie Duplessis, French courtesan
Stephen Foster, American composer
Paul Gauguin, French painter
Dashiell Hammett, American author
Henry VII, English monarch
W. C. Fields, American actor
Brenda Fricker, Irish actress
John Henry "Doc" Holliday, American gunslinger
Washington Irving, American author
Tom Jones, Welsh singer
Franz Kafka, Czech author
Immanuel Kant, German philosopher
John Keats, English poet
Maria Faustina Kowalska, Polish saint
D. H. Lawrence, English author
Vivien Leigh, English actress
Louis XIII, French monarch
Louis XVII, French monarch
Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand author
Christy Mathewson, American baseball player
William Somerset Maugham, English author
Dmitri Mendeleev, Russian chemist
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnamese revolutionary
Moliere, French playwright
James Monroe, American President
Edvard Munch, Norwegian painter
Florence Nightingale, English nurse
Eugene O'Neill, American playwright
George Orwell, English author
Niccolo Paganini, Italian composer
Alexander Pope, English poet
Gavrilo Princip, Serbian revolutionary
Henry Purcell, English composer
Cardinal Richelieu, French clergyman
Eleanor Roosevelt, American First Lady
Edmond Rostand, French playwright
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Genevan philosopher
Friedrich Schiller, German author
Erwin Schrodinger, Austrian physicist
Sir Walter Scott, Scottish author
Bernadette Soubirous, French saint
Baruch Spinoza, Dutch philosopher
Ringo Starr, English musician
Alexander Stephens, American politician
Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish author
Igor Stravinsky, Russian composer
Therese of Lisieux, French saint
Dylan Thomas, Welsh author
Henry David Thoreau, American author
Desmond Tutu, South African clergyman
Georges Vezina, Canadian hockey player
Voltaire, French philosopher and author
Carl Maria von Weber, German composer

Oh yes, and Adolf Hitler.


When I’m rich and famous, I’ll be able to add my name to the list, right there between Rousseau and Schiller.


At last, something to look forward to!