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.