Me and Jacques and the Desk

When I moved, the old and often-painted wood desk I’d owned and worked on since the mid-80s fell apart. It had never been designed for anything heavier than a pen-wielding hand on a piece of paper, and when the moving people lifted it, the legs fell off and the bottom of the main drawer disintegrated. It was a sad sight.

For the first three weeks in The New Place, my desk was a folding table that, days earlier, had hosted various yard-sale goods and stood outside in the rain, warping the top surface.

desk 1 - CopyI needed a new area to work on. I searched online, went through the IKEA catalog, and finally settled on a glass and metal corner desk from Jacques Penney, JC Penney to you Americans. It was on sale at half price, always an important factor, and when I measured the space available, it looked as if it would exactly fit. I bought it.

It arrived a week later in a battered sixty-pound cardboard box that, when opened, released a hurricane of Styrofoam bits that quickly nested in my sparse carpeting.

There is no vacuum cleaner capable of sucking up Styrofoam bits. desk 2

There were (I counted) 114 separate parts, not counting hex screws of assorted lengths, wooden dowels, very tiny wood screws, clasps, staply things, and that nemesis of all do-it-yourselfer, the cam-loc. There were 28 cam locs. Twenty-eight cam locs.

Anyone building this desk should do so with an intimate partner. The positions you will find yourself in border on the lewd and indescribable. At one point, I found myself on my back beneath three metal shelves shaped like guillotine blades. My left hand was holding two components of the desk together with a vise grip. My right hand attempted to use the provided hex wrench to drive a bolt through a two-small aperture, and my right leg was hooked around the desk’s wobbly armature to hold it steady. It was very exciting.

The desk came together slowly over two days. I memorized the pictogram instructions, double-checked every directive (I was a carpenter for a couple of summers. I learned to measure twice, cut once.) For an hour or so I was thwarted by a piece that claimed to exist but did not. I finally figured out it had not been packed with its brethren, but was not, in the end, necessary. At two in the morning of the second day, I cursed loudly in both French and English when I realized I had spent several hours assembling components incorrectly. The illustration I had relied upon was a mirror image of what it was supposed to be.

I whispered endearments to non-aligning bolt-holes, manhandled hinges and threatened cam locs. And then it was done.

It’s a handsome piece of modern furniture that bears traces of my blood. I spent an hour tightening everything with the provided tool that, I believe, channeled Uri Geller. It bent itself into uselessness after encountering the second hex bolt, forcing a quick trip to Home Depot.

When the desk was fully assembled and not lopsided, I spent 90 minutes vacuuming the unvacuumable Styrofoam bits. I unpeeled the dozen safety stickers telling me not to drop any sharp parts of the desk on any parts of my anatomy. I leveled everything. I reassembled my computer system. Amazingly, everything appears to work.

Today, I am a proud man. Me and Jacques, we built something good.

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Ovaries, Writing, and BCG

A couple of years ago, a man I knew slightly and who’d heard of my bouts with cancer asked me, “What kind of cancer would you prefer to have?”

I answered, “Ovarian.”

It took a couple of seconds for it to register. I’m male. I don’t have ovaries.

He gave me a sickly grin, shrugged and walked away. It’s one of my favorite cancer stories.

I recently picked up Our Short History, a new novel by Laura Grodstein. The book deals with a woman’s reaction to learning she has ovarian cancer which will soon kill her. I seldom look at cancer books. There are too many of them, and I remember thinking that in the near future, we’ll have a cancer book festival on the Mall.

At any rate, I read the glowing reviews and was taken by the honesty of Grodstein’s prose. I once spent a few months putting together about 200 pages of a novel I thought I would title The Cancer Club, just so there would be no confusion about the subject matter.

Friends in a writers’ group who critiqued chapters of the draft universally hated it, and told me in no uncertain terms this was a distasteful subject they really wouldn’t want to read about. Even the title displeased them. One person, whose mother had succumbed to lung cancer, was deeply offended by a character in the book who insisted on smoking even after a diagnosis.

The book wasn’t bad, it really wasn’t.

Early on I had attended a few cancer support meetings near the National Institute of Health. I have a long history with support groups. I decided these particular get-togethers weren’t for me, but there were some interesting folks there, including an elderly Vietnamese woman who indeed did have lung cancer, did continue to smoke, and did anger the rest of the group. Like many Saigonese raised in the 60s, she spoke French, and she was delighted to meet someone to whom she could talk. She had been in the group longer than anyone else, including the counselor/moderator, and derived a strange joy from being old, cancerous, and bucking the odds daily with unfiltered Camels.

All these meandering thoughts came about because in a couple of days I’ll begin another course of chemo, this one preventative. The tests done last week showed no apparent new cancerous growths, but the doctor thought a spot or two looked suspicious. When he suggested another round of BCG, I winced. He shrugged and said, “We shouldn’t take a chance.” I told him the chemo really made me ill for a day or three afterwards and this time he smiled. “That’s because it’s working.”

My late sister, Florence, who died of this exact same disease a decade-and-a-half ago, showed a lot more class than I’ve managed to manifest. She never complained. I do. Though a published and recognized writer in France, she never wrote about her illness. I do. It helps me somehow, to openly say that I am scared and weary.

A few months ago I lost a great and good friend, Jim, to bladder cancer. He also bore his troubles with stoicism. I envy both his and Florence’s courage.

I wish I could say I am grateful the disease has been more or less controlled for several years now, but I’m not that grateful. I’m sad and pissed off and resentful. But then maybe, after all is said and done, that’s okay.

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Jean Octave Sagnier

I first wrote this 15 years ago.

My father, Jean Octave Sagnier, died on September 8, 22 years ago. He was a good wise man who without being secretive rarely talked about himself. He was an architectural student working as the traveling secretary of a wealthy Brit when the war broke out and he walked from the south of France to St. Malo in Brittany. There he stole a smJean Octave Sagnierall boat that he sailed and rowed to England so he could join the upstart general Charles de Gaulle and become a Free French. De Gaulle assigned him a mobile radio station which roamed occupied France and relayed Allied news to the maquis and other underground forces. He told me he never fired a shot during the war. I’m not sure I believed him. He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, for deeds that I do not know. He met my mother in the summer of 1945 in Marseilles. She was Free French too and they conceived me that very night in the back of a US Army truck.

He was estranged from his family. I would be an adult before I was told I had uncles and an alcoholic aunt who died of the disease in the UK. He lost a younger brother during the V2 bombings of London. He never, as I recall, mentioned his own mother. I have an aged family photo taken in the 20s, three boys and a girl posing with a man and a woman standing at attention. A much later shot shows a painfully thin young man wearing boxing gloves and looking not at all ready to fight.

It was snowing when I was born in the American Hospital in Paris, and the barely liberated capital was devoid of food. Regardless, my mother craved a ham omelet. My father, using the military issue Colt he had never fired, forced the hospital cook at gunpoint to go into his own larder for eggs, butter and meat. He fixed the omelet himself, ate it, made another and served it to her. She complained it wasn’t hot enough, and that would be the tenet of their relationship. lh-medaille

They were married 46 years, nursing each other through poverty, joblessness, an eventual move to the US, and cancer. He died five years after my mother. I carried his ashes in an oak box from the US to France so I could scatter them next to my mother’s. When I went through customs the douaniers were very curious as to what I was cradling in my arms. One soldier took the box, shook it. It rattled as if there were pebbles inside. When I told him he was manhandling my father’s remains, he turned sheet-white, handed the box to his superior officer who in turn gave it back to me. I said these were the ashes of a Free French and the man saluted.

He adored my mother and taught me the importance of love, and he tried to instill in me a sense of humility. I am not sure he succeeded.

He was not a natural father. The growing up and education of a son baffled him. He was unlikely to give advice, did so only at my mother’s prompting. He taught by doing, showing, and patience. We never played catch, never went fishing together, and did not bond in the accepted way. There were few family vacations, and a limited number of father/son experiences shared.

He was a good and quiet man who witnessed and took part in moments of history that are now almost forgotten. He told two jokes, neither particularly well, but each retelling brought tears to his eyes.

He died a bad and shocking death. I hope he didn’t suffer and I think of him every single day.


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I once wrote an article about elevators for a now defunct magazine. The story was, of course, titled Shaft, and I visited some of the more ornate elevators in the city. I spoke to a few surviving elevator operators, those men—and a few women—who spent their lives on their feet as they pressed floor buttons and opened and closed doors.

In America, I noted, the elevators are almost always large, designed to hold a dozen or more riders. In France, where I was raised, elevators were often little more than refrigerator-size metal boxes hung from steel cables.

In my family’s apartment building on the Rue de la Terrasse, the elevator did not work for more than a decade. It sat in the lobby, its door open and inviting, and guests visiting tenants were known to stand in the elevator pushing buttons for several minutes as they waited for something to happen. Nothing did, and after a while, the watching concierge would rise from the chair she occupied in the lobby and suggest the putative riders take the stairs.

The concierge told all the tenants that she had called the repair people several times over the decade, but no one ever had ever shown up.

Then, one day, a crew of workers arrived and dismantled the elevator car. They spent an afternoon in the building’s bowels and, for a miraculous month, the elevator worked. It worked so well, in fact, that people stopped using the stairs and rode for the sheer joy of it. If I did my homework on time, and got the right answers on the math tests, I was rewarded with an elevator ride.

My mother taught me elevator etiquette. When someone was on the same floor as I, waiting for the elevator to arrive, I was told to always say, “Bonjour monsieur,” or “Bonjour madame,” as the case may be. Then, I was to let them enter the elevator first and volunteer to push the floor button. I was shown how to slide the grilled door open, let the people out, and wish them a good day. Since a number of uncles and aunts lived in the building, I often dealt with immediate family, but still, my mother said, etiquette mattered.

I am thinking of this today because the two elevators in my building are automated, and require a security key before they’ll go up or down. Nobody talks while on these elevators. There is no eye contact. Riders restrain their dogs, and there is one lady with a pet rabbit who clutches it to her chest whenever she rides. We enter, turn, and face the door and stare into the few inches space in front of us. In the morning and evening, we stop at every floor and perform the elevator dance, as people move to the left or right to allow riders to get on or off. The etiquette seems to indicate that speaking to another rider is neither expected nor welcome. We should instead focus on our phones and use the time between floors writing text messages.

Yesterday, a friend and I had to take a large piece of disassembled furniture on the elevator and we earned a scowl from two young women who resented the amount of elevator space we were occupying.

Today, the morning stillness was shattered by an alarm. One of the elevators passengers had pushed the emergency stop button and the elevator had halted between floors. There was a flurry of activity, and when order was restored less than a minute later, two passengers left the car and one was in tears.

Here’s what I mostly remember about the article I wrote some years ago. There are more redundant fail-safes in an elevator than in almost any other means of transport. Elevators are far safer than cars. An average of 26 people die in elevators each year in the U.S. There are 26 car deaths every five hours.

Though destinations are limited, elevators are by far the best and the safest way to travel.

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Being the Bearer of Bad News

Today, because the stars did not align properly and circumstances demanded it, I found myself telling a close friend that her mom had died in California the night before.
It was not a sudden death. Her mom had been on a respirator for ten days, and when there was no hope of survival, she was taken off life support. She lingered seventy-two hours and went peacefully.
I was on my way to meet my friend when I received a text message with the news from her room-mate, who had been alerted by my friend’s son, who in turn had learned of the death from his grandfather. None of them had spoken directly with my friend, whose phone service had been erratic for a few days. They had left voice messages that had not gone through, and texts that had vanished in the ozone. I would be the first to see her. I pulled my car into a side street and parked.
I’d never done anything like this before. I was scheduled to take her to lunch, then to visit a house where she might become a renter. It would be impossible to simply pretend nothing had happened.
I went to pick her up. She saw me and smiled. I closed the space between us quickly, hugged her and said, “I’m so sorry, love. Your mom died last night.”
She pulled back with an incredulous look and then her face fell apart. I‘m pretty sure mine did too. We both sat on a nearby bench wiping at our eyes but not saying much. I thought of clichés best left unspoken.
I knew her mom, an amiable woman who suffered from fibromyalgia and had been house bound for several years. There were other health issues as well, and I think she simply gave up. Life was painful, unbearably so, with no hope of getting better. Her husband knew this. My friend knew this. She and her mom had spoken a couple of weeks earlier, just days before life support began.
We didn’t visit the rental house. I drove her home where we drank diet Cokes and told a few tales about her mom. She called her dad and they spoke a long time. She said he seemed all right; his wife’s suffering was over, and that was good. I suggested my friend come to my place and stay there the night if she wished but she told me her son would be coming, and she wanted to be with him.
I drove home a long circuitous way trying to persuade myself that I had done the right thing by breaking the news to her. I tried to reach a few of my friends, but people were at work, or headed out of town for the long weekend. I couldn’t find anyone to talk to, so I wrote this.

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The Chair

When I was packing up my home office to move, it became obvious that the massive chair that faced my computer and monitors would not fit in the allotted space in The New Place. The chair, throne-like, was almost 40 inches wide, black and brooding. It was a presence and it was simply too big, so along with several boxes full of things I would no longer need, I took it to Unique, a warehouse of second-hand stuff, and dropped it off. This was not a snap decision. The chair had been an important part of my life for years. I spent four to eight hours in it daily, and it helped me write hundreds of thousands of words—blogs, books, plays, short stories, magazine, and newspaper articles. There was a certain melancholy to giving it up.

A few days later, I spotted the chair in a grassy patch next to a bus stop a block from the Unique store. Or at least I thought I spotted it—same chrome frame, black leatherette with a tear in one of the arms, same familiar rounded headrest. It was rush hour and I was stopped at a red light. The chair sat in isolated and regal splendor until a tall and heavy woman with shopping bags plopped into it. The light changed. I drove away.chair

Over the next couple of weeks, the chair remained next to the bus stop. The changing weather didn’t affect it. Once, I drove by and saw two children playing in it. Another time, it was on its side. The next day it had been restored to uprightedness. Still, I couldn’t be sure it was mine, and I remained mystified by how a piece of furniture from Staples had ended up serving the local community.

Today, I stopped to investigate. Yes, it is my chair. The tear on one arm that I meant to repair is larger, more pronounced. The chair is chained to a lamp-post, which I had not noticed before, and the weather has not marred it; it remains regal. It has been joined by a much smaller, white kitchen chair, and my tendency to anthropomorphize objects kicked it. Would there soon be a family of chairs at the bus stop? Perhaps a table will join the group, or a floor lamp? I am tempted to find an accompanying piece of furniture at Unique, some object I could add to the ensemble to make it more homey, but in the end, I’m going to leave well enough alone.

I hope the county does not decide the chair is an unauthorized furnishing. I hope it provides a bit of comfort to the weary. For me, the chair offered one last breath of inspiration.

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I forgot to go to chemo this morning, mostly because yesterday evening something heavy came out of the bottom of a box I was carrying and fell on my foot. By morning I was pretty sure I’d broken my big toe. It was blue, swollen, and though (or because) it didn’t hurt, Arielle persuaded me to go to a local urgent care facility. A hundred bucks later, I was told I’d fractured the toe. There is nothing to be done for that sort of injury. Back when I was doing martial arts regularly, I broke four toes over a dozen years, so it’s a familiar feeling.

But this isn’t a blog about chemo or toes.

After the doc-in-a-box, with chemo overlooked, I went to a local café for espresso and a bagel and at the table next to me where two women speaking French. They were both Moroccan and, like me, had lived in the US most of their lives. They were traveling to Paris later in the day. We all agreed that this was a typical Parisian day—rainy, on the cool side, the sort of morning you want to spend at a brasserie with a coffee and a croissant, watching people hurry by.

The women and I spoke of travel forty years ago, and travel now. We agreed that what was once a privileged pleasure and a positive experience has become drudgery; an unpleasant, time-consuming chore. Still, I envied them their trip. It’s been a few years since I was in my native city, and I could certainly go now save for a certain reticence. It’s true–you can’t go home again. Paris hasn’t been my home for more decades than I care to count. I would venture that the only thing that has remained the same is probably the weather.

Days like these make me long for a table at Shakespeare & Co. I go there every time I return to Europe, and I’ve learned to limit myself. It would be easy to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars there. I also go to my late father’s favorite restaurant near L’Opéra; to Montparnasse and Montmartre; to the Père Lachaise cemetery where years ago I scattered my parents’ ashes. I visit the Left Bank booksellers and hit a few museums. I own a sketch by a minor artist, Puvis de Chavanne, and last time I was in Paris, I discovered Puvis had been promoted to a room of his own at the Musée D’Orsay. Rain or shine, I walk a lot. In fact, aside from getting from airport to hotel, I seldom use any other form of propulsion. I eat in cheap restaurants. I occasionally pretend not to speak French. Other times, I pretend not to speak English.

I’m not sure why, but grey days in Paris are not as grey as they are elsewhere.




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