Friday, April 29, 2016

Old Habits

I still routinely open doors for women—car doors, restaurant doors, front doors. I am both old and old school, raised in Europe where, among the middle bourgeoisie, it would be inconceivable to sit for dinner before the woman of the house does so, boorish to not carry her parcels, and uncouth to climb stairs ahead of her.

To this day I walk on the outside, even if the likelihood of a runaway coach is slim. I know as well, that treading on a lady's right was to protect her from refuse thrown out of windows. I am aware that few people use chamber pots nowadays, and even fewer would discard the contents onto the sidewalk below where a woman might step.

My father and mother taught me a list of things to do and not do in the presence of the opposite sex. Pull out her chair, rise when she does, help her on and off with her coat. I have already forsworn many of these actions, with great difficulty. If a woman you are introduced to is single, you may shake her hand. If she is married, a kiss on the back of her right hand is mandatory, though everyone knows that actually, you do not kiss the hand at all, you kiss your own thumb, judiciously placed as you bow and raise her hand to your lips. This backfired on me once. I was attending an embassy party in Washington, and an American matron whom I did not know approached. I was introduced to her, raised her hand to my lips, and she punched me in the nose. Perhaps she thought I wanted to bite her.

Some months back, I was in a store with a woman friend who found my commandeering the shopping cart somewhat disconcerting. I had done so without thinking. I told her I did not want to incur the wrath of my late, very European father, whose designated job was to follow my mother around, holding the goods she purchased. He was not alone; when I was a kid the streets of Paris and particularly the shopping districts were always full of men struggling beneath towers of boxes and large shopping bags. They never complained.

I believe many of the ancient rules of politeness and behavior originated not in courtliness but from an intuitive male knowledge that, all told, women are far more important to the survival of society than men. Assisting them is not so much an act of propriety as a small step in fostering continued existence. Men, by their very natures, are disposable if not downright obsolete. Women, on the other hand, are still mothers, the heralds of the future.

I do understand that times have changed radically, and that yesterday's manners may seem today's affectations, but all recognize that bad examples are being set at every level of society from sports stars to TV personalities; professional workers to trades people; politicians to public servants. This is not a good trend. It dehumanizes us, makes crudity and poor conduct an accepted norm. We are already mired in mediocrity; why look for the lowest common denominator as acceptable?

I respect the changing face of civility, but I do not necessarily approve of it.

My friend Arielle, who has at times called me old, describes herself as—and is—a fiercely independent woman. She occasionally smiles indulgently as I attempt to apply old learned behavior to new environments. Arielle as a norm walk about with sixty pounds of varied property spread between an ever-present knapsack and a largish cloth bag. I have tried on numerous occasion to lend a hand with these encumbrances and been met with ferocious, almost feral, resistance. “Help me with something useful,” she says. “I can carry my own bag.”

Well, okay. That was never in question.

The ascendance of the LBGT movement is likely to further confuse one mired in the old ways. I shall have to tailor my behavior a bit more. 

My wonderful friend Anne, an older lady who passed away weeks ago, knew how to perform the dance of civility with skill. Many of my younger women acquaintances appear to see what I consider basic politeness as an attempt to abase them, diminish their choices, or dilute their right to self-determination. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

I have no intentions of changing, and, more to the point would gladly lead a return to the politeness of another century. I still find it proper to kiss a matron's hand, even if once in a while, the practice earns me a bloody nose.



Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Banging One's Head Against the Low Ceiling of Your Own Talent

Some days it’s easier to write than others.

About a week ago I woke up with the germ of an idea for a book I‘ve been working on. Nothing earthshaking, just an agreeable little plot twist that might have amused readers. By late that afternoon I’d come to realize either the idea initially had no legs, or it had lost its appeal in the hours between six in the morning and midnight. Or perhaps my mood changed, and what looked inviting early was simply dimmed.

This happens routinely. Writing is, for better or for worse, an emotional endeavor, one based on frustration and, often, undefinable blues. I know a few content writers, but their output so far has been limited. The ones with issues, with subcutaneous melancholy, with angst over yesterday and tomorrow, those writers full of fears and uncertainty about what the upcoming hours will bring, they seem to produce stuff by the reams. Not necessarily good stuff, mind you, just lots of stuff.

Georges Simenon once said that “writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness.”  If this is true (and I sometimes believe it is), then one must ask, why write? Normal people don’t have a need to tidy their thoughts so they can be wrestled upon a page and thrust, unwanted, upon others. Perhaps this is yet another addiction, albeit a marginally socially acceptable one.

Pondering such imponderables can rapidly escalate one’s discontent with the process. Is there anything as unglamorous as hunting and pecking at a keyboard all day in the hope something worthwhile will emerge?

Simon Brett, a bestselling writer, wrote in the quarterly Journal of the Society of Authors that, When the writing’s going well, the author’s is the perfect life. When it’s going badly, there’s no one else to blame.” He believes that, “writers feed on themselves. It’s an emotional business. A new idea, a surge of energy that lasts a paragraph, a page, a chapter, can make you feel you’re producing the definitive work that is going to redefine the parameters of the novel as an art form. Yet within a sentence, when the right phrase won’t come, you can be in total despair and about to scrap the whole project.”

And then of course, writing is solitary work. There’s no feedback, no attaboy, no reason to doubt that only an overactive ego might claim that anything produced is worth reading. I know, for example, that in the last few years, I’ve stopped hounding most of my friends to read my stuff. This came after I realized the request was tantamount to asking they give their time to do something they might not enjoy. That’s how thoughts pattern themselves initially. Realistically, who knows, readers might enjoy my work, but this isn’t the concept to emerge first, if ever. (Which of course makes the blog an ideal vehicle. Bloggers don’t ask people to read them. They simply hurl their stuff against a virtual wall and rarely even know what sticks.)  

Additionally, writing is a day-at-a-time process that must begin anew each morning regardless of one’s outlook on life. Says Brett, “For most writers, any time spent away from the keyboard or pad of paper is basically cheating. You should be writing.”

But of course can’t write all the time. Brett quotes Michael Ratcliffe in a Times review of Graham Greene, “Writing itself, of course, is an ideal form of escape, unless you happen to be a writer, in which case there comes a time when you have to escape from writing, too.”
This is difficult for a lot of us. Our characters are more interesting than we are, their adventures more captivating, their dialogues wittier than anything we might have to say in ordinary conversation. Probably, they’re younger, more vital and better looking as well, and more attractive to the opposite sex. “Eventually,” writes Brett, “you’re going to have to get back to reality. Because, apart from sometimes being the most fun you can imagine, writing fiction is also the most exhausting activity you’re ever going to undertake.”

And another thing: There is no guarantee what was written with grand expectations today will be seen tomorrow in the same light. I can probably count on fingers and toes the pages written that, later, I still believe are as good as the day they were born. (This has other ramifications. Most writers see both the permanence and ephemerae or words, written and spoken. What I am told Tuesday may not hold Wednesday.)  
The trade is riddled with failure, and “authors who feel they’ve failed don’t have to look far for confirmation of that opinion,” says Brett. “Bestsellers lists are everywhere, bulging with the names of other writers. As if the living weren’t bad enough, you also have the genius of the dead to contend with. Cast your eye along your bookshelves. It doesn’t take long, looking at names like, Austen, Dumas, Tolstoy or Wodehouse, to feel your head banging against the low ceiling of your own talent.”
In spite of all this dire stuff, writing remains the art of hope. Most of us know one or two authors who’ve made it, who travel to the south of France yearly and get six-figure checks and the adulation of readers. We hope to transcend ourselves, to obtain with our creations what we can’t find personally. We look to be revealed while hiding in our tale.

I’m certain most writers would be willing to be left behind if only their works could forge ahead.



Monday, April 25, 2016

Anne, Part II

The family memorial for my friend Anne, who died two weeks ago, was held yesterday in the back yard of her house. Anne was a fortunate woman; she and her husband had purchased their home many decades ago, and chosen it partly because it backed onto protected county land that had a creek and a swimming hole.

Anne was a one-man woman. She met her husband-to-be in 1955 when she was doing graduate work in Germany. They married shortly thereafter. Paul Raymond, a self-described Okie, died in 1974; Anne never remarried after his death

Anne raised her children in this home, and then her grandchildren. She also became the unofficial caretakers of neighborhood kids who got into trouble or whose lives at their own homes were treacherous. The kids did their homework at her house, ate there and spent the night. She was their advocate and defender.

Yesterday’s service was lovely. It was a sunny day in McLean, Virginia. Her daughter Kristin is an accomplished classical violinist, and a quartet played some of Anne’s favorite music. A few stories were told; tears and smiles shed and exchanged. There were beautiful grandchildren holding each other. Visitors toured the home, Anne’s personal museum of an existence well and fully lived.   

I said a few words and realized the futility of trying to encapsulate a life within an anecdote or two. There were too many stories and not enough time.

Anne, as I’ve written before, was a grande dame, which does not translate to a grand dame. It means she had an innate elegance that defied life’s demands, including the health issues she struggled with in her last decade. Had she been British, one might have said she was the very portrayal of a stiff upper lip. But she wasn’t British, she was a Californian through and through, and I don’t know what the term is for California steadfastness.

The surgeries she underwent shortly before her death hit her hard. The anesthesia caused long-term confusion, and during one visit she looked at me and said, “I’m going to pay you! Of course I’m going to pay you.”  I’m not sure what she was referring to, or whether she thought I might be someone else. She was far more lucid another time, and worried about filing her taxes.

Even in her last days in her hospital bed, once the anesthetic had fully worn off, and, I suspect, she knew the end was near, she emanated a sense of serenity I can admit I envy.

A person ceases to exist when his or her name is mentioned one last time.

I hope Anne is spoken of often.


Maury's Chair

When Maury came to the coffee shop this morning, he found his regular chair in front of the fireplace taken by a slim older man wearing a baseball cap and reading the Post.

Maury stood stock still for maybe 30 seconds, and then looked at me. I was sitting in a booth a dozen feet away, peeling an orange. He caught my eye. I shrugged, a What Can You Do? message. He made a face and bobbed his head.

He went outside and, as he usually does, began picking scraps of paper from the sidewalk and putting them in a city trash can. There’s a new crop of litter every morning, and Maury sees it as his job to tend to it.

He returned five minutes later.  The slim man was still there. Maury filled his coffee mug, came to my table, smiled crookedly and asked, “How’s the cancer?”

That’s an unusual question, but not from Maury, who once suggested I start dating a woman whose boyfriend had just died. “Okay, I guess,” I said, but Maury wasn’t listening. The man in his chair was stirring, perhaps preparing to go.

“Good,” said Maury. “That’s good.” The man in the chair did not leave but instead picked up the Post Metro section. Maury sighed, left his coffee cup on my table and headed for the men’s room.

While he was there, the slim man packed up his newspaper and left. As soon as he did, another coffee shop regular slid into Maury’s chair.

Maury returned from the bathroom and paid scant attention to the new usurper. He asked me, “So the cancer’s good?” Then he added, “Not peeing blood, I hope.”

Um. Where does Maury get his info? I KNOW I never mentioned the particulars of my case to him. I said, “Why do you ask?”

Maury pulled a chair to my table even though the booth bench across from me was vacant. “I peed blood once, for a week,” Maury said. “I went to see the doctor and he said it was a yutee.”


“A yutee. A urinary tract infection. He gave me pills. I peed bright orange for a while; it was strange. But the yutee went away.”

I offered him half my orange. He took it and carefully separated the wedges, then lifted off the white stuff that sticks even after the fruit is peeled.

He ate… mournfully is the only word I can come up with. His eyes were beagle sad and his jaw worked methodically. Between wedges he said, “I was really scared” (chew chew) the first time it happened (chew chew). The peeing, I mean (chew swallow). I thought I was maybe dying (chew chew), but  I wasn’t.”  

When he was through with the orange, he took a sip of coffee and wiped his mouth with a napkin. He looked at me and asked, “Are you scared?”

I said I was, sort of.

The man in Maury’s chair got up. Maury made to hurry there but stopped. He patted me on the shoulder, gave my arm a gentle squeeze.  “Don’t be,” he said. “It’s gonna be all right.”

He settled into his chair, put his feet up on the fireplace lintel, and gave me a thumb up.

Everything’s gonna be all right.


No. 10

The tumor is small, the size of a lentil. It’s greyish in the Pepto-Bismol pink of my innards, and it probably has not been there long. Still, I’d hoped the test this morning would find me clean, so it’s a disappointment. I’ve been free almost a year from the bladder cancer first diagnosed in 2012, and now I’m angry, a bit sad, resentful and frustrated. I’m also aware that it could have been far, far worse.  A very dear friend was diagnosed with the same illness a month ago, and his intervention was truly grim. More than two weeks in the hospital sucking on ice cubes and unable to digest food, and complications that, when he described them, made me blanch.

My surgery will be very minor in comparison, an outpatient event that probably and thankfully will not involve a catheter, followed by five weeks of chemotherapy. The latter worries me a bit. My earlier experiences with chemo left me exhausted and sometimes nauseous for a day or two following the procedure. Then there’s the attendant and largely inexplicable sense of shame, and that of being soiled. I’d been working on that for a year and felt I had it licked, but now it’s back. Whenever the tests come back positive, I come out feeling like an untouchable.

I took my frustrations out on a Fanta truck lumbering in front of me on my way home from the clinic. I unleashed a barrage of profanities in two languages, some explicit French and American hand gestures, and a curse on all Fanta drinkers. I shed a tear or four, being the sensitive guy that I am, but by the time I’d finished my quad shot decaf espresso at Panera and wolfed down a bagel, I had quieted down somewhat.

I’m upset because I thought I was done with this. Even after four years, it remains scary. It did kill my oldest sister because she was not diagnosed early enough, and I know several people who’ve been afflicted by it. I’m angry, as well, because I’d hoped to be able to go from three-month tests to six-month tests; I have to be clean eighteen months before the protocol changes.

I don’t like life interfering like this. I have things to do, people to see. There are new writing projects, books to finish and blogs to write.

This will be the tenth operation. One of my concerns is that being put under that many times can’t be good for me. I always come out of the anesthesia feeling as if I’ve been hit by a semi. Everything hurts. My right arm and left wrist get bruised from the IVs, and other parts hurt from the actual procedure, which involves sharp little blades being thrust up the urethra. My throat is sore from the tube thrust down there for reasons that are still unclear. Also, I’m wobbly. My knees and legs feel weak. I will pee a lot and often, and it will be painful.

I generally return home and stomp around. I feed the cat. I water the plants. I do useless things, laundering two pairs of socks and a tee-shirt, dusting the top of the DVD shelves and restacking books by area of interest and language. I call a couple of people, or sometimes I don’t.  This is getting to be old hat.

 The cat looks at me strangely, then recognizes the pattern. He’ll do pirouettes around my feet, climb on the bed and lay on my chest while breathing cat food fumes up my nose.

I really hate this disease.


Anne Shirk

My friend Anne died yesterday. She was a lady of the old school, proud and upright in the face of illness, generous and kind, and forthright in bearing and opinion.

I met Anne some fifteen years ago. Like many women of her time, she smoked like a chimney back then. She liked to refer to herself as a “tough old broad,” and had a laugh that went from cackle to guffaw.  She smiled a lot.

Anne was the last director of IVS, the International Volunteer Services, an NGO that sent young men and women to developing countries to assist locals in largely agricultural and irrigation projects. IVS was the model for the Peace Corps. Anne was an indefatigable promoter of her organization, which was largely apolitical though there were heated moments among volunteers during the Vietnam War.

Three years ago she decided she wanted to have a book written about the people with whom she had served. She asked me if I’d be interested in writing it and I anticipated a three-month assignment. Dozens of former volunteers sent in their recollections, and I spent more than two years editing these and stitching them together under her tutelage and that of three other former IVSers. I called them The Gang of Four, which she knew from the first and found somewhat accurate and amusing.

The initial plan was for a brief book with some photos, to be self-published and distributed from one of the Gang’s basement. The end result was The Fortunate Few, IVS Volunteers from Asia to the Andes, 370 pages put out by NCNM Press and available on Amazon. It’s a good book that will be around for a while and commemorates the work of people who should not be forgotten.

While the book was being put together, Anne and I would go to lunch once or twice a month. As she became frailer, she would grab my arm and lean on me, fearful of missteps, and carping a bit but never too much about growing physical limitations. She was a student of history who had served overseas with her husband and family, and we exchanged travel stories.. She almost always picked up the check. “I like to help impoverished writers,” she’d say, and I learned in time that she really did mean that.

Up until the very end, she drove her Toyota, sometimes haphazardly, and met the dangerous challenge of backing out of my driveway.  Sometimes I closed my eyes as she did so, persuaded the end was imminent.

Anne was widowed many years ago and lived alone in a large house not far from my home. She was incredibly proud of her children and their accomplishments. She thought her kids were the smartest and most talented in the world and was never embarrassed to say so. The family was center and nexus of her life.

I’ll miss her. She was among the last of a fast-disappearing generation forged by World War II and strengthened by adversity, and she was my friend. Thank you Anne, and rest in peace.


Friday, April 15, 2016


Every month or so for the past half-a-year, a policeman hides behind a bush in my front yard. He wields one of those radar guns that measure a car’s speed and issues tickets to scofflaws. I welcome him. The last decade has seen a rapid increase of traffic on my suburban street with commuters often traveling at twice the posted speed limit. Back in 2008, a little kid from across the way wandered from his yard and into traffic. I dashed out and grabbed him and a pickup truck missed us by inches. The driver never slowed down.

Occasionally at night I hear cars drag racing down the street. It’s a straight shot, an almost ideal quarter-mile track and the boy (and for all I know girl) racers love revving their engines and taking off in a cloud or spinning tires smoke. I’m pleased to say the cop is welcome to my driveway. He has become somewhat of a friend. I’ve brought him coffee on freezing days and a donut once, on the assumption that all cops like donuts. He seemed to.

My history with policemen, though, is not all that positive. Back in an earlier millennium when I covered anti-Vietnam War demonstrations for the Washington Post, a cop almost shot me in the head. Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, was there with me and might have saved my life. He pushed the gun aside, yelled “PRESS! PRESS!” and got us out of there. To this day I remember that policeman’s face. He was bright red and sweating; his eyes were unfocused and he literally foamed at the mouth.

Some years later I got stopped for driving a motorcycle with an expired license in downtown DC. The young cop handcuffed me tightly and pushed me into a cell. I lost circulation in both hands. The demented screams of guy in the same cell forced another policeman to check on us. He loosened the cuffs but I couldn’t move my left hand for a couple of days.

There have been a couple of other incidents in which I was involved that left me worried over policemen’s abilities to handle stress. On Christmas day last year, I went to the movies with a friend and we saw a homeless man sheltering himself from the rain at the entrance of a mall. He was surrounded by six police people wearing armored vests, and one had his gun out. I wondered why this standoff was necessary. When we left the mall, the homeless man and his possessions were gone.

All in all, my appreciation for cops has grown somewhat as I’ve gotten older. I recognize that police work is sometimes dangerous and often thankless, but I also worry about the training—or lack thereof—that police personnel get to handle tricky situations. There have been cops shooting unarmed people close to my home. That’s frightening. The fact that more often than not the victims are minority is even more disturbing.     

But the cop in my driveway? I say go for it, Officer Friendly. Nail the scofflaws and speeders and idiots that pass me on the right doing fifty in a twenty-five mile school zone. Give them big-time tickets, suspend their licenses and confiscate their cars.

There are more ways than one to make my neighborhood safer. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


“Buried a dog today.” The man was in his seventies, a little bent at the waist and wearing a watch cap. He was one of the people the food store hired to herd carts, retrieving them from the far reaches of the parking lot and bringing them back to the fold.

The other man, a dark thin cashier perhaps from the Indian subcontinent, looked pained. “I am so sorry,” he said. “That is very hard.”

It wasn’t anything more than a snippet of conversation, but I thought about if for the better part of the day.

It was easy to imagine scenarios: An old man and his dog together for years, and one of them passes away. If it’s the dog, short takes from a motion picture spring to mind. The man is in his efficiency apartment. There’s a chair and an ancient blocky TV set, an unmade bed, a water bowl on the floor, and a leash on the kitchen counter. There’s sad music maybe from the Moody Blues as the man empties the bowl in the sink and throws away the leash.

If it’s the man, the story perhaps becomes more complex: The dog stays by his late master. The rescue people eventually come. They take the old man away on a gurney and one of the EMTs adopts the dog. The EMT’s daughter loves the aging animal. It spends the rest of its life comfortable and ensconced in a warm suburban home, being handfed Kibbles. Or the EMT doesn’t like dogs; he was bitten by a Lassie collie as a kid and never forgave the entire canine species. He calls the animal shelter. The dog, old and unattractive, is euthanized.

Endless permutations.

I felt sorry for the now dogless old man and wondered if he might go to the pound and get another companion. Probably not, I decided. Another animal would need training, and after eight hours of chasing and retrieving shopping carts, the old man would be too tired to teach a new dog old tricks. So the old man would end up alone in an apartment where the phone never rings, eating minimum wage baked beans with a plastic fork from a can. Terribly sad, really, and completely fictional.

One of the issues with writing—or perhaps it’s really not a problem at all—is that everything is a story. An overheard conversation becomes a dialogue with a plot. Someone else’s consternation is a play in the making. A poem or song springs half-written from an eavesdropped comment. I recently wrote a story on manhole covers simply because one I was standing on had striking design (plus, it moved under my feet. You’ll have to read the story.) Truly, it never ends. I’m pretty sure writers see and hear things differently from others. We attach great meaning to the meaningless, and this sometimes makes spoken conversation difficult.  My friend Arielle, with whom I have many co-writing projects, occasionally accuses me of being incapable of finishing one thought before I launch another. I have been known to interrupt myself.  

But back to the man who buried a dog.

I have a cat. We’re both getting older. When we meet in the morning, there’s an unspoken conversation.

Me: “Hey. You’re still alive. Good.”

Cat: “Yeah. You’re alive too. Feed me.”

So maybe it’s not that complex after all.



Monday, April 11, 2016

Rats and Shakespeare

Rats. I had told myself I wouldn’t write about medical stuff for a while, but after spending a little too much time at the lab giving bodily fluids, tomorrow’s surgical procedure is on my mind.

Today I will sweep the kitchen stoop, dust bookshelves, and vacuum the living room and under the bed where there’s enough discarded fur to make a spare cat. I will empty the trash; scrub out the toilet bowl and Ajax the sink. I will do laundry and shove clean clothes in the appropriate drawers. I will find things to read, or more likely reread.

My small cleaning frenzy is ridiculous and necessary.  Call it the clean-underwear-in-case-of-an-accident syndrome. On the very off-chance of an unfortunate event during surgery, I want to make sure my home is presentable. This is something handed down from mother to son, a ceremony performed prior to each procedure. As a familiar ritual, it has proven successful.  If I clean the house thoroughly, I will return to it healthy and enjoy it.

A friend has promised to come and bake things so the place will smell good. We have decided on potatoes because having not eaten for a while, I will be hungry.

I remain scared and the fright angers me. There’s a small ball of dark anticipation in the pit of my stomach. I hate the depersonalized medicine practiced these days. There will be a host of anonymous nurses and aides and surgeons asking the same question over and over and not listening to my answers. I will tell an indifferent anesthesiologist that I metabolize drugs more rapidly than most patients he’s encountered. I will say I would rather not wake up in the middle of the surgery, as has happened twice before when I was not dosed properly. A couple of year ago, I got into an argument with the anesthesiologist who told me it was all in my mind. I said no, it’s all in my liver, the organ that deals with handling drugs of all kinds and, in my case, goes through substances like a house afire. It was a fruitless argument. She took notes, shook her head and walked off. I abhor the entire process—the IVs in my left hand, the heart monitor, the tube in my throat, the catheter, and mostly that horrendous feeling of What Has Just Happened?  that surfaces as the anesthetic wears off. I am having a difficult time keeping a tenuous hold on gratitude.  All this is meant to heal, not harm.

Every time I go through this, I feel a little less human afterwards, a lot less attractive and capable, a tad less confident and sure of myself in all areas of my life. There’s a sense of not being whole and am I persuaded it shows.  This recurring mini-drama is getting boring to one and all. A friend recently pointed out that after all the surgical episodes, I may be losing optimism about the eventual outcome of all this.  I suspect there is more truth to this than I want to admit.

I will leave the clinic in a haze, hardly remembering what the surgeon has told me post-op.  I am also likely to say stupid things as the anesthetic fully wears off, to the great glee of the friends driving me home.

Goodness! Have to remember to empty the bathroom wastebasket; not doing so would invalidate the entire ritual!  And what’s this? A tomato-paste stain from the last time I made pasta. Out! Damned spot! Out, I say! Yes, I’ve been spending time with a Shakespearean actor. (In French, it’s considered inelegant to quote Molière. In English, it’s Shakespeare…)

The good part is that by this time next week, thing will be fine. I  know the associated discomfort of chemo and can live with that easily.

By this time next week, everything will be back to normal and there will be no need to write about this for a while. That will be very good.





Thursday, April 7, 2016


In the past few days, I have been a model of productivity and efficiency.

I have written and edited, cleaned and laundered, visited friends in the hospital and wished bon voyage to folks going overseas. I have gone to the gym and had fun, as I was told to do. I have fixed things—a showerhead that sprayed liberally but not where it was supposed to; a balky space heater; a bookshelf bent on collapsing under the weight of a three volume dictionary from the 1880.  

I have queried and waited. And waited. And waited.

Querying is a writer’s misery.

In the past couple of decades, some strange malady has come to affect editors, agents and others in the publishing industry. They have lost all sense of basic courtesy and respect for writers. They no longer bother to respond to queries. They are too busy, they say, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of demands placed upon them by novelists and poets and essayists trying to place work. Nowadays a writer is told that if the query does not get a response within ten days, or thirty days, or three months, well, screw you, we’re not interested.

This amazes me. It’s as if the glue that for decades has held the publishing together has dissolved.

I’m used to not having phone calls returned by people I want to interview, particularly if the interviewee is unsure of the interviewer’s motives. There was a time when, working for a major newspaper, my calls were not necessarily welcomed, and chasing someone down for a quote was part and parcel of the job. Now, however, I’m one of those writers who does unthreatening pieces, and I can still spend days chasing a source who would benefit from my writing.  

Not too long ago, I met a man who said he was desperate for stories to fill his new magazine. Great! I sent queries. No response. I called. No callback. I wafted emails aloft and finally, in sheer desperation, sent an actual paper letter with story suggestions, on stationery that declared me a writer and editor, in case there was doubt.  A few weeks ago, an editor was enthused about a food piece I proposed writing. Did I have photos? Yes. Recipes? Yes. Great and grand, the editor said, and that was the last time I heard from her.

I’ve noticed a proliferation of small online magazines, thousands of them, quite literally, that offer new writers a non-paying venue. Unfortunately, even those often don’t bother replying to authors directly, and frequently rely on dedicated websites such as to handle the rejections they issue.

The actual physical act of writing, I know, has gotten easier. I wrote my first book on a manual typewriter and literally cut and pasted pages together with Scotch tape. It took some fortitude to put a book together, to type and retype and use bottles of Wite-Out, and this, of course, was a step up from a century earlier when books were written entirely in longhand with pen and ink. I sent five-pound manuscripts by mail to editors in major houses who responded—mostly by saying ‘no, thank you’—and occasionally commented on my draft suggesting changes that might better my chances to get published.

I suppose you could call it the depersonalization of writing…

No doubt in recent years there’s been an explosion of creativity. Word processing has facilitated writing immensely, and the next generation of word-to-screen software promises to make it easier for anyone to dictate their deathless prose. Computerization, sadly, has also led to initiatives like NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which encourage people to write by weight and flood the market with stuff that, realistically, should for the most part never see the light of day (I’m going to get a lot of grief for this statement, but I recall an agent telling me he was tempted to close his office in December, knowing he’ll receive poundes of NaNoWriMo manuscripts.)

Over the years I have gathered hundreds of actual rejection slips on notes embossed with the editors’ names. One, which I kept and someway will frame, suggested I never write again. That magazine has gone out of business, so I am justified in chanting neener neener neener.  Many of the others, though, bore handwritten notes offering encouragement.

I seldom see that anymore from publishers, editors or agents. Most simply don’t bother with a reply, and that’s a shame. Somewhere, a superlative writer just put down his or her pen for the last time, discouraged by the dearth of response, and that’s too bad. We need more and better writers.