Tonight for dinner I had three different types of microwave noodles. I could call it a taste test but it would be more honest to say I simply didn’t give a damn what I ingested. It has been that kind of a day, that kind of week.  All three packages took an average of three minutes to cook, all three were rather gelatinous, and none tasted like it should have, that is to say noodly.

All three were very salty.

The Nissin Hot & Spicy Bowl of Noodles is chicken flavored, and features a drawing of a happy rooster, possibly because no chicken was harmed making this product. The meal, to use the word loosely, came with a Soup Booster. I should have mixed it in after microwaving but I was too lazy, so I did it before, and it’s conceivable that I ruined it, but I doubt it. It also came with a small clear package of dry vegetables that looked suspiciously like what I feed my hamster Archie.

Kraft Velveeta Shells and Cheese is made with 2% milk cheese, and I idly wondered what comprised the other 98%. The pasta looks like kernels of corn with all the good stuff sucked out. To call it a meal would be a falsehood. It is three bites once cooked, and was the only product that came with a fire warning. Apparently, pasta and Velveeta are flammable. I did not know this.

The third and last delicacy was Singapore Sesame Ginger Street Noodles from Simply Asia. From a packaging standpoint, there was a certain elegance to the presentation. The noodles came in a little rectangular plastic kit, one that I may reuse since I am sort of anal retentive about keeping leftover containers that I will throw away two months from now when the contents turn green and fuzzy. The Simply Asia people have good copywriters who promise the product will transport you to the Faraway East, but why bother, since the Faraway East just came to your microwave. Of the three this was the tastiest product but not one I would recommend for expediency. I had to add two packets of ingredients, and two tablespoons of water. The latter was a hassle since I lost my measuring spoons during the move, so I settled for one soup spoon.

Total intake: 610 calories with a whopping 2000 milligrams of sodium.

Bon appétit.


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“There’s nothing beautiful anymore,” says my friend Ellen. We are walking down Lee Highway in Falls Church where we both live. For the past few months, Ellen and I have been hiking once a week, nothing too strenuous, and having breakfast as a reward. Today, the breakfast hole-in-the-wall is closed and we’re looking for an open place other than a Starbucks. It’s slim pickings.
I look around. Ellen’s right. Whatever beauty might once have inhabited the rolling hills of Northern Virginia has been sucked out by six-lane highways, car repair shops, dollar stores, franchise restaurants and two story red brick office buildings erected in the 70s. The sky is low, the color of dead fish; the atmosphere reeks of exhaust fumes. We walk; the rush hour traffic speeds by, cars and SUVs that are mostly grey and black, perhaps reflecting the national mood. There are a lot of honking horns, people are in a hurry.
Ellen is a beautiful woman in her 60s. She’s a prize-winning writer currently working on a novel set in Paris during World War II. I’ve just finished a novel set in Paris at the end of World War I. She talks about her characters and plot, and segues into stories about her son, her adventures on, her cat Zelda, her upcoming trip to Florida, her accountant, the roses in her yard that need fertilizing. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world,” she says. I envy her life, her cheerfulness, her ever-present smile.
I talk about a recent heartbreak, people here and not here, moving to another place, how much garlic should be applied when cooking shrimp, writers’ groups, getting older, meeting new people and watching friends disappear. I like being with Ellen because she is always positive, always smiling. We gossip about folks we know, who is where and why. We pass an agreeable two or three hours in idle conversation and accumulate steps on our FitBits. We end up eating cold scrambled eggs and not-quite-cooked sausage links in a Harris Teeter.
The issue of vanishing beauty almost always comes back. On a hike along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, we can’t help but see brackish waters filled with trash. There are half-submerged bald tires and traffic cones and milk crates and pizza boxes. It smells bad, and I wonder how the ducks and occasional great blue heron manage to survive. The C & O cuts through Georgetown, home of the $10,000-a-month apartment overlooking the Potomac, the store with the $400 casual plaid shirt, and the $300 tasting menu restaurant. Many years ago I rented a small house that was right on the canal, and the waters were clean back then. What happened?
It’s a strange thing, being in the capital of the free world, less than two miles from the White House, and there’s no money for a clean-up. We talk to a Park Ranger who shakes his head and shrugs, what can you do? I wonder what happened to the Friends of the C&O and suspect that city regulations prevent them from wading into the canal and cleaning it up. You need lawyers and petitions and signed forms and bureaucrats to do pretty much anything around here.
I reflect that where I recently moved won’t win any urban planning prize. There’s not a bookstore or art gallery within walking distance, but this is a millennial hotspot, and they shop Amazon, download, and rarely turn a page. I should have realized something was awry when I noticed the green space where young parents bring their kids to play is Astroturf.
Now Elllen is telling me she has a character in her book named Thierry. I tell her I’ll write a blog about our walks. She smiles and says she has to get home quickly to clean her house. The housekeeper is coming at noon. We get in her new bright red Toyota RAV 4 and drive past the strip malls that will soon give way to more apartment buildings. We speed by eight fast food franchises huddled next to each other, the 7 Eleven, the all-you-can-eat Mexican place and the dealership that specializes in ratty European cars.
Ellen drops me off, says, “Good-bye, my friend,” and the luckiest girl in the world drives off.


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No Apologies Needed

I wouldn’t know Donna Karan if she came to my door with a sack full of designer jeans. My understanding is that she was unwise enough to say that Harvey Weinstein, a cofounder of Miramax accused of decades of sexual harassment, had done “some wonderful things.” I know nothing about Weinstein either, save that Miramax has done some interesting things under his co-leadership, and that news photos depict a poorly shaven individual who looks like an unsuccessful Mafia hit man. If the allegations are true, and there is  no reason to believe they’re not, Weinstein is a horrid example of abuse of power.

Karan then added she thought that some women are “asking for it” by the way they dress and “presenting themselves the way they do.” It, we all assume, is sexual predation.

What bothers me here is that Karan, a 69-year-old woman with, I presume, some experience at life, voiced a private opinion that was picked up by the media. She was then forced to apologize. She did so, saying “sexual harassment is NOT acceptable and this is an issue that MUST be addressed once and for all regardless of the individual.” I suspect her perfectly politically correct statement was rehearsed and drafted by her attorney.

She added that she was “truly sorry to (sic) anyone that I offended and everyone that has ever been a victim.” That line probably came directly from her. Truisms followed by platitudes. Her apology meant nothing in either the grand or small scheme of things save, perhaps, that it may have curtailed the stock of DKVD from falling further. She never took back her assertions that Weinstein had done good things, or that she thinks some women dress provocatively and may suffer for it. Did her statement and apology matter? Are there people out there who will base their opinions on hers? Those who do agree with her–and certainly some do–formed their own opinions long before Karan stated hers. (There is, incidentally, an interesting correlation between the right to free speech and the right to free dress. Both are freedoms of expression, both are often criticized, both can incite violence, both can create victims.)

It’s odd to me that, increasingly, public figures whose opinions are of no import in the running of things are castigated for speaking their minds. This is a form of censure embraced by the people who not that long ago, themselves demonstrated for the right of free speech.

Are we even allowed to say people dress provocatively these days, or is this a statement that will provoke the ire of many?

In one of my writing groups, a debate raged thankfully briefly regarding the use of sensitivity readers, a breed of editors who according to the Chicago Tribune, “will scan a manuscript for racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive content.”

I find this difficult to accept; the word otherwise concerns me. While I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with offensive literature of any stripe (offensive is a totally subjective concept), I don’t feel it’s my right to say such literature shouldn’t be penned or that it must be edited to make it palatable to a few, or even to many. I have choices. I can opt not to read it; I can refute its allegations, castigate or shun its author, rant and rave and boycott the publisher, but I can’t stop others from reading it and forming their own impressions. The exception is with children’s literature, which often has as its audience impressionable minds too young to decide what is acceptable or not.

All this sensitivity has the smell of book burnings and libraries’ refusal to carry ‘offensive’ classics. It threatens art as a whole. I still have a tee-shirt ridiculing former Attorney General Ed Meese for throwing a blanket over a nude statue of Blind Justice because he found her unrobed breasts objectionable. The statue in question was at the entrance of the Justice Department.

Meese was rightly mocked and if I recall correctly, the statue was moved to a less visible space until the end of his tenure. I don’t think he ever apologized. (Meese was also responsible for the celebrated 900-page, two-volume government study on pornography. I bought it at the Government Printing Office just for the appendix which listed the titles of almost 1,000 publications, including the alliterative Big Brown Beautiful Bouncy Boobs.)

At one time or another, Catch 22 was banned, as were Candide, The Grapes of Wrath, Huckleberry Finn, Flowers for Algernon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Each and every one of these books offended some citizens who decided the plots or opinions stated were so repugnant that others should not be allowed to form their own sentiments on the worthiness of the publication.

That’s plain wrong. I don’t need to be protected from words, no matter how obnoxious they may be. Let the idiots speak, I say. Or, to quote Groucho Marx, “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

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The panic attacks have returned. I’d not undergone one in more than a year, and last week they resurfaced with a vengeance. I get them while driving, generally on high-speed freeways, and they positively kill me when I have to go over a long bridge.
Panic attacks are terrifying. They constrict my throat and somehow affect my gut. I have to loosen my belt. My breath comes ragged and my visions blurs. I sweat cold. I know suspension_bridge_4without a doubt that I will somehow cause the car I’m driving to swerve into oncoming traffic or over the guardrail and into the water. I grip the car’s steering wheel so hard my fingers hurt. In fact, I once clutched the wheel so tightly that my fingernails cut into my palms.
The apogee of a bridge is the scariest. I utter foxhole prayers, plead for help, and would possibly trade my soul for safe passage.
I have been told the panic can be caused by losing sight of the horizon, but gephyrophobia—the fear’s official name—can also stem from a bad bridge or tunnel experience. I don’t know where mine comes from, why it lays dormant for years, or why it reappears. Stress has something to do it, I was told, as does depression.
Last week when planning an overnight trip, I realized that I’d have to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to reach my destination. The Bay Bridge is almost seven kilometers long and has earned the nickname of America’s Scariest Bridge. I have never been able to drive it while sober. The last time I crossed it was several years ago when a friend and I were going to the beach. After we’d paid the toll, I pulled off to the side of the road and asked that she take over the driving. She did, and I sat in the passenger seat starring at the floor mats as my heart tried to pound itself out of my chest.
This year, I made a long detour to avoid the Bay Bridge, but on two occasions still found myself terrified as I crossed lesser bridges to get where I needed to go.
Perhaps the worst aspect of panic attacks is that they rewrite the future. For example, after I get where I’m going, during my stay I will obsess over the fact that the return trip will necessitate crossing bridges. This has a tendency to put a damper on the moment at hand. By the time I’m driving home, I will have worked myself into a state of self-feeding panic knowing bridges are forthcoming.
Today as I was driving on Interstate 95, a bridge snuck up on me. I saw it a few hundred yards ahead and had no time to prepare, though truth to tell, there is no preparation I know of that works. The bridge—it was actually a long, curved overpass—soared before me, rising higher and higher until it crested and the horizon was visible again. I realized I’d been holding my breath the entire time, almost a full minute-and-a-half. I didn’t know I could do that.
I have tried several medications to stem the terror. The ones that worked left me feeling groggy for an entire day. I refuse to take any med that is potentially addictive. The best remedy, so far, is to be driving with a passenger who can talk me down, but this is not always an option.
A physician recently told me there are new drugs on the market. One of these is MDMA, also known as ecstasy. I’m not sure I’m willing to do that. Come to think of it, I know that I am not.
Come Monday, I’ll explore other options.

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I am in my car, returning from a doctor’s appointment. It is no longer rush hour but I have been waiting through two cycles of a traffic light. I remember reading that the American Automobile Association calculated that a car burns a quarter-gallon of gas for every 15 minutes it spends idling.

I think about this and notice that all the cars within sight—mine included—bear only one person, the driver. Only one in a dozen cars has an additional passenger. I assume most people are driving to work. It suggests that the old adage that a man’s home is his castle has come to include a man’s (or woman’s) car, or van, or truck, or SUV.

The phrase comes from old English law and is believed to have first been declared by the 17th century jurist, Sir Edward Coke. It has become a cliché of sort implying one may do whatever one chooses in one’s own home. This, of course, is patently false and there is a flurry of exceptions. I can, within measure, do what I want in my domicile as long as it does not break the law or disturb my neighbor, injure another, produce illegal substances, promote violence or involve commercial sex.

In my car, I am allowed, within reason, to occupy the road, contribute to pollution, traffic, and rush hour madness.

Judging from the state of our roads and circulation, I’d posit that it’s time for this to change. I therefore offer a simple—and of course elegant—solution that, as far as I can see, has no downside.

In recent times where I live, the departments of transportation have deemed  that the local high-traffic, high-speed highways should have designated express toll lanes for those of us with spare cash and in a hurry. This is not a solution; it’s a giant step sideways.

The basic flaw is that the better-off drivers, who can afford to pay the toll, also can afford to buy newer cars that run cleanly and offer higher-miles-per gallon. The people who can’t pay a toll of five dollars or more each way to get to and from work, more often than not drive older, more polluting and gas guzzling vehicles. They’re the ones running late, sitting in traffic and emitting noxious fumes. What we’re doing with express lanes is essentially offering a subsidy to the wealthier at the cost of the poor. Does this sound familiar?images

Here’s a possibility. Let’s give vans to good drivers willing to ferry others to and from work. Additionally, let’s give them gasoline coupons and allow them to employ the vans for personal use during the off hours and weekends. The automakers whose vans are selected for use will be happy. Traffic and pollution will diminish, and the roads will undergo less wear and tear. There will be fewer instances of road rage and less need to police traffic. Riders will not endanger others by texting and driving. The roads will be made safer, easier to use, and speedier. Additionally, the average car owner will put fewer miles on the family vehicle. An add-on option would be to give tax breaks to van commuters.

Did I say there would not be a downside? I was mistaken; there is. The oil companies will sell less gas, but this will be offset by the gas allotments given to van drivers. The giant corporations that build and mend roads might lose some business if there is less wear and tear on our highways, but they’re ingenious devils who’ll find other ways to make money. They might, for example, stop fixing potholes with materials that break down every winter (thereby guaranteeing more work each year) and, like some European nations, use rubber from recycled tires to patch the roads. Just an option…

Times have changed. The traffic in urban centers has become unbearable and we all suffer for it. We drive longer and longer distances to get to and from work and further pollute an increasingly fragile ecosystem. More roads is not the answers, fewer cars is.

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The isolated shouting starts around one in the morning, the young men’s beer-drunk voices booming, the women’s higher-pitched and scratching, bouncing off the windows and bricks and mortar of the buildings that makes this two-block street a modern canyon. This is the urban wildlife, and it comes out Friday and Saturday nights when the bars and restaurants close. There’s boisterous laughter, a few curse words, car doors slamming, and an occasional motorcycle doing sixty in first gear. It goes on, intermittently, until 3:30 a.m. or so.

It’s odd because there aren’t that many bars here and none are of the raucous roadhouse type. I don’t think there’s live music anyplace nearby save for an elegant and expensive restaurant lounge a half-mile away (I went there for an extraordinary brunch today, except for the fact that the soy sauce and the maple syrup containers had been switched. Breakfast sushi with maple syrup is, well, perhaps an acquired taste. Pancakes and soy sauce is too.)

The dwellers here are mostly young childless couples, many with dogs, and they seem to go to bed early. By eleven p.m. on weekdays, everything is closed. The blinds on six floors of windows are drawn and even the white glow of televisions is gone. Judging from the number of moving trucks, the tenants are largely transient.

In a way, it’s a perfect environment for a part-time insomniac, but it also vies as the second-loneliest place I’ve ever lived in, the first being an efficiency in Balston, shortly after my wife and I separated.

Up until a few years ago, sleep was not difficult to find and my days were spectacularly uninteresting. I’d wake at five-thirty, go to the gym, eat breakfast, and then do household chores. The afternoons were spent writing, either my own stuff or on assignment. I’d be in bed by eleven.

Around 2014, this changed and sleep became intermittent. It still is. I am wary of drugs, and only two or three times a year take something anodyne such as melatonin. I normally won’t mind noise at night, since I am often awake, but I do resent it the rare times I manage to nod off.

I’m smart enough to know this is not a solvable issue. People—young people, particularly—will be noisy on weekends. By and large I can live with it. But I wish there were a good reason for it, such as their getting drunk in a honky-tonk where I could do an occasional open mic.

That might be worth it.

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Trash & Treasure

coinsI have a treasure box. I’d more or less forgotten about it, mostly because there is nothing of real value there. It’s filled with an assortment of small stuff I’ve collected willy-nilly (do, people still use that term? I was told recently that some of my expressions are totally antiquated) over the last half-century. Some of it has meaning, some of it doesn’t.

There are, for example, commemorative medals from countries I’ve never visited for events I never attended. I have no idea where they came from—none—but they’ve become emblematic of life’s vagaries. There are political buttons from the Nixon era, with a slyly smiling Tricky Dick asking for your vote. Right alongside this Nixon memorabilia is my press card for the Washington Post. It’s from 1972, the year of Watergate, and I’m not sure if the term ‘Watergate’ evokes memories for anyone under the age of 50. But the symbolism is perfect if not particularly original.

There are drink coasters from a second-rate hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal, and a little sign I stole from a place in Bangladesh telling me not to brush my teeth with the water, much less drink it since it probably carries cholera.

There’s a condom key-ring from Bangkok, a gift from Mechai Viravaidya when I interviewed him for a magazine article. Mr. Condom, as he is known internationally, reduced sexually transmitted diseases in Thailand and elsewhere with his awareness campaign. The condom in the key ring, incidentally, is not removable, so this particular bit of merchandising may have a fatal flaw.

I have an almost full collection of Washington, D.C., Metro farecards from 1981. They were issued twice a month for $10 and made me feel very urban.

Not in the treasure box, and possibly lost forever, is my ticket stub from Woodstock, though I do have the stub from the Spinal Tap Break Like the Wind tour in 1992.

There remain some 8,000 African Francs from time spent in Mali and Senegal, and odd bits of East Berlin change from my attending the Communist Youth Festival as a free-lance writer. I also count among the treasures a strange little pair of pliers from Sharper Image, and a 10 millimeter wrench, the necessary tool for anyone owning a European car.

There’s more stuff, trash to anyone else but meaningful to me. Oh wait! A Spiro Agnew tie clip! Now that’s a collector’s item!

How many people remember being called  “nattering nabobs of negativism?”

I do.

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