J’Accuse

On January 13, 1898, the noted French writer Émile Zola used the front page of L’Aurore, one of France’s leading newspaper, to publish an open letter to the French President. He accused the military and the government of framing Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer, of spying. Dreyfus went to jail but was eventually exonerated. Zola was prosecuted for libel. He fled to England. The Dreyfus affair became a classic example of government running amok. In France, people still talk about it.

I’m no Zola, but I want to follow his lead. I want to accuse the President of this country of sedition, libel, and possibly treason.

I want to accuse the people of this country of terrifying laziness, what the French would call j’m’en foutisme, which can loosely be translated as, I don’t give a shit.

I want to tell FB and other media users that writing, Fuck Trump once a week on their pages is aggressively and meaninglessly stupid.

I want to know why the streets are not daily thronged with protesters, as they were during Vietnam. Why our elected representatives are so cowardly that they dare not speak out? Why did the Million Woman March turn into a selfie event? Pussy hats. Pussy hats? Is this what it came down to, the ability to say pussy without snickering?

How and why do Americans tolerate the dismantling of this beautiful nation, the annihilation of rights fought for over decades and centuries?

What happened to national pride? We are the laughingstock of the world right now, not the Ugly Americans, but the Stupid Americans, walking head down and feverishly texting and instant-messaging but not really doing anything to remedy the situation.

When did we go from protecting the rights of the unpopular to speak, to doing our best to prevent them from speaking? How in the world did this happen?

We believe small victories presage a change. They do not. The replacement of a rabid Republican by a timid Democrat is meaningless when the administration packs the appellate courts with morons who will spend a lifetime altering laws, persecuting the poor and the dispossessed so they can build the wealth of the already rich.

Righting the wrongs of the older generation—Trump’s and mine—is the work of the young. It has always been thus. Where are the young? And what are they doing?

J’accuse.

 

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A Small and Secret War

The woman was dressed in too many layers of black for a spring-like winter day. Her dreadlocks were soaked from the misting rain and her possessions were stacked on the sidewalk next to a bench. Three large Target bags, two rolling suitcases, two pillowcases, a backpack and several small plastic bags from CVS; too much for one person to trundle.

She was moving them a hundred yards from the bench to the traffic light, taking three parcels at a time, then returning to the original pile and moving that.

I’d seen her often since coming to this neighborhood. Her peregrinations seemed aimless. Today she had on a facemask like those worn by people with allergies or trying not to breathe in the polluted air. It was yellowed from use.

Once, a couple of months ago, I’d offered to help carry her stuff and she turned and shrieked at me. I’d never been shrieked at before, and it was blood curling. To make matters worse, another woman, waiting at a nearby bus stop, yelled, “Leave that poor girl alone!” So I did.

A few days later she was in front of the local Dunkin Donut panhandling. I gave her a couple of bucks and asked her name. She thanked me for the money and shut down.

I am always both curious and embarrassed by homeless people. I think I should do more but never know quite what to do or say, particularly when the person is both homeless and delusional. I remember a frightening story told me by a woman friend who invited a homeless woman to her home for a shower. The girl—my friend thought she was in her late teens—bathed and changed into fresh clothes as her dirty ones were being laundered. Then she pulled a knife on her benefactor, robbed her of $100, took all her prescription drugs, and escaped. The police found her quickly, but then what? My friend refused to press charges until the police told her this was one way the homeless woman might get help.

Ronald Reagan thought sheltering and taking care of such people was not worth the money. He ordered the expulsion nationwide of tens of thousands of ill indigents from state hospitals and public living quarters with the promise that these unfortunates could care for themselves, handle their own redemption, and take their prescribed drugs on time and responsibly. He was wrong on all counts.

There’s a secret war being waged against the homeless and the homeless mentally ill. They are unwanted by the general population, and routinely hassled by the police. I saw two instances of this over the holidays. In one case, eight fully armed and armored Fairfax cops surrounded an inebriated homeless man in a mall and roughly dragged him off to a police cruiser. In another, just down the street, a police car searched a handcuffed homeless man’s belongings, then released him and drove off with his knapsack on the roof of the cop car. Tent towns, notably in DC near the Watergate complex, are torn down and vacant land fenced off. Across the country, homeless people are being shot, stabbed, tortured and burned alive.

This gives a new meaning to,

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Emma Lazarus is ill at rest these days.

 

 

 

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Year-end Apologies

To everyone of all genders, preferences, age, faiths, colorations, educational backgrounds, language capabilities, geographical origins, and persuasion everywhere, I apologize for anything I may have done at any time that offended you, caused unhappiness, bitterness, resentments, pain, discomfort or ill thoughts. I did not know any better.

Wait. That’s somehow a little too generic. Let me start over and be more specific.

To the entire world, on behalf of the citizens of the United States, I apologize for the election of Donald Trump. I mean that from the heart. Also, I apologize for the very existence of the electoral college and both the Republican and Democratic parties. I apologize that a courageous and illustrious nation such as ours has somehow elected cowards to represent its citizens.

I apologize for the fact that we are not in the streets daily to protest the above. It is my understanding that we are too busy whining about the state of our lives on Facebook to actually do much about the frightening mess we’ve gotten into. Plus, let’s face it, it’s cold outside, Ru Paul reruns are on, the pizza’s getting cold, and we all attended the Million Women March, right?

I apologize for describing myself as overweight. I now understand that doing this may have hurt people even more overweight than I am. I am sorry.

I apologize for being Caucasian, and for all the unearned benefits this implies. I was not born on third base, and I did not hit a triple.

I apologize to all women who have ever received dick pics. Someone—it may have been Annie Leibovitz—said that to her knowledge, no dick pic ever led to a meaningful relationship. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll reveal here for the first time that I once received a tit pic from a woman I barely knew. A year or so later, I received a series of clit pics from another woman. The latter photos were anatomically correct but lacked artistic merit though they did remind me of an episode of Sex in the City.  None of the photos from either woman led to either meaningful or meaningless relationships.

I apologize to all women whom I may have looked at in any manner they might  deem offensive. I also apologize to all women who feel it is necessary to enhance, support, reveal, restrain, shore up, compress, tan, tint or display any part of their anatomies in the misbegotten belief that this will make them more noticeable to males. This is unnecessary. We know you’re around. We think of you all the time. We admire and love you, and most of us know that most of you are way smarter than we are. You do not need any additional artifice to get our attention.

I apologize to everyone who purchased a fidget spinner in the hope it would relieve anxiety.

I apologize to all the people—mostly men—who bought expensive and very noisy American muscle cars only to learn that the cacophonous exhaust noise they paid big money for does not come from their powerful engines. It’s a computer chip, guys. Sorry.

I apologize for boring electronic media readers with my health issues and will try to do better in the future.

I apologize for thinking the person who told me I got cancer because I didn’t pray enough was an asshole. Actually, I take that back. You know who you are and you’re an asshole.

I apologize to the Facebook person who called me “tumor boy.” See above.

I apologize for the electronic media that has made us increasingly isolated, and for the fact that we are inventing more and more ways to communicate less and less. I apologize that largely because of the electronic media, we are raising and fostering not one, but two disaffected generations that are steeped in depression and anger and have no concept of interpersonal relationships and how they work.

I apologize for the fact that we have all lost our sense of humor and replaced it with political correctness, or political incorrectness, as the case may be. I am also sorry for any cultural appropriation or insensitiveness I may have been guilty of in my writing. Conversely, I apologize for the very existence of sensitivity readers.

I apologize to all clowns. You still scare the hell out of me. And, you’re not funny.

I apologize to all the people who made promises and did not keep them. I was overly dependent on you, my bad.

I apologize for the hypocrisy of everyone, everywhere.

I apologize for thinking that 2017 was a pretty crappy year, with a couple of exceptions, and I am grateful for the exceptions.

Joyeuse année, tout le monde.

 

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Close Encounter of a Good Kind

I had breakfast with Mary Jones today. I wrote about her a month ago when she invited me to share her table at a chicken restaurant, and we ended up having a good conversation over many French fries. Today she showed up at the coffee-and-bagel place with her backpack and bandolier, ski hat, two sweatshirts, an anorak, and bright yellow galoshes.

“It’s the French gentleman,” she said brightly, “named after a chateau. Or maybe a wine, I forget. One of the two.”

She sat down across from me, arranged her belongings in a neat pile and looked at me with the smallest of grins. “I was going to have a small cup of hot chocolate…”

We went up to the counter. She ordered two large hot chocolates, an everything-bagel, a cheese soufflés and an egg and croissant sandwich. Then she ordered three chocolate chip cookies to go. I paid and she thanked me. “I should run into you more often,” she smiled.

Mary is not quite homeless. She prefers to call herself ‘in transit.’ She lives in a welfare motel a couple of miles away and gets by on Social Security, a small retirement check, money from her ex-husband’s retirement, and occasional checks from her grown children. “He was in the military,” she says of her ex, “but then he dumped me.”

She pulled out a cell phone. “May I have your number? You know, in case of an emergency.”

I gave it to her and got hers in return.

The last time I saw Mary, she was wearing a badge-festooned Girl Scout sash. She’d found it in the street, she told me, and hoped that by wearing it openly, she might run into the Scout who’d lost it. I asked her if the owner had recovered it.

She speared a forkful of soufflé into her mouth and shook her head. “Nope. Well, actually I don’t know. Maybe. I returned it to the Girl Scout headquarter, downtown in DC.”

I vaguely remembered that was on Connecticut Avenue. “I took the train,” she said. “It was a nice ride. They promised to try to find the owner. They said they could maybe do it with the badges.”

She finished the first cup of hot chocolate. “So what’re you doing for Christmas?”

I told her I wasn’t sure. Most of the people I know either do not celebrate or are out of town.

“I am going to eat like there’s no tomorrow,” she said. She pulled a folded sheet of paper out of a pocket.

“These are all the local churches that have Christmas Eve and Christmas day dinners. And there’s this place in Falls Church, a sobriety club that has an all-day meal. I’ve been going there for three years.”

She buttered a piece bagel. “Should’ve gotten cream cheese.” I stood up to get her some but she waved me back to my seat.

“Anyway, what I do is hang out at that club, and at the end of the meal, they let me and some others take all the leftover food we want.”

She looked up at me. There was a bagel crumb on her upper lip. I struggled not to wipe it off with a napkin. She must have noticed and did it herself.

“You should come, if you don’t have anything else to do.”

I said I just might.

I searched my pockets, found a $50 I was going to spend on Christmas presents and gave it to her. She didn’t remonstrate, but she offered a wide smile.

She asked what I had planned for the day. I told her I was having eye surgery next week and needed some lab work, and that I would be meeting writer friends later that morning.

She smiled. “Writing. Writing is good.”

I agreed.

 

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ETs and Cancer

Many years ago I wrote a novel about first contacts. It was published by Avon and titled The IFO Report, and it sold moderately well. It got optioned for the movies but never produced, and now it’s available second-hand from Amazon for about a dime plus shipping.

When I wrote it, the field of ETI was considered the realm of crackpots. NASA had the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program which every year struggled to get financing, and then Senator William Proxmire, a man not known for his appreciation of science, gave the effort his Golf Fleece award. The initiative almost succumbed.

Times have changed.

Revolutionary advances in astronomy now allow us to estimate that there are more stars in the known universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. Numerous planets orbiting these stars are Earth-like and could support life. Those that are not like us may nevertheless have sentient beings that are other than carbon-based. All this makes the possibility that we are the only sentient beings around fairly remote.

In yesterday’s paper, a story reported the sighting of a rare object hurtling through our solar system. It’s cylindrical, dark and reddish and a quarter-mile long, according to astronomers at the University of Hawaii, and traveling at 160,000 mph. What makes the asteroid Oumuamua—Hawaiian for ‘traveler’—unusual is the fact that it does not behave like other asteroids, which “circle the sun on the same plane, like water swirling around a basin,” according to the feature story. This asteroid is barreling straight through our system. It is shaped like a giant cucumber which, according to Harvard University Astronomer Avi Loeb, “is the optimal design for a vessel meant to travel through space.”

The following day, the Washington Post reported the existence of a secret program funded by the Pentagon to study UFO sightings by military and other pilots. There have been hundreds of such incidents over the last sixty years, and though many have been explained, some remain baffling.

The initiative has been in existence since 2007. Called Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP), its findings have never been made available to the public, though its former director, Luis Elizondo, is lobbying to do just that. He released three videos just prior to leaving the program, and sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis to complain that a potential threat to national security is being ignored.

My personal belief is that we may indeed have been visited, but, if so, our very location in the known universe makes us—universe-wise—the equivalent of the Kerguelen Islands. It’s unlikely that anyone or anything is very interested in our existence. What’s meaningful here is that no one is laughing anymore when ETIs and contacts are mentioned.

Cancer

Cancer again. The latest tests show something unwanted that will need to be removed surgically within the month.

It struck me today that the cancer, like me, is trying to survive. I don’t think it’s sentient, as I am, but the fact that both of us are struggling to live is sort of interesting.

I’ve always, in my mind, visualized the cancer cells as bad guys in black hats fighting the good guys in white hats. It’s simplistic and possibly not the most mature way to explain things, but it helps.

 

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Gratitude

I’ve been asked to write a Trump piece for a Francophone magazine, and realized in the middle of the night that I would have to curry favor with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the present White House Press Secretary. Recently, Ms. Sanders told reporters at a briefing that they’d have to share something for which they were grateful (it’s coming on Thanksgiving) before she’d answer their questions.

Some buckled, others didn’t. I will.

Ms. Sanders, here’s what I’m grateful for:

  • I’m grateful that the US is a resilient country with a lot of momentum. It will survive anything large and orange.
  • I am grateful for everyone who has helped my writing—editors, other writers, writers’ groups, beta readers and critics.
  • I am grateful for the friends who have driven me to and from cancer surgeries and chemo. You know who you are, and I appreciate your tolerance for my endless bitching about health issues, and for listening to medical people offer embarrassing facts about me post-op. Thank you for not snickering too loudly.
  • I am grateful for the hordes of doctors, nurses, and nurses’ aides who have treated me with professionalism and gentleness.
  • I am grateful for the people who made promises and kept them, and said ‘always’ and meant it.
  • I am grateful for the people with whom I make music.
  • I am grateful for the families that take in orphans during the holidays and serve something other than turkey. I am particularly grateful for those that serve steak without stuffing or marshmallow-covered yams. Thank you thank you thank you.
  • I am grateful to H-Mart for selling decent oranges when everyone else is trying to palm off fruits that look like Jivaro shrunken heads.
  • I am grateful for my Korean rice-burning leased car. It always starts in the morning. I couldn’t say that about any other car I’ve ever owned.
  • I am grateful for the Peruvian Super Chicken restaurant, where they give me my money’s worth, and more, and smile as they ladle an extra serving of brown rice, free of charge and without my asking.
  • I am grateful to Marie Jones, the almost homeless lady who recently befriended me and who truly knows the meaning of gratitude.

Thank you, one and all, and Happy Thanksgiving, or as we say in French, Jour du Merci Donnant.

Sincerely, Thierry

Ms. Sanders, now can I have an exclusive interview with the big D? He isn’t exactly popular among French speakers, you know. I’m not making any promises on changing that, of course. Actually, to be honest, I don’t think anything short of a full body transplant will help him, but I’d be grateful if he could give me an hour or so of his time. I won’t ask any hard questions, like What is the capital of France. Promise.

 

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Creeps

When I was sixteen, I kissed a girl and she slapped me. There was no hesitation on her part; kiss/wham!

I was more surprised than injured. I thought the girl, Sylvie, had clearly manifested a desire to be kissed. We were on the sofa in her parents’ house; they were out; she had snuggled up close, put her head on my shoulder, and turned her face invitingly towards mine. But, as I learned immediately, kissing was not part of her agenda. I think she just wanted us to gaze meaningfully into each other’s eyes, not that there’s anything wrong with that. (I later found out her mother didn’t think me worthy of her daughter. They were apparently in agreement. Sylvie would eventually marry an ambassador and inherit a potful of money when he died, so both women were probably right.)

I was thinking of this as I buttered my morning bagel and read that some women involved in TED presentations had thought a number of TED men had acted like creeps. There were ill-mannered comments and innuendos, unwanted touching and other marks of disrespect.

I went back decades and tried to think of times I might have acted like a creep towards members of the opposite sex. I couldn’t really come up with much of anything.

My friend, the New York Times bestselling author Jane Feather, disabused me quickly of any claim to innocence. Over lunch, she peered at me and said, “Of course you’ve been a creep. All males have been creeps at one time or another, including my wonderful late husband, Jim.”

We argued about this for a little while, and debated the very subjective definition of what a creep actually is. We did not reach any conclusion, save that the meaning of the word has changed in the past few years and now appears to have sexual connotations. I stuck to my guns and told Jane I’d never been a creep, never forced myself on anyone, never touched a woman that did not want me to touch her, aforementioned kissing incident aside. She sort of smirked a little, took a sip of her wine and said, “I’ll bet you have.”

And then about a month ago, a woman I’d grown to know well told me I had harassed her and made the last two years of her life a living hell. In other words, I’d been a creep. She hasn’t spoken to me since.

I’m still ruminating over this. Her comments cut deeply and I found them unjustified. I still do. I suppose in the end, creepiness, like harassment, may be situational.; it’s in the eyes of the beholder, and can change according to time, place and mood.

The problem is that once accused of something largely indefinite—creepiness (creepdom?)—one begins to wonder. Was I a creep? Am I a creep? Really? Crap.

 

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