Wednesday, May 28, 2014

At the Local Coffee Shop

Almost every day after the gym I stop by one of those franchise places where you get a free cup of coffee after you’ve been there 23 times. The breads and bagels are good and fresh but the service is generally awful. Efficiency experts have not yet discovered this place where a line of more than three customers creates anarchy and consternation among the help, unless, that is, The Crew is there.
The Crew, The Clan, The Gang, is what the people behind the counter call a group of Senegalese and Cape Verde employees who, when it is their shift, manage to create order out of chaos. They’re as fast as the outmoded equipment lets them be, friendly, and helpful.  Three of them speak French, which I greatly enjoy, and their main complaint is that management seems to pass them over when it’s time to select a supervisor. Members of The Crew, though more efficient than anyone else there, have endured a series of bosses who seem to know very little, and care even less, about running a fast food place. In the past few months, I’ve seen a variety of American, Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Asian managers pace about importantly without, as far as I know, adding one iota of efficacy to the running of the place.  Abdul, who was there for three weeks supervising and spoke halting English, never quite managed to get a handle on the cash register.  He once tried to charge me $27.53 for a cup of coffee. “C’est un bordel,” says my Senegalese friend Mamadou. An impolite way of saying, things are a mess.     
I always try to get a booth, and I’ve become familiar with the regulars. There’s a woman I call Debbie Reynolds, there every day to meet a bearded older man who is constantly on the phone and pays no attention whatsoever to her. Debbie, it’s obvious, gets up at dawn to put on her face, do her hair, and choose her jewelry. She calls me ‘honey’ and I’m not sure when that started, but I like it.
There’s a tall man of indeterminate age who stares at the fire in the centrally placed gas fireplace. He knows my name--I’m not sure how--and is there every time I drop by, regardless of time. I suppose he could say the same thing about me. He never reads or eats, and is one of the few people there not wearing ear buds. I wonder what he thinks about, beholden as he is to the flames.
In the afternoon there’s a bunch of kids from the nearby Catholic high school. It’s refreshing to see them in their school uniforms without one pair of flip-flops or a single baseball cap turned sideways.    
And as always, there’s a dozen or so men and women attached to their laptop computers. Some also have Blackberry and iPhones at the ready so their tables look like messy display stands at a second-rate electronics show.  
Aside from the doubtful service, the only thing that bothers me greatly about the place is that it uses pagers to signal when your food is ready. Personally, I don’t find that the buzzing sound of a hundred angry wasps does much to foster my appetite, and I wish they’d find a warmer, friendlier way to tell me my meal is at hand.
Recently, one of these things came alive on a nearby empty table. It kept buzzing furiously for a really long time. No one paid attention. The longer it was unattended, the louder it got. I tried to get the staff’s attention but The Crew wasn’t there and so chaos reigned. I picked up the buzzer and dropped it into the recycling bin. Debbie Reynolds gave me the thumbs up.
I’m not sorry at all.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

The Shriners were doing OK but the Colombians stole the show. The South American boys and girls jumped, capered, spun, skipped, wiggled and beat their hats on the ground. They yipped and hollered and wore fantastic costumes embroidered in silver and filigreed in gold and they had the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen on a man. It was a steamy 85° at the Falls Church Memorial Day parade in Northern Virginia, and their grins never flagged. There were three separate troops of Colombian dancers, ranging in age from four to 50, and a gentleman sitting on the grass watching them go by explained that each of the nine states in Colombia has a variety of dances. Since there’s a healthy Colombian population where I live, dance groups have sprung like weeds. There are more than a hundred in the area, each with its own repertoire, costume and leaders. The gentleman I spoke with belonged to a group that had not marched today, but he told me that towards the end of August, a nearby festival will feature more than 3,000 dancers. “We practice three nights a week,” he told me. “It helps keep the young ones out of places where they should not be.”
            The Shriners, well, they were Shriners. They had a dozen floats including the Ladies’ Auxiliary, which was mostly a truck pulling a trailer on which eight stately women sat, hurling candy at the children. They had three clowns who made the kids laugh, or maybe scared them. They had tall papier maché camels, and seven of those little cars that zip around the street driven by very large men wearing fezzes. I’ve seen those guys a dozen times at least, and it’s still a mystery how they can fit in those tiny vehicles. They had a serious looking bagpipe and drums marching band, and it struck me that a couple of the pipers’ faces were an unhealthy purple.
            There was a crazy lady marching behind the Shriners making somewhat lewd gestures and everybody pretended not to see her.
            There was a solitary man in black pulling a cross that had a lawnmower wheel at the bottom of it for ease of travel.
            There was a marching band from a Baltimore high school, led by two statuesque black girls who could have been movie stars and knew it.
            There was a truck from the county storm drain team, and a snowplow. There were no cops or firemen, no beauty queen, no Boy or Girl Scouts, but the governor of Virginia was there though I couldn’t tell which of the men foolish enough to wear a suit and tie he was.
            And then, of course, there were the Falun Gong ladies, beating small drums in intricate patterns and taking mincing steps. At their head were three men holding up a banner that said, Falun Dafa is Great. I loved the understated assertion; it told me everything I needed to know about their organization. I liked the bright yellow satin pants and tunics, and the Old Navy flip-flops, but I wished they’d been more imaginative in their choice of marching music. In the two minutes it took for them to pass by, the same eight bars were repeated six times, which may have something to do with their persecution in China.
            Both Democratic and Republican congressional candidates had volunteers marching and distributing stickers to children, who stuck them upside down on their foreheads.
            I got sort of nauseous after two cups of tiger-blood-flavored shaved ice, but I managed to avoid the corn-dog stand and the deadly cheese-fry concession.
            I love a parade.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Panic Attack!

Back in the days when I had an intimate and passionate relationship with drugs and alcohol, I also had panic attacks that would level me. The effects were always the same: gut-churning terror, a feeling of impending doom, dry mouth and shortness of breath, difficulty in standing up and getting from Point A to Point B. The attacks occurred anywhere and anytime--at home, at the office during staff meetings, while driving or hiking, alone or accompanied.  The only time they did not strike was when I was asleep, though I distinctly remember waking up in the morning seized by a sense of impending disaster.
Panic attacks are a response of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to a perceived threat. The physical symptoms are interpreted with alarm by the body and this in turn leads to increased anxiety, and forms a positive feedback loop where the attack itself creates even greater anxiety. Attacks may be hereditary. It is possible to medicate against them, and that is what I did.
First, I was given propralonol, then Welbutrin, and eventually Paxil and Xanax. These drugs helped, but the feeling of panic remained just below the surface.  In time, I became addicted to Xanax, getting prescriptions from several doctors and pharmacies, and it was not until I completely gave up anything even remotely psychoactive--that is to say all external chemical substances that affected my brain functioning--that the attacks went away.
True, I still did not like heights much, but then again, I never had. Flying became OK, though, as did a lot of other minor actions that once would panic me. I remained blissfully anxiety-free for more than a decade.
Than on Bastille Day--July 14, 2004--while I was walking on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on France’s Côte d’Azure, an attack levelled me. I couldn’t walk, or breathe. I got dizzy; I sat down on the grass in a nearby park stayed there for an hour before being able to return to the hotel. I’d stopped taking the anti-anxiety drugs long ago, and in fact hadn’t even packed any. The attack lasted almost three days, varying in intensity.
When I got back to the States, my doctor assigned me a non-addictive anti-anxiety medicine that I started taking daily.  I stopped any and all caffeine--coffee, tea, chocolate--and began exercising more.  It worked. I was panic free for another decades.
Three weeks ago there was another attack. I was driving at night in a misting rain on a crowded Interstate. I couldn’t see clearly, and as other drivers sped by, I felt the fear well up. I asked a friend riding with me to start talking, which helped. Listening to words and focusing on them lessened the anxiety. I wasn’t far from home and as soon as I got to my exit, the panic subsided. It was almost gone by the time I got to my front door.
But it’s still there. It maintains a low profile, but I can feel it waiting to pounce.  It’s as if once again a nasty genie has been released from the bottle and there are no free wishes. Except I wish the attacks would stop.
Amazing what your own body can do to you.

Saturday, May 10, 2014


Lately I've been doing a lot of reading about Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo. Both were highly talented artists whose works are found in the best museums and beyond purchase by anyone but the wealthiest collectors. They lived in Montmartre, a Parisian neighborhood known for its Bohemian allure, almost all their lives. Both were miserable and unhappy drunks, which is neither here nor there, and Suzanne was Maurice's mother.  She was never quite sure who the father was. She died in 1938; he died in 1953 and they had what can only be described as a strange relationship.
But that's not what I want to write about, since all relationships are strange in one way or another.
No, what I'm interested in is the critics' fashion of parsing an artist's work--and by artist I mean a writer, dancer, musician, sculptor, the whole gamut of people who cannot but be creative--into meaninglessness.
Look at a painting; read a book. What happens? Your imagination, and the writer’s or painter's creation work together to form an alliance. This pact moves you in a way--you feel joy, sadness, revulsion on occasion, pity perhaps, even lust or envy. You and the artist form a symbiotic entente cordiale. He or she presents their work for your consideration, with the understanding that the artist is powerless over the audience. You, the audience, are willing to make a gift of time to the work. You read, you listen, you watch. In the end, both parties are affected by each other's willingness to devote a small period of life to pleasuring the other. An artist without an audience ceases to exist, and with no art there are no spectators.
The critics want to take this process over by dictating their views--which are assuredly more learned and educated than yours or mine ever will be. An author, critiquing Valadon's Nude Girl Sitting on a Cushion, writes: "...Valadon's intense characterization is translated through the deliberate distortion of certain forms, the importance of which is enhanced by their unexpected size... Most of the time the children's alienation is expressed through reductive images whose effectiveness is enhanced through their simplicity."
Do you know what this means?  I don’t, and I consider myself a relatively intelligent person.  I have no idea what the critic is trying to tell me, other than he or she is the proud owner of a dictionary and a thesaurus. Obviously the author of this paragraph and I are not looking at the same work. I see a small pencil and chalk drawing of a young dispirited nude. It's an evocative and simple work, and I suppose I resent the critic's muddying of what is, all in all, a very basic piece of art.
For the past few years I've spent a lot of time reading the memoires and biographies of some noted painters, and I have yet to find one describing his or her work in the same language as that of the critics. I wish those who write or broadcast opinions on the quality of things such as art, literary works, and society as a whole would do their own thing instead of deconstructing the works of others. That seems like a waste of time, a second-hand way of relating to creativity without adding any creativity of one's own.
Maybe it's just that I don't like critics.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Internet Promises

I have a spam filter, several, in fact. They are supposed to be effective and protect me---I assume--from former Nigerian Prime Ministers with millions in their portfolios, slick Malaysians dealing in stolen Ferraris, 23-year-old ladies from a former Socialist Republic looking for green card sponsors, and purveyors of koala berry drinks.
This being said, when I first check my email in the morning, there are generally close to three dozen messages. This particular morn, Goober Gary wants to sell me Cialis and Lulu Pino promises success with women if I buy a knock-off Rolex. Edwina Ebenezer says with the product she is selling, I will have sex more than ten times tonight, but she does not say with who (whom?).
I particularly enjoy the fact that the net does not discriminate. There is no ageism or sexism, no racism or religious intolerance. Both Martin Schwartz and Beatrice Lumumba guarantee that I can increase the size and length of my manhood with a month's supply of their rather costly product. It makes me wonder, who told them I have issues with size and girth?  Are Martin and Patrice long-standing friends, and if so, where did they meet and why do they both have my email address?
Johanne Judd, overly fond of exclamation points, states, “the science behind our products!! is setting a new standard for healthy!! and effective
enlargement!!! and is the most powerful formula!! on the market today!!” I have forwarded Johanne’s announcement to both Martin and Patrice. These people should know each other.
Marguerite Cassidy does not believe in mincing words. "Get Bigger Pennis." Marguerite believes spelling it with two n's will automatically make it bigger.
Freddie Morton, on the other hand, likes to go scientific: "More sexual partners. More orgasms. More pleasure. Choosing your
penis enlargement method you should remember that some widely advertised methods are either ineffective or dangerous. Some advertisements are based on lies, lack of medical knowledge or are just frauds. Choose XXX penis enlargement devices to achieve penis size you dream of in a safe and medically approved way." Since the only Freddie I know owns a gay bar in Virginia--and I'm pretty sure he wasn't the Freddie sending me the email--I have doubts about these promises. Plus anyone trying to fool me by advertising larger results with large fonts is not worthy of my trust. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.
And lest I forget, for about a year I received all sorts of ads to make my breasts bigger, fuller, rounder, more satisfying to the touch. I think those came from Steve Martin who once said that if he had breasts, he'd spend all his time playing with them.

Monday, May 5, 2014

I Write

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and my stomach churns. I have the impression of hunger but know that’s false; it’s something else, some sort of concern demanding my attention, something physically and emotionally challenging. I fear the cancer will reappear, but worse. I’m worried about finances; my furnace and air conditioning system are on their last leg. The literary agent hasn’t called in weeks and he has three of my books. Nothing is selling.
There are options.
I can get up and write, as I’m doing now. Sometimes it helps. Since writing is on my daily list of Things to Do, I at least get the satisfaction of crossing one item out and moving to the next one. It doesn’t much matter what I write since I generally have three or four projects going simultaneously. It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or not--mostly it isn’t, but that’s not the object. Writing wrests open a small door through which I can crawl, leaving some of my anxieties behind.
I can try to figure out what’s going on. This is generally fruitless.  Even in the smallest of lives events supersede each other, and trying to find and follow one strand, one issue, is at best frustrating. It’s rare for me to be successful at identifying my angst, a multi-headed Hydra.  Plus, as they say, my head is a bad neighborhood and going there alone is unwise.
I can read. That’s the safest route, but it makes me feel wimpy. Why should I have to involve myself in another’s fantasy to rid myself of my own dark ones? No matter—I find a book I’ve read and reread, an old friend, and I open it at random. Updike’s Rabbit works, or something by Earl Thompson, Vance Bourjaili, Balzac or Mauriac. Reading in French seems to helps, perhaps because it’s more demanding. I can skim English, but in French every word demands attention.
I fall asleep, wake a few hours later feeling the same zoo of sensations, but perhaps minus the bears. It’s still dark outside. My cat’s head is inches from mine. His eyes are yellow slits and he wants to be fed. I sit up, say the Serenity Prayer a few times because when days begin like this, I really need to the wisdom to know the difference between the things I can and cannot change. I wait for something to happen but nothing does. I write some more.
After a while the sun begins to rise. I hear the thud of the newspaper thrown on my driveway. There are birds, noisy, raucous, it’s mating season and we’re in an avian frenzy.
The list of Things to Do today grows, small stuff, mostly. I need coffee. I make some; I go back downstairs to my home office.
I write.