Thursday, December 31, 2015


This is the mandatory end-of-year blog in which I ponder unanswerable questions. This year, I will not ruminate on things to come as my predictions have been consistently wrong, except for the one on Donald Trump that I made two years ago, but I was kidding, really!

Unanswerable questions:

  • Why is Chelsea Clinton e-mailing me daily about her mom? The Clinton family has more money than God. Surely Chelsea must understand that in this time of economic stagnation, every dollar I have goes to basics such as utilities, mortgage, my tri-annual haircut, and the Saturday brunch at Freddie’s Beach Bar.
  • Why, when we now have more means of communicating with one another, do my emails to my agent still go unanswered? Why do people—even friends—not respond to emails anymore? Are they truly that busy? I had one friend say, after I sent him a couple of messages, “I owe you and email.” Well, yeah. I already knew that.
  • And speaking of agents, are they really that busy that they can’t even let you know your submission has been rejected?
  • Why have publishers gotten rid of their editors? The quality of popular lit keeps going down. Who decided that Spellcheck does a better job than Myrtle, who worked as a copy editor for thirty years and did a pretty good job of making John Updike and others readable?
  • Why do I have to pay a fee to the magazines I submit stories to?
  • Who decided the phrase “I should have” when used in dialogue should suddenly become “I should of”?
  • Why do I get mail from the National Rifle Association? I think the NRA is a terrorist organization. They have as much chance squeezing a buck out of me as ISIS does.
  • Why do we pay for cable? When it first came along, cable was touted as a self-sufficient service that would earn money through ads.  
  • Why does the Sierra Club want to send me a free backpack if I give them twenty bucks? First, if I pay $20, it isn’t free. And second, if I am into Sierra Club-ish activities, I already have a backpack, and it’s a lot better than the one they offer that can basically carry one orange and a box of Kleenex.
  • Why do service companies (okay, my HMO) say they’re changing their program to make it better for their clients, when everyone knows  it will make it worse for the clients and the HMO employees, and benefit only the HMO’s bottom line?    
  • Why are some cats afraid of cucumbers and others not?
  • Why don’t hunters become real sportsmen and kill their quarries with a sharpened stick? Wouldn’t that make the endeavor a bit more equitable and worthy of respect?
  •  Why don’t we train and arm the Syrian refugees, then airdrop them and tell them to take their country back?
  • Why does the CEO of a major company make 340 times as much as a company employee?
  • Why, oh why, do Porsche Panameras exist?
  • Also, Porsche Cayennes?
  • Why are we supporting Iran and Iraq, both countries that practice stoning men and women as a means of execution?
  • Why is the New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs column less and less amusing?
  • Why did French President François Hollande ride as a passenger on a moped, wearing a helmet, to visit his mistress?
  • Why was no one in France surprised by the above?
  • Why did it make front-page news in the U.S,?
  • Why is Howie Mandel still on America’s Got Talent?


So that’s all the questions I can muster of a 60° December 31st in Virginia. If you have questions, pass them along.  Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Noël, 2015

The Christmas holidays are never a good time if there’s no family around, though I know some people would argue that having family during holidays is the definition of stress. Me, the little family I have left is some 3,000 miles away in Paris and thereabouts. The last Christmas we spent together was in 1991, the year before my mother died.

My mom and her eldest daughter, Florence, had been tiffing, as had been the norm since the end of World War II. Flo never forgave my mother for divorcing Marcel, my mother’s first husband and the father of my two sisters. Florence blamed my father for the divorce, and the resentment lingered for decades and never faded entirely.

Flo and I, though, were great friends. I idolized her. She was a published writer whose books had been well received by critics who compared her (mistakenly, I think) to Francoise Sagan. She also managed a French rock idol, and they appeared on magazine covers with matching Porsches and mink coats.

I was working for a UN organization at the time and had reason to travel to Paris for a conference held in mid-December. I arranged to stay an extra week, and the plan was for the entire family—my mother and father, Flo and Isabelle, my other sister, and their four kids—to have lunch in my parents’ apartment.  

It went about as well as could be expected.  Flo stormed out mid-meal over an imagined insult. My mother wore her best Who, Me? look, and my four nephews, who had little liking for each other, pushed Christmas food around their plates and looked bored. Isabelle, ever the fixer, tried to fix things that could not be fixed. My father was distraught. He had been trying for four decades to get Florence to accept, if not like, him. She never would. I knew he’d be listening to my mother’s plaints for the immediate future and be blamed for not offering a solution to a situation he hadn’t created.

So a quarter-decade, later both of my parents and Florence have passed away. I spent the day before Christmas cleaning my house and spoke briefly with Isabelle who still lives in the same apartment in Paris. I haven’t seen her in several years, but we speak every other month or so and this day she tells me about the work she’s doing, about the mood in Paris after the latest terrorist atrocity, about her fears that the ultra-right anti-immigrant political party might gain power. Then she asks about Donald Trump and there’s little I can say. I can almost see her shaking her head. “Ils sont foux, ces Americains…” Yes, I agree, Americans are crazy right now.

On Christmas day I go with my friend Stacey and we have a Mediterranean meal. In the past, we’ve opted for Chinese or for a seafood buffet of doubtful freshness. This year, the meal is tasty, but I can’t stop focusing on the African man by himself at the table next to us. He might be Ethiopian or Somali, and he eats with the precise fastidiousness of an ancient European. He cuts his portions into tiny pieces; the chicken, potatoes, hummus and stewed beef occupy separate realms of his plate. He is methodical and does not look up. He is wearing a sports coat a couple of sizes too large, a blue dress shirt, and a poorly knotted tie. He sits as I do, with both hands on the table in the French fashion. Our eyes meet briefly; I smile, he does not.

Later Stacey and I take separate cars to go to the movies. As I get near the mall’s entrance, I see a homeless man standing with his back to the wall and surrounded by six or seven policeman. I don’t know what transgression he may have committed. He holds his hands out with the palms forward to show he doesn’t have a weapon. His belongings are next to him: three or four shopping bags, a sleeping bag, a knapsack, some clothes tied in a bundle.

It has started raining. The cops’ body language is aggressive. Two have their hands on their firearms. I don’t know what to do and so do nothing. I feel guilty during the entire movie, and when we leave, the homeless man is gone. Noël, 2015.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Things Are Not Working

I wonder if it is time to admit that Things Are Not Working?

I’ve always been a strong believer that the United States, as a country, has been a grand experiment based on the best principles humans could conceive at the time. Yes, the French came up with Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but it was Americans who decided to truly give these concepts a shot on a national basis. Now I wonder if the experiment is failing.

When creating the basis for the nation, the Founding Fathers didn’t do it perfectly. Originally only white male landowners would have the vote and it was this middle and upper class that was tasked with finding leaders and seeing to it that the elected public servants governed adequately and responsibly. More than a century later, women were enfranchised, as were as racial minorities, though the path was never a smooth one. The country’s basic philosophy asssumes that given the opportunity, people would want and cherish the ability to have a hand in their future. This makes sense. Revolutions arise because of popular dissatisfaction among the have-nots and the can-nots. Once rights have been fought for and gained, they are preciously safeguarded.

In our times, though, the real have-nots are an almost vanished breed. Yes, there remains poverty and hunger and homelessness, but the overwhelming majority of Americans has roofs over their heads, enough to eat, physical mobility, and credit.

The latter has allowed people to buy things without paying for them, and to enjoy what is now considered the pursuit of happiness: a wide-screen television, cable service, cheap food, and a tolerable physical environment. People are relatively satisfied within these cocoons where basic needs are met. They have purchasing power through their credit cards and their daily lives are not unpleasant. So why agitate for change? Why vote? Why remove one’s self from the comforts of home to go to a polling place and express opinions? Freedom in America is a six-pack of Miller Light, pizza, and Monday Night Football.

Americans vote less, per capita, than do the inhabitants of any other free country in the world. What is considered a privilege elsewhere is seen as a hindrance here.

This non-involvement in the running of the nation has allowed a plutocracy to reign; our elected servants have found a sinecure, and devote far more time to keeping their jobs than to serving their constituents. What was once a nation that sought the best and the brightest, has basically stopped caring and become bovinely satisfied with the lowest common denominator.

The present electoral system doesn’t help. I’m reasonably sure the nation’s forefathers could never have foreseen society as it exists now. The documents they drafted—a constitution, a bill of rights, a comprehensive set of laws—were aimed at protecting a system that no longer exists and dealing with the predicaments of a nascent society. Could the lawmakers have foreseen the women’s movement? Vietnam? Millions of cheap and powerful weapons in the hands of irresponsible people? A system of higher education that bankrupts the students? A nation where the wealth is so unevenly distributed?  Could they have conceived the realities of oil spills, depleted ozone layers, global warming, rising oceans levels and man-made droughts?

Probably not. What they beheld was a vast land with unheard-of natural wealth, and a population willing to risk it all for the freedom to roam and eventually settle.  They weren’t fools; they were painfully aware of human foibles and shortcomings, but I doubt that they could even conceive of the greed involved and accepted in today’s business practices.

Things are different today. We live in reactionary times. Rules and regulations are enacted after the catastrophes, not before. We largely shrug off daily catastrophes that include the daily murders of children and the assassinations of presidents. We often enact laws willy-nilly (a great British expression that dates from the 1600s) to fend off perceived threats. We protect assets rather than people, and have come to see wealth as synonymous with success, which it rarely is. We cannot pay our debts, individually or nationally, and yesterday’s carefully built infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, canals, power grids, water and sewage treatment centers—are falling apart. We cannot afford to rebuild.

We are the only developed country without truly affordable health care, and many nations far poorer than the States put our system to shame. Though we claim to regulate our drugs, we have no cap on prescription costs

Since World War II, we have lost three major wars—Korea, Vietnam and Iraq—and been involved in scores of lesser conflicts, most of them failing propositions that cost billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. Our veterans cannot find work and must wait months for medical treatment.

Things Are Not Working. We’ve reached a point of no return and it’s time to rethink the system from top to bottoms.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas in Paris

The last Christmas we spent in France before coming to America was a somber affair. My two sisters, almost grown up by now, would not be going with us. One was attending school in London, and the other, though still in her early teens, was already establishing herself as a mainstay composer at the Paris Conservatory. I would not see them again for several years.

My parents decided to have a party, what the French call a reveillon, both to celebrate the holiday and say goodbye to friends. One guest, I forget who, foolishly gave me and another kid, Eric, spud guns. An error, that.

Spud guns were the silly present of a silly year. Basically, they were compressed air bb pistols that shot little bullets of potato, carrot, radish, or any other available hard tuber.

Eric and I were delighted. In no time at all we wreaked havoc, first by shooting at the lightbulbs that, when hit, hissed and emitted the smell of freshly-made mashed potatoes, and then, ever more adventurous, by deciding to go after live game.

The guns weren’t accurate at a more than six feet but even at that distance, getting hit felt like a bee sting.

There was one large woman both Eric and I disliked, a regular at my mother’s afternoon bridge parties who always talked down to us as if we were mental midgets. My parents, I knew, didn’t much like her either. She was one of those people you invite based on the notion that the best place for a pyromaniac is the firehouse.  That way, at least, you can limit the damage. This woman, I knew from my parents’ conversations, was a malicious gossip and deserved wounding by rootstock.

She was juggling a well-filled plate of hors d’oeuvres and a flute of champagne when we each took aim at a selected buttock. We had both pumped our guns for maximum velocity and the organic missiles struck her as she was cramming a petit-four into her largish mouth. She roared. The champagne went flying and she dropped the hors-d’oeuvres. She spewed bits of half-chewed petit-four, spun around, and saw Eric and me cowering behind a fauteuil. The room was a frozen tableau. Eric was trying desperately to reload his gun. Another mistake, that. She seized him by the neck, slapped him twice hard and then dropped him like a sack of coal. This prompted Eric’s father to grab her around the waist, which she took as an attack from another quarter. She turned on him and bashed his ear with a ring-studded fist. Somebody screamed; somebody laughed. My father stepped in, ducked a blow and got her in a bear hug. He dragged her away as Eric’s father used one of my mom’s linen napkins to staunch the blood flowing from his cut ear.       

Both guns were confiscated and destroyed.  Eric and I were sent to my room in tears and told that the Père Noël would be taking back any gift he might have left for us.

The Père Noël must have thought better of the punishment. I don’t know what Eric got, but I received a handsome child’s suitcase in which I packed some belongings for the weeklong boat trip to America.  

In retrospect, the attack was worth it. Though they would never say so openly, I knew my parents secretly approved. The potato gun tale was told and embellished every Christmas for decades, and probably had something to do with my present thoughts on gun control. Guns don’t kill people, but tubers can hurt.



Friday, December 18, 2015

The Good Doctor

So my good doctor is retiring. He told me this as he was gazing at the video screen and manipulating a tiny camera in my innards.

“Hmm, well, you’ll see Dr. K next time. Looks good. Yes. I’m leaving. February. Nope, don’t see anything in there. Looking good. That’s what, the third clean exam? Good work. Good work.”

This is the doctor to whom, two years ago after my fifth operation, I wrote a Valentine:

I’m glad that you’re here

I would be much sadder

If you weren’t around

To take care of my bladder!

He never mentioned it, but his nurse said he liked it.

He’s read a couple of my books and even listened to a few songs I wrote.

Now I’m lying on the examination table waiting for his arrival and watching seconds tick away on the wall clock. The good doctor has done this test on me about a dozen times now. It’s never pleasant, and I’m always nervous, so that when he comes into the room and says, “Mr. Sagnier, how are you?” I respond without fail, “Scared,” and he replies, “Hmpf.”

He was, at times, alarmingly actual. “Well, of course, if it spreads, we’ll take out your bladder…”


“But probably we won’t have to.”

In January, he examined me shortly after the New Year. He was looking a little sallow, a little pinched around the eyes. He said something to the effect of, “Glad I’m not operating today. A little too much cheer with the neighbors. Hmpf.”

I was glad too.

My good doctor made me feel safe, and even when the news was not good. When yet another operation was scheduled, he radiated a sense of confidence. After surgery, he’d do the post-operative visit and say, “You won’t remember this but…” and explain everything. He was right most of the time. Coming out from under—and happy to do so—I couldn’t recall what he’d told me, so I’d email him the next day to get clarification. Mostly, he’d write back, “Got it all! See you next week!” Then I’d get the full and sometimes scary scoop. “Some invasive stuff, so we’re going to do another course of BCG…”

And we would. I’d be injected with a solution of sheep cells carrying inactivated tuberculosis bacteria which, according to the web’s Chemocare site, “is thought to bring about an immune response in the bladder by triggering an inflammatory reaction.  This reaction brings disease-fighting white blood cells and cytokines to the bladder.  The immune system cells then fight directly against the tumor cells.” I thought the process was rather weird but the good doctor was reassuring. “The treatment was invented in France!” In France? Really? Well, that makes it all okay!

I’ll miss the good doctor, and do hope the next physician will be as personable. This is scary stuff and a good doctor makes all the difference.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Cancer test tomorrow and as always I’m getting antsy. The last two exams went well; the cancer in my bladder is being kept at bay. I’m doing the stuff I’ve been told to do, going through a big gallon jug of water every other day. There’s no visible blood in my pee, and I’m not hurting. Still, I’m scared.

An acquaintance who might become a friend was diagnosed with bladder cancer three months ago and he’s had a hell of a time, far worse than what I’ve gone through. I fear for him. I am fixating on the fact that my oldest sister Florence died of this kind of cancer a decade ago.  She was diagnosed too late for chemo or even surgery. I’m luckier. The doctors spotted the bad cells in me pretty quickly, and after nine surgeries and three courses of chemo, I might be good to go.

Still, I can’t escape that this sad adventure has taken its toll. I have the impression that I’ve aged fifteen years in the last four, and there have been a host of emotional side-effects. I feel lesser, soiled, and unattractive. There’s a sense of shame attached to the illness, as if I did something wrong and am being punished. I’ve noticed that I’m isolating more and quicker to anger and depression. I’ve been told and read such emotions are standard fare for (I will not use the term survivor, which I dislike) the afflicted.

Hmpf. Afflicted doesn’t sound any better. 

There are a couple of positive things coming out of all this nastiness. I’m writing with a greater degree of urgency, and I’m writing more often. I’ve also found I have to prioritize. I have a hundred books in my head, and most of them will probably never see the light of day; there’s simply not enough time.

I’m wrapping up the sequel to Thirst and starting another project (more on that later), and I still want to write the definitive post-Apocalypse novel. The book on kangaroos taking over the world will have to wait, as will the biography of Joseph Pujol, the Pétomane.

I’ve also met some fantastic people whom I never would have encountered were it not for the disease. The folks at Cancer Can Rock recorded one of my songs and mixed it masterfully, and many others have come forward with good words and good advice. I’m grateful to them all.

So for tomorrow, fingers crossed!

Thursday, December 10, 2015


The birthday-party-naked-Nazi-woman-film fiasco had repercussions.

Psychology was very fashionable that year in France. B.F. Skinner had been featured in Paris Match and my mother knew everything about free will being an illusion. She’d been particularly taken by the notion that actions depended on the outcome of other actions.  My father was tasked with finding out what I’d seen and how it had affected me, psychologically speaking.

What I had seen was two naked people, one whom may or may not have looked like the father of a  the kids at the party. The naked people had fought briefly and without much skill, and ended up on the floor where they’d wrestled without much passion. That was when my mom came in and tipped over the projector.  

How did I feel about it? Well, to quote Babette, it certainly wasn’t Fantasia. I bought Mickey Magazine every week from the newspaper kiosk lady on the corner, and for months there’d been scenes from the movie featured in the magazine.  Fantasia had dancing brooms, cascading waters, hippos in tutus and other wonders. The only thing the naked Nazi woman had was a riding crop. Plus, as Babette had aptly noted, there wasn’t any music. In fact there hadn’t been any sound at all.  

I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. My parents had a book of photographs of jolly naked Rubenesque ladies. It was hidden behind other books in the living room bookshelf, and I’d discovered it a year earlier. The ladies in the book looked a lot happier than the naked Nazi woman. Plus, I was around unclothed women almost daily in my mother’s dressmaking atelier. The two young women hired to model were half-naked most of the time. We played cards, and I admired their roundness, which they made no effort to hide.

Babette, visiting a few days later with her mother, who had a fitting appointment for a dress, said it had to do with the naked man and probably the swastika on the woman’s hat. This was post-war Paris. The city had barely recovered from the German occupation and the wounds were far from healed. “If we’d seen the rest of the film, I’m sure the French man would have won the fight. He was already on top of the woman when your maman came in.”

I tried to parlay the experience into an outing to see the latest American Western at the neighborhood theatre, but my mother said, “No more movies!” My father attempted to appeal her decision. He wanted to see the Western too but she was adamant. “God knows what ordure they might show!”

The amateur film-maker responsible for the debacle sent a note explaining that he had mistakenly picked out Fantasies Nazis rather than Fantasia from his film library. It could have happened to anyone. He begged her forgiveness. He never got it, and months later his wife left him. The man, she would confide to my mother, had hidden his dreadful proclivities from her, though she whispered that in bed he had made unnatural demands that she had, of course, rebuffed. Luckily, they’d never had children. My mother re-admitted her into the circle of friends, but never into the inner circle. Unsubstantiated rumors circulated that the poor woman had herself been coerced into appearing in her husband’s filmes risqués; she became quite an object of interest to the men when their wives weren’t looking.

Babette was briefly obsessed with the experience. One day when we were at the Parc Monceau she said, “You remember the naked people film?”

I did, of course.

“Well,” she looked around to see whether anyone might overhear her, then, with a smug look, told me, “The naked people weren’t fighting!







Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Memorable Birthday

For my seventh birthday, my mother decided to throw a party. I didn’t have too many friends, so she invited people she knew who brought their kids, most of whom were strangers.

The children’s party was held in the dining room while the parents socialized in the adjoining living room. The gifts, I remember, weren’t all that great. A belt, a tie, some socks, and a book on astronomy I was pretty sure I’d seen at someone else’s house a few months earlier.

The highlight of the kids’ evening was to be a showing of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which had come out earlier in the year and I hadn’t seen yet. One of my mother’s acquaintances was an amateur cineaste who’d somehow obtained a bootleg copy of the film.

After cake and obligatory singing, the man set up his projector to show the movie on a bare wall. We kids sat cross-legged on the floor. Babette, whom I was deeply attracted to, whispered, “I’ve seen it already. Wait until the little mushrooms come!”

When the man had finished threading the film through the various cogs and gears, he turned on the projector, made sure everything was working, then flicked the ceiling lights off and left the room.

We waited. The projector whirred and clicked. The cooling fan made a wooshing noise.

Without warning, a woman strode onto the screen, riding crop in one hand, wearing a military jacket with a swastika on it and a Nazi officer’s hat. She appeared not to have pants on. She faced the camera and took off the jacket. She was naked beneath it.

 There was a gasp shared by the viewers. Babette leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t remember this part.  And there’s supposed to be music.”

The woman stood, a nasty Nazi-ish sneering expression on her face. A man walked onto the set, a cartoon of a Frenchman complete with beret, striped shirt and baguette. He didn’t have any pants on either.

The woman looked at him with disdain, then barked something (this was a silent film) and hit him on the butt with the riding crop. A kid behind me said, “Ai! Ca ferait mal, ça!” I agreed; that must have hurt.

The woman walked around the man a couple of times as if inspecting a side of beef. She shouted at him and he took his shirt off but kept the beret. The same kid said, “Il resemble à mon papa!”

I didn’t know the kid’s dad so couldn’t tell if he really looked like the man on the screen. The Frenchman and the Nazi woman embraced; the camera followed them as they sank awkwardly to the floor. The man lay on top of the woman and his butt moved up and down. The woman’s mouth was a round O though really she looked sort of bored by the whole thing.

At this point, Babette said out loud, “I’m pretty sure this isn’t Fantasia!”   

No one else said anything; all eyes were glued to the scene on the wall.

The door opened a crack. My mother checking on the kids. It opened a bit more, then I heard her whisper, “Mon Dieu!”

She rushed the projector and tipped it over. The screen went black. A kid started crying, then another. The reels were dislodged and rolled around the room spewing 16 millimeter celluloid.  The filmmaker rushed in yelling “Quoi? Quoi?”

My mom started shouting at him as he frantically tried to rewind the film onto the reels. “Une erreur, madame! C’était une erreur!”

Kids ran out of the room and found their parents. One boy I knew slightly pocketed the present he’d brought, a cheapish cap gun. Within minutes, most of the parents had left. My mother supervised the cineaste as he gathered his equipment and bits of broken film strips. He kept muttering the same words, “Une erreur, madame! C’était une erreur!” She showed him and his wife to the door and slammed it shut after them.

Babette and I hadn’t moved. We’d both been entranced by the eruption of noise, falling equipment, yelling mother and wailing children. .We were still sitting on the floor and she said, “Ça, au moins, c’était amusant!”

I agreed. It was probably the best birthday party I’d ever attended.   




Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rainy Days in St. Germain

On Saturdays when it rained, I might be bundled off after the half-day of school to see my great aunt Thérèse—Tatie. I’d take the train from the Gare St. Lazare to St. Germain where Tatie lived and walk from the station to her home.

Tatie was short and probably did not weigh a hundred pounds; she  smelled of ancient talcum powder and lilac soap. She wore a fox stole year-round, a nasty thing with claws and a tiny glass-eyed head full of sharp little teeth. She dressed in combinations of grey and mauve and at night slept with her hat on so as to not disturb her hair.

Even though she had a live-in maid, an evil little Bretonne named Mathilde, the house was poorly taken care of and filthy. There were balls of dust and fur from her almost-dead poodle, Mathurin, cobwebs on the ceiling, piles of old magazines and, always, a stack of unwashed dishes by the kitchen sink. None of this bothered Tatie.

My parents’ relationship to Tatie, and indirectly to her maid Mathilde, was complicated by the state of her home.  On the one hand my great aunt was a delightful and eccentric woman of some means and capable of bestowing largess upon our genteelly impoverished family. My father, however, found Tatie’s house so filthy that, when invited there, he would only accept to eat fruit he would peel himself and soft-boiled eggs in the shell, on the assumption that neither Tatie nor Mathidle could have touched the edible parts.        

Mathilde and Tatie detested each other, but Mathilde would never quit—who else would hire her?—and Tatie would never fire her; neither could envision a life without the other. Mathilde was a thief who regularly embezzled small sums from the household budget and stuffed the stolen moneys into her mattress. Tatie may or may not have known about this, but did in the end get a sublime vengeance: When Mathilde died, the money was still in the mattress. Mathilde had no living relatives so Tatie inherited money.  

Tatie’s house was a crowded museum of colonial artifacts and to me a constant source of wonder. She had met her husband at a military ball when she was sixteen and he was a dashing soldier of  twenty-one. They eloped that very night. He died young while still in the service and she remained childless and  never remarried, spending her time among the relics of their time in the colonies.

Tatie had spears from darkest Africa, leopard skins, ancient firearms, daggers, a full suit of armor that seemed hammered together to fit a child. I managed to dislodge one arm, much to her consternation, and it fit. She had ao dais from Indochina, kaftans from Algeria, an elephant’s foot fashioned into an umbrella stand, a collection of jade figurines from the Far East and what years later I would recognize as an exquisite samurai sword. She also had a collection of graceful ivory netsukes I was not allowed to touch, though I did when she wasn’t looking. One figurine, a monk, had a rotating head with a smile on one side and a frown on the other.

Rainy days in St. Germain were also reading days. Tatie had a collection of illustrated books showing battles in violent colors, where the French flag waved high over corpse-strewn battlefields. There were images of Napoleon addressing Parisians after escaping from exile and the French fleet laying rightful waste to the British navy. There was a pair of  posters—they now hang in my dining room—of French kings and queens from Merovingian times, including Thierry I, II and II, and their wives, who had appalling names like Cunégonde and Bertha Big Feet.

The only downside to visiting Tatie when it rained was the dog, Mathurin, who never moved, farted often, and emitted a gut-wrenching smell. Mathurin was sneaky, too. I was lying near him breathing with my mouth and reading when he suddenly lurched up, bit my butt, then fell asleep again. I should have gotten stitches but Tatie was afraid that if we went to the hospital, the police might come and take Mathurin away.

I still have a scar on my butt.   

Monday, November 30, 2015

Paris in the Rain

Rainy weekday mornings, as far as they go, are never as good as they are in Paris.

As a kid, a rainy morning meant I would be walked to school instead of going there by myself. The seldom-washed windows of the école communale were streaked with the residue of too many coal-fired furnaces, and when it rained recess was held indoors instead of in the school’s courtyard. No big sacrifice there. The French educational system back then did not include phys ed, so time spent outdoors was mostly either standing around or chasing each other without much gusto in lackadaisical games of tag. The teachers supervising us smoked their Gauloises and Gitanes cigarettes in a corner and tried to look properly angst-ridden (existentialism was very big), prompted to move only if a pupil’s fall included blood and sprains.

On rainy days recesses held inside, a mayhem of paper airplanes, spitballs, pushing, shoving and tripping reigned in class. The teacher left and would return a half-hour later to restore order by whacking a long, straight ebony ruler against the blackboard. I remember that my fingers were permanently ink-stained; each school desk had a built-in ink pot filled by the teacher in the morning. We learned cursive writing with ink spreading on skin, class apron and under fingernails. To this day, I recall the bitter taste of the dark liquid when I licked and tried to rub it off my hands.

At home it was different. My mother had an atelier, a dress-making shop that catered to the middle class and aped the fashions of better-known couturieres. I’d come home from school, shed my rain cape (a real woolen cape that would get sodden and smelly) and do my homework on the fabric-cutting table.

I loved it in the atelier. There were two part-time models—living mannequin—who to my delight walked around in a state of constant déshabillé. Neither had finished school, but they helped with my homework, doing multiplications and divisions that always came out wrong. I didn’t care. I was fascinated by barely concealed breasts and derrieres, the curve of a leg or a spine. The math was checked by the enterprise’s gay designer and chief tailor whose facility with numbers was more pronounced than those of the models. When the homework was finished, the models and I played cards—war, usually, which requires neither intellect nor knowledge of mathematics.

Rainy days kept everyone indoors. The sewing machines clattered, fabrics hissed while cut; the atelier smelled of café-au-lait, croissants, chalk dust, and garlic from the model’s saucissons sandwiches. I gathered remnants and made fringes for my pants so they’d look like cowboy chaps. Long strips of discarded fabrics became headbands, belts, sashes, bandannas and skinny neckties. Squares became parachutes attached to lead soldiers hurled towards the ceiling or out the windows, because on rainy days in the spring and summer, my mother would throw open the large windows to let in air and the wet sounds of the city.

If Proust had his madeleines, I had and still have the sensory memory of diesel fumes, wet cobblestones and smoldering anthracite. I remember tires on water, the rushing of storm sewers, the streams escaping from the mouths of the gargoyles. There were seas of black umbrellas, the soaked flooring of an adjacent café, the aroma of the local épicerie and the sweet and tart tang of the vintner’s shop.

And that’s a Paris no terrorism will ever touch.


Friday, November 27, 2015

My First Thanksgiving

It took my parents several years to get used to Thanksgiving.

Turkeys (the bird) didn’t exist in Paris when we lived there and neither, of course, did the celebration. So when we came to the United States and were invited to a  Thanksgiving meal hosted by American friends, there were some surprises.

The first was grace, which my more-or-less agnostic family never recited, though we did have bouncy tune that went:

J’ai bien mangé  (I’ve eaten well)

J’ai bien bu (I’ve drunk well)

J’ai la peau du ventre bien tendue (The skin on my stomach is nice and taut)

Merci, petit Jésus (Thank you baby Jesus).

My dad took one bite of a sweet potato with marshmallow and blanched.  This, mind you, was a man who during World War II camped out with the Touareg tribes in North Africa, trying to persuade them to join the Allies and not the Axis. To prove his solidarity with them, he once ate the eye of a sheep.

My mother didn’t quite understand the role cranberry sauce played in the meal so the first time she encountered it, she put a bit on her plate and spooned it directly into her mouth, thinking it was a sort of American mid-meal desert. Me, I thought pumpkin pie was really disgusting and I didn’t much care for the sweet potatoes either.

The turkey was interesting, though dry.  It was difficult to conceive such a large bird could fly,
and my mother who had never cooked anything larger than a smallish chicken was certain the thing would be pink inside and inedible. She was wrong, of course, but talked about it the rest of the week. I also remember that we’d brought a rare treat to our hosts’ home, marons glacés, candied chestnuts flown in from France. The hostess gave them an odd, appraising look, smiled, and dumped them in a china bowl that she placed alongside the less popular victuals—squash, boiled cucumbers, celery sticks and stewed tomatoes. If my mother took umbrage at the slight, she didn’t show it. She had already accepted that Americans’ gustatory instincts were at best primitive. These people turned up their noses at good cheese, saucisson, blood sausage and kidneys, Beaujolais and calf’s brain. Their dislike of marons glacés was to be expected.  I saved the day by eating most of them.   

The hostess loaded us down with leftovers. When we got home, my father personally placed the marshmallow and yams at the base of the large tree in our backyard for the raccoons to find. My mother made a rather dry pâté from the turkey leavings, and croquettes from the mashed potatoes.

I got sick from all the marons glacés.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Explaining Thanksgiving to the French

For decades prior to his death Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post did not run it this year, so I will.
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 Americaine) 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 the Pélerins, 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 (mais). 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 mais 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 Kilomètre? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)

Jean said that Kilomètres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilomètres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun à son gout. )

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilomètres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Throw the Bums Out!

Many years ago I was Senior Writer for the World Bank, an institution both respected and reviled worldwide. The Bank, formally known as the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), is located blocks from the White House in Washington, DC, and every few years undergoes what is called a reorganization, a restructuring, or a staff reappraisal, depending on who is in charge. These exercises are held to further streamline the system and make it easier to work with the Bank’s 188 member countries

I went through two of these upheavals when I worked there. The general idea was that every employee from vice president on down was essentially fired (but not really) and then had to write their own job description and be re-hired again. Now you must take this sort of corporate decision with a grain of salt. The vice presidents and the department directors’ chances of being let go were slim to none, but for the rank and file, of which I was one, this was a fairly serious exercise. Many were given the option of bowing out with a fairly adequate financial package. Those whom the institution wanted out, but who would not leave, would be reassigned to often menial jobs. My favorite example was an irrigation engineer who decided to hang on and was made Parking Superintendent, which title is exactly what the job entailed.  He didn’t mind. The pay was the same with a lot fewer hassles.

I bring this up because I wonder if now is not the time to have a massive reorganization of our elected servants, particularly our largely useless corps of officials on Capitol Hill.

What I am suggesting is, basically, throw the idiots out. All of them.

Rarely in the history of this country has an elected body of public servants been so useless. Both the Senate and the House are mired in partisan issues and the overarching concern of the elected is to get re-elected. After all, this is a pretty good gravy train--long vacations, free travel, unaccountability, and a large staff to get things done. Or, actually, not get things done. Good work if you can get it, which is why so many candidates want in.

By now everyone knows the electoral process has become so flawed that any ass with enough money can get elected to one office or another. Once there, he or she will end up not so much representing the people as the corporations and lobbyist who kicked in to the election fund. This is why, for example, the National Rifle Association can prevent passage of more thorough background checks of people who buy firearms online or at gun shows. Fully 90 percent of the citizens in the country have no issue with this, but legislation is blocked by NRA threats to withhold campaign funds.

Or consider the pharmaceutical industry, which for decades has justified the high price of drugs by claiming that development costs are ruinous, which is nonsense.  Research and development are mostly tax write-offs, and much of it is done by independent research labs. But the pharm people have clout, and when allied with insurance companies, doctors’ groups and hospital conglomerates, wield so much power in Congress that any effort to regulate costs is easily defeated.

So here’s a thought. Let’s do like the World Bank and fire all of those below the rank of Vice President. The country is strong enough and has enough momentum to survive a lengthy period during which no legislation is suggested. Let’s have a special election and replace all the useless elected toadies who people Capitol Hill. Let’s do it with campaigns limited to two weeks and one million dollars in spending.

And let’s change the rules, too. One term, six years for everybody from dog-catcher to president. As it stands, House members are elected every two years, so they spend the entirety of their terms working toward reelection. Senators have six years, but if both sides of Congress had roughly the same amount of time in office, something might get accomplished. What it comes down to is letting the citizen rule again and make public servants understand the true meaning word ‘servant.’ Servant does not mean ‘person who wallows in the public trough.’   

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Yesterday before the start of the Redskins-Saints football game, the announcers called for a moment of silence for those who perished in Paris. It happened again later in the afternoon before another game, this one played, I believe, in Ohio. I can say without the least embarrassment that both instances brought tears to my eyes.

There‘s always been a special relationship between France and the US, one that can overlook moments of foolishness such a Freedom Fries (the French retaliated by calling American cheese ‘fromage idiot’) or Jeb Bush’s stupid reference to “a French work week.” (Way to go, Jeb! That’ll endear you to the French.) There is no doubt in my mind that the country of my birth would not be what it is today had Americans failed to intervene during both World Wars. Conversely, I’ve read that French assistance helped defeat the Brits during the American Revolution

I did notice a recent ad for razor blades where a crusty razor (one, I assume, that would painfully scrape an American cheek) was portrayed wearing a beret and speaking with a Pepe le Pew accent. It seemed sort of pointless and was not particularly funny and I suspect it’s been pulled by now.

So anyway, I’ll keep this short. Thanks for the outpouring of emotions, thanks to all the friends
who asked how I was doing (still furious, powerless, raging, and grateful I don’t have the powers to launch air strikes) and who understood that, even though I’ve been here in America a very long time, the assault on My Paris cut deeply.

Merci à tous!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris, Encore

So after 36 hours of non-stop discussion, the commentators in Paris, New York, London, Bonn and Washington came up with an opinion: Terrorism is a complex problem and there is no easy solution.

Hmpf. I could’ve told them that.

So many varied issues are involved that it’s become what the French call un panier de crabe, a basket of crabs. The imagery is simple. Try to get a single crab out of the basket. You can’t. With claws and legs interlocked, the crustaceans defy separation. The same goes for terrorism.

France, for example, has had a serious issue with immigrants since the end of the Algerian War when tens of thousands of North Africans came to Europe.  As a nation, France was never designed to take outsiders. Indeed, it is run as a highly structured system based not on inclusion but on exclusion. The nation’s basic philosophy is one of meritocracy. Success in France often depends on the grandes écoles, highly specialized schools that take you to careers in politics, engineering, the arts, and business. This is contest-based education, where class standing, (don’t be fooled, the nobility is still there) a pervasive old-boy network and cronyism still play paramount roles. The émigrés have not breached the wall. It’s designed to keep them out and does it very well.

The immigrants, not to be outdone, bring with them old-world values that are no longer relevant. They live in neighborhoods and virtual city-states—no-go zones—where French is not spoken, and a Francophone culture may be openly reviled; often the only native French presence is the detested police. The non-native born hardly participate in the political process and are economically and educationally marginalized. They are pissed off, and rightly so. It’s little wonder that some have espoused radicalism. It’s the second-class citizens that foment revolution, not the elite.

Other more recent developments have come into play. There are guns in France, now. A Kalakshnikov imported from Russia costs about $500 on the street. There’s drugs, crime, powerlessness and rage, often fed by religious leaders of doubtful provenance. There’s massive unemployment that reaches eighty percent in some neighborhoods. Social services have fallen away, and the physical infrastructure is no better there than here, which is to say failing. Nefarious foreign influences stress violence as a solution. This is not the France tourist see; it is the hidden France that most French have turned a blind eye to.  

The immigrants are at fault as well. They too, are insular and distrustful; they often see themselves as powerless and victimized—not a good outlook for future success. In a country that reveres the comme il faut, the as-it-should-be, they make it a point to stand out…

The solution, if there is to be one, comes down to a radical reexamination of what is and what needs to be done.

The Islamic communities have to do their own house-cleaning, faire le ménage, the French call it. They have to police themselves and they should be allowed and encouraged to do so.

Those who have succeeded financially and socially, and there are many, particularly in the sports, entertainment and literary world (think Isabelle Adjani, Jacques Derrida, Zinedine Zidane) have to wield their large influences to encourage education and growth. They must also agitate to hold the government responsible for its shortcoming in regards to immigrant issues.

The French government, stodgy, slow, myopic, has to deal with the no-go zones. As early as 2002, the New York Times reported, “North African suburbs have become no-go zones at night, and the French continue to shrug their shoulders.” And Newsweek said in November, 2005, “According to research conducted by the government’s domestic intelligence network, the Renseignements Generaux, French police would not venture without major reinforcements into some 150 ‘no-go zones’ around the country.” In early January of this year, the New Republic wrote: “The word banlieue (‘suburb’) now connotes a no-go zone of high-rise slums, drug-fueled crime, failing schools and poor, largely Muslim immigrants and their angry offspring.”  

These neighborhoods, if they are to stop breeding outlaws, need better schools, more investments, community centers, and employment opportunities. They need to be made safe not through the efforts of the French authorities, but through those of their own inhabitants.  They need to elect intelligent representatives on a local, regional and national basis. They need to become part and parcel of the nation.  That would be a start.

Because here is the simple truth: The Islamists aren’t going to go away. But then, neither are the French.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris 11/13/15

After a while I couldn’t watch anymore, but is seemed wrong not to. Aching with powerlessness, glued to the screen like everyone else, information coming in tiny morsels, watching as the banner at the bottom of the broadcast changed to show an increasing number of dead.

I called my sister; her voice was funereal. Her family was okay, huddled in their apartment like most others in Paris. I wondered at the staggering cowardice involved in such acts, and how anyone, anyone at all, could be so morally backwards as to perpetuate and condone the murders. My only satisfaction was thinking, “Alright, you despicable sewer rats. You’ve just started a war. It’s on you.”

Now, the morning after, I’m no less furious. Yes, hurray for liberté, égalité, fraternité, but let’s remember as well the really chilling part of the Marseillaise, where the anthem speaks of enemy blood watering the country’s furrows.

Here is my fear: That the vengeance will be long and bloody, that far more innocent and law-abiding Muslims will suffer than anyone else, which is, of course, what the cowards want. Every alienated youth is a potential terrorist. And faced with such a dire reality, I’m afraid the French can be, and have been, quite uncivilized now and then, and this may be one of those times.

I believe it is up to the Muslim communities in Europe and elsewhere to police themselves. It is inconceivable that such coordinated acts of violence could have occurred without—at worst—the tacit approval of many and, at best, a decision by some  who could have prevented the carnage to stay silent.   

Whether ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda or the St. Germain Sewing Club is responsible is not the issue, and I don’t know whether these pathetic criminals were French citizens or not.  I do believe them to be deluded, taken in by the small amount of power they wield to disrupt the daily lives of innocence. I also believe it is time, as a friend once said, for the civilized world to grow a pair and do what is needed to eliminate those who threaten peace and make war on innocents.

One thought: Make it such that any European or Western volunteer who takes up arms against the rest of us becomes nationless. Let his or her passport immediately be revoked. Let it be known they will never go home again. Ever. We may be too enlightened to behead, crucify, stone, burn or flay, but we can make it so that those who do kill and torture with impunity will never live in peace. And your 72 virgins? May they all have the pox.



Friday, November 13, 2015

Carol Ann Doda

Amidst grain-filled pyramids, babies butchered (or not) by Planned Parenthood, giant retaining walls to keep out willing workers, and ill-informed presidential candidates thankfully bathed in the blood of the lamb, you may have missed an important passing. Carol Doda died four days ago in California at the age of 78, marking the end of an era.

Ms. Doda was the country’s first (public) topless dancer. (I add the word public because I suspect that even before her performances, somewhere, sometimes, someone danced topless for someone else.)

She was a waitress at the Condor nightclub, a faceless place on Broadway in San Francisco, and she wanted to be in show business. She had a good smile and pouty lips, a sort of Americanized very blond Brigitte Bardot, and she could sing a little and dance a little. The mid-60s were heady times on the West Coast, so when the Condor’s owner suggested she model designer Rudy Gernreich’s monokiny bathing suit, she did just that, and the world was never the same again. In time, she decided that her poitrinne did not adequately represent her ambitions, so she became another pioneer. Her breasts were surgically augmented to a generous 44-DD. Playboy magazine did a photospread of her ample figure, and soon she was a household name.

My mother, who found my copy of Playboy as she was searching my room for God knows what, was amazed. “I would fall over,” she said. “How can she stand up straight?” My father, ever the realist, inspected the photo for a good five minutes before saying, “She must have a very strong back.”

Ms. Doda was now a world-wide celebrity, and the Condor put a twenty-foot-tall sign of her likeness on its roof. Tourists from Europe and Asia flocked to the club. Tom Wolfe discovered her and wrote, in the introduction of The Pump House Gang, “I met Carol Doda. She blew up her breasts with emulsified silicone, the main ingredient in Silly Putty, and became the greatest resource of the San Francisco tourist industry.” And indeed, she played Sally Silicone opposite the Monkees in the movie Head. She recorded a not-very-good ten-song album that today is a collectible. Then she went bottomless as well as topless, which led to a state suit prohibiting nude dancing at places that served liquor. There was a never-confirmed rumor that she might start dancing at a Dairy Queen.

In time her ample chest began to sag. There were more operations. She retired from her dancing platform in 1985. She opened up a gift shop, sang with a rock band, and, one last time, was a pioneer of what has become a staple of the adult industry. She ran Carol Doda’s Pleasure Palace, one of the country’s first fantasy sex phone lines.

Ms. Doda never married. Her life was strangely free of the scandals permeating the lives of more modern celebrities. There was no substance abuse or addiction, no seven-foot-tall drug-addled basketball players, no illicit affairs, no sex changes, no shoplifting or drunken driving charges. Instead, she nurtured the fantasies of a generation of adolescents and, in a strange way, weas at the forefront of the movement that stated women’s bodies were their own.

Critics might say she opened the floodgates of sexual permissiveness. I prefer to think of her as a revolutionary feminist.

Rest in peace, Carol Ann Doda.