Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Fame, Part I

My maternal grandfather, Henry Février, was brushed by greatness. So was my mother, Marie-Thérèse, and, I suppose, so was I
My friend Raoul, a playwright, also had his close encounter. His plays were produced throughout the United States and there was no reason not to think he wouldn’t become a Miller or an Albee. Jimbo, a guitarist friend, was among the founding members of a pretty well-known band that moved on without him, though he’s still called upon when the group does nostalgia tours. Karen, a Baltimore girl with a wondrous voice was flown to Europe to sing and open for a major act, and James, a prolific yet unknown writer, has had his work mentioned in passing in the New York Times and the New Yorker. None of them became really successful at their chosen trade. If I were to really think about it, I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more names of people–most of them artists of one ilk or another–who came very close to fame, and then saw it elude them.   
Grandfather Henry wrote operas when such things were the equivalent of heavy-duty rock ‘n’ roll shows. In 1910 he composed Monna Vanna with the then-renowned Maurice Maeterlinck who a year later would win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Henry’s Monna Vanna was pretty well panned in Paris, but he accompanied the opera’s cast on a tour of the US Midwest where he garnered praise and good press. He returned to France and, although a prolific and talented composer, he was for all good purposes never heard from again.
My mother, Marie Thérèse, grew up in an environment that bled music from every pore. Ravel was a frequent houseguest. Her brother, my Oncle Jacques, much favored over his sister by Grandfather Henry, would in time become a celebrated concert pianist whose interpretations of Ravel and Poulenc are to this day considered sans pareille. Mom, a troublesome child from the get-go, started hanging out with the artists of Montparnasse when she was 16 and in no time at all found herself pregnant. The father was a Jewish physician and film-maker from North Africa. They got married, much to the displeasure of Henry and company.
In time my mother contributed to the creation of Babar,  and later published a well-received children’s book that was compared to St. Exupery’s Little Prince. But fame did not come quickly enough for her. She went back to her first love, painting, and did both oils and watercolors of beautiful scenes from the Belle Époque, weddings, wooings, picnics, and strolls through the park, Parisian neighborhoods, proud men in boaters posing before large automobiles, and a stunning little oil-on-cardboard Bastille Day that remains one of my happiest possessions. Her style was called naïf  by the critics. She was featured in Paris-Match and had several shows in Paris and later in Washington. Her paintings sold quite well, but not well enough to please her.
When we came to the United States, her works were displayed in some local galleries, and she undertook a massive project: a single, 12-foot-long oil showing each and every First Lady from Martha Washington to Jacquie Kennedy.  My father built the frame and stretched the canvas himself. The painting dominated our living room–the only space in our home long to house it–and it took her two years to finish. A reporter wrote a story about it for the Washington Post, and somewhere I still have a faded clipping showing my mother wielding a camel hair brush and looking properly bohemian.
The painting never sold so she sought to donate it to the Smithsonian, thinking, perhaps, that it might hang in the same room where the First Ladies’ inaugural dresses were displayed. The Smithsonian turned down her gift.
Though she never said so, I think this was the ultimate rebuff. She seldom painted after this, limiting herself to small pen and ink sketches of friends, and pelicans when she was in Florida.
I’m not sure if she was bitter about her brushes with fame, or if she simply accepted them. She was a fatalistic woman seldom surprised when things went wrong.  I think she passed that trait on to me.  
I’ve had my minor brushes with fame as well, though mine, compared with Grand Père Henry and my mother, were truly ephemeral. I’ll write about those next time.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Years ago I met an at-the-time older man who told me his philosophy towards life could be reduced to two sentences:
1. Don’t get your hopes up; and
2. They’re going to screw you.
He didn’t use the word ‘screw,’ preferring a stronger expletive that I, personally, rarely need to see on a written page, but please, feel free to substitute the f-word if that makes the concept clearer.
I pondered his thinking for a long time.
Sentence Number One has its virtues; it deals with expectations and the resentments caused when these don’t come through. There’s a common sense to acceptance (but not to resignation): A true fatalist by definition is never disappointed by unfortunate turns of events. He has factored them into his life calculations. He may be pleasantly surprised if things come out somewhat better than expected, but by expecting the worse, he steels himself against failure. I’ve known people like that, the Eeyores of the world. All of us have a little Eeyore somewhere in our souls, a counter-Pollyanna we use to temper unreasonable optimism.  In many of us, Eeyore might be somewhat dominant; he struggles for supremacy when times are harsh. We allow him to take over on rainy days during flu season.    
Sentence Number Two is more complex, implying the existence of an almost conspirational environment one must be aware of at all times. It smacks of paranoia, of deluded self-importance. Anyone who truly believes “they’re” going to get him has, among other things, a monstrously large ego, a sense of self so outsized he can believe he’s significant enough to warrant the negative will of others.  People like that are incredibly, terminally, boring. And a little scary. I know a few, and I stay away from them. Their anger, frustration and vehemence are enormous, and their inability to express their fears make them borderline dangerous.
Me, I believe things simply are. We’re largely powerless over forces much greater than ourselves. Mutating cells, tiny little entities without minds or thoughts of their own, threaten my life. How odd is that, being endangered by microscopic entities that can’t even read “See Spot run”?
I do what I can to deal with the hazard they pose, but things will occur as they will, with minimal influence from me. Most things, actually, are far more potent than I am. I’m powerless but not necessarily completely helpless. I try to mitigate harm without any guarantee that my actions will in anyway alter the future in my favor.
More and more I believe in coincidences although for the past few decades I’ve been told weekly that there are no such things. I think there are. Serendipity, synchronicity, seriality–one event unconnected to another yet influencing a third or a fourth—all these make my life what it is.  It’s as good a theory as any other and allows me not to think quite as hard about the vagaries of existence.   
So there. Merry holidays, one and all!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Post Surgery

So the last surgery did not work out exactly how I planned. Instead of removing a small benign tumor, the good doctor “roto-rootered” me—his very words—which would explain why this eighth procedure has been a particularly rough one.  Additionally, what he took out was, while not classified as invasive, nevertheless malignant. There is a possibility that within months he’ll suggest surgically removing my bladder, which I will decline. Then he told me to forget about it, have good holidays and come back to see him in three months.
My only response, when the doctor told me all this, was “Yikes.” Quite a while back, I decided that I have no desire to live with a permanent catheter installed in my gut. My resolution may fail with time, but I remember my dad who, after undergoing prostate surgery when such procedures were not routine, was forced for months to wear a colostomy bag.  Though he healed and eventually recovered, he was never the same. The surgery was brutal and its aftermath demeaning. He became the shell of who he’d been, hating his sudden dependence on others to assist him through cruel times. I can’t see myself going through such a change. But of course, I’ve said many “I can’t…” over the years.
In the meantime, I’ve had a CT scan because there appears to be some unwanted lumps forming in my abdominal area. I’d never had such a procedure; I thought they might wave a kitten over my stomach (CAT Scan, get it?) but no, it’s somewhat more complex than that. They shoot iodine into your veins and do what is essentially an X-ray. A very nice nurse told me to pull my pants down and though every fiber in my body screamed for a witty rejoinder, I kept quiet. I think the nurse was appreciative I hope to get the test results in a few days.
And last but not least, some nasty flu bug not covered by the flu shot I had weeks ago has taken up residence in my lungs. I suspect the raft of not-good news has left my resistance and immune system battered.  
Friends have been, well, friends with offers of rides, soup, an ear to bend, corn muffins and brown rice sushi. I have entertained few offers. I am in slob mode—sweats, thermal socks, unshaven for the last couple of days and huddled under layers of blankets.
All this being said, one friend, a lovely woman and writer of adult fairy tales, has promised me things will get better after December 23rd. I’m not sure how she knows this but I’ll take it.  Straws are perfectly valid things to grasp.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Number 8

The day before surgery, I generally do a number of chores to get ready for a convalescence of indeterminate length. I clean the house, that is to say I vacuum up cat hairballs larger than my fist and I empty the fridge of six-months-old veggies. I buy flowers, the cheaper bouquet from Trader Joe. I also get basic necessities like water, at least one half-pound bar of 74% cacao dark chocolate, coconut-covered cashews, Thai soup and turkey meatballs, some fruit so I can feel virtuous, and a box of Petite Seat Salt Brownies that may or not make it through tonight. I also make sure there’s enough toilet paper in both bathrooms.
I get stuff to read from the library and bring out my collection of DMZ graphic novels and all 18 volumes of Fables. I write a blog which, after eight writings, tends to get repetitious. Sorry.
I do the laundry and run the dishwasher, select movies to watch, and catch up on my emails.  There’s no comfortable position when catheters are involved; I know from experience that sitting at the computer will be near impossible, so I tell my friends what’s going on ahead of time and they’ll know to check on me if there’s silence for more than a week.
I cook. In the winter, I make a stew that will last three or four days, as well as a pot of brown rice and peas (virtuous, again). In the spring or summer, I make a giant bowl of gazpacho.
Tomorrow at 10:15 a.m. will be the eighth surgery in three years, so I know the drill. I’m not enthused.  The last two checkups came out clean but then three weeks ago there was blood in my urine, so it’s back to the drawing board.  That, unfortunately, is often the way bladder cancer works, reoccurring after a period of remission. The good thing is that if I and the doctor keep on top of it with tests every three months or so, it’s possible to fight it to a standstill.
Yet I do worry. I’m completely aware that cancer is the illness of this millennium, and that more and more people are falling victim to it.  There have been vast advances in the battle against many forms of the disease, and only a few types are now considered irremediably fatal. Lung and bronchial cancer kill almost three-quarters of a million Americans a year. Colon and rectal cancer are good for another 250,000.  Bladder cancer isn’t among the top ten killers, but it nevertheless caused the death of my oldest sister a decade ago. Luckily, if spotted early, as was my case, the chances of survival are excellent.
My concerns center more on the operation itself.  Being fully anesthetized eight times in a couple of years can’t be healthy. There are brain cells involved, and some expire each time I have to go under. The fact that during the procedures, my body is pumped full of opioids isn’t good either.
And then there’s the mental and emotional component. This is just no fun at all. It saps my vitality and makes me feel old and ugly. I wrote at some length before about the shaming effect cancer seems to have on people who get it.  I’ve talked with others in my situation. Most of fun can joke about the disease, but deep down it makes us feel dirty and unattractive, as if we’ve done something wrong and are being punished.  Personally, I blame it on religion, which would have us believe in the karmic nature of cancer cells.
Today I try to take stock, to deal with the positive stuff. I have a warm home, food, friends, good stuff to read and listen to.  It’s not snowing. The cat is asleep upstairs and will probably nest on my bed for the next few days. By this time tomorrow whatever’s going to happen will have happened and that’s exactly as things should be.  
I guess…

Friday, December 5, 2014

Seuxal Dissoordeers

Let me ask you this. You receive the following email message:
M.D. appovred,
Are you suffering fromm seuxal dissoordeers? Then you will get interessted by this amazig medciaiton
Does such a note give you hope that whatever you’re suffering from may have a cure? Do you immediately click on the provided URL to see what the amaziq medciaiton is? No?
Didn’t think so, which got me to wonder—is there anyone in the known universe who will respond to this?
Leaving aside any seuxal dissoordeers I might have without knowing it, how did my name get on the mailing list of someone who’s English is so rudimentary that even Spellcheck has issues. 
The sender’s name is Kass Aristophanes operating from the amano.com domain. I wonder if perhaps Kass is harboring some serious seuxal dissoordeers that cause him to be intensely dyslexic.  
Later that same day, I receive:  I am from Geroge,
Got it:
Women's heath drugs to foget aboout probleemss.
Yours, Lucana
Now I’m thinking my job is to get Kass and Lucana together. Or perhaps I should forward this to all the women I know who, I’m pretty certain, have problems of their own.
Having a fertile imagination, I also thought these might be secret codes for either very dumb terrorists or illegal financial activity by 10-year-olds. If it isn’t, and someone is actually peddling a cure-all for female probleemss or seuxal dissoordeers,  what sort of response are they hoping to get?
I’m tempted to reply, yass, pleez sent me deerectlee all tings to cure bad tings. Alzo, prooblems & dissoordeers quicly pls tankyu.
But I won’t because it would feel like taunting a foreigner whose command of the language is spotty, and, having been such a person many years ago, it might provoke bad karma.
So instead, I’ll proffer some basic advice.
If you’re going to try to con someone, make your delivery smooth. Grammar is important.  The patsy shouldn’t have to struggle to figure out what you mean. If you can’t do that, provide photos, since a picture is worth a thousand words. And if you can’t take photos, a line drawing should do.
Oh, and make sure you spell ‘sexual’ right. People have enough problems with the subject as is without having to worry about how it’s spelled.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Another Language

It’s estimated half the world’s population speaks two or more languages. I do, which makes me a member of the world’s largest more-or-less secret club.
Here’s what you can do when you’re bilingual:
  • Talk with a friend about other people who are right there and won’t understand a word you’re saying. Of course, you do have to make sure the subject of your conversation doesn’t speak the language you and your friend are speaking, or great embarrassment can ensue. This happened to me once while riding the bus with another French speaker.  We were joyfully commenting on the size of another passenger’s nose when the person in question stood up, called us horrible names in French, gave us the finger and stalked off the bus.  
  • Be part of two cultures and,
  • Be able to compare the pluses and minuses of two or more cultures, because obviously, language is a culture’s spokesperson.
  • Seems twice as smart. Notice I use the word ‘seem.’  This is because some people who are bilingual can also be dumb in two languages. As a matter of fact, if you’re a dolt in one language, it’s almost certain you’ll be one in a second language too.
  • On the other hand, you can know twice as much as others on about just about anything. Knowing something in one language is not the same thing as knowing it in another.
  • Have a mind open to new and different thoughts and opinions. People in other nations think differently. This is OK for the most part, unless you’re dealing with a mad person of any nationality, or a terrorist.  Then it’s better to pretend you don’t speak any language at all.
  • Read the works of authors in the language they wrote them. Albert Camus in French is actually interesting.  In English, he’s deadly.  The same can be said of St. Exupery’s Little Prince. The book has been translated from the French a dozen times, but reading it in English just isn’t the same. I’ve heard Spanish friends say the same thing when speaking Cervantes.
  • Travel with fewer fears. It’s amazing how easier it is to get from point A to point Z if you can speak the local language, even if it’s only a little.
  • Meet interesting people.
  • Cultivate a really neat accent. I can still do a killer Parisian accent in English, and my faked American accent when speaking French has motivated real Parisians to be nice to me and even once buy me a cup of coffee in Montpartnasse
  • Wear cool clothing. More and more I am seeing people in the attire of their native countries. Scots in kilts, Indian ladies in saris, Vietnamese girls in ao dais. I have a beret. But to tell the truth, I never wear it because it makes me look like a largish Basque shepherd. I could, though, because I speak French.
  • Swear multilingually. A woman I know asked me to teach her several profane French words she could use when stuck in traffic. I have a few Cantonese expletives, taught to me by a man from Shanghai though I’ve been told my French accent when swearing in Chinese is truly terrible, particularly when I’m behind the wheel.
For all the above reasons, and more, you should learn another language. Pig Latin doesn’t count.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bon Appetit

Lately I’ve been wondering why there’s so much food around.  European friends and I were talking about that recently as we overfilled our trays at an all-you-can-eat buffet. One of us, his plate a veritable Everest of pork products––sausage links and patties, bacon, country ham—noted that, to the best of his well-traveled knowledge, the US was the only place that had all-you-can-eat buffets. I don’t know if this is a fact or not. It seems to me there must be stuff-yourself-to-the-gills restaurants elsewhere, but I haven’t found one.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a Home Depot and noticed that right next to the checkout lanes were multiple displays of candy bars and soft drinks. I’m sure they’ve been there all along, but it was the first time I really became aware of this oddity, and I wondered what had prompted the Home Depot powers-that-be to put them there. Well, duh, profit, obviously… I watched a somewhat overweight kid coax his mom into buying a Mars bar. And a pack of gum. And a little bag of cookies and I wondered, are we really hungry all the time in the land of plenty? Do we need to be chewing and swallowing constantly to fulfill our destiny? Is this what the Constitution promises when it says “pursuit of happiness?”
There’s food in gas stations, bookstores, Old Navy emporia, hardware stores, computer outlets. There are stacks of candy at my local nursery next to the rhododendrons, at my pharmacy, at the nearby big box store, and even the local dry cleaner has a small display of mints and Korean hard candies on his counter. The shops selling sporting goods also have racks of stuff, but the sales staff will tell you it’s really healthy, vegetarian, gluten free, and not the product of slave labor in Abyssinia. Course, it’s about five times as expensive as stuff found elsewhere
Meanwhile, we are facing explosive growth in the number of people diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (I am one), and almost two-thirds of the US population is overweight. America has the second highest percentage of obesity in the world (Mexico out-ate the US in 2013 and took first place.)
What’s interesting is the shift in points of view. A century ago, the rich folks were stout–they had more than enough to eat and did so with gusto—and the poorer people were thin, fed on a diet that often lacked essential protein and carbohydrates. This began to change following World War II with the advent of cheaper foods. Now, large segments of our present society subsists on fast foods of doubtful value. We no longer walk and burn calories and we’re inundated with offerings of cheap snacks everywhere.
I wonder where this is going to lead.
According to Forbes, “Almost one fifth of all deaths in the U.S. are associated with being overweight, according to a startling new report from Columbia University and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. And the kicker? For each consecutive birth year (in other words, the younger you are) the higher the death rate.
“In a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a team of researchers led by epidemiologist Ryan K. Masters looked at death records and health surveys for all adults for a 20-year period between 1986 and 2006. They found that 18.2 percent of all deaths were associated with carrying excess weight.
“This is three times higher than previous reports, which Ryan says relied on average obesity rates rather than specific data and failed to take into account that those who are obese often decline to take part in public health surveys.
“But the news could actually be even worse because the percentage of the population that’s overweight or obese increases every year, and is already considerably higher today than it was in 2006, the final year of data used in the study.”
Think about all this as you celebrate Thanksgiving, the annual celebration of excess, and tuck into the mounds of food before you.
Bon appétit!  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

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 will not run it this year, so I will.

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 Kilometres 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 emballé ), 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 auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)
Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres 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 Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Wall

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Berlin Wall fell, or rather, was torn down chunk by chunk by Germans from both East and West Berlin.
For those of you whose notions of history prior to the year 2000 might be sketchy, the Wall was a barrier created in 1961 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR), also known as the pro-Communist East Germany, essentially to block massive defections and immigration from the East to the West.  The Wall was not a pretty thing. It stretched 90 miles and was almost 12 feet tall, festooned with guard towers and anti-vehicle trenches. Those trying to flee from East to West were shot at and some 200 were left to die in what was known as the death strip on the East German side.
Forty years ago, my then wife, Barbara, and I went to East Berlin to attend the Communist Youth Festival being held there. We were neither communists nor, strictly speaking, youths. Barbara was a foreign editor for the Washington Post, and I was an in-house free-lance writer. She was sent there to report for the paper, and I tagged along thinking there would certainly be something to write about regarding East Germany and the young folks living there.
We both went through Checkpoint Charlie, the best known Wall crossing point between West and East Germany. On the West Berlin side, Checkpoint Charlie was little more than a wooden shed (later replaced by a metal one now displayed at the Allied museum in West Berlin) manned by American soldiers  who gave your passport a peremptory look, then waved you on.  The East Berlin side was something else. Barbara and I were sequestered in separate small interrogation rooms and asked interminable questions by what I remember as bored middle-aged East German military personnel in soiled and rumpled uniforms. What I most clearly recall about that particular event was that the East Germans had a manila file folder containing each and every story I had ever written for the Post and other publications. I was, in other words, a recognized Western rabble-rouser (I had written about bikers, hippies, drug dealers and such) and this made me feel strangely proud.
Barbara spoke German fluently; I didn’t. We were warned not to interview anyone not vetted by the East Germans and given a list of events we would be allowed to attend. We were not to speak with anyone in the streets, and ordered to turn down any offers to buy our Western goods. The latter order I promptly ignored by trading a pair of my Levy jeans for a kid’s red Communist beret.
A few thousand Communist boys and girls from a host of countries were in attendance, and what was to be a jamboree and celebration of young Communism was actually strangely depressing. There were quite a few choral groups singing songs of Socialist struggle and redemption. I vaguely recollect dancers as well. The most exciting moment, though, came during a symposium on Communist advances in Latin America when a bearded Argentinian contingent reacted strongly to something said by an equally hirsute Cuban contingent. The former assaulted the stage and set upon the latter. A melee ensued; fists flew and expletives filled the air.  Barbara and I immediately realized that no good could come from this encounter, particularly for Western reporters who might have witnessed the fracas. We fled through a side door and later heard both groups had been taken into custody and some members sent home in shame.
We spent four days in East Berlin and overdosed on cabbage prepared every conceivable way, none of which was actually edible. I also remember dumplings the consistency of ten-pin bowling balls and yellowish coffee so thin is was transparent.
When it was time to leave, the East German border guard confiscated my red beret and gave us instead little paper flags commemorating the event.
Barbara stayed a while longer in Germany and I flew back to the States. I wrote a story about the festival but found no interest in East Berlin, Communist youths or 50 ways to prepare cabbage.
The little paper flags vanished years ago, but recently while roaming through eBay I found a red beret for sale purportedly by a former Communist Youth. I was sorely tempted to buy it but didn’t. If the owner was truly a Communist youth, he wouldn’t have been asking $200 for it and might instead have been willing to accept a well-used pair of jeans.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The 7/11 Quarter-pound Spicy Big Bite

Two or three times a year, I avail myself of the best culinary treat America has to offer. I’m talking, of course, about the 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bite.
I’m normally not a fan of convenience stores. I think they foster bad habits, including alcoholism and addiction, smoking, gambling and lack of planning. The food there, for the most part, is execrable. Except for the 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bite.
Normally I get two of them, which I slather with a yellow viscous liquid that is lyingly  called cheese, and chili of dubious provenance. Both condiments come from a machine and are free. Since I’m somewhat embarrassed to be buying 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bites, I ask the man behind the counter to bag the distinctive little boxes housing the treats, and I sneak out of the store.
I almost always do this at night, because somehow sins of excess committed at night are more excusable than those performed blatantly in daylight. I’ve noticed as well that this aberrant gastronomic behavior has everything to-do with how I feel, and recently I have not been feeling good. I suspect a lot of it has been my inability to exercise, something which I had been doing faithfully four to five times a week for the past 10 month. Now, zilch. The prospect of additional surgery—the eighth one—does not help either.
Crap. Who am I kidding? I’d celebrate with two 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bites if I were feeling great. Or feeling nothing at all… That’s the nature of that sort of treat, you don’t really need a reason, and any motive will do.
The last time I fell off the wagon was coming back from an evening spent with writing friends, critiquing each other’s work. A bunch of them ended up going to noisy bar that I don’t particularly care for where a plate of fries is $7. For that amount I could get three 7/11 Spicy Big Bites. So I parked my car illegally where it said, “No 7/11 Parking” and I went in. There was a homeless guy in there being ignored by the customers. He caught my eye, smiled ingratiatingly and told me he was short a couple of bucks and really wanted to buy a bottle of Inglenook red, so I gave him two dollars, and in return he did not look at me as I ordered the 7/11 Spicy Big Bites, which was worth at least two dollars.
When I got home I took several paper napkins and a dishtowel and laid them on the kitchen counter because the downside of the 7/11 quarter-pound Spicy Big Bites is they’re messy to eat, particularly as they’re dripping ersatz cheese and chili on your jeans.
I took a bite. Heaven.  I wolfed down the first one. The second one I savored more slowly. No less heavenly. I washed them down with redistilled 100 percent naturally rock-filtered spring water from West Virginia and that made everything all right
I slept like a log. I did not get heartburn. I wondered what Joe the trainer at my gym might say, and then it struck me that Joe, judging from his girth, probably has had his fair share of 7/11 Spicy Big Bites. That was cheering. I felt just guilty enough to not repeat the experience the next day.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Twenty Past Midnight

It is 20 past midnight and I am sitting in my kitchen with a now empty jar of Maillot gherkins, a half-loaf of pumpernickel bread, a battered hunk of Icelandic butter and some Port Salut that's been in a baggy too long. I can't sleep. My leg hurts. I have been diagnosed with a herniated L4-5 disc and attendant sciatica. It’s not as bad as it was a couple of weeks ago when I went to the emergency room at 3 a.m., but it remains painful enough to wake me in the middle of the night.  I am still wary of taking opiate- or diazepam-based painkillers. They really don’t seem to be doing much good, and, of course, I am terrified of getting hooked on little blue, orange or white tablets. There was a time a couple of decades ago when my main goal in life was the acquisition of such pills, and I had a retinue of doctors prescribing them. Those were not good times.
I have to go for a cystoscopy tomorrow because for the last couple of days there was blood in my urine. I’m worried that the cancer has come back.
I worked most of the day on the rewrite of a book I was commissioned to author. Over the past couple of  weeks I have trimmed more than a hundred pages from the original manuscript, and there's no doubt the work is better, tighter, a more pleasant an interesting read. Right now, though, I'm sick of it. I have re-read the thing from table of contents to bibliography six times now, always finding more little glitches, dropped quotation marks and misplaced semi-colons. There are niggling inconsistencies, dubious spellings of foreign places, and an army of unwieldy acronyms
At 20 past midnight, the choice of available actions is limited. I can keep eating. Somewhere in the depth of the fridge is a chunk of Camembert cheese and some kielbasa, but I'm beginning to feel porcine.
I can read. The last ten or so nights, I've been involved with Gavin Menzies' 1421: The Year China Discovered the New World. It's a massive book and slow reading, but it appeals to my belief that we know amazingly little about amazingly little. In fact, I’m close to certain that our understanding of early human history is at best vague or at worst downright erroneous. We get names and dates and locations wrong and we confuse winners and losers of battles both important and insignificant. Most history is guesswork. The rest is written by the generals who lost fewer troops than the other guys.
I can watch a DVD, but doing that is certain to screw with my circadian rhythm and every movie I’ve wanted to watch, I’ve watched at least three times already. I can, I know, rely on Seinfeld. I often do, and even though I’m fairly sure I can recite every line spoken by every character in every episode, I still laugh.
I can go for a walk, but the last time I wandered my neighborhood in the middle of the night, a police car stopped me and the man inside wanted to know what I was doing. He was very polite and when I explained that I couldn’t sleep because I was in pain, he nodded, said, “I hope you feel better,” and drove off. Still, it made me feel vaguely stalkerish to be the only person in the street at that time of night. I know for a fact that one of my neighbors likes to strut around our yearly community meeting openly packing a large caliber firearm.  I don’t trust people who feel they have to carry lethal weapons around. Since I’m not sure where he lives, I can’t really avoid maybe passing in front of his house and I’d rather not do that.
Or I can write this blog.

Monday, October 27, 2014


This is for my friends. They have listened to me bitch, whine, moan, and make myself otherwise ridiculously pitiable (or perhaps pitiful) over the last three years as my health took a nosedive and my perception of mortality sharpened.   
Thank you.
The truth is I have very few friends and too many acquaintances. The latter have taken me to lunch once and told me about their own health issues, or those of their late Aunt Pearl, a saintly woman who underwent the torments of hell without once complaining.  
I took this to mean benign conversation was far preferable to talk of woes and fears, and so waxed euphoric about the kale salad and baked artichoke hearts on the menu.
My friends, on the other hand, have listened, often with pursed lips and furrowed brows. They have not given me spurious advice (“Have you seen a doctor?” asked one acquaintance), or suggested I travel to Mexico to see the holistic shaman who successfully treated the cousin of their secretary’s mother. They have encouraged me to have two half-pound Big Bites from 7/11 following surgery, if this was my wish, then did not utter a word of counsel after I related that this post-operation meal had not in the least agreed with me.
My friends often don’t say anything at all about my health unless I bring the subject up.  Then they ask intelligent questions and suggest practical solutions. They don’t get annoyed when I tell them at the last minute that I won’t make it to their party, or that I can’t attend the concert they bought me a ticket to, or that the long-planned recording session for a song my band Cash & Carry is putting together will have to be rescheduled..
Personally, I think there’s nothing more boring than listening to someone else’s health-related stories. Yes, there are funny ones (like the surgeon who, after my third bladder cancer operation, called me and said, “Hello Mabel! How’s your ankle?”) and there are horrible ones (like the nurse who accidentally and erroneously sent me a letter suggesting I get my affairs in order as I had just a few weeks to live),  but by and large there is nothing to be gained by recounting the sorry tales of one’s declining years.  Yet when I do, my friends listen.
One has driven me half-a-dozen times to and from surgery, and gently humors me when I come out of it completely loopy and stoned. He talks to the doctor after the operation and endures being thought of as my gay partner. He fills my prescriptions, takes me to my house and then calls later in the evening to make sure all is well.
So this is for my friends. You know who you are and I love you all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pain, Part 2

So the pain has lessened by more than half over the last ten-or-so days. An intense course of steroids seems to have done the trick, though I still wake up in the middle of the night with an agonizing cramp in my right leg. I stretch twice a day and have given up my sessions at the gym. I’m scheduled for an MRI in a week to see whether the spine is involved and I’m hoping it’s not. With a bit of luck, this will be a case of Piriformis Syndrome which hopefully can be healed over time.
According to about.com, “The piriformis is a muscle that is behind the hip joint in the buttocks. The piriformis muscle is small compared to other muscles around the hip and thigh, and it aids in external rotation (turning out) of the hip joint. The muscle and its tendon have a close relationship to the sciatic nerve--the largest nerve in the body--which supplies the lower extremities with motor and sensory function. The piriformis tendon and sciatic nerve cross each other behind the hip joint, in the deep buttock. Both structures are about one centimeter in diameter.
“When people are diagnosed with piriformis syndrome, it is thought that the piriformis tendon may be tethering the sciatic nerve, and causing an irritation to the nerve. While it has not been proven, the theory supported by many physicians is that when the piriformis muscle and its tendon are too tight, the sciatic nerve is pinched. This may decrease the blood flow to the nerve and irritate the nerve because of pressure.”
Strangely enough, there are no specific tests that can accurately identify piriformis syndrome, and it is often misdiagnosed. Other causes of this type of pain include a herniated disc, spinal stenosis, sciatica and hip bursitis. A piriformis syndrome diagnosis is often given when all other possibilities are eliminated as possible causes of pain.
So now you know about as much as I do. I’ve only known one other person to have suffered from this, and the very word ‘piriformis’ sets off Spellcheck alarms.
  One night when the pain was intolerable, I ended up at the emergency room and was eventually given a shot of Demerol as well as prescriptions for narcotic painkillers. The shot numbed the pain for a couple of hours, and it came back with a vengeance.  The pain meds didn’t work. The next morning I was prescribed something even stronger. I took it and was nauseous for the entire day, then threw up during the night.
Another night I woke up at three in the morning and after ambling around the house for half-an-hour, decided to go for a walk through my neighborhood. About 15 minutes later, a cop car pulled up next to me. Did I need help? Well, yes, but nothing the policeman could offer. I told him what was going on. He nodded, said, “That’s tough! Good luck,” and drove away.
I’m hoping that the nerves and muscles and sinews will return to their right state within a short time. There’s a possibility of getting a cortisone injection if progress is too slow, and I’d welcome that certainly more than surgery, which sometimes must be performed to loosen the piriformis tendon.
Personally, after seven cancer surgeries over the past three years, I’m sort of burned out on anything that involves cutting flesh.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


“Debilitating” is a perfect word. The very sound though not quite onomatopoeic, implies tiring, constant, unrelenting, and almost permanent. It is one of those unkind, unforgiving words, an un word, with no saving grace or silver lining.
For the past two weeks I have been in debilitating pain. I have developed Piriformis Syndrome, or maybe a Lumbar Radiculopathy, or perhaps a good old case of sciatica, depending on the physician of the moment. And it is incapacitating.
The pain begins at the top of my right buttock and radiates down the side of my thigh, past my knee, and into my calf. It is there, in some varying degree of intensity, 24 hours a day, and there is not a single position—standing, lying, sitting, squatting, or any combination thereof, that gives even a degree of relief.
It allows me to sleep only intermittently. It has, at times, made me into a babbling idiot, pleading with doctors for some form of release. I have been to five different healers in four days. I have been to the emergency room at 3 a.m., gotten injections, gobbled painkillers and tried without success to push, pull or stretch recalcitrant nerves and muscles back into correct alignment. I am now on a diminishing course of steroid medicine which, after four days, may, may, be doing some good. Or perhaps not. It’s frankly hard to tell. For the past five nights, the pain has roused me from half-sleep to full, agonizing wakefulness. The musculature of my right thigh is as dense as oak. I can press with one some areas with one finger and bring myself to tears.
There are other side-effects as well. I’ve become clumsier, sweeping tea cups off table tops and dropping a full plate of rice pasta on my lap. I can’t focus; my thoughts invariable migrate back to the discomfort I’m feeling; I am totally unable to concentrate on much of anything other than the ache. I’m occasionally nauseous. I have had suicidal thoughts. I can barely type. Every other word on the computer screen is misspelled. I’ve misspelled the word “misspelled” five times.
Almost worse than all of this is the certainty that somehow I will not get better. In fact, I will; I am catastrophizing, a not unusual trait of mine; I know my rationality has taken a serious hit but there’s no relief in that realization. I am in denial.
Incidentally, I have no idea how I put myself in this situation. I haven’t fallen, or strained, or bent my spine one way when it should’ve gone another.
I’ve dealt with pain the past, including a motorcycle accident that left every tendon and sinew overextended and strained, but this is worse. And so I decided to do something I haven’t allowed myself in 23 years—after the failure of massive doses of ibuprofen and other over-the-counter concoctions to diminish muscle and nerve swelling, I asked my doctor to prescribe an opioid painkiller, Vicodin. I had managed to avoid such drugs through seven cancer surgeries, but this agony was too much. The Vicodin has not worked. Neither did a couple of other controlled meds whose street prices are stupidly expensive. Now I’m taking a Percodan derivative, which seems to have limited effectiveness. It is not making me high or having any of the pleasant psychoactive effects associated with such drugs. It merely takes the edge off for an hour or two.
Right now it is close to midnight. I am resisting the urge to quadruple the amount of drugs I’ve been taking. My butt and right leg are in excruciating pain. Think sharp stick, a squeezing pressure on the muscles, a deep throbbing no massage can relieve.
My body, and more specifically my liver, is that of an addict who metabolizes drugs quickly as a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, my liver has doesn’t have the capability to  recognize one drug from another, so be it cocaine and alcohol (bad) or diazepam and medical opioid (good), it reacts in the same way and strives to rid my body of the drug that might relieve the pain.  
It’s hard to think clearly. Pain hurts. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I'm Outraged (No, I'm Not)

I have nothing to write about. No, that’s obviously not true; there’s a lot to chronicle, I’m simply not interested. There’s not much happening in my life save that I’m getting older and my body is beginning to show it and act it out.
The daily news seems to repeat itself. We’re about to get involved in another conflict with a bunch of barbarians whose concept of freedom of religion comes from the end of a Kalashnikov, but even the atrocities committed by bloodthirsty morons and oh-so-quickly aired to our general outrage fail to elicit more than a flicker of my attention.
The former governor of Virginia and his wife have just been convicted of corruption, but it seems to me they weren’t really smart enough to defraud anyone, so I’d say they should be convicted of utter idiocy and terminal sleaziness. As I followed the story, what struck me was that this guy—this couple—was amazingly stupid. They bought high-priced real-estate when everyone knew the bubble was going to burst. They got into debt. They accepted gifts from a dodgy entrepreneur, and they thought they’d get away with it. Plus, of course, they ran the state of Virginia. The defense used by attorneys was that the governor’s marriage was failing, he and she hardly spoke to each other anymore and he therefore could not know what his wife was doing. Dummies at the helm, with, I might add, presidential aspirations. But hey, dishonest politicians, what a concept!
Professional football players assaulting girlfriends, who shortly thereafter become the wives of said assaulters, and then defend them? Eh… These guys are paid millions to injure each other. Women willing to pay the price to be wives of such men? Well, yes, there are some.
Recently a young girl vanished after drinking too much and trying to find her way home alone at 1 a.m.? Sad. Tragic even, but not exactly unexpected. My gee whizz question is, were where her friends? And why did they allow her to leave by herself?  Oh, wait, maybe they were drinking too?
White cops killing young black men, which leads to riots and destruction. Yeah, that’s unprecedented.
And oh, yes, Ebola (why does it have a capitalized letter? Other diseases don’t unless their named after someone…) has officially landed in the US, in texas, mopre specifically, but we’re told not to worry. It will be contained.  Of course it will. Only a month or so ago, the Center for Disease Control was telling us that the chance of this particular disease coming to this country was nil. Of course it was.
And some delusional African-American is imitating the ISIS executioners and cut off the head of a lady in Texas, I think. The cutter-offer is a black man who recently converted to Islam without knowing, I suppose, that Islamic Arabs were the ones capturing black Africans and selling them to slavers not all that long ago.
I have lost the power to be outraged. It’s pretty disconcerting. Is it age, or the familiarity of repeated events?  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Hello, Kindly advise if your company has the license or capability to execute a mutil million contract supply project for the Government of Iraq. kindly furnish me your response. Thank you and treat very urgent. Looking forward to an early response. Ali Hassan. (Text of an email received twice in four minutes.)
Ooh! Ooh!  Me! I want the mutil (sic) million contract with the Government of Iraq.
You have exceeded limit of your email account, helpdesk requires your quick regeneration survey to create space. Click link below to upgrade:
http://aminos.by/wp-admin/js/01/. You need to upgrade for new space otherwise you will not be able to send or receive message.
Helpdesk Support. (Text of an email received at least once a day for the past month.)
Oh no! Here’s my password and social security number!  Please don’t turn my email off!  
It’s a sad state of affairs when the scam artists get so lazy they can’t come up with anything original. I want to tell Ali Hassan that I now understand why his country is in such a sad state. If Ali is the best swindler that Iraq has to offer, there’s little hope for the country.
A couple of months ago, I received a message from Irina L, who sent along a photo of herself in a very skimpy outfit. Irina was 22 years old and, to put it succinctly, comely and possibly surgically enhanced. She was writing from her Ukrainian village because my friend Joe (everyone has a friend named Joe) had given her my name and email address. My friend Joe thought I was just the man to help Irina out of a bind.  
Irina, it seems, had done all that was necessary to come to America.  Her papers were in order, and she’d purchased a one-way airline ticket to get to New York.  But the situation in her country had gone from bad to worse, and now the airlines wanted another $500. Could I help?  
I wrote back to Irina asking for more info. What kind of visa did she have? Tourist, student? Was she asking for refugee status? Irina said she had a green card visa—something I wasn’t familiar with—that would enable her to apply for immigrant status shortly after her arrival in the US. And then I noticed Irina’s mail seemed to be coming from an NGA IP address. Hmmm. How had Irina traveled so quickly from the Ukraine to Nigeria? Was it possible that Irina was actually a Nigerian scammer?  No, really? How disappointing.
I wrote Irina an accusatory email, basically telling her/him to get stuffed, although I used a different word.
Irina’s offended response the next morning read: Dear Thierry, Please stop all commubnicating (sic) with me. You are not a very nice man.
I’m crushed.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


About 18 years ago I became an orphan. I wasn’t even aware of it.  My father had just died, and a friend who attended the funeral said, in French, “Et voila. Tu es orphelin...”
The word ‘orphan’ is fraught with Dickensian sentimentality. It is almost always applied to children, particularly small children, who have lost their parents through a monstrous tragedy--an airplane crash, an insurgency, a fire in a nursing home. The word’s origins are straightforward: it is a late Middle English noun derived from the Late Latin orphanus, which means destitute or without parents. The Latin comes from the Greek orphanós, or bereaved.
The term orphan is rarely applied to adults; it has Dickensian overtones and lives in James Michener's home for the poor in Pennsylvania, or John Irving's Cider House. It smacks of tragedy and abuse, and yet it is the fate of most humans.
A true orphan lacks not just mother and father but family as a whole. An abundance of siblings who are alive and well waters orphancy down. So does an excess of money. Orphans, ideally, are small, pale, have runny noses and worn shoes. They exist on the edge of society and are taken care of by draconian trustees who are in it for the bucks and perversions.
But in real life, most orphans have jobs and wives or husbands, children, friends. The fact that they have lost both parents is not, in the word of Oscar Wilde, carelessness. We outlive our parents and not much thought is given to the effect this may have on a grown adult. Personally, I think it's a staggering change in one's life.
For many, many years, I have believed that you cannot be truly free until your parents die--not a popular opinion, I assure you. But I think it's only then  that we can fully seek a life of our own without fear of reproach, criticism, disappointment or judgement. Most of us are so imbued with our own parents' expectations that any major decision to be made contains a strain of, "What will mom and dad think?" Often, this alone will sway our choices--we want to be what they wanted us to be, regardless of our own age and desires.  More and more, as the elderly live increasingly long lives, we find ourselves taking care of them and--still fearful of their opinions--delaying our own dreams. What happens to a 60-year-old with 90-year-old parents? Sandwiched between having to work and raise children and, once this is done, assuming responsibility for elderly parents, he or she finds that the time to realize one's own expectations has suddenly vanished. 
When my mother died in France some 23 years ago, I brought my father to the US. Being raised in the UK and having spent many years here, he largely led his own life--until his Alzheimer's became increasingly pronounced. 
When this occurred, my life went on hold. There were midnight calls; his thoughts were such that he would often wake in the night confused and terrified. Once, while on vacation, I received a phone message telling me he had gotten involved in an altercation and was going to be evicted from his apartment in his retirement community. I drove 1000 miles in a day to find him strapped in a hospital bed; this bright, intelligent man had overstepped the bounds of what is allowed for the elderly and been relegated to the role of raving lunatic in a second-rate clinic.
For a while, every decision I made had him at the forefront. When he died following a fall from a window in an assisted living  facility, I was horrified, guilty, relieved. The last emotion was the hardest to accept. I carried his ashes back to France and let them go where those of my mother lay in Paris'  Père Lachaise cemetery. Only then--and now an orphan--did I feel I could resume my own life.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.” H.L. Mencken
This is one of my favorite quotes. It’s totally silly, and yet somewhere in the contiguous 48, there’s a Bible-thumper who will read those words and rejoice because yes, there are people who believe the writings in the Bible were originally in English--and American English, at that--and that God spoke like an angry Quaker with thees and thous and thines.
English, some believe, is the second most complex language after Cantonese. I can’t vouch for that, since my linguistic abilities—other than this adopted language—are limited to French, a smattering of Spanish, and about a hundred words of Japanese I learned in martial arts. Nevertheless, I am a passionate believer in learning the tongue of your adopted home. One of my most notable pet peeves is this country’s willingness to bend over backwards, language-wise.
My sainted mother learned English when we came to the States. She spoke it awkwardly at best. The language’s vagaries infuriated her, the cheap and ship and chip and cheep and sheep rolled off her tongue sounding exactly alike. But she never stopped trying to differentiate them one from another.
I do not understand why; in the past 20-or-so years, the US has gone out of its way to weaken its language base, to become a nation of idiots incapable of using an ATM unless the instructions are in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese or Portuguese. I do not understand why speaking English is not a basic requirement of citizenship, why immigrants seeking to become Americans are not required to have basic English reading and writing skills. I am tired of dealing with store clerks and fast food employees who are incapable of filling the simplest order or providing the most basic of information. I don’t understand why we’re willing to sacrifice a brilliant, vibrant language and get nothing in return.
Europeans have long known that a nation’s language is one of its primary sources of strength, pride and unity. This is why breakaway nationalist movements, be they Basque, Tamil, Breton, Flemish, or any one of a hundred others, always rally around their own tongues. Nothing binds like a shared dialect, a way to communicate with others of your clan while excluding others.
The French, who truly love their mother tongue and rightly consider it the most beautiful in the world, have an Académie that everyone not French finds risible. The Académie comprises France’s most notable writers, poets, playwrights and journalists. It works to protect the French language from accepting too many foreign terms at work and in the arts and entertainment. This is not an easy job, and the Académie has not always been successful. The onslaught of computerese alone constantly threatens the integrity of the language. But the academicians have managed, in spite of it all, to maintain French as the official language of France (fancy that!). It may be fighting a losing battle in the information age, but it will see to it that French does not become Franglais.
Here, sadly, not so much. Our willingness to put English in second place after whatever languages is brought in by new arrivals will not benefit us, in spite of the false assertion that a flood of foreign terms make a language richer.  Some words, yes. Think gestalt, savoir-faire or my personal favorite, schadenfreude. Most other words, no.
OK, all from me.  Hasta la bye bye.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jean Octave Sagnier

My father, Jean Octave Sagnier, died on this date 18 years ago. He was a good wise man who without being secretive hated talking about himself. He was an architectural student working as the traveling secretary of a wealthy Brit when the war broke out and he walked from the south of France to St. Malo in Brittany, then hopped a boat to England so he could join the upstart general Charles de Gaulle and become a Free French. The Free French are largely forgotten now. They were the ones, men and women, who left France when it capitulated to the Germans, and traveled to the UK and North Africa in response to de Gaulle’s call. De Gaulle assigned my father a mobile radio station which roamed occupied France and relayed Allied news to the maquis and other underground forces. He never fired a shot during the war but was nevertheless awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honor, for deeds that I do not know. He’d never told me this. After his death, I found the medal in the back of his desk drawer.
He met my mother in the summer of 1945 in Marseilles. She was Free French too and they conceived me that very night in January in the back of a US Army truck.
He was estranged from his family. I would be an adult before I was told I had uncles and an alcoholic aunt who died of the disease in the UK. He lost a younger brother during the V2 bombings of London. He never, as I recall, mentioned his own mother. I have an aged family photo taken in the 20s, three boys and a girl posing with a man and a woman standing at attention. A much later shot of my father shows a painfully thin young man wearing boxing gloves and looking not at all ready to fight.
It was snowing when I was born in the American Hospital in Paris, and the barely liberated capital was devoid of food. Regardless, my mother craved a ham omelet. My father, using the military issue Colt he had never fired, forced the hospital cook at gunpoint to go into his own larder for eggs, butter and meat. He fixed the omelet himself, ate it, made another and served it to her. She complained it wasn't hot enough, and that would be the tenet of their relationship. They were married 46 years, nursing each other through poverty, joblessness, an eventual move to the US, cancer.
He died five years after my mother. I carried his ashes in an oak box from the US to France, and when I went through airport customs the douaniers  were very curious as to what I was cradling in my arms. One of them took the box, shook it. It rattled as if there were pebbles inside. When I told him he was manhandling my father's remains, he turned sheet-white, handed the box to his superior officer who in turn gave it back to me. I said these were the ashes of a Free French and the man saluted.
He was not a natural father. The growing up and education of a son baffled him. He was unlikely to give advice, and did so only at my mother's prompting. He taught by doing, showing, and patience. We never played catch, never went fishing together, did not bond in the accepted way. There were few family vacations, a limited number of father/son experiences shared. He was a good and quiet man who witnessed and took part in moments of history that are now almost forgotten.
He told two jokes, neither particularly well, but each telling brought tears to his eyes. He died a bad death and I hope he didn't suffer and I think of him every day.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Lunch in Hell

“Frijoles negros?”  The Latina lady is short, rather squat, and wears a hairnet. She is wielding a ladle and the Anglo man in front of me shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “Black beans.”
“Si,” says the lady, “Frijoles negros!” Her smile is on the verge of being strained.
“No no!” Says the man. “Black beans!  Back beans!” He speaks louder, like people do when addressing someone not of their shores. I’ve always been fascinated by the widely held belief that if you increase the volume of your voice, people will miraculously grasp what you’re trying to communicate.
The Latina lady loses her smile. The line is backing up; I imagine she’s been there since eight this morning; it’s hot back there behind the counter and her feet hurt. She points to the pan of black beans and enunciates very slowly, as if to a challenged child, “Fri-joles-ne-gros.”
The man too is losing patience. This could take a long time to resolve so I intercede and say to him, “Frijoles Negros are black beans.”
He looks at me, at the Mexican lady, back at me. “Then why the hell didn’t she say so!”
I am having lunch in hell.
This is what happened. My friend Stacey and I were headed for a mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant we both liked but hadn’t been to in more than a year. We drove, parked and… no restaurant. The place had vanished.
We looked around. Close by was something called the Cantina Mexicana, or perhaps Mexicana Cantina, one of the two. The menu displayed reasonable prices for standard rice-and-beans fare. We went in.
It was stupidly noisy, and by that I mean the restaurant seemed to have been designed with aural destruction in mind. Hard surfaces everywhere, perfect for reverberating the clatter of pots and pans. We should have turned around and left, but didn’t. Sometimes you have to suffer for good food. We got in line behind the black bean guy.
I can’t tell you what I ordered, but I do know that it looked exactly like what Stacey ordered, though we’d chosen different dishes. There was a vat of black beans, another of tan beans, and another still of beans of an indescribable color. I pointed to various vats and was given a splash of each dish. White rice, brown rice, what may have been a taco or an enchilada shell, shredded chicken, or was it pork? A spoonful of diced tomatoes and a large plate of corn chips.  
As soon as we sat down, the racket increased. One employee was dragging wooden chairs across the tile floor, two at a time, in what seemed a rhythmic pattern matching the music raining from ceiling speakers. Twenty feet away, the Latina lady was dealing with another Español-challenged American. A child was bawling. No, make that two bawling children at separate tables, as well as one shouting busboy and an eight-year-old catapulting frijoles across the room with his plastic spoon. The food in my plate had run together to form a glutinous brownish mass that tasted somewhat like the inside of a vegetarian burrito.  I went into a sort of catatonic state from which Stacey had to rouse me.
The thing is, I should know better. I’ve eaten in horrible places all over the world. This wasn’t the absolute worst--that was in Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, and I still shudder when I think of that meal. 
This? It was a close third, or maybe even a second.