Sunday, February 28, 2016

Justin and the US

Justin Bieber.

The U S of A.

The U S of A is the Justin Bieber of the world. Really.

Both are brash, capable of bursts of talent amid staggering displays of immaturity. Both think they’re the greatest; neither is. They are, comparatively speaking, young upstarts simultaneously revered and despised. People make fun of them. They’re profligate with their money and their actions, and petulant when caught in the act, whatever that act may be. Both are in love with themselves. Both smirk a lot and have visions of immortality. Both probably lack lasting power.

For years now, I’ve been of the opinion that the US is a grand experiment that shows every sign of failing. As a young nation full of its own bravado, the States took the world by storm and saved it twice from disaster. The country then proceeded to conquer most of the rest of the planet financially as older, more reticent nations watched. Then it began underestimating its foes—Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, terrorists. Its currency, the almighty dollar, showed signs of weakness.  Like any teen-ager, the United States professed great self-knowledge while barely reaching the age of reason. It came to realize that not everything could be solved by displays of posturing, and accepted—with great reticence—the realities of existence: inflation, deflation, unrest, dissatisfaction with the status quo at home and abroad, poverty and racism.  The present political circus is nothing more than an adolescent nation’s tantrums in the face of a changing world.  

I suppose it’s hard to accept the country’s slippage in international rankings. It is 14th in education, behind Canada and the UK, 19th in national satisfaction, trailing Bangladesh, The Philippines, and Uganda; 4th behind Italy in health care efficiency and second, also behind Italy, in general ignorance of social statistics such as voting patterns, unemployment rates and teen pregnancy. It does rank 1st  worldwide in the number of incarcerated prisoners—2.228,424 of them as of January, 31,  2015.

It has fallen to third in global competitiveness, behind Switzerland and Singapore. It is 101st in the peace index, between Angola and Benin, and 60th in the cost of fast food. It hold the 13th place in acceptance of homosexuality, the 23rd in gender equality, the 33rd in Internet download speed, and is first in women’s Olympic figure skating gold medals. It is 17th-ranked in the 2013 World Happiness Index.

None of these statistics are meant as a criticism of the country, but they do indicate a change in perception. The national pride is getting frayed, and we want it back. The problem is, being a very young nation, we lack the historical perspective and background to do this rationally. So we act like a peevish ten-ager and bring to the forefront a Trump, a Cruz or a Rubio, political neophytes whose strengths lay in stirring up the crowds without in the least educating them. Political Justin Biebers, if you will.

And here I’ll quote Alfonse de Lamartine, a Frenchman, and therefore, need I add, a citizen of a much
older nation: “The more I see of the representatives of the people, the more I admire my dogs.”

Merci, Al.



Thursday, February 25, 2016

My Mother's Guests

My mother liked to entertain. After her discovery that the Washington, DC, area had a large French population, she set about winning the hearts and minds of her displaced countrymen and women. She threw exuberant dinner parties, hosted cocktail evening and afternoon bridge sessions, held rehearsals for the local French theater company (almost exclusively farces by Molière), and charity events for the French parish. Twice a year, there would be elaborate costumes ball with varying themes. The best was the one based on the French Revolution, when a particularly handy French diplomat brought a homemade guillotine to slice the baguettes. He operated the thing, which stood eight feet tall, with disturbing joy. As the evening wore on and wine and liqueurs took their toll, my father was obliged to jam the thing with a broom stick so inebriated guests wouldn’t be tempted to test its efficacy on each other.

Within the circle of friends were a few French women who had married Americans. The latter were invited to our home and treated kindly, though always with a hint of suspicion. One American husband married to a perky French Georgetown shop owner, claimed not to speak a word of French but always seemed overly interested in overhearing conversations in a language he could not understand.  It turned out he worked for the CIA; my father believed the man’s job was to monitor the French community to make sure no one was plotting a take-over of Louisiana.

Other guests included Camille Chautemps, an elderly man who had been Prime Minister of France three times and sided with the Vichy government that in 1940 handed France to Germany. Chautemps was sent to the US on an official mission and never returned to France. He was convicted in absentia of collaborating with the enemy and spent his last days in Washington with his wife and son and daughter. The children became, respectively, a not very good dentist, and a successful real-estate investors.

My parents’ relationship with the Chautemps was interesting.  Both my mother and father had served with the Free French during the war, and to them the former Prime Minister was the worst kind of traitor. But he was also a former Prime Minister coming to their house! This was a quandary best met by inviting the Chautemps family over for lunch, with no other guests present.

I remember him as an ancient, stooped man who told lamentable jokes. His wife, once a famed Parisian beauty, had become a wilted flower wearing far too-much make-up.

There were other guests: an artist of the Jackson Pollock school who offered to splatter our walls with paint for a fee; a woman who went nowhere without her boa constrictor (in my opinion, the coolest guest ever to grace our home), a couple in a hateful relationship who got progressively drunker as the evening wore on and muttered truly vile curses at each other; an alcoholic Catholic priest whose hands wandered good-naturedly to the derrieres of the younger women guests;  a handsome woman in her sixties of was rumored to have been the mistress of a European dictator, and her husband, whose card tricks never seemed to work.

In retrospect, the evenings hosted by my mother were greater theater than any show offered today.  One night’s performance could keep tongues wagging for weeks; it was entertainment at its best. Cocteau, Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter would have been jealous. We had theater of the absurd in our very own living room!

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Crappy Days

It’s a crappy day; don’t tell me otherwise. There’s snow mixed with rain, or vice-versa, and lunch with my favorite people was cancelled because three snowflakes doing the Macarena on their way down to earth are enough to close the schools and US Government, and back up traffic for miles.

I am sitting in my crappy rental car listening to a crappy radio station playing crappy songs that I didn’t listen to twenty years ago. They were crappy tunes back then and now they’re golden oldies. I have a rental because my trusty 30-years-old two-seater blew a head gasket. Also, it overheats; one of the two engine fans isn’t working. And there’s as slow leak in the power steering system. My $28-a-day Japanese rental is a bottom of the line Nissan. It hesitates when I press the accelerator and there’s six inches of play in the steering on either side. I swear the car wanted to roll over and play dead when I got on Interstate 66 and semis passed me doing 80 to my 65.

In town, people are weaving in and out of their lanes and there’s not a blinker in sight, except for an Asian woman in a Mercedes SUV. She’s on the phone, signaling a right turn. She turns left in front of me and for a mad moment, I want to follow her, catch her at a stoplight, grab her phone and grind it under foot. It took me a half-hour to find the gas tank cap release lever, which was cleverly hidden in plain sight on the dash.

What in the world am I listening to? Alice in Chains? New Kids on the Block?  The DJ, between songs, is talking to his woman sidekick about opioid irregularity. People are calling in to tell the listening audience all about the intestinal issues caused by their OxyContin use. One man says the trick is to take your opiates with a healthy slug of prune juice. The DJ is ecstatic about this smidgen of information. He jokes, he makes farting sounds; his colleague is thrilled and makes sounds as well, lighter, more feminine ones. I am wondering if this is the future—drug dependency and an entire school of humor based on digestive difficulties.

It’s a crappy day. A woman friend with whom I was planning to record some music was assaulted recently. She’s shook, understandably, and my reaction is one of rage. WTF?  

OMG, they’re playing 2000 Light Years from Home, the worst Rolling Stone song ever! Back in the day, Mick Jagger, in a burst of well-deserved shame, tried to buy back every album that song was on. I read it on the Internet so I know it’s true.

Now the sun is peaking through.

It’s a crappy sunny day. Don’t try to tell me different.

Sunday, February 7, 2016


Once or twice in a lifetime, you can become a totally different person. I seized this opportunity yesterday.

On Friday I had oral surgery. Two capped teeth that had gone bad had to be removed, a painful and expensive proposition I don’t wish on anyone. Apparently, some years ago, the capping procedure was done poorly and what should have lasted a very long time did not. X-rays showed massive decay going down to the roots of two front teeth, and this sealed their fates. By noon I had a massive gap in my upper jaw as two top incisors were gone, leaving a large black space remindful of a grotto’s entrance.

The dentist gave me a partial denture which apes amazingly well the real teeth and hooks into molars on either side of my mouth. But it was uncomfortable… I wore it for a few hours and then took it out. Looking at myself in the mirror, I saw an amazing transformation. I had become a quintessential aging and toothless homeless man, the sort of person most of us prefer to avoid.

Hmmm. I needed a few things at the store and went there sans artificial teeth.  The reaction from the people who saw me hardly varied.

The first was the lady behind the deli counter. I‘ve known her for years and we normally exchange silly pleasantries. Not this time. I ordered a quarter pound of prosciutto and her eyes slid to my mouth. I could read her mind, I swear! “Will this vagrant pay for this or try to steal it?” She kept a wary eye on me as she sliced the meat. I smiled at her, fully revealing the cavernous space in my mouth. She turned her head, perhaps fearing that bats might fly out of my mouth. She did not offer me the customary free slice of whatever food I order, nor did she ask if I wanted anything else.

The baker at the other end of the store looked at me and pasted on one of those silly fake grin that says, I have no idea what to do with my face during this stressful moment so I will pretend to smile and hope you go away. Just for the hell of it, I hung around the pastry counter for a minute or two and inspected the goods.

This was getting to be sort of fun. I shocked the pharmacist and the check-out lady. The cart-herder outside also stared, then let his gaze slither eastward. At the drug store I plunked down a small container of denture cleaner. “Gonna need this,” I told the cashier who looked up into the maw, and then down again at her shoes.

I’m not sure what to make of all this save to accept that we are generally uncomfortable with missing parts. I remember once going to a wedding reception and meeting several people, one of whom was missing three fingers. When I shook his hand,  a tremor ran through me, so I’m not immune to the very same reaction I had been causing. My friend Raoul, with whom I had breakfast today, laughed when I told him of this small adventure, but then shuddered and added, “I have no wish to see you like that…”

My gums have to heal so I have three or four more weeks to go before new caps are put in. I plan to expand my toothlessness to other venues.  Starbucks is next.  



Thursday, February 4, 2016

Maury, Revisited

My friend Maury sidled up to me this morning at the coffee shop and said, “Did you hear they have a new piccolo?”

I half-expected a doubtful joke, which would have been surprising. I’ve never known Maury to utter anything inappropriate. He didn’t. The local symphony has a new piccolo player. How Maury knew this I one of those mysteries best left unexamined.

Some months ago, Maury told me I should approach a certain woman of his acquaintance because her boyfriend had just died. A few weeks after that, he wore a large, gap-toothed smile as he mentioned we were all going to die one day, and restated his suggestion that I meet the woman. “She’s used to people dying,” he said with a knowing look. Three days later, he informed me that I hadn’t acted quickly enough. The woman had recently met someone. “But he’ll die too,” Maury said with neither sorrow nor concern.  

Maury is a tall, ageless man with a round face and an expression that says the universe holds no ambiguities.  He walks everywhere and lives in my small Northern Virginia town, and has the ability, as P.G. Wodehouse said of Jeeves the butler, to shimmer into a room. And shimmer out, too.  There have been instances when we’re talking about something; I’ll turn my head, and he’ll have vanished. He moves with the quiet efficiency sometimes displayed by large men who have taken up ballroom dancing.

Not that he goes far. He reappears outside where he picks up sticks, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, newspaper pages that have gone astray, anything that is and shouldn’t be on the ground. As a result, the area around the coffee shop is spotless. His all-seasons uniform is a thick car coat, a knitted sweater,  watch cap, baggy jeans and shoes from Payless. I know they’re from Payless because I have the same pair. His are brown, mine are grey.  This has been the subject of many discussions. If I encounter Maury and I am not wearing the Payless shoes, he’ll want to know why and in the subtlest of way, make me feel like a turncoat.

Recently the coffee shop has become the hangout of another man, a disheveled gadfly with the sort of fidgety energy that makes everyone in the vicinity nervous. The newcomer speaks in bursts, and is an expert on everything. Yesterday he asked Maury if there was a girlfriend. Maury allowed that there was, maybe. The gadfly launched into a long, muttered rant on the evils of women in general, his own three marriages and subsequent divorces, and how to tune a Volkswagen Beetle. Maury shimmered out of the room and reappeared magically across the street.

It took the gadfly a few minutes to realize he’d lost his audience, and this left him momentarily nonplussed. Then he turned to me and started talking.

Across the street, Maury pointed at me and started laughing.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

A New Project

Ah crap. Stuck again.

I was rowrbazzling (Walt Kelly’s great word) along on the latest novel when everything came to a dead stop a couple of weeks ago. I think it’s because I started writing about other stuff—my family, life in Paris as a kid, and the fairly strange yet fascinating people I grew up with. All of a sudden it was hard to get back to my characters, none of whom can hold candle to the extended family that raised me. I mean, my great aunt slept with her hat on and was in Africa when people were still throwing spears at each other.  My dad held up a hospital cook shortly after my birth and forced him to whip up an omelet for my mom (she complained that it lacked salt.) Edith Piaf came to our apartment when I was a little kid. Both my parents were soldiers with the Free French in World War II.

My guys haven’t gone through anything like that. Urban warfare, maybe, and guns. But no spears. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a guy killed with a spear in Thirst.

Actually, my imaginary people are engaging. I wouldn’t be able to do 90,000 words if they weren’t, and the plot wass moving along nicely until recently. The characters have developed their own legs, their own rhythms and habits.  I’ve got most of the action where I want it to be, and pretty soon it’s going to be time to trip the switch that makes the dénouement, that launches the Rube Goldberg device, because really, isn’t that what novels are, intricate constructions with dropping balls, falling ladders, sleeping cats that wake to paw at running mice that jump on spring-loaded platforms that strike a match to light a cigar?  

I write every day and can’t remember the last time I didn’t. I have little notebooks all over the house with stuff I think is worth remembering (last two entries:  Those with scars must help the wounded and There’s a difference between helping and getting involved.) On my bedside table is a writing tablet with an attached pen. When I pick up the pen, the tablet lights up. We need more inventions like that.

Generally, I have a couple of book projects going on at the same time. Right now I’m finishing Dope, a sequel to Thirst. A few months ago I finished writing The Fortunate Few, IVS Volunteers from Asia to the Andes. The book was published in September. I’m wrapping up the second book of a trilogy on a Parisian family’s decision to move to America. I have three books with my agent and a few more ideas germinating.

In November, I started a new project with my friend Steve Head, a personal trainer I‘ve known since 1995 who is skilled in bringing out the best in his clients. A while back struck me that within the exploding industry of personal fitness, people in my age range—in their fifties and above—are considered, well, dead. Or maybe simply non-existent. We live in a youth-oriented culture and people born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, whether male or female, are largely invisible when it comes to exercise and diet.

It turns out that Steve has spent quite a bit of time working with clients in that age range to wondrous results. The people he trains often come to him with aches and pains and preconceived notions regarding their limitations. He gets them past that and they do amazing things, deadlifting their body weights, pushing sleds stacked with hundreds of pounds,  and dropping years as they train.

Steve and I met a couple of times to hammer out some basic ideas, and a book idea was born. Steve will train me for about a year, and I’ll write about it. It won’t be just an exercise book, though. We plan to touch on a number of issues related to ageism, physical capacities, mindset, realistic expectations and other topics not dealt with often enough.

It’s going to be interesting.  

So I shouldn’t complain. Writing-wise, life is very full. Temporarily running dry on a novel actually enables me to spend more time on the non-fiction project.

There’s never a dull moment; I just like to complain.