Sunday, July 31, 2016
Four days ago, two p.m., Arielle and I have been working for about three hours on the L’Amérique rewrite. We are hungry, and over the last three weeks we’ve eaten at every franchise restaurant in a five-mile radius.
Arielle says, “There’s a place called Angelico Pizza. I’ve ordered out, and it was pretty good.” She checks her phone. There’s one not two miles from my house on Lee Highway near Route 66. We drive there and it’s a typical storefront pizza place, with five parking spaces out front. It is now 2:30. We walk in. The small restaurant is totally, irremediably empty.
We order from a pleasant young man with heavily tattooed arms. Arielle gets a sandwich; I go for a bowl of spaghetti marinara with extra meatballs. We sit and wait. There are a couple of posters on the wall, five or six tables, a glass-front refrigerated case for drinks.
The food comes and it’s good; my spaghetti arrives with a large slice of excellent pizza and Arielle’s sandwich looks pretty decent as well. The price is more than fair, a tad less than twenty bucks for the both of us. We eat. We remain the only customers. We leave.
Two days later we return. We are still the only customers and the tattooed young man behind the counter exactly remembers our orders. Arielle says, “I don’t think anyone’s been here since we came two days ago.” I think she may be right.
We discuss grammar, a recurrent theme in our editing of L’Amérique. Arielle says mine is atrocious. I maintain it is actually inventive. We segue to the use of semi-colons, which I have a tendency to throw in whenever I am confused about using a comma or a period. Arielle says it is obvious semi-colons do not exist in France. I argue that they do, and they are called point virgule, which translates to period comma, and makes a lot more sense than calling something a half-something-or-other.
We eat. It is, once again, good. We are, once again, the only customers.
According to Google, there are six Angelico pizza places in the area. Four are in Washington and two are in Northern Virginia on Lee Highway. I don’t know if there is a real Angelico or if this is a low-end franchise, but both Arielle and I thought the food was excellent and the price a bargain. A bonus: We could hear each other talk. No loud music or clatter from the kitchen.
So you should go there. I am all in favor of patronizing small businesses, and this was a whole lot better than any Pizza Hut, Domino’s or Papa John’s.
Oh. Neither Arielle nor I were paid for this endorsement. Really.
Monday, July 25, 2016
I say I have finished writing a book. Arielle says I have not. This may be a semantic or philosophical issue. This very morning around four a.m. , I typed the last words of my novel, L’Amérique, an opus that has now been rewritten about 120 times, which is only a slight exaggeration.
About three months ago, after an exchange of emails with my agent, Arielle and I agreed that the book’s point of view should shift from omniscient to that of the main character, a 10-year-old Parisian boy whose family decides to move to America. She signed on to edit the thing. She had read another book of mine, Thirst, and liked it. I, in turn, had read a few pieces she’d written and enjoyed her style. Additionally, Arielle, an English major at Bryn Mawr, knows grammar, sentence structure, and how to use a semi-colon, among many other useful things like the definition of the pluperfect and conditional tenses.
What happened was this: Arielle started chopping at the book with a bit too much glee, I thought. The word chainsaw made quite a few appearances in her conversations and in the blogs we’ve been publishing on www.seidmansagnier.com. We trimmed more than a hundred pages because the events described could not have been known or related by our young hero. We deleted fifty pages alone that described the boy’s parents before they met and had a child together. A duel held in a Parisian courtyard was taken out. We grafted the book’s sequel I’d begun writing onto the back of L’Amérique. It was tough. Some of my best-written scenes were excised, though I’m confident they’ll resurface in another book. I had to write a lot of new material, and Arielle, it turns out, has a wonderful way of duplicating my style.
We didn’t agree at first, and we still tussle from time to time on the exact meaning of a word. She’s usually right. I have a tendency to ascribe French meanings to American terms. She also detests sentence fragments with the sort of fervor usually found among rabid fans attending sporting events involving a much reviled opponent.
This being said, we work wonderfully well together. We spent the better part of the afternoon reading the book’s first four chapters aloud to each other. At one point, Arielle stopped and said, “I wrote that entire section.” I gaped. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize the section as not my own if she hadn’t told me.
The fact of the matter is, it’s now a much better book. It reads smoothly. Chapters segue seamlessly, and the pacing is excellent. There’s still some work to be done. Inserts will be inserted, and it’s possible the end comes a bit too abruptly so I may still have to add a page or three.
We’ll be going to see my agent in a couple of weeks. I think he’ll like it; we did what he suggested, and then some.
Frankly, I think we have a winner.
Friday, July 22, 2016
“So apparently my name is Milou.”
“Like the little white dog in Tintin? You could do worse. They could have called you Snoopy or something equally ridiculous. Like Marmaduke. Or Odie.”
“I suppose. Unfortunately, Milou makes me Belgian.”
“Yeah. The guy who created Tintin and Milou was Belgian. Hergé.”
“I am soooo sorry.”
“I’ll survive. What your new name?”
“Like Archie Bunker? Or that red-head teen-ager in the comics?”
“No, no. Archie Goodwin.”
“I forget. You don’t read. Archie Goodwin is the narrator in the Rex Stout series.”
“Oh. My. God.”
“Let me remind you that Rex is classically a dog’s name.”
“Milou, I’m not named Rex. I’m… Oh, never mind.”
“Did you smell the cat?”
“Cat? Oh. Yeah. Old cat. I’m not worried.”
“I don’t like cats. Cats have a tendency to mistake us for mice.
“We’re not mice. We’re hamsters. Roborovski hamsters.”
“Yeah. Like knowing that’s going to stop the cat.”
“It’s a safe cage. He can’t get in. Like I said, old cat, and he won’t be able to jump very high.”
“It’s not a bad environment. Archie. Jeez, I can’t get used to calling you Archie. Anyway, a little too much stuff though. I mean, two platforms, three stories? I don’t need all these complications. Give me an exercise wheel, a water bottle, a food bowl, and stuff I can burrow in and I’m happy.”
“I’m almost certain it was the guy who bought this contraption. Guys always want to show off, so they by complex stuff to assemble. If it had been the woman, we’d have this nice, single-level suburban home. But it’ll be fine. We’ll make do.”
“I sort of wish he wouldn’t come over and stare at us every three minutes. It’s disconcerting.”
“We’re new. He’ll get used to us. Just ignore him.”
“Ignore him? That monstrous nose half an inch from my face? Easy for you to say. You’re nearsighted.”
“Just turn around. Don’t look at him.”
“Then he’ll stare at my butt.”
“Live with it.”
“Jeez, Archie, I wish we were back in China.”
“China? You’ve never been to China!”
“But it’s where we come from. The famous Roborovski hamsters! The Gobi! The Great Wall. The food!”
“In the wild, we live for six months if we’re lucky. There are hawks and crows and nasty things that will eat us. Here we’re going to have two to three years. Enough to do stuff, to be creative! To make a lasting impression; to make a difference!”
“Making a difference!That’s a thought! That’s a great thought! I wanta make a difference too!”
“Me. I’ve already figured out what I’m going to do.”
“I’m gonna write a book. A novel.”
“A novel! Wow!”
“It’ll be on the secret lives of two robo hamsters in a cage in Virginia!”
“We’ll be famous! Just watch…”
“We’ll be doing talk shows! NPR, Diane Rehm!”
“It’s gonna be great!”
“What’s a novel?”
So there are hamsters. Two of them, officially Phodopus Roborovskii, also known as desert hamsters. Imagine your thumb, fur covered, with four legs, a twitchy nose and beady black eyes. They were spectacularly active in the pet store but I think they’re either tired or scared right now. Or perhaps they resent still being nameless.
The little creatures came into my house because Arielle saw me grinning at them like an eight-year-old with a new bike when we stopped at Petco. She decided, there and then, that she should buy the two as I have been sort of mopey lately, and it’s hard to remain mopey when these little creatures are doing their thing, which comprises running very fast in a wheel—and I mean fast; you can’t see their legs—staring at you with a frankly curious expression, or waving their butts around.
My house now contains four living beings, if you count me and Junkie the cat who knew something was up and was clawing the front tire of my car this morning. The newest roommates have a multicolored living space that took a little while to assemble since the instructions, though in English, read like Urdu. It’s a colorful cage-like box with tubes and platforms and a water bottle and exercise wheel. If I were very, very small, it might be a neat place to live.
Animals are not new here. There have been two garden snakes that came in one summer; the aforementioned cat; a rescue Greyhound; a mutt named Elvis; mice, both caged and free-range; an injured praying mantis; a stinkbug named Sisyphus; a cockatoo with disgusting sanitary habits; a really mean one-foot long lizard; one mourning dove that had been hit by a car; a grackle with a broken leg; and lots and lots of fish in the outdoor pond. Oh, and a possum, but he (she?) was here only one day. And a bat. No, two bats. And an injured wolf spider I kept in a terrarium for an entire winter. And a raccoon that got trapped in my garbage can, but that probably doesn’t count.
The point is I have shared my home with two-, four-, and multiple-legged animals over the years, but these two little beasts are somehow special. Last night I got up five times to check on them. Today I have been texting Arielle incessantly for advice. Ack! I can’t find them! Yikes! One seems listless! What do I do now? Luckily, Arielle has two guinea pig of her own and and a history of taking care of small animals. Her texts are reassuring. This is good. I tend to overreact.
So we’re looking for name suggestions. Any ideas?
Thursday, July 14, 2016
I have a backyard, the standard amount of property behind most Northern Virginia houses built in the 60s. Originally, it was roughly a quarter acre, but a few years back when the county was ridding itself of surplus land, I bought an additional abutting 7000 square feet which to this day remain untouched. It’s a haven for bamboo, poison ivy, raccoons, fox, deer, and blacksnakes that make their home in a culvert adjoining the land. When little kids lived in my house, I would tell them buffaloes roamed back there, and a few of them led research expeditions into this suburban wilderness, once returning with the jawbone of a deer. I opined it was from a dwarf bison and so that place, for a few years, was called Buffalo Hill though it is flat and bovine-free.
It’s likely that when I eventually need to sell my house, it will be to a developer who will level the entire Sagnier realm to its red-dirt basics. In the meantime, though, there’s green and brown and water and animals. I saw coyote on my property recently and suspect these have found my extended backyard good pickings.
The summer after I bought the house, I dug in a small fishpond with a plastic waterfall and stocked it at first with expensive koi. It took me only a few months to realize koi are extraordinarily dumb and will rise to the surface, hoping for food, when another species approaches their habitat. Because of this lack of survival skills, the fish fairly swam into the claws of hungry raccoons that devoured them almost entirely, leaving only sad and mutilated little heads with astonished lidless eyes. Now I stock the pond with cheap goldfish from Petco, but even they can be prey to great blue herons who view my pond as a sushi bar.
Many years ago, when I mother died, I bought a weeping willow and planted it in my backyard to honor her memory. This became a tradition, the purchase and planting of green things in remembrance of loved people who have moved on. The weeping willow was followed by a corkscrew willow for my dad. I suspect he, an agnostic, would have been amused that the tree, now some twenty feet tall, is also called a devil’s walking stick. A decade ago when my oldest sister, Florence, died of bladder cancer, I bought an assortment of crepe myrtles that bloomed in what I was told were her favorite colors. They’re flamboyant plants, much as Florence was, and every year when they flower, I sit under the branches and remember my sister’s laughter.
The weeping willow I’d planted for my mother came crashing down one spring afternoon in the late 90s. There was no reason for its demise; it should have lived another decade but simply did not. I trimmed the branches and left the trunk lying across the grass for a few years, and it became the home of burrowing insects and at least three chipmunks who liked salted peanuts.
To replace my mother’s tree, I put in a bat house, a choice she would have reviled. I’ll explain—when we first came to America, a bat did enter our home through an open window. My mother, a painter, was at the time putting the finishing touches on a work she hoped to exhibit. The bat flittered through the room making odd squeaking noises and my mother, terrified by the prospect of the small thing lodging in her hair as bats are mistakenly reputed to do, protected herself by sticking a palette full of oil paints on her head with expected results. This was one of those events that would forever influence her occasionally judgmental opinion of her adopted country.
My backyard is a museum of emotions, both joyous and not. Recently, my very good friend Anne passed away. Anne was a great lady in the old tradition, and I’ve decided that though she was not family, she deserves a tree.
I don’t know what I’ll get. Funds are limited, but memories are not, so I’ll find something appropriate for a grande dame from another time. My back yard tradition will continue, at least for a little while, and to me, that’s significant.
Saturday, July 9, 2016
I chew on my asiago bagel, sip coffee. Five cops killed in Dallas. Hm. The coffee should be hotter. Into the microwave for thirty seconds. There. Better, but the bagel could stand butter. Seven cops injured, shot by a former military guy with a large chip on his shoulders. Wish I had strawberry jam, or even peanut butter. The shooter died too.
This is, what?; the nth mass killings in a few months? I have lost my capacity to be horrified. Large black headline announcing mayhem, woundings, the deaths of adults and children here or in some Middle Eastern hell-hole, they no longer have an impact. I glance, I sip, I chew.
I no longer follow the story to the jump page because they’re all the same stories. Someone has an issue, and a semi-automatic rifle probably purchased legally from a smiling semi-automatic salesman who promised this was the best weapon available for home defense. Or for hunting wild pig in Mississippi, varmints in Texas, and alligators in Florida. The smiling salesman assuredly did not tell his potential customer that this was also the ideal weapon to gun down gays, cops, people in Bible class, kids in schools, adults meeting in California courthouses, or shoppers and shop-keepers.
The entire front page of today’s Washington Post deals with this latest shooting. I can forecast with a high degree of accuracy that the following will happen over the next few twenty-four hours:
1. Congress will be in recess, though several Democratic and Republican members of that body will decry the violence in today’s society.
2. There will be outcry. There is always outcry.
3. The President Will Say Something.
4. The National Rifle Association and other gun lobbies will tell us that mentally unstable people should not be allowed to buy guns. Essentially, they are telling us to license mentally unstable people, not firearms.
5. I will get a telephone call from my sister in France who will ask how I am. She worries that her little brother lives in a gun-crazy society.
6. My brother-in-law will get on the phone very briefly to say the entire world is going to hell in a handbasket and he’s glad he’ll be dead soon.
7. The presidential candidates will mouth the necessary platitudes but not add a serious call for gun control to their election platform.
8. A new gun shop will open in my area. Three have opened in 24 months, the last on a main street next to an elementary school.
9. No new laws restricting the purchase of semi-automatic weapons will be passed because semi-automatic weapons are protected by the second amendment and having one—or several—is a freedom of speech right.
10. The media will give us a psychological profile of the killer and decide that he was wronged by society. Or perhaps, that he was not wronged by society, it’s hard to tell.
11. Another mass shooting will take place within two weeks.
12. See 1. above.
Actually, this is no longer primarily an issue of guns. I think it’s an entitlement problem.
Killing people has always been allowed in certain cases. We sanction and encourage the right and the duty to engage in murder at times of war, and in self-defense, protection of home, property and family. We are also allowed to kill people who have been found guilty of death-penalty crimes.
But entitlement is a strange thing and hard to define. Most mass killers have a great deal of self-entitlement. It is often encouraged tacitly by their families, their environment, by the websites they call up daily, by others whom propound racism and vigilantism, or any of the isms prevalent today. Mass murders, in the minds of killers, makes sense. It is effective; it gathers long-lasting publicity for a cause they are entitled to endorse. In short, it works. It’s successful. It is, essentially, all-American.
Or, for that matter, all-French, all-Syrian, all-Swedish.
I’m not sure where to go from there. I don’t know how to resurrect my sense of outrage, nor, if I could do so, what purpose it would serve. I do know I’ll keep drinking coffee and I’ll not buy a gun.
Monday, July 4, 2016
It was pouring rain halfway to Leesburg when I pulled into the Pizza Hut parking lot. There was only one car there, and the place looked lightless and shuttered. I got soaked making it to the front door that, to my surprise, was unlocked and opened into a totally empty restaurant. I sat unencumbered at a booth, watching the fat raindrops explode on the asphalt outside.
Why I was there is unclear. I didn’t want to be home, and I had not been in a Pizza Hut for more than a decade.
Earlier, Arielle and I had gone to the Independence Day Parade in downtown Washington, D.C. We sat on the curb with a thousand other spectators and waited for the festivities to start. We watched the people who were standing in the street and blocking our view, and at one point Arielle yelled, “There are children here, and they can’t see!” It was effective. The stand-uppers retreated a few feet. I looked at her in surprise, as moments earlier she had admonished me against yelling exactly in the same manner. “When a man yells,” she explained, “it’s threatening. When a woman yells…” I don’t think she finished the sentence.
A couple visiting from Estonia asked us tourist questions that we answered to the best of our abilities; motorcycle cops did figure eights in the road, and marching bands marched. At one point a young woman sat next to us. Judging from the scarlet of her face, she’d been drinking earlier in the morning. She laughed, said she was bored, stood up once and almost fell over, and then sat again.
It was a coolish, overcast day for July, a good temperature for marchers and spectators alike, and we saw color guards stride past, followed, inexplicably, by a giant Scooby Doo float held down by a dozen waving marchers. The balloon seemed to deflate as it progressed, and somewhere, sometimes, I will find existential meaning in this, but not today. Arielle and I debated the possibility of a book-themed float based on one of my future works. I thought it was a grand idea. She was not convinced.
I commented that one of the hallmarks of parades is that the marching bands are almost always out of tune, and was told to keep things positive. No carping allowed on July 4. We applauded the a float of American Sikhs who, turbaned and bearded, are often mistaken for Islamist Middle-Easterns and, according to reports, have been known to suffer the consequences. We sort of cheered for Miss America, clapped for a high school band whose song Arielle liked (and sang along with), and clapped again for a dozen tiny persons waving pom-poms. We applauded the Tonto-less Lone Ranger, and a mounted Black Jack Pershing. I wondered about young women in form-fitting silver dresses handling toy rifles, and was told to keep my thoughts to myself. We left after a couple of hours; Arielle had friends coming over, and as I drove away after dropping her off, I decided I did not want to return to my empty house.
I stopped by a hobby shop because years ago I used to build plastic models of cars and boats and miniature wooden planes that I crashed into trees at first flight. I looked and could not find a kite kit of the Wright Brothers’ plane. I munificently bought a small container of instant glue, chatted with store employees over the rising cost of balsa wood, impending drone-flying regulations, and the demise of wooden boat model kits. Then I headed out again.
Half-an-hour later, I found the Pizza Hut.
There are fifteen-thousands of them all over the world, but they appear to be vanishing from the more expensive suburbs, such as those found outside Washington. In China, they are considered luxury restaurants complete with tablecloths and real silverware. The franchise was started in 1958 by Dan and Frank Caner, and is now run by the Yum! Brands company.
My solitary presence there was vindicated by the delight of the hostess as I entered. “You’re our first customer of the afternoon,” she told me.
“Do I get a prize?”
“No,” she said.
I managed to drop just enough tomato sauce on a brand new tee shirt to ruin it, and at one point a slice of pepperoni made a leap for freedom and landed on my lap.
Sunday, July 3, 2016
It struck me recently as I was reading The Existential Café, Sarah Bakewell’s excellent book on the story of existentialism and the writers who propounded the post-war philosophy , that our lives are very largely defined by leaving.
We leave the womb, mostly unhappily, and a few years later, still small and unsure of ourselves, we leave home and go to school. Sometimes during our childhood, our family moves, and we leave behind countries, or neighborhoods, friendships, relatives, the familiarity of time and place and pavement. We relearn the basics and familiarize ourselves with a new environment, even as we get ready to leave again.
Much later, in times of war, we leave to fight in conflicts. Some return; others leave permanently.
In peace time, we get married and often find ourselves leaving our family of origin, as well as friends who are still single. They no longer fit within our new framework of a life shared, at least initially, with a single person. We now aspire, most of us, to close-knit blood relations. The lack of attachments of our remaining single friends is suspect in light of our new lifestyle. The friends may become vaguely threatening, even as we leave again. Marriage often implies relocation to better jobs, more affordable venues, different cultures and comfortable climates.
The marriage does not work out. We get divorced. We leave our mates, and our acquaintances decide which of the spouse they will stay close to. It’s hard to be friends with both, it sets up conflicts and difficulties. Our friends leave.
Our children go off on their own; our parents do so as well. They retire to new locations and make new friends.
And so it goes, until the final inevitable departure. We watch friends and family leave us for good, with the full knowledge that we will in turn do so as well.
Leaving is situations unresolved, conversations uncompleted, words unsaid that needed airing. Whether we leave or are left, there is almost always a sense of unfinished business. We realize that the people who have come to us during our lives could only do so by leaving others. It’s a strange merry-go-round that we come to know too well and are never totally comfortable riding.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things cyange, the more they stay the same. And no, no existentialist uttered those words. They were written by a French journalist almost a half-century before the movement began.