Friday, October 30, 2015
It’s not writer’s block. Call it writer’s ennui. I was roaring along on my current book, Dope, a sequel to Thirst, when all of a sudden I … stopped. I’m on page 308. Sixty-six-thousand words have flowed almost effortlessly over the past few months, and then the tap shut off. I can’t remember this happening before.
And so I immediately shift from Writer’s Ennui to Writer’s Paranoia. Maybe this is my subconscious telling me the book stinks and I should drop it and start writing about something else—anything else. But it doesn’t stink; actually, it’s pretty good and the beta readers who’ve seen it like it. The characters created in Thirst are alive and well and responsive and their transition to Dope has been easy. I’ve gotten to know them all intimately and have discovered sources of humor there that weren’t there before. The new characters are sort of neat and colorful, too. There’s a set of triplets who keep me on my toes, and a wise guy kid from the slums who’s been really perplexing.
The plot is pretty good, too, and I’m satisfied that the resolution will work. I’ll have to massage it, and I anticipate a few sleepless nights working out the details, but all in all this should be a pretty readable book, particularly since I’m not trying for deathless prose here, simply mindless winter entertainment.
I’ve written isolated and independent scenes, which I will stitch together in time. Such writing is always fun. I go into a separate universe and, two or three hours later, find that I’ve pounded out a bunch of pages and that it’s mostly pretty good stuff. The boring part is making sure the transitions work as well as the scene they lead to or from. Transitions, I’ve found, are a challenge a lot of writers fail to meet adequately. I’ve read so many book and short stories that hop from scene to scene and leave me confused…
Part of the difficulty right now is that the characters have grown into their own personalities and no longer really answer to me. I can move them about, have them mouths words and sentences, but they won’t always do what I want them to. Actually, that’s a plus and it means I’ve done my job creating them. They have their own voices and their own legs and they can tell me to go to hell, nicely of course, but it can be troublesome. Occasionally, it’s as if I’m ordering my cat to do stuff; I tell character A or B what I want and more often than not he or she will stare, look around, and not do it.
I can partly blame the ennui on the season. It’s fall; the holidays are starting and I’m allergic to them. I feel as if the best I can do is weather Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, then Valentine’s and my birthday. I wish I could find the gayety most people feel on those days, but what I get is, well, depressed. I don’t know why I have such a strong reaction to the fall and winter celebrations; I just do. And then it’s spring and things change.
Time to hunker down. My assignment for the day is to finish this blog and post it, then write a minimum of 1000 words.
And so now I’ve finished the blog.
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
My mother was not an easy person to live with. Between the weight of her anxieties and panic attacks and the burdens of her expectations, I believe a good part of her life was steeped in frustrations and the belief that the world was not an equitable place.
She rarely discussed her thoughts on the matter, but there’s no doubt in my mind that her childhood years were unhappy ones dominated by a father and stepmother uninterested in their daughter’s life, and a child prodigy brother who garnered all of the family’s love and attention.
She was sixteen when she ran away from home and married a North African Jewish doctor and film-maker. She had two girls within six years, and while in Algeria, ran away from her husband’s overbearing family. She would meet my father at the end of the war and, pregnant with me, return to Paris after the liberation.
There was a long and heart-breaking lawsuit over the custody of my half-sisters. My mom essentially got visiting rights. The girls could come to the apartment of her new family but rarely spent the night. Both my sisters held that my father was responsible for their mother’s divorce and, indirectly, for their own father’s death from cancer a few years later.
This would have strange ramifications. My oldest sister, Florence, was a carbon-copy of her mother: creative, impulsive, argumentative at times, and focused on success. She managed famous French singers, including Patrique, a rock star, and they had matching Porsches and mink coats. But the singer was an addict and neither of them bothered to pay their taxes, so he went to a Swiss rehab and the Porsches and fur coats were taken away. After this, Flo began to write and was soon the successful author of a half-dozen novels starring an ingénue—her—whose life is ruined by an evil mother—our mother. The books broke my mom’s heart. She could not understand the depth of her own daughter’s resentments, nor did she appreciate being portrayed as a post-war Cruella deVil. Reconciliations between her and Florence came and went. When my mom died, Flo left town to avoid going to the funeral.
I was shielded from this acrimony, but even as a kid I knew something was wrong.
Her disappointment in Florence’s action was offset by the pride she took in the achievements of her other daughter, Isabelle. Isa was the personification of steadfastness. Barely a child, she was accepted into the prestigious Paris Conservatory and, once there, she never left. She studied composition, and then taught it. She is today possibly the world’s best known and most prolific composer of operas for children—yes, there are such things—and well into her seventies continues to prosper. She met her husband-to-be when she was fourteen, married him five years later, and they recently celebrated their golden anniversary. Isa tried hard not to take sides in the internecine warfare between her mother and her older sister, and she suffered from it, being blamed and manhandled by both sides.
One of the reasons my mother accepted coming to America, I think, is that she truly believed it was the Promised Land, and in her mind, a lot of promises needed to be fulfilled. Promises and expectations were the same for her. It wasn’t necessarily clear who had promised what to whom, but it was obvious, for example, that her husband—my father—should have been a diplomat, perhaps even an ambassador. Her son—me—should have been one as well. Her paintings should have all sold at the last gallery showing. Indeed, whatever project she was involved in should have led to success. That it often did not was an affront. She took the failures of her expectations personally, and as she grew older, so did the resentments attendant to unrealized hopes.
Late in life a bitterness set in, and as I grow older, I find once again that I can mirror her thoughts. I have tried to build myself after my father’s image, but deep down, my mother rules. It has been revelatory, occasionally, to come to a complete stop of whatever I am doing or thinking and realize, ça, c’est Maman.
At first this horrified me. I knew my mother well and her shortcomings were often more visible than her many assets. Now, I’m not so sure. I think it took immense courage to come here to this baffling, faraway land and make a life among it friendly, baffling people.
And I can now understand her hurry to return to France as soon as my father retired, and trade a four bedroom house in Chevy Chase for a minuscule garret in Paris. She was going to prove that you can go home again.
Saturday, October 10, 2015
My mom never got used to America, but there were aspects of it she found wonderful. EJ Korvette, a department store, was one that fulfilled her every sartorial dream.
In Paris, she’d started a dressmaking salon that she hoped would rival that of Coco Chanel.
Coco had created the little black dress; my mother would lay claim to the little white dress. Her maison de couture never really took off but she remained fascinated by women’s fashions. Korvette’s, an acre of dresses, undergarments, shoes and accessories, specialized in deeply discounted knock-offs of the major couturiers. My mother would buy these, alter them slightly and remove the labels, and happily accept the compliments of friends who were impressed by her sense of chic. She wore clothes well, with a certain désinvolture that implied a first name acquaintance with Pierre (Cardin), Christian (Dior) and the other Pierre (Balmain).
She was imaginative; sequins and paste jewelry were her friends but never in an inelegant manner. She was known to accessorize shoes with extra bows and buckles, changing a pair of eight-dollar heels into handmade Italian stilettos.
On the other hand, some things American defied her comprehension. She once brought home a chunk of Velveeta cheese thinking it was furniture polish. Driving was a challenge. I teased her about never having been involved in an automobile accident but undoubtedly causing scores of them. If my mother was behind the wheel when an ambulance approached, she would stop dead in the middle of the street. This, she had somehow mislearned in Americanization school, was the law, and no amount of sirens or horns or flashing red lights would get her to budge.
In her late 60s, she stopped smoking unfiltered Pall Malls and instead took up Indian beedi cigarettes that smelled exactly like marijuana. We were once asked to vacate a pretty good restaurant before we’d finished eating when the maître d’ threatened to call the police.
She painted and had successful gallery openings which she deemed a failure if not every single painting was sold. I inherited many of her works, wonderful scenes of la belle époque, weddings and Parisian neighborhoods and families standing at attention in front of giant automobiles with dogs the size of ponies.
She wrote free-lance reviews of American movies for French magazines, and recorded interviews for the Voice of America. She taught French at a ballet school, which afforded me endless dating opportunities with girls who wore chignons, had deformed feet, and were shamelessly self-involved.
She loved, with equal devotion, Elvis Presley, Jacques Brel, Maurice Chevalier, and the Beatles. She played tennis fiercely but badly, refused to wear a bathing cap when swimming, and once ate twenty-two softshell crabs at one sitting. She adored my father and loved the fact that, even after four decades of married life, her actions still befuddled him.
My mother was an anxious woman, subject, I now believe, to the same type of panic attacks that occasionally lay me low.
She discovered hashish while with the Parisian artists and cocaine in North Africa during the war. She may have experimented with the amphetamines given by the US Air Force to its pilots so they could complete long missions. I think she spent the better part of her life looking for a cure for her anxiety. As such, she soon became addicted to the early pharmaceuticals—Seconal, Miltown and other pills that would calm without stupefying. Where other families might have a bowl of fruit in the center of the dining room table, we had a bowl of drugs. She had half-a-dozen doctors prescribing remedies for her ailments and was always on the look-out for whatever new drug was available. When, after she died, I cleaned out the Paris apartment where she and my father had lived, I found hundreds of boxes of Xanax, Valium, and other benzodiazepines, as well as beta-blockers and anti-depressants. I had known for a long time about her pharmaceutical addiction, but the sheer amount of drugs stashed in shoes, handbags, coat pockets hatboxes, and bureau drawers, stunned me.
If I look back, my mother’s eccentricities were unavoidable.
My great-aunt Thérèse slept with her hat on, and my great-grandfather squandered a fortune buying a candy store for an eighteen-year-old can-can dancer with whom he was enamored. My great-uncle Bertrand, a celebrated French architect, decorated the buildings he designed with gargoyles fashioned in the likeness of his wife. My grandfather was known to use whoopee cushions during formal dinners. Could my mother have turned out any different than she was?
Friday, October 9, 2015
It struck me recently that I’ve written extensively about my father and not so much about my mom. So here goes.
My mother was what the French called an enfant terrible. Born to a middle-class family with creative aspirations, she—according to stories she told to me when I was a child—lost her mother early. Her father remarried to a woman she did not like, and so her closest friend was the family maid. She did not get along with her brother, Jacques, who at an early age became a child prodigy pianist. I remember him as a totally dislikeable man and could tell even as a kid that he looked down on us, and without much reason. For all his genius, Jacques was a momma’s boy who never left home.
My mother had artistic ambitions of her own. She studied painting under the Cubists, did some perhaps nude modeling, met Picasso and hung around with George Braque. She also played the piano and taught herself the accordion, though I never saw her play it. In France, the accordion has always been considered a lower class instrument enjoyed by the blue collar. I suspect she took it up just to piss off her father, who had pretentions to grandeur and wrote operas that seldom got produced, with one exception: Mona Vana, written with the composer Maurice Maeterlinck, had a brief run in the United States during the Roaring 20s.
My mother married very young. Her husband was a North African Jewish doctor who also produced films. The marriage got her disowned by her middle-class Christian family (people still discussed the Dreyfus Affair) and she would not get back into her father’s good graces until after World War II.
At the beginning of the war, she and her husband fled Paris when it became obvious that German forces would conquer the city. They went to Algeria where Something Happened. It may be that my mother had a brief affair with the writer Antoine de St. Exupery, the author of The Little Prince. She alluded to that a time or two. Or, more prosaically, she might not have appreciated the North African lifestyle, where her harridan mother-in-law ran the household and made it obvious she thought her a poor bride for her son. By then, my mother and her husband had two daughters.
She started working outside the family home, which was not appreciated by either her husband or her mother-in-law. She wrote and published a beautiful children’s book, Isabelle dans le Pays des Oiseaux and had a hand in the creation of Babar the elephant. Then she joined the Free French, the force of French citizens who refused to abide by the Vichy government’s capitulation to the Germans.
In time she met my father, also a Free French soldier. I was conceived quickly (in the back of an Army truck, according to her), and after a few more adventures, the little family of three moved to the States. To her great sorrow, her daughters chose to stay in France.
My mother could never quite understand America. It was too big, too bountiful, and its people laughed too loudly and truly thought no one had ever been as great as they were now. The language challenged her: pepper and paper; cheep and cheap and sheep and chip and ship. And who had ever heard of going shopping for a week with a cart? She was a shop-daily-an-buy-fresh-food string-bag person.
In time, she became the doyenne of the French in the Washington, DC, area. She ran the Franco-American Friendship Society; she had a Francophone book club, took part in the French theatre company, and baked quiches for the French parish. She befriended francophone diplomats and their wives, and one of her favorite people was the wife of the Madagascan ambassador, who showed up at our house in full native dress, to the befuddlement of our curious neighbors. She gave to trying to become an American and stayed irremediably French.
Sunday, October 4, 2015
A lone gunman armed with _____ shot and killed _____ in East Buttputt, Ohio, as horrified _____ ran shrieking from the scene. The gunman, identified as ______, a ___-year-old unemployed _____, attempted to escape in a _____ but was _______ by the police. Aside from the _______ killed, _______ more victims were injured, three critically. The gunman had a total of ____ weapons with enough ammunition, according to police, to kill ______ people.
“It was horrible,” said __________, who witnessed the shooting. “He was yelling and screaming about organized _______ and _______. I hid under a ______ and prayed.”
According to neighbors, ________ was a troubled youth who had clashed several times with ______ and believed that _________ and that it was is duty to ______. The gunman’s parents, _____ and _____ refused to comment, but a _______ who knew the alleged shooter, said, “He was a strange little _______. He always liked playing with guns, and he seemed to have few ______.
The alleged shooter’s website showed him posing with an array of weapons, and a long message addressed to _______ criticized the _____, _____, and _____ policy of the United States.
According to records made available, _________ dropped out of ________ when he was ____ and worked several minimum wage jobs at ______, ______, and _______. Sources at _______, his last place of employment, say he was fired a month ago for_______ in the New England clam chowder, which is against ________ policy.
As families, friends and neighbors gathered to mourn at ________ with flowers, balloons and stuffed animals, ________ said of _________, one of the slain victims, that she was _______ a __________ who volunteered at the local _________ and sang with the ________ choir. “I don’t know what we’ll do without her,” said __________.
There have been 294 mass shootings in 274 days, according to _________. Gunmen have invaded schools, movie theatres, restaurants, and malls, leaving trails of blood and tragedy.
Reached at the National Rifle Association Headquarters in Virginia, NRA Spokesperson Wayne LaPierre re-iterated the organization’s belief that, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” He blamed legislators for their efforts to push through additional laws to regulate gun sales and ownership. “This is a violation of the Second Amendment that permits citizens to arms themselves against imminent threats, such as ISIS, the Pope, the Illuminati, poor people of all races, and anyone promoting gun control. It’s not the guns that need to be registered,” he told reporters, “it’s the crazy people.” LaPierre added that, “If we can register all the crazy people and know where they are at all times, there will be no more incidents such as the one that occurred at _______. “ Quoting Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, LaPierre added, “But hey, stuff happens.”
In Washington, D.C., Representative ____________ (D, OH) said, “We have become a nation whose flag is always at half-mast.”
In other news, Kim Kardashian announced today that ________, but that she hopes to _______ by the weekend.