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.