I Shouldn’t Be Posting This

A couple of days ago, I started writing something I know will be offensive to many. I no longer care. It will serve the narrative of what I am working on, and good writing should be offensive at times, if only because it may prompt some to think a little harder about the word offensive and the very concept of being offended. Me, I’m getting increasingly offended by people taking offense.
Thirty-five years ago, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, was portrayed wearing either blackface or a KKK robe and hood (we’re not sure but are certain it is one of the two) in his medical school yearbook.
This was a stupendously idiotic thing to do, whether it reflected a truly racist nature or not. Personally, I hope he was in blackface, as I consider this a lot less offensive than wearing a KKK outfit. To the best of my knowledge, blackface was an entertainment device. The KKK killed people.
The calls for his resignation from office are ringing loud. At issue here is not the governor’s efficacy as a servant of the people, but rather the behavior of a young (and obviously not very bright) male who three-and-a-half decades ago did something moronic. The question is whether his present worth is negated by his past behavior. He did not commit a crime, unless bad taste is one, (and personally, I think it often should be), and neither—to the best of my knowledge—has his back-then costume become a present-day sartorial choice.
Yesterday, a man wearing a Confederate flag hoodie was spotted at American University. This minuscule non-event actually made the paper. The university spokesperson said, “We recognize that the Confederate flag feels threatening to members of our community.” It’s not known if the wearer was or was not a student at AU. I’m thinking that people threatened by a piece of cloth should get a life.
On a more personal and far less important level, a French word I used in a chapter of an upcoming book raised the concern of a person or two at a recent writers’ meeting. The word was nigaud, an old-fashioned expression meaning dummy. Nigaud has nothing to do with the other, highly offensive n-word. The two nouns are not of the same language, derivation, or meaning. In fact, in French, nigaud could be considered a term of endearment used when someone cared-for does something silly.
What I am curious about is this: Should poor past behavior, particularly if it is not repeated, be used to judge and sentence individuals? In law, there are statutes of limitation; in behavior, there seems not to be.
Here’s what I think. The President of this lovely nation is a boor, far worse than a nigaud, a racist, an anti-Semite, a bully, a male chauvinist, a sexual abuser and misogynist whose very existence threatens the peace of the world. We feel guilty for having elected him, so now we have to demonstrate that though we can’t do a damned thing about POTUS’s actions, we can take to task others whose behaviors are faintly similar. This makes us feel good, as if we are doing something constructive and can post our politically correct reactions on Facebook. Yay for us, but let’s face it, this is total BS. Really.
Ah, going back to Paragraph One of my diatribe.
When I was a kid, I attended a French lycée that by today’s standards would seem quite contemporary. Everyone spoke French and we had various nationalities and races. There were Parisian kids, African kids, Vietnamese kids, Middle-Eastern kids and kids from Canada and Suriname.
Into this mix one day arrived 16-year-old Cameroonian twins who told us, proudly, that they were cannibals. This was complete nonsense, and we all knew it, but still, it was scary and made some people uncomfortable. I was neither frightened nor philosophically bothered, but I was fascinated. I got to know the two boys and in time discovered that one, they liked to cause a stir, and two, their anthropophagic claims really upset their parents, which was largely the intent. The boys left the school after a year when their diplomat father became a professor at the University of Yaoundé. I have no idea what became of them or if they stuck to their cannibalistic story.
I’m writing about the Cameroonian twins because I don’t believe in revisionism, particularly of my own history. Plus, I think it’s actually a pretty funny tale, and as Bette Midler once famously said, “F*ck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”
Oh, wait. That’s an offensive thing to say…

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Sputter Sputter

I haven’t written a blog in several months, so this will be a bit disjointed.

I feel as if there’s nothing left to say from the social and political standpoint. It’s all been shouted and whispered by people more gifted than I am, and with better sources of information. Plus, to be honest, I read the news and I gag, then I sputter. It’s simple—I don’t understand what has happened and what continues to occur in this amazing and glorious country. It’s beyond my comprehension. We, as a nation, are speeding backwards, undoing the good that took decades to achieve, and we seem to be doing so with a degree of indifference I find horrifying.

We’ve lost our conscience.

The Japanese are set to restart whaling. They largely stopped the slaughter because of pressures applied by US administrations. When the whalers announced their intentions to resume the killings of a peaceful and sentient species already in decline, not a peep was heard from the US government.

When Russian ships in the Black Sea near Crimea kidnapped dozens of Ukrainian sailors in violation of maritime agreements, presidential reactions were laughable. “We don’t like what’s happening there,” said Trump.

When the CIA and other intelligence agencies demonstrated beyond doubt that the Saudis had assassinated and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump’s reaction was, “Maybe they did, and maybe they didn’t.”

The problem with stupidity and ineffectual actions is that they challenge description and writing. Once you’ve established someone is a liar, a cheat, a dummy, a bully, and an intellectually and morally challenged individual with few, if any, redeeming qualities, what is left to say? Do we need an unending list of examples to establish the obvious? According to the January 8 Washington Post, Trump suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect, where “incompetent people think they know more than they really do, and they tend to be more boastful about it.” We, Americans and their elected officials, are okay with incompetence winning.

The government furloughs are taking their toll, and talk of the shutdown dominates the news. But wait—this isn’t a shutdown! What it has become—what it has always been, really—is a blackmail operation against those Americans Trump sees as ineffectual and detests the most—the government workers whom he accuses of being closet Democrats. All this to erect a wall that few want and even fewer believe might work. But it will protect the country from immigrants.

There are interesting sidebars here. Terrified of losing his diminishing voters base, Trump has told farmers he will allow migrant workers in the country to come in for the harvests. Afraid of the ramifications of thousands not getting their tax refunds, the IRS will be allowed to issue refunds. Look in the near future for a special arrangement allowing air traffic controllers to be paid for their work. Hopefully, this will occur before a major airplane crash does.

I found it terrifying, comical, and entirely believable that the FBI investigated Trump as a possible Russian agent, and I immediately recalled Richard Condon’s 1962 novel, The Manchurian Candidate. The novel is worth rereading.

I fully believe in the president’s amorality, in his willingness to sacrifice anything and anyone to get what he wants, though the latter is nebulous. What motivates normal people—greed—is uppermost in his mind, I’m sure, but the other stuff—family, friends, the welfare of others, the selflessness necessary to societal well-being, the desire to leave something positive, all these things are lacking. Pair these dysfunctions with a constitution never written to handle the partial shutdown of the system by one man, and you have a lethal, if somewhat unreal situation.

I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many countries, and only in the most dismal situations do governments of even the saddest nation allow a leader to create the havoc we are facing.

And so I sputter. Writing these few disgruntled lines makes me feel I’m flogging the proverbial dead horse… A friend suggested I stick to what I do best—people portraits and fiction. That sounds good.

Next week I’ll write about Larry and Archie, both 82 years old and new friends with stories to tell. They agree with me. These are strange, disquieting times.



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A Not-So-Original Idea

In a couple of hours I’ll be off to Ukraine, a place I have grown to enjoy a lot. I like this country because, among other things, people walk the parks at two in the morning without fear of being assaulted or robbed. This includes lone women with or without dogs, large or small. They are not hassled, hit upon, or otherwise bothered.

The first time I witnessed this, I was amazed. I live in a reputedly safe neighborhood in a Washington, DC, suburb, and I’m a pretty big guy, but I wouldn’t walk by myself anywhere in the area at night.

Ukraine, I might mention, has extremely restrictive gun laws. Ah, what do I hear, the agonized moans and groans of Second Amendment fans? Ukraine is a socialist country, the gun-rights folks say, and it would be better off with an armed citizenry.

Oh, what crap. Really. Ukraine is a lot like the US in the mid-50s, which is to say largely devoid of street crime and paranoia.

Here’s a not-so-original idea to settle the gun issue. I say not-so-original because certainly people must have thought of it, it’s so simple.

Let’s treat guns like automobiles.

Cars operate under certain restrictions.

  • You need instructions before you can drive one.
  • There is a minimum age to operate a car.
  • To get a driver’s license, you must pass a written and a driver’s test.
  • You must requalify for a license every decade or so.
  • You need insurance in case you harm someone with your car.
  • Your car must be registered.
  • Your car must be inspected.
  • You pay taxes on your car.
  • If you drive your car while drunk, you get punished.
  • If you steal a car, you get more than a slap on the wrist.
  • If you use your car to commit a crime, it gets taken away.

There are more rules and regulation, but you get the gist.

A responsible gun owner, like a responsible car owner, would not see this as a threat. Nobody wants to take your car away, and very few people really want to completely strip law-abiding citizens of their weapons. What we need is to know who has what, so if a crime is committed, the miscreant can be identified quickly. If a gun is stolen, it can be traced. If a gun is sold, it should need attending paperwork, proving that the gun is not a stolen item, and that the new buyer has insurance.

A car can be modified within reason. So can a gun. A car modified in such a way that it can no longer pass a state inspection is not allowed on the roads. A gun modified to semi- or fully automatic might be used for sport but would be illegal to carry either openly or covertly.

Oh, and one last thing—treat bullets like gasoline. Tax ammo and make it available only from licensed dealers.

See? Simple.




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In Memory of One Veteran

My great-uncle Répaud lived on the ground floor of our apartment building in Paris, across the courtyard from his ex-wife, Jacqueline, whom he still loved and visited several times a day. He shared his space with a three-legged dog, Soldat, a snappy, irascible canine that liked no one, not even his human companion.

Oncle Répaud was a veteran of the Great War. He seldom talked about it, but I learned he had been in the infantry, wounded in the First Battle of the Marne. His was a minor wound. In that, he was lucky; 250,000 French soldiers perished in that clash in six days.

After the war, he marched proudly along with his surviving companions in the Bastille Day celebrations. Again, he was lucky. Alongside him were thousands of gueules cassées, veterans whose faces had been horribly disfigured by shrapnel, gas attacks, fire and frost.

Like many men, Oncle Répaud increased in girth as he aged. When his wartime uniform grew too tight, his ex-wife Jacqueline surreptitiously gave it to my mother, a seamstress, who retailored it. You could see where the seams had been let out; Oncle Répaud did not care. He still had the boots he had worn in the battle, and he insisted on wearing them though they hurt his feet. The local cobbler had resoled them free of charge, and Répaud shined them with beeswax once a month.

When my family left Paris for America, Oncle Répaud was ailing. The three-legged Soldat had died six months before, and though the old veteran got a new dog, he remained inconsolable. He passed away soon thereafter, shortly followed by his ex-wife. Both are in the family crypt in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

I never got to thank my great-uncle for his service.

Merci mille, fois, Oncle Répaud, je n’oublierai pas tout ce que tu as fait pour nous. Thierry



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Democracy’s Failure

Here’s the funny thing about democracy. It doesn’t work; we know it doesn’t work; we pretend that it does work, and believe it’s the best system around—which, sadly, in our times may be true.
The notion that people are responsible enough to govern themselves is a familiar truism we rely upon. We like to think most humans, given the opportunity to do good, will do so. Deep down, we know this is the furthest thing from the truth. Experience has shown us we are vindictive, covetous, materialistic and selfish. We like violence, control and dominance over others, so we create a skein of laws meant to guide us towards civilized behavior. We are told to do the proper thing and are threatened with punishment if we do not. But laws are imperfect; we hope for the best and, invariably, are disappointed.
Is this a harsh judgement? Look around at the society we’ve created. Greed is our prime moving force. To further institutionalize this shortcoming, we have created credit, a system whereby acquisitions can be had without work. Again, we pretend that credit is a great egalitarian movement, when deep down we know it is the exact opposite. Credit—the democratization of money—allows us to pay three times what we should for a given item, a car, a truck, or a semi-automatic weapon, let’s say. To this we add a vacation at Disneyland, an extra-large television set and, and the weekly beer and grocery bill. We pay for all this in small, interest-driven increments. We no longer bother to save money since we can purchase almost everything with no cash down. The banks and credit card companies get rich by charging usurious fees, and we get near-instant gratification.
Lately, a second motivation is a mixture of anger and fear, both encouraged and promoted by the Trump administration. In light of this semi-official government policy, the democratization of guns have made the nation a bloodbath, with mass murders so common they don’t make the front page anymore. We are told guns don’t kill people, and do little or nothing to counter this absurd statement. Once again, given a plethora of choices, we invariably make the wrong one.
Perhaps the strangest manifestation of democracy’s failure is our insistence that we be ruled by a document—the US Constitution—that is woefully inadequate by today standards. I very much doubt the Founding Fathers envisaged the government as it is now, led by a rich and ignorant buffoon surrounded by a like-minded coterie. Could the founders foresee the destruction of the environment to further industrial interests? Agribusiness and big pharm? A nation of immigrants forgetting their roots?
Our present system allows our leaders to lie, deceive, cheat and steal with impunity. We don’t really seem to care much. Democracy, it seems, has become the bosom buddy of apathy.

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Natural Born Killer

I’ve never been a fan of hunting. I have friends who hunt and have listened to their arguments that their pastime is a sporting one that serves to better the environment. This may be true in cases, or it may simply be a good excuse for killing things.

Yesterday’s Post carried a small item that truly turned my stomach, and for once it wasn’t about Trump. An American hunter posed for photos alongside a family of baboons he had killed while in Africa. He emailed the photos to 100 friends. The man, Blake Fischer, during his time in Namibia killed some 14 animals including a giraffe, an impala, a leopard, a sable antelope, a kudu, a warthog, an eland, and an oryx. Did I mention this brave fellow is a top wildlife official in Idaho? I should say was a top official—he resigned, arguing that killing these largely harmless beasts was neither illegal nor immoral, but that posting the photos might have been in bad taste. He admitted to making “some poor judgments that resulted in sharing photos of a hunt in which I did not display an appropriate level of sportsmanship and respect for the animals I harvested.”

The last word—harvested—is truly repulsive. It makes hunting sound like a harmless pastime, like harvesting radishes, or blueberries. It has become the accepted way of saying killed when one does not wish to be associated with that evil word. .

I truly did wonder what misguided drive would cause someone to shoot, say, a giraffe. Are you going to roast it? Skin it and make a winter coat? Are you going to cut its head off and mount in the TV room? Does it make you more of a man? Will it enlarge or lengthen your penis? Really! I want to know!

I’ve always felt that if you need to kill other living things as a sport, you should level the playing field. Do it à la Rambo. Sharpen a stick with an obsidian knife, track your prey and attack it. Give it a chance to gore you or bite you or trample you. That would be somewhat fair. Sitting in a tree stand with a high-powered rifle or a compound bow proves nothing save that you have time on your hands and a hot desire to play god and take a life.

Now, I admit to a level of hypocrisy. I eat meat and wear leather. I am willing to let someone else do the dirty work of killing, plucking, skinning, packaging and selling my protein. I believe humans are carnivorous, which explains our long, sharp canine teeth. I think subsistence hunting is probably okay, and many years ago I knew an impoverished family in Tennessee that regularly stocked its larder with hunted meat. To the best or my knowledge, though, they never killed a giraffe. If they had, though, they’d have eaten it.



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The Erosion of Manners

A couple of days ago, I watched a traffic light change from red to green and, within a nanosecond, heard the insistent honking of an impatient driver. The car ahead of his had not leapt forward quickly enough.
Said car, instead of reacting to the horn, stopped dead. A very big man who had more muscle than fat came out of the driver’s side, walked to the offending car, and smashed his very big fist into the car’s hood, leaving a sizeable dent. Then he returned to his car and drove away.
I couldn’t see the face of the dented car’s driver, but his vehicle failed to move and the light turned red. More honking followed.
Part of me thought the large-fisted man had done exactly what I have wanted to do a hundred times given the same situation. Few things are more annoying than the cretin behind you who hits his horn the moment the light changes. I have, on two occasions a few years ago, deliberately stalled my car, popped open the hood, glanced at the engine, then leapt back into the driver’s seat and sped away just as the light went from yellow to red. This is the single-person version of the Chinese fire drill of our youth.
The recent incident made me think about anger, and that there seems to be a lot more of it now than even a few years ago. We are becoming an increasingly irritated society. Studies have shown we’ve grown more impatient, perhaps as a result of faster-than-ever communications that have, in turn, bred a need for faster and often ill-advised responses.
I believe there’s another problem as well. Our freedom of almost everything has slowly been eroded and every day brings the removal of yet another sliver of autonomy.
Whether it is driving from Point A to Point B in a gnarl of traffic or going cross country, we are hemmed in by rules and regulations that often seem ridiculous. Why wait two minutes at an empty crossroads for a light to turn green? Why drive a car at fifty miles an hour when it is easily capable of twice that speed? Why linger in the left go-faster lane when a laggard is blocking it and driving slowly?
These, of course, only apply to driving, and I’m sure contribute to road rage, but anger and a basic lack of propriety appear endemic nowadays. I see it in the faces of people waiting in line for a cashier, a teller, or a waiter. We are giving others less and less time to respond to our needs. Waiting has become an insult rather than a modern necessity.
At a quite expensive restaurant recently, I watched an unhappy waiter trying to talk a patron into a more expensive meal. At a computer store, a salesperson harangued an older customer into buying a replacement policy for a just-purchased computer. At a Starbucks, I listened to two young women openly-and loudly—criticize the work of the sole barista behind the bar. All this-including the car-punching—occurred within a week.
What I find particularly disconcerting is that I am among the worst of offenders. From the confines of my leased rice-burner, I holler at people to move, to turn, to get the lead out! I have, however, the good sense to flash my one-hand gestures below the dash, and keep the windows rolled up. I smile at the elderly lady painstakingly counting nickels, dimes and pennies at the checkout. And when the car bearing New Mexico plates turns left in front of me, I keep my honking to a civilized three-seconds. Like Teddy Roosevelt, I believe politeness is a sign of dignity, not subservience.


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