Vive le Français!

Not too long ago, I resumed writing the sequel to my book, L’Amérique, which was published by a small university press. It’s a thinly disguised partly fictional autobiography—something I like to call faction (fact/fiction, get it?) and when it came out, it was relatively well received. I still get royalty checks in the single digit.

I stopped writing the untitled sequel because a book I wrote a year later, Montparnasse, was nominated by its publisher for a Pulitzer, and though I had no chance of winning, I had hoped the nomination might bolster my career. It didn’t. The Pulitzer people do not allow nominees to boast of this honor—no mention on the cover or the back cover blurb or, for that fact, anywhere.

This was disappointing and I was struck by the futility of it all. Here I had devoted more than two thirds of my life to the written word, and I was making more money correcting the works of others than authoring my own stuff.

But writing is what I do. An idea germinated, grew and bloomed, and I was once again dealing with L’Amérique’s protagonist, Jeanot, a French youth generally flummoxed by America, and his struggles to understand and fit in les États Unis.

In L’Amérique, I used a number of French phrases that either needed no translation, or whose meanings were made clear by their inclusions. In the sequel, I started thinking about how colorful French is, and how some commonly used phrases defy translation.

Être con comme un manche à balais. To be as stupid as a broom handle. The word con, by the way, cannot be translated into that horrible English term used to denote female genitalia. It merely means being stupid beyond comprehension and is now a banal, and sometimes even affectionate, insult.

Tu déconne! You’re kidding!

Jeter un coup d’œil means to throw a glance at.

Mêle-toi de tes oignons. Mind your own onions, or business. This is one of my favorite expressions. I use it as often as I can.

Avoir le cul entre deux chaises. Having one’s ass on two chairs. Straddling a fence.

Faire la tête. To make a head, or to sulk.

Casser les pieds. To break one’s feet. To annoy.

N’être pas sorti de l’auberge. To not be out of trouble yet.

Tu me fait chier. Literally, you make me defecate.

Un pet de madeleine. A nun’s fart. It’s a pastry. Really.

Être aux anges. To be with the angels; to be happy.

Ah, la vache! Oh, the cow! An expression of pained surprise. A vache can also be a nasty, vindictive person.

Il me court sur le haricot. He’s running on my bean. He’s getting on my nerves.

Avoir le cul bordé de nouilles. Literally, your ass is surrounded by noodles.  You’re very lucky.

J’ai le cafard. I have the cockroach. I’m sad or blue.

Pisser dan un violon. Pissing in a violin, or wasting time.

Une histoire de cul. An ass story, or anything having to do with sex.

Poser un lapin. To put a rabbit; to not show up for a date.

Ça me fait une belle jambe. It gives me a beautiful leg. I couldn’t care less.

Faire l’andouille. To make the sausage; to act stupidly.

Remember: If you throw any of these expressions into a casual conversation, you’ll be considered a worldly person!

I love the French language.

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A Hard-working Scam

I have in my hand (I am not quoting the late, great, Senator Joe McCarthy) a check for $6,000 from James Madison University addressed to me and dated mid-February. I could use $6,000—who couldn’t—but unfortunately the check is part of a three-months-long internet scam that began when I put an ad on Craig’s List offering my services to people wanting to practice conversational French.

Within days I received a query from a gentleman purporting to be in Great Britain. It read: “Hello, My name is Dr Devan Frank am interested in your lesson. I would like you to be taking my daughter (Mary, she is 16 yrs old) lesson while i am at work in your city. Am from England(UK) but I’m moving to your area because I’m having 4 weeks contract with Environmental Protection Agency( EPA) in united state. You do not have to worry about transportation,  have negotiate with a cab company that will be driving her down to your place go and come.

So i want you to be taking her for 2 hours per day from Monday to Thursday for 4 weeks. Get back to me with total cost. I wait to read from you shortly, and remember she is all i have and i really want a conducive and pleasant atmosphere for her. Dr Devan Frank

Oh what the hell, let’s play along. I responded: Hello: My fees are $60 per hour. Because this is a one-time long-term contract, I will need a 50% deposit by bank check before we start. This would come to $960. Please let me know if this is agreeable. The lessons will be from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Thursday. They will be held at my home which I am sure your daughter will find both pleasant and conducive to learning.”

Dr. Frank’s got back to me the same day.  “Thanks for your response,  i can understand all what you said, i want you to help me teach her for 2 hours per day from Monday to Thursday for 4 weeks, i will like you to get back to me with the total cost, it is my financier in the united state that will sponsor me and responsible for the payment, so i  want you to get all information to be use to have the payment, that i can forward it to my financier in the state to send you the check,  you will be paid with Us dollar certified check.

Please get back to me with the amount and i will be glad to update you and make the payment in advance to show you how serious, because i want everything to be done before i will get back to the state. Kindly get back to me with the information so that the check will be made out to you.

Several messages went back and forth. I wondered what kind of father Dr. Frank was to entrust his 16-year-old daughter to a man he’d never met. This, apparently, was not a major concern  of his. He wrote, “Thanks for getting back to me, am ok with the time schedule, i want you to help me take good care of her because she is my only daughter, have forward the information to my financier in united state to send you the  check as soon as possible. If there is any other information i will let you know.”

Dr. Frank asked that I write a check to cover the cab company’s fees and he would reimburse me.  I  responded, “Send me a check for the total amount ($1920) and when it clears I will arrange for a friend of mine to be your driver. She has a Cadillac Fleetwood limousine. You can then pay her separately.

In min-January, I received another message. “Thanks for getting back to me, concerning the cab driver as have told you earlier that have made proper arrangement with the cab company, so they have book me a car with a driver that  will be driving me to work and also be driving Mary to your location every tutor day, the car is for me as my private car for the whole month as far as i don`t have any car in the state.

“But there was a mistake on the check issue out to you, the check have to be two, while one for the tutor and the other for the cab company which i was told that it is been  issued out in one check sent to you.

Please am very sorry for this mistake made, As soon as you received the check you will cash the check and deduct your total charges and help me send the rest to the cab driver via western union which i will provide you the information as soon as you get the check.

“Because the cab company said that they will not agree in working with me by driving me and my daughter without receiving any deposit from me before we arrived to the state so you will have to do that for me as a help, the check will deliver to you very soon. Kindly get back to me as soon as possible.”

So I did. We had a lively exchange of quips—Dr. Frank, however, did not have much of a sense of humor. I was being uncooperative, he said, and there was only one recourse available. He would instruct his financier to send me a check for the full amount to cover everything—cab fares and teaching sessions.

But there was a holdup, wrote Dr. Frank,  “there is a little delay on the check through the courier service. The check will deliver to your location this week possibly Tuesday. Thank you.”

The check arrived a couple of weeks later, delivered by Fedex . It looked really official. Pale blue with routing numbers, made out to me and signed illegibly by what I surmise is the bursar of James Madison. I took it to my bank. The man there laughed, not unkindly, and said he hoped I hadn’t sent any money. Dr. Frank, it seems, is a very active person in the Northern Virginia area, and he has written checks to many, many people.

Some time later, I received an irate message from the good doctor,   “What’s going on there?? Could you please email me as soon as possible. Thank you.”

I told him his check had most unfortunately bounced but I would be glad to meet with him personally and we could work out the details of his daughter’s French lessons.  I expect to get a response any day now.

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I have treasures. There are fewer now than when I lived in a house, but the ones I really care for made the move without too much difficulty.

My best treasure is an 18th century chest of drawers that belonged to my grandfather. It’s not an elegant piece—it is oak, dark, squat and heavy, and I suspect it spent a century in a middle class home’s living room. The top is cracked and buckled, marred and stained by wine glasses and spills. There’s a chunk missing from its surface and many decades ago my father tried to fix it with plastic wood. It didn’t work. In Paris where I was born, the piece held the silverware and linen brought out for special occasions. The drawers are rudimentary—no slides, or ball bearings. Twice a decade I take a candle and run it along the drawer bottoms so they open easily.

The second treasure dates from a little later, the early 1800s, possibly. It’s a secretary with a fold down desk. Inside are eight little drawers for all the necessary writing utensils and other ephemerals needed to draft a billet doux or more likely, pay bills. There’s a chunk missing from one of the legs. What I’ve always loved about this bureau is its not-so-secret compartment. Right between the small drawers is a horizontal sliding panel that reveals a space just big enough to hide a carton of cigarettes, which is exactly what my mother used it for. She kept her Pall Malls there, and I stole them from there.

I have an ebony Buddha and the carved head of a lovely Asian woman. My father brought these back from Indonesia where he traveled as a British lord’s secretary in the 1930s. He also brought back a silver filigreed hash pipe from Tunisia (don’t ask), and a beautiful metal box from Ethiopia.

I have my great uncle’s kepi from World War 1, and a silver and ivory letter opener given to guests at the opening of my grandfather’s opera, Mona Vana. There’s a mah jongg set with ivory pieces my mother bought in Algeria during World War II, and my father’s Légion d’Honneur  medal. I have his war diaries, and a children’s book my mother wrote and illustrated.

There are a few other things, more recent. My acoustic guitar sold for less than $10 in the Sears & Roebuck catalog of 1939. It’s not worth much, and the sound it makes won’t threaten a Martin or a Gibson, but it’s the instrument I learned to play on. There are two dark portraits of an abbot and his wife, possibly from the 1820s. My mother used to say they were ancestors, but I know for a fact she picked them both up for a song at the flea market in Paris.

And then there are my mother’s paintings. I only have five or six of them. My sister has a dozen or so, and many were sold at shows both in Washington and Paris. I don’t know what happened to her most ambitious project: a ten-foot long canvas depicting all the First Ladies from Martha Washington to Jackie Kennedy wearing their inaugural dresses. I always thought Mamie Eisenhower looked as if she had on a potato sack, a homage, perhaps, to the designer Cristóbal Balenciaga who created that sad fashion. It broke my mother’s heart that neither the Smithsonian nor the White house were willing to accept her gift of the painting, and she folded her artist’s trestle shortly thereafter.

And there are books, including a cookbook from 1745 and Les Aventures de la Famille Fenouillard, among the first graphic novel ever, that delighted my childhood.  

I’m not sure what will happen to my treasures when I pass on. Some will go to my nephews in Europe, and others to friends. I do hope they find a home, even if one man’s treasure is another man’s trash.  

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The Cretins’ Coup

This year the Darwin Awards may have to create a sub-category for coup cretins. The Cretin-in-Charge, Mr. Trump, will be given a special mention, but let’s face it, even his idiocy was surpassed by that of some of his followers.

Like everyone else, I particularly enjoyed the horned and befurred ‘shaman’ who luxuriated in his two minutes of fame. I understand he’s an unemployed man who lives with his mother and obviously spent his $600 government check at Costumes-R-Us. I can almost hear the phone conversation with his Mom.

“Hi, Mama? Yeah, it’s me. Oh, pretty good. Got my picture in the news a lot. I liked the one where it looks like I’m howling at the moon. Did you see that one, Mama? Tons of mentions in Parler! Say, can you do me a favor and UPS me my spare set of buffalo horns? The cops took mine. Yeah. The spares are in the closet with the Yahtzee set. Also, can you find a good place to dry clean the coyote skins?”

The guy trying to leave the Capitol with the speaker’s dais was one chalupa short of a Happy Meal. Where did he think he was going? Did he really hope to get the thing back to his rec room?

The best, hands down the Grand Prize Winner, was the guy who posed in a congressional office with two semi-automatic rifles. Turns out he accidentally—and repeatedly—Tasered himself in the crotch, leading to a fatal heart attack. Really. This is the sort of thing that makes you believe God does have a pretty good sense of humor.

On a serious basis, what amazed me was the lack of good sense. The rioters, ninety-nine percent white, managed to botch an invasion when the odds were overwhelmingly in their favor. They outnumbered the Capitol Police who’d called for help that came far too late. It appeared that though some police officers acted with great courage to lead rioters astray, others actually invited the mob into the building and politely pointed the way to congressional offices. It was interesting to see windows energetically shattered when nearby doors were open, and climbers scaling the walls when unguarded stairways were a few feet away.

Personally, I’d have had second thoughts the minute I realized that Trump, who said he’d march to the Capitol with his mob, of course did not, but instead repaired to a sheltered White House media room where he and his family and friends enjoyed the riot from a very secure distance. Big surprise there.

My days of protest are largely over. I’m a Vietnam era guy, and I did almost get shot by a cop while covering an antiwar demonstration in Georgetown for The Washington Post.

Even back then, demonstrations were for many a recreational outlet. We didn’t do selfies, and the cops were a not as kind as the ones on Capitol Hill. They charged the crowd, wielding batons and tear gas, and you could look forward to a serious beating and hospitalization if you tried to stand your ground.

The January 6 people came to Washington, preened, and posed for a lot of photos of each other, broke stuff, and left behind a trail of trash. Then they took trains, planes and automobiles back home so as not to miss their Thursday evening shows. A good time was had by all but the five people who died, including the cojones Taserer.

No doubt they’ll be back because the riot was the highlight of their lives, something they’ll boast about to like-minded buds. They’ll buy tee-shirts and embroidered caps displaying their participation, and ballyhoo their courage. But be reassured—in the end it was a cretins’ coup, badly planned, stupidly executed, and without a snowball in hell’s chance of success.   

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Inanimate Objects and Me

There’s no reason to rehash 2020. We know how horrible it was. Insidious, really, in almost every way. I don’t like whining, so I decided to focus on a particular aspect of that nasty year—my relationship with inanimate objects.

We all have feelings for objects, and these are often far deeper than the feelings we might harbor for a neighbor, say, particularly one that cooks cabbage every Friday and renders the hallways of our apartment building impassable.

I happen to think very highly of my humidifier which this year developed a loud ticking sound, as well as mold. Mr. H, as I refer to it, has been with me almost a decade, spewing a cold, misty plume over my plants for all this time. I don’t know how humidifier years translate to human years, but I’d say Mr. H is probably close to a century old, a sage among his contemporaries, of which there is only one in my apartment, an upstart from Amazon that needs far too constant refilling. I’m concerned 2021 may be Mr. H’s last year, what with the ticking and mold. I sprayed it with Clorox, which may lengthen its existence, but I am living in fear in an apartment that now smells like a laundromat.

Then there’s the Cuisinart I inherited from my other. She bought it in 1975, a bare two years after it was introduced at a trade show in Chicago. She thought it was a French invention, and no one disabused her of the notion, or told her it had been invented by an MIT graduate with a strange German name. Had she known this I’d still be making célerie rémoulade with a potato peeler. My mother had fought in the war and did not like Germans. The Cuis has grown yellow with age. It does not spin as fast as it used to, and the blades are getting dull. It, too, may expire soon.

I used to have a thing for my vacuum cleaner because it was small and squat and somewhat resembled a French bulldog on wheels, or Salvador Dali’s anteater. But it stopped hoovering a while back. I changed the bag and looked for obstructions in its snout, but it was dead, not even a wheeze or a whimper. I mourn it only slightly.

I won’t mention the perfidious juicer, or the traitorous rice steamer.

I will, however, write briefly about my 1989 Avanti convertible, which I bought in the 90s from a car museum. It’s a thing of beauty, designed by Raymond Loewy, who is better known for his creation of the classic Coca Cola bottle. Loewy, a Frenchman, was far ahead of his time and the Avanti was the swan song of the Studebaker car company. It is long, low, sleek, with a pilot’s dashboard, leather seats, and a trunk just large enough for a quart of milk. I love the car. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t another like it in the tri-state area and it garners compliments wherever it goes, when it goes. It is largely inanimate, because when I drive it, something goes wrong: a fuel pump, a flat tire, a dead battery, a window that once down refuses to go up. The result is that I don’t drive it that much.

There are a few more inanimate objects with which I had relationships in 2020, but they’re not worth focusing upon. I am ready to build something with the new showerhead that is supposed to make me squeaky clean without soap, and there are possibilities so far unexplored with an exercise device called a Flextron, bought in 2019 but never used. That’s okay. Meaningful relationships take time to build.

I wish you, your families, and all your belongings great and small a drama-free and bountiful new year.

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The Joys of Hearing

Not too long ago I was sitting at an outdoor table having tea with a friend when I mentioned that I was getting hearing aids. Traffic roared fifty feet from us and an ambulance’s siren added to the din.

My friend smiled and nodded. “That’s great. I won’t have to shout anymore!”

“You’re not shouting,” I said.

She smiled again. “I’m shouting right now.”


I’ve been losing my hearing for more than a decade. It’s been incremental but obvious to almost everyone who knows me. I ask people to repeat themselves. I read their lips. I pretend to hear, smile and nod in deaf understanding. My hearing loss has led to some classic misunderstanding (“I said art, not fart!) and I have learned to look interested during group discussions when all I could make out was an occasional word.

So after wasting money on Facebook-advertised cheap hearing aids that cost less than a hundred and mostly whistled and whined in my ears, I was told that Medicare would spring $2000 towards a pair of $4300 Phonak aids. It was a tough bullet to bite. I can’t remember the last time I spent more than two grand on myself and the truth is, with Covid-19 raging, I see fewer and fewer people. Listening is not a must. I’d also heard of people who’d spent small fortunes on hearing aids and, in the end, found them impossible to tolerate. The 45-day try-out period, and the guarantee of a full refund if I didn’t like the Phonaks, sold me.

I was fitted with them this morning, instructed on recharging procedures, and downloaded the app that would allow ne to use them with Blue Tooth. The Phonaks come with a bunch of bells and whistles, even though their price is considered mid-level—above a Hyundai but far below a Caddy.

I was amazed from the git-go. Not only could I clearly hear the audio technician who explained the finer points of the devices, when I left, I could hear my footsteps!!! Also the wooshing sound made by an elevator, and a car starting 200 feet away.

I stopped at a coffee shop on the way home. Four teen-age girls were at an adjoining table. One brayed; another had a voice reminiscent of the squeal of a puppy whose tail is stepped on. I used the Phonac app to change the hearing aids’ settings.

The Phonacs are paired to my phone, so when I got a call, it rang directly inside my head and I jumped out of my skin. I have to work out some of the finer points. Right now, the clattering of my keyboard, the sighing of the heat coming through the vents, and the stereo voices of the dishwasher and clothe dryer are providing a not unpleasant cacophony but add to this the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the hallway, and it’s a little too much.

Still, this is nothing short of miraculous. Another plus: By pressing a small button on the side of the right hearing aid, I can mute them both and be deaf again, because you never know. Sometimes silence is golden.    

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Covid Scare

For the past three months, I’ve been working on a book, the biography of a local entrepreneur who made good. He came from Europe in the early 70s with his family and over time opened a number of stores that proved very successful and have made him wealthy.

We meet once or twice a week and I interview him. I listen to the details of his life in Europe, his first jobs in New York, and the slow ascent to success. I like him. I’ve known him many years and have been privileged to enjoy his friendship, so this project is special.

Our meetings usually are held at a local restaurant where we sit, maskless, across from each other. I order tea, he has coffee and a bear claw pastry. I record his remembrances on my phone, and then send the audio files out for transcription.

We were supposed to meet this past Monday and he didn’t show up. This has never happened before. I called him and he apologized profusely. He was sick in bed with a serious fever.

To make a long story short, my friend has contracted Covid-19. He texted me the next day to say the test had been positive.

Ten minutes later, I was on my healthcare provider’s website, feeling slightly foolish. How many days since I’d seen my friend? Had he appeared normal? I couldn’t remember whether he’d been coughing or not, but it seemed likely. And he did appear sort of pale, but that could have been the diner’s fluorescent lighting.

I made an appointment online to be tested the next day. That night, I felt a tickle in my throat. Was that a symptom? What about the sneezing? I’d been sneezing in the morning for a couple of weeks and thinking it was allergies. In the dark and from the safety of my bed, I tried to analyze every discomfort, no matter how small. I obsessed over the fact that I am more likely to succumb to Covid than are many others. I have cancer and am going through immunotherapy. I am older, diabetic, overweight, and my immune system has been compromised.

The next morning it snowed and I slipped and slid to the Tyson’s Kaiser Permanente clinic. Q-tips were rammed up my nostrils. On the drive back home, I sneezed constantly and depleted my car’s supply of napkins stolen from Panera.

Test results would come within 48 hours. I checked my email every ten minutes.

At 7 a.m., the next mornhing, a message from Kaiser appeared but I couldn’t download it. I signed in and out of their site three times before an email titled Test Results appeared. My stomach did a somersault. I took a deep breath, held it, clicked on the message.

Test negative.

I printed out the mail and read it again. Moments later, a nurse called me to tell me my test were negative, but that I should be wary and report any symptoms.

I celebrated the verdict by eating a large, salted pretzel and drinking too-sweet coffee. It stopped snowing.

The next day, my friend texted me to say he felt much better and his temperature was normal. I spent several hours working on his book.

I’ll have to write a Covid chapter.

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One Fine Day

My friend Sameer wrote a book, One Fine Day. There’s nothing unusual about this; I have a number of writer friends who’ve written books. That is after all, what we do. But I think this work is special.

I first met Sameer in the hallway of my apartment building. He was walking slowly, oh so slowly with the assistance of a cane, from his door to the elevator. I think I held the elevator for him as he made his way there. He thanked me, and I commented that it looked as if he’d gone through a rough time. He nodded, smiled and said, “Catastrophic hemorrhagic stroke in my cerebellum.”

He got out—slowly—at the first floor. I rode down to the garage. At the time of our initial meeting, I’d just gone through yet another cancer operation and was feeling sorry for myself, but it was obvious that Sameer’s woes were far more overwhelming than mine.

A couple of weeks later, we met again in the hallway. We exchanged a bit of information. He asked what I did and I told him I was a writer. His eyes lit up. “Really? I’m writing a book myself!” We decided to meet in the near future and have lunch.

Sammer Bhide, I learned, had been levelled by his stroke when he was 47. At the time, he was married with two kids and lived in a Washington, DC, suburb. He’d spent a month in an induced coma and there were serious doubts that he would survive. If he did, most doctors thought, he would be severely impaired.

During lunch at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, he told me a ghost writer was helping him with the first draft of his books, and it would be more than just a recollection of his stroke and his healing. He wanted it to be a treatise on gratitude. He had survived, he told me, and wanted to help people faced with situation similar to his, be they medical, emotional, or mental. His life had changed drastically in an instant, and his survival would depend on his ability to seek acceptance to what he called a new normal.

Over the last few years, I’ve helped people with their books—with plotting, character development, pacing, and all the other fine points that make a work readable. During the next couple of months, Sameer and I met for coffee and spoke often about writing, and I was impressed with his dedication to the task. Eventually, he asked if I’d go over the manuscript and come up with suggestions.

The first thing I noticed was, indeed, Sameer’s gratitude. He insisted on thanking all the people who had helped him—physicians, nurses, assistants, rehabilitators, the whole gamut of specialists in the US and in India who’d cared for him. He thanked his friends, dozens of them, some of whom had escorted him to India and back to the States. He thanked his wife and his children, and I learned that he’d gone through a divorce while he was healing. He thanked his mother, and his mother’s neighbors and friends in Mumbai. He thanked so many people that I suggested he consider doing an epilog where he could name all the people to whom he owed a debt of gratitude. Sameer opted to get treatments encompassing both Western and traditional Eastern medicine. The descriptions he offers of the treatments received in the US and in India make the book worth reading.

One Fine Day is officially coming out next week. Look for it on Amazon. It’s a good book, a guidebook, really, on how one can prepare for and embrace their new normal, whatever it is might be, with positivity, grace and gratitude.

I hope you’ll read it. It’s well-deserving of a wide audience.   

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When I was a tiny kid, an infusion was a benign beverage, chamomile or peach tea, that my great aunt Tatie—the one who slept with her hat on–drank in the early afternoon as she nibbled on sugar cookies and told tales of colonial Africa.

Now an infusion is a cocktail of unpronounceable drugs administered via an IV to bolster my immune system against cancer. Times have changed.

Today was my third immunotherapy session; I’m halfway through the process. I’m in the medical version of a Barcalounger. In the station next to mine, an elderly man moans rhythmically while across the aisle, a woman works her cross-word puzzle.

When the drug—Pembrolizumab—hits my system, I get a rush of heat, like walking into a sauna. I close my eyes and the warmth ebbs. The side-effects are entirely endurable—fatigue, some nausea, itching. The nurse, a small, thin Asian woman, chirps as she works, a model of efficiency. I am amazed by the amount of stuff she discards: five pairs of latex gloves, some 20 feet of IV tubing, two sets of needles, a half-empty bag of saline, and various bits and pieces whose uses are mystery.

The moaning man is now talking on the phone in Arabic. His phone is on speaker and faraway voices take turns asking questions. There are old voices and young ones and a crying baby is brought to the phone so we can all hear it wail. The man says inshallah a number of times. After a while, he hangs up and begins moaning again and I inshallah that his whimpering stop. God hears me and it does.

An hour later, I am talking with the oncologist who tells me most of my chemistry is normal, save my calcium, which is borderline. Next week, I am scheduled for a cystoscopy, which will thread a small camera up my urethra and into my bladder to see if the cancer there is receding or progressing. Immunotherapy offers a 30 to 40 percent chance of improvement in my condition. I can’t do the standard chemo anymore because my body has become intolerant to the chemicals used.  

I walk back through the infusion center. The old man’s eyes are closed and he is moaning again. I say, “Salamo Alaykum,” one of two expressions I know in Arabic. His eyes open, he smiles and nod.

I feel better about having inshallah-ed him earlier. 

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Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death, Art Buchwald’s column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. Art is no longer with us and the Post no longer carries it,  so here it is.

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant .

Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims ( Pelerins ) who fled from l’Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde ) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts’ content.

They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (or Fleur de Mai ) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pelerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them. The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (mais). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pelerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pelerins’ crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more mais was raised by the Pelerins than Pelerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration.

It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant :

“Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez tres vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth ( la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning.

“I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui etes pain comme un etudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden.”

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable a etre emballe), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l’etonnement et la tristesse).

At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: “If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?” (Ou est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas aupres de moi pour tenter sa chance ?)

Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn’t have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, Jean?” (Chacun a son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do.

No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fete and no matter how well fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

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