Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Snow Tales

The blizzard has passed, leaving in its wake waves of anger, frustration, poor behavior and outright lunacy.

I’m not much of a television watcher. Being in front of the set for more than an hour or two makes my eyes and brain glaze over, so like many, as soon as the storm was announced, I headed to the library to stock up on books. I checked out about a dozen graphic novels. I’m a huge fan of Alan Moore, writer of V For Vendetta, From Hell, Watchmen, and a host of other titles, and whose adaptation of Swamp Thing almost single-handedly created the ‘mature’ comic book.

I also got titles from lesser known authors, and here’s something I discovered: most of them weren’t worth reading. Some were poorly drawn, others poorly scripted, others still haphazardly laid out and laughingly inaccurate. I particularly enjoyed one volume set during World War Two were the heroine was called Ms throughout. Political correctness before its time. So now I wonder how, with the publishing industry in flux, do some of these lesser works ever see the light of day?  They’re not cheap to buy; many cost upwards of $25, and I don’t imagine the majority of graphic novel readers have huge disposable incomes… Another publishing mystery, one of many.

Snow brings out interesting behavior. My friend Jane Feather, a writer extraordinaire and the author of several New York Times bestsellers, told of an encounter she had in downtown Washington where she and her husband Jim live.  “This morning I had an errand to run, on foot.  It seems easy as long as you're prepared only to walk in a square... Sidewalks are clear, roads are clear, but there's no comfortable or safe way to cross at a crosswalk. Either you climb over two foot piles of moldy snow or paddle through two feet of grimy slush. On my way from 24th and L streets, I waded, climbed, paddled through an impossible crosswalk in my trusty Uggs and met a most elegant young woman, well-groomed, and wearing a pair of four-inch stiletto-heeled suede boots approaching the quagmire. I don't normally address my fellow pedestrians, but I couldn't help myself as I felt cold water seep into my Uggs. I said, "You're wearing the wrong shoes." She gave me a bleak look and said simply, "I know." I did her the courtesy of moving along and not watching to see how she negotiated the crossing. Really makes you wonder what Land of Oz she thought she'd greeted that morning.”

I had an encounter with a snowplow. After spending a couple of hours clearing my driveway with a snowblower wielding friend, I watched as a county plow barreled down my road to deposit another eighteen inches of snow that re-blocked my driveway. I yelled. The driver, I’m pretty sure, gave me the bird. I shoveled again.

An hour later, the scene repeated itself, though I wasn’t there to watch it. I persisted in shoveling. As I was doing so, a snowplow—perhaps the same one, perhaps not—came growling down the street. This time, I stood my ground protecting my hard-earned excavation. The driver veered slightly and blasted past me, showering me with slush. I yelled an insult and gave him the flock—not one finger, but four. He stopped, and the door to his cab opened. He stepped out, looked down the street at me—a largish infuriated man wielding a red plastic snow shovel from CVS. We glared at each other for a moment. He climbed back into his truck.  Later and quieter of mood and spirit, I guessed the man had probably been working twenty straight hours and was as short-tempered as I was.  

Still, it made me wonder if there’s an evil genius coordinating the plowing. In my neighborhood, only one lane of most major thoroughfares was freed. This led to impossible traffic jams, overheated engines and tempers, and cars abandoned and blocking the way.

In downtown Falls Church, a suburb of Washington, DC, the main roads were cleared promptly, but the next morning, though it hadn’t snowed during the night, another two inches of freezing slush brought traffic to an almost standstill. The plows had come in the wee hours of the morning and somehow managed to spread the remaining snow across the width of the road, where it froze.

I saw a heated argument over a parking space. It involved a blond woman in a new Mercedes SUV and a small, bndled man in a dilapidated Toyota. The Toyota won because, I suspect, the man yelled an unending string of dark curses in an unrecognizable language. It made me proud to be bilingual. Later that day I watched my cat disappear in a snowbank and witnessed a first—feline embarrassment.

The morning paper was not delivered three days running. Neither was the mail, which made me wonder about the USPS unofficial creed: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”  Damn. Another axiom, victim of the blizzard.



Friday, January 22, 2016

How My Mother Started the Winter Storm Toilet Paper Craze

There’s a strong possibility that my mother started the we-need-toilet-paper-because-it’s-going-to-snow mania.

Let me explain.

When we first came to the United States, we withstood tropical weather for the first few months (we arrived in late June) and it seemed inconceivable that a change of season could bring the weather from 100°F to below freezing. My mother’s knowledge of weather patterns was limited. She had lived in Paris and vacationed in the south of France. During World War II, she spent time in Algeria, and at war’s end had returned with my father to the French capital, where it rarely snowed.

Washington in the summer was an entirely different story.  The city was sweltering, subtropical, swampy and mosquito-ridden—so much so that British diplomats considered serving in the District of Columbia a hardship post. It’s true, you can look it up.

We spent that first summer in a state of abject heat exhaustion. Large Sears & Roebuck upright fans moved the air around, a sad and sluggish attempt at comfort, and I remember that even the tap water was warm coming out of the faucet. On occasion, we would drive to Chevy Chase Lake, a large swimming pool a few miles away that, on summer days, was literally standing room only—a thousand sufferers shoulder to shoulder in tepid water, a sea of pink and light blue bathing caps, ruffled women’s bathing suits, and screaming children. This was a far cry from the beaches of Benodet in Brittany.

Four months later, six inches of snow fell on the Washington area. My mother, who still shopped daily à l’européenne armed with a five dollar bill and a string bag, was completely unprepared. We had no bread, no eggs or butter, no vegetables or meat. Worse, we had one roll of toilet paper that she hid for her personal use.

About a week later it snowed again. My mother hurried to the store slipping and sliding in her recently purchased 1951 Lincoln. She bought five pounds of hamburgers, a sack of potatoes, onions, three chickens, bouillon cubes, celery, and fifteen rolls of toilet paper. At the counter, the checkout lady smiled and pointed to the pile of rolls. She said, “You’re ready for the storm!”

Mt mother’s English was still rudimentary. She tried to explain that in post-war Paris, you stocked up in times of emergency, but the only word the checkout lady understood was ‘war.’ This was when the Cold War was raging and the Soviets were threatening to bury the US. War, many thought, was imminent.

A lady in line heard ‘war’ too. She rushed back to the toilet paper aisle and loaded up. So did another woman, and another. Word of war spread. Soon the store was cleaned out of toilet paper, detergent, RC Cola and chocolate bars. My mother drove home, unaware of the trend she’d started and that endures to this day.

This is a true story. I was there.   

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Despicable Snow

I am making stew. I had to go to two food stores to find potatoes and to a third one for bananas. This is because the Washington area, according to the media, will soon be buried under either inches or feet of snow, depending on who’s doing the reporting. A blizzard, people chortle. Yesterday, we had a dusting, less than an inch, I’m told, that fell right as the rush hour began. Friends are recounting three- and four-hour commutes with the same horrified glee I imagine Romans displayed at the Circus.

Personally, I don’t think there’s a word in French or English that adequately describes my feelings about this loathsome winter abomination. I abhor snow. I despise it.

Perhaps this stems from my childhood in Paris, a city that rarely gets snowed upon. Except that one year, when I was a kid, it did snow, and the two snowplow drivers were—of course—on strike. Traffic was at a standstill amid a cacophony of horns and the pin-pan of a police car siren. I was in the courtyard of our apartment building on the Rue de la Terrasse packing a snowball meant for my aging and gimpy Uncle Répaud.  Uncle Répaud was a World War I veteran who’d lost some toes in the trenches, and this gave him the slow, rolling gait of a drunken sailor on shore leave. He moved slowly but steadily, walking his dog, Soldat, who only had three legs and regularly urinated on my uncle’s shoes.

Soldat must have sensed something. Perhaps his missing leg gave him a form of canine ESP, such as the reputed heightened hearing of visually impaired people. He turned just as I was winding up for the throw, growled showing yellow teeth, and launched himself in my direction. The jump was so energetic that it tore the leash from Oncle Répaud’s mittened hand. Soldat’s large head hit me square in the chest. I fell over backwards. My own head hit the ground with a fearsome thud and I fainted for a moment. I came to with Soldat on my chest, leering and drooling, his foul asphyxiating breath washing over my face. Oncle Répaud toddled over carefully; the ground was slippery and he didn’t want to fall. He wrestled the dog off me but did not admonish the beast, as I felt he should have. Instead, her looked at me blankly, shrugged his shoulders and ambled off. I ran back inside and was reprimanded for having lost a shoe, which I hadn’t noticed. I was stripped down to my undies without ceremony and my soaked pants, shirt and coat were draped over the radiators. I didn’t even get any compassion for the knot on the back of my head. And all this was because of snow.

Around here, people seem to think snow is pretty. It is, for a nanosecond, until it gets gray and slushy. It breaks branches that fall on the power lines and knock out the electricity for days, so that I have to spend a night or three at Inns of Virginia, where the rooms reek of stale smoke and God-knows-what-else. Snow makes people trip and fall down stairs where they lie unconscious until their cats eat them. I know because this almost happened to me a few years ago, and though the cat didn’t really approach me, I could tell he was considering it. Snow makes people stupid, which explains why there’s a run on toilet paper as soon as the first few flakes appear. Snow, in other words, has no redeeming value.

In fact, let’s face it--if snow was the last woman on earth, I’d stay celibate, even if she’d have me.

Monday, January 18, 2016

My Mother's Friend

My mother had dozens of acquaintances, a few well-chosen frenemies, and one friend with whom she warred on and off for twenty years.

Among the acquaintances were men and women in the French book club; the French theater; the Franco-American Friendship Society (of which she was president); the Alliance Française whose members she did not trust; the Thursday afternoon bridge and cocktail crowd; and the French Catholic parish which, she had been told by the priest there, would not have survived without her weekly input of a dozen or so quiches Lorraine sold at the parish bake sales.

Her best frenemy was Madame Ellis, an attractive blonde with two sons and an equally attractive daughter. My mother suspected that Madame Ellis had designs on my father.  Additionally, Madame Ellis was married to an American who claimed not to speak French but did, and whom everyone in the French community was certain worked for the CIA. I remember him well, a tall, slightly stooped and thin Ichabod Crane of a man who behaved shiftily whenever he was invited to our house. He shimmered in and out of rooms not generally frequented by the guests and took in everything—paintings on the walls, book titles, album covers, and magazines left open and unattended. My mother could never quite make up her mind on whether to be outraged by his snoopiness, or pleased that our home was important enough to be spied upon.

Her one friend was Kate, a short and breasty woman from a hugely rich French merchant family. To add insult to injury, Kate had written a college textbook for French teachers. The book had gone platinum and sold hundreds of thousands of copies, making Kate even richer and able to afford a house in the better part of Northwest Washington, DC; a huge mansion in Neuilly, just outside Paris, and three apartments on the Gulf Coast of Florida. A few times a year, my mother would fulminate on the unfairness of all this. She was further infuriated that her friend drove a fifteen-year-old Volkswagen that broke down often, so that she had to be picked up and taken to the social events both attended.

Kate was a widow. Her husband, a pilot, had been killed in a plane crash shortly after the birth of their third daughter. The late husband had a surviving twin brother, and it was deemed seemly by my mother and the French community that, after a proper amount of mourning, Kate consider an alliance with the twin. He was, all said, a charming man, single, relatively well-off, physically very similar to the original husband, possibly interested in such a union and, it turned out, very gay.  To satisfy popular demand, Kate and the twin spent an uneventful weekend together in Florida where little happened, which prompted my mother to say that Kate simply didn’t have the feminine wiles to close the deal.

Kate and I remained friends after my parents’ deaths. I would go to Paris and stay in her mansion, which she seldom visited, preferring, when she was in Europe, to stay at an elegant home for the aged in Switzerland. In her many-chambered house, I would be waited upon by an ancient servant whose cooking skills were limited to variations of mashed potatoes—mostly pancakes, croquettes, and deep-fried wafers of varying thickness.

It was Kate who told me that my mother’s suspicions regarding Madame Ellis were probably well-founded. My father, she said, had reciprocated the interest shown by the duplicitous Frenchwoman married to an American. There had been, Kate intoned darkly, difficult times. Had I not been aware of them?

I hadn’t. My parents rarely argued and almost never fought, though my mother was adept at the silent treatment, which could go on for days.

I’ll never know if Madame Ellis and my father had anything more than a flirtation, and it doesn’t matter after all these years. I do wonder, though, if Kate’s divulgence to me was not a subtle revenge. After all, it was my mother who pushed the hardest to get Kate and the twin together, and my mother claimed to know from the very first moment that the twin played for the other team.   


Thursday, January 14, 2016

American Mysteries

When my family first came to the US, the land was shrouded in mysteries. For my mother, these centered largely around food-shopping. She wasn’t accustomed to everything being wrapped or packaged and some items truly baffled her. She was awed by the meat counter, but the butcher’s horrified look when she asked for cow brains and lamb kidneys embarrassed her. The sheer number of laundry detergents was staggering.  In France, you washed your clothes by hand using Omo, a granulated cleaner that I think was invented before the French Revolution. Here, a dozen or more detergents crowded the aisle.

My father, though he spoke English fluently, often ended up in the wrong part of town when he took the bus to work. Once, the driver dumped him unceremoniously across the Potomac in Virginia—terra incognita—and he had to take a cab back all the way to our home in Maryland. Even at the time, the ride emptied his wallet and, I think, prompted a lifelong dislike for taxis, which he claimed were bigger thieves than any merchant he’d encountered in the souks of North Africa during the war.

Me, the mysteries were focused on sports.

My first or second day in America, Johnny King, the teen-aged son of the people in whose house we were staying, handed me a catcher’s mitt. It sort of looked like one of the couch cushions my elderly great-aunt Thérèse had strewn on the sofa of her house in St. Germain.  

Johnny did a complex wind-up and hurled the ball towards me. I watched it approach at terrifying speed. I never considered raising the catcher’s mitt. The ball—it was very, very hard, which I came to understand is why it was called a ‘hardball’—hit me square in the middle of the forehead and knocked me out. Johnny ran off into the surrounding woods. His mother, Mrs. King, saw me lying unconscious in her front yard. So did my mother. This was everything she had feared about coming to America: Savage children attacking her son with solid objects. She wailed her disapproval.

I was unhurt but had a huge knot right between my eyes. Johnny got blamed and immediately became a lifelong enemy. Baseball never had a chance to grow on me.

Football was another thing entirely. I played with neighborhood kids who took glee in handing me the ball and then wrestling me to the ground and jarring the ball loose. It took me weeks to realize they weren’t calling me Dumbo when this happened; they were saying ‘fumble.’  Since at the time I hadn’t quite grown into my ears, I was certain they were comparing me to Disney’s flying elephant. To this day, even after watching hundreds of football games, I still react strongly when a runner drops the ball.

Hockey had no impact; I’d never even seen ice before coming to the States. Basketball seemed sort of silly and I never quite mastered one-hand dribbling.

It was assumed that, being European, I played soccer. I didn’t but pretended to and found a certain ease in taking the ball down the field. The school soccer coach, who I think knew less about the game than I did, always had a favorable word, so that became my sport.

It still is.



Monday, January 11, 2016

Tolstoy Revisited

I don’t often cage other people’s stuff, but couldn’t resist this.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, as reworked into an 800-word ‘digested read’ by The Guardian’s inimitable John Crace.
It was July 1805, and all St Petersburg was concerned about the advance of Bonaparte. Though not so much as to cancel a soirée at which Pierre, a bastard by birth but not by nature, was to be introduced to Russian society.

“Pierre is not one of nous,” several guests observed. “Not only does he forget choses but he doesn’t speak Frussian. Et he drinks even plus que nous.”

Prince Andrew, a bastard by nature but not by birth, cleared his throat delicately. “As a member of the officer class, I have decided to join the army,” he declared.

 “Leave your pregnant wife if you will,” Pierre said, willingly accepting the mantle of fecklessness. “I shall eat, drink and copulate for Russia. That will be my duty for the glorious Motherland.”

“I shall join the hussars,” Nicholas declared, while his sister Natasha eyed potential husbands. They might become rather scarce.

Pierre checked his fob watch. The pages were turning faster than he expected and his father had now died. “I seem to find myself the richest man in Russia.”

War proved more terrible than either Andrew or Nicholas has expected. Dreams as well as men got killed. “How I embrace death,” Andrew murmured as the battle of Austerlitz raged. Pas so vite,” said Napoleon. “Permettez-moi de vous donner une main. Now I must wash my chubby little body.”

“I’m home,” said Andrew as his wife died in childbirth.

Pierre felt the burden of expectation and married Helene but, hélas, she had a bit on the côté. The anguish was intolerable, but Pierre felt obliged not to kill his love rival in a duel and left St Petersburg for many years to ruminate on Freemasonry before deciding a knotted handkerchief was not for him. Instead, he chose to improve the lot of his serfs, who had up till now remained entirely invisible. “Harrumph,” he concluded at last. “I cannot improve their lot because they have never had it so good.” Tolstoy nodded approvingly, lifting his eyes momentarily from the handsome handmaiden beneath him.

“So, 500 roubles on the peace lasting,” said Nicholas, as Napoleon and the Tsar embraced in friendship, thereby losing the remains of the Rostov fortune.

Andrew observed Natasha longingly. “Marry me, please,” he begged. “Oh, I do love you ever so much, Nick,” Natasha replied, but my father is making me wait a year and I’m bound to have developed une grande passion for the inside of Anatole’s trousers by then.”

“I am distraught,” Andrew declared as Natasha fell dangerously ill.

It was now 1812 and Pierre was beside himself as the French approached Moscow. “‘I am deranged with symbolism and Helene has left me even though I left her first. I vow to kill Napoleon,” he said.

 Je ne peux pas believe que je have just perdu the battle of Borodino,” Napoleon squeaked, his shoe-lifts giving him gip. “The French had by loin the best army.”

“But Russia had nature and spirituality on its side,” said Tolstoy while a chorus of Volga boatmen sang patriotic songs.

“Can you not faire quelque chose about the fumee in Moscow?” asked Napoleon. “Et quand will I receive the surrender?”

Jamais,” Mother Russia replied. First scorched earth, then General Winter. War is hell.

Pierre hovered between madness and death as the French performed atrocities during their withdrawal from the icy embrace of Mother Russia.

 “There is a nobility in being broke,” said Nicholas’s aunt. “So I am going to give you some more money.” “Oh, thank you,” Nicholas replied. “Now I can marry Mary. And maybe you and Andrew can make up now, Natasha?”

“I forgive you, Natasha,” said Andrew, before dropping dead.

“That’s handy,” said Pierre, appearing out of nowhere. “Maybe I can marry you instead.”

“Yes please,” Natasha whimpered. “I can give up my singing, we can have four children and I can become a right old drudge, because Leo thinks that submission is a woman’s natural state.”

Tolstoy bowed his head. He was tired. The novel was a difficult thing. Not that his book was a novel, of course. Though people would be bound to call it that. Fools all of them. We can only know we know nothing.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016


A dozen small voices in my head are trying to persuade me not to go to the gym this morning. It’s Sunday, they say. Your back already hurts! You’re so out of shape, you’ll embarrass yourself. It’s cold outside and warm in the house. You’re old. You’re gonna die. What’s the point of it? That sweatshirt is really tattered and the new shoes don’t fit. The car might break down on the way there, or on the way back.

I defy them, all the while wondering why they exist in the first place. Why are my body and brain conspiring to discourage me? Shouldn’t all of us—body, brain, spirit—be working in concert rather than fighting each other like Middle Eastern Islamic sects?

Is this part of the good versus bad conscience, the little angel and devil battling for supremacy in the comic pages or Saturday morning cartoons?

I’m really curious about this phenomenon because it seems to be part and parcel of my daily life. There’s a constant struggle against doing what’s right and good for me, a battle fought against a sly, inner nemesis who knows exactly what arguments I’ll answer to.

It’s grey and raining. There’s traffic. One missed session won’t make a difference. You can go tomorrow.

I’ve learned the best way to wage this battle is to ignore the enemy. This is not necessarily easy to do, but neither is it too complex. Going into automatic mode works: Put on my sweat pants, my socks and shoes, my hoodie. Don’t think, just do it. Get into the car. It’s a mile to the gym and if I can get there, the battle will be won for the day.  

Well no, not quite.

The secondary skirmish begins about halfway through the workout. The voices—there are only three or four left now; the others got bored and went to sleep—are now congratulatory. Well done, they say. We knew you’d do it! You’ve earned a treat! Yes, you have! Maybe stop at Panera’s and get an espresso and a bagel! No, two bagels! You deserve TWO bagels after all this work, all this pushing and pulling and lifting and squatting. One small voice, barely heard, still sings a litany of don’ts: You shouldn’t have, I told you so; now your back is gonna hurt even more. If you listened to me you could be home in bed watching Seinfeld reruns and laughing. Laughing is as good as exercise. Better, even, and it doesn’t hurt your back.

The voices will stay with me as I drive past Panera and go home. One will persevere even as I pull into my garage. It’s not too late! Think of how good you’ll feel! Okay, just ONE bagel. One!

I enter my house. The same voice says, , Okay, skip Panera, I’m pretty sure there’s a piece of cake in the fridge. You should look. And even if there isn’t, there’s got to be something sugary you can eat. Or cookies. Maybe there are cookies in the cabinet. Aren’t there? Did you forget to buy cookies again?

And so I wonder:   Am I the only one whose inner voice is self-defeating, who hosts a daily gathering for guests that don’t have my best interest at heart?

This is a flaw I don’t quite understand and I wonder if others in the mammalian order have it. I’m reminded of lemmings diving of a cliff, then remember that this particular behavior is a myth first staged by Disney for the 1958 film, White Wilderness.

This duality appears to exist in every facet of my life. Go write! No, read. Clean the house! It can wait; the dust balls are not fully grown yet. Cook something! No, open a can; it’s easier and just as good, and you’re not that great a cook, anyway. Nowhere as good as Mrs. Smith and her fish sticks.

Worse is the fact that I appear to give the ‘don’t do it’ side a lot more thought and consideration than ever before. Is that a function of aging? Am I going to do less and less the older I get?

Crap. Too many questions, not enough answers.  Life should be getting simpler, but isn’t.