Monthly Archives: October 2010

Books – Great Authors Named John

John must be a good first name for an author because I have in my list of the best books I have ever read a number of books by authors with the first name John.
John Steinbeck – definitive Depression-era author
• Grapes of Wrath
• Cannery Row
• Of Mice and Men
• East of Eden
• The Red Pony
• The Pearl
• Travels with Charley
John Barth – dry wit, literary and literate, likes symbolism
• The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
• Chimera
• Sabbatical
• Giles Goat-Boy
• The Sot-Weed Factor
• Lost in the Funhouse
John Fowles – mysterious air to his stories
• The French Lieutenant’s Woman
• The Magus
• The Collector
John Irving – explores aspects of modern culture from bizarre and interesting angles, master of obvious symbolism used with profound results
• The World According to Garp
• The Hotel New Hampshire
• A Prayer for Owen Meany
• Trying to Save Piggy Sneed
• The Water Method Man
• The Widow for One Year
• The Fourth Hand
• The Son of Circus
• Cider House Rules
• Until I Find You
• Last Night in Twisted River
John leCarre – master of the Cold War spy story, has had to reinvent himself a bit since the fall of the Berlin Wall
• The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
• A Most Wanted Man
• The Mission Song
• Absolute Friends
• The Constant Gardener
• Single & Single
• The Tailor of Panama
• Our Game
• The Night Manager
• The Secret Pilgrim
• The Russia House
• A Perfect Spy
• The Little Drummer Girl
• Smiley’s People
• The Honorable Schoolboy
• Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
• The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
• A Small Town in Germany
• The Looking Glass War
• A Murder of Quality
• Call for the Dead
• Our Kind of Traitor

Chapter 27 – Summer, 1970, Cigarettes

When I have cigarettes I smoke thirty cigarettes a day. I don’t think ahead and hoard cigarettes for when I run out. When I have them, I smoke full out. When I don’t I come to a screeching halt. They you don’t want to be around me. I get sarcastic and mean, my speech clipped and angry. That’s it, I’m angry. I rarely show any anger any other time. Also I feel light-headed and shaky and nervous. I hate being without cigarettes. I don’t know what to do with myself. Time stretches; minutes seem like hours. Someone give a cigarette! My friends do try to keep me in cigarettes because they don’t really like this me as much as the anesthetized version.

I have a cigarette as soon as I wake up. Still in my nightgown, I turn on the Today Show. I light up another cigarette in the bathroom, put it out while I shower. With my wet hair wrapped in a towel I relight the cigarette and inspect my face in the mirror. I deal with any irregularities there and head downstairs to the kitchen. I don’t need to carry the ashtray. I have a new one on each level. I light a new cigarette as I put on the water for instant coffee. I drink it black, a remnant of the vending machine my first year of teaching, the black coffee being the only drinkable choice. I move over to the tiny kitchen table where there is, of course, another ashtray and eat my breakfast, usually just toast. I don’t smoke while I eat, but as soon as I am done I light another one. I put my dishes in the sink and head back upstairs, back to the bathroom with my coffee. I smoke 3 cigarettes while I dry and style my hair and another while I put on my very light makeup.

My one splurge has always been Elizabeth Arden moisturizer because my skin likes it best. It’s very pricey but I still have some left. I usually ask for it for Christmas which I still spend with Augusta and Hobart, et al. Now I have two Christmases because I have another with my friends. That’s the extent of my “toilette” for the day. I’m still in my nightgown as I head into the living room. I light my next cigarette as spend a few minutes with the Today show, just enough to hear the news of the day. I have a little dresser now in the living room so I paw through the drawers picking out the outfit of the day. Perhaps some baggy shorts and a short-sleeved blouse. I’m already wearing sandals with my nightgown. I light another cigarette before I head back to the bathroom to get dressed. There is a new Vogue in the living room waiting for me. I love Vogue, it’s not really like fashion, it’s like art. I light a new cigarette and it sits in the ashtray smoking while I turn my bed back into a couch. I spend a long time with Vogue. I don’t just look at it; I read it. I smoke three more cigarettes while I do this.

There’s no one else home right now so I have the place to myself. I need to go to the store. I need a new pack of cigarettes and we need a few groceries. Lena has left me some money. After I lock the front door, I light a cigarette before I leave the front porch. The grocery store is only a block away, a long block. I mostly hold the lit cigarette down at my side. I don’t really like strangers on the street to see me actually puffing it. I think it’s really not right to smoke on the street. When there’s no one around, I take a puff and blow the smoke out impatiently. Some people like to watch their smoke and play with it. I’ve done it. There is pleasure in it, but for me the pleasure is pretty much oral. I put the cigarette out before I go in the store. When I come out with my groceries I light up again.

Time for lunch. Repeat of breakfast. Light up, prepare lunch, eat lunch, have an after lunch ciggie. Dishes are added to the pile. If it isn’t a laundry day, which involves a trip down the street in the opposite direction from the grocery store, then it’s soap opera time. I watch two so that’s two hours, about four smokes. The telephone rings. I light up and talk to Mom. She says, “You’re smoking aren’t you?” She can hear me exhale.

The guys stop by. Lena and Linda come home. I’m still on the couch watching TV. We chat; we commune through the music, the words of it, the complexity of it, the familiarity of it. Our favorite albums right now are King Crimson and Déjà Vu (Crosby Stills, Nash, and Young). “Our House” is our very favorite song. We all sing the words either out loud or in our head, “is a very, very, very fine house.” I have five cigarettes while we do this.

Time for dinner. I make macaroni and cheese, there’s a veggie, white bread, lemonade, no dessert. I smoke while I set out the plates. We can’t eat at the table. We just fill a plate and eat where we want. After dinner I light up again. It’s pretty smoky in here by now, because some of the guys smoke too. I collect all the dishes; fill the dishpan with detergent and water. My cigarette is right next to me burning down to ashes, but if I try to smoke it now it will get all wet and disintegrate. If I want a puff I have to dry my hands first. I pile all the dishes into the drainer; cover them with a dishtowel. I let them air dry.

I put on long pants because we have tickets to hear the Moody Blues at the university. I light up one last cigarette before we go in – you can’t smoke at this concert. Someone has made hash brownies and is passing them around. There are enough for us so we each eat one. The hash is so strong that the walls of the auditorium change color.Someone else passes around giant cucumbers. It’s a double entendre. Everyone gets the joke. “Must have big one.” The band comes on and they’re wonderful. We all get very mellow.

As soon as I leave the concert I light up, but I have to put it out when I get in the car. We go home, open some beers, light up some jays and sprawl out on my couch-bed. At around 2 am we are finally all crashed or gone home. That is five cigarettes later. Oh, oh, today I went over. I smoked thirty-two. The next day I get up and do it all over again
for the next forty years, although I eventually get down to one pack a day.

Book – Swimming by Nicola Keegan

Swimming (Vintage Contemporaries)Philomena is a swimmer. Swimming grounds her and gives her “a room of her own.” She is a very tall late bloomer with one best friend Lilly and several sisters, Bronwyn, June, Dot, Roxanne. She has tragedy in her young life. Swimming is her sanity.

The whole novel is basically a first person conversation with us, with herself, with her coaches, with her sisters, with dead people. The voice is very fresh (double entendre) and honest and is present throughout the entire story. “Pip” is cynical, puerile, and irreverent which peps up the first person narrative considerably. It is the voice the author chooses to have her character speak in that I loved most about this book.

Philomena is an Olympic level swimmer so we also have a ring side seat at the training of an athlete, the rise of an athlete, the peak of the career, and the aftermath of the career. This is a career that is all-encompassing. It has very little tolerance for a personal life and it doesn’t last long. At 27 it is done for Philomena. The author says that you can’t die from your feelings, but sometimes it sure seems like you can.

Just for the very original style this book is worth reading but it’s a good story too. This is another novel with a large Catholic presence, lots of nuns.

Books-The Postmistress by Sarah Blake-A Reprise

"Children of an eastern suburb of London,...Image via Wikipedia

This book is staying with me. I keep drawing parallels between the events described by Blake and our situation now. I have known about the Blitz of London by the Germans for most of my adult life but this book helped me live the Blitz. What also helped me live the Blitz was 9/11. I knew bombs fell from the sky during the Blitz but I never pictured the terror or the uncertainty about where they would fall. I never imagined what it would be like to live under those bombs. I never thought in any detail what it would be like to hang out in a shelter with your neighbors night after night. I never experienced what it would be like to emerge into a ruined landscape.
Seeing the planes fly into the World Trade Center was key to unlocking my feelings about the Blitz, but Blake’s story was personal and evocative, more so than any other story I have read about this period in Britain’s history.

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Three Pending International Dilemmas

A story yesterday on CNN by expert David Gergen suggests that immediately after mid-term elections we will have to go right into international crisis mode. We will have to deal with Afghanistan’s chumminess with Iran, the Mideast talks that weren’t and China’s flexing muscles.

We, apparently, cannot just pull out of Afghanistan because the Taliban and now Iran are buzzing around and President Karzai is letting them.

The Middle East has been a mess for so long it is difficult to believe that it will ever offer all its inhabitants a peaceful and productive existence. There is no trust between Israel and Palestine. Each one believes that if they let down their guard for one moment they will be obliterated. Each one wants to be the obliterator. I just cannot think of a scenario where this gets solved. Israel should put us out of our misery if they are truly our BFF and our ally but we understand the need to defend one’s self, to not be a sitting duck, to not give up the high ground. And, after two countries have been so consistently mean to each other, fear of endless and reciprocal retribution is very real.

And then there is China. We owe China lots of money. Our balance of trade with China is way out of whack. Although we helped China’s economy by offering financial and business know-how and by stripping our economy bare of manufacturing jobs we probably cannot expect too much gratitude. We shafted our own economy while jump-starting theirs. In other words, we did this to ourselves.

China is a huge country, however, with its own problems. I don’t think prosperity has reached every corner of Chinese society. They are still busy becoming a modern nation. I believe we are of more use to them right now as a resource and a marketplace. This may not always be the case so we do need to buy our way out of our debt to China. In order to do this we have to reinvent our own economy and find the formula which will help us thrive again. China may want us to be a bit less arrogant and a lot more humble in our dealings with their leaders but we don’t do hat-in-hand very well. Perhaps the best we can manage is to be as businesslike and respectful as possible.

Thoughts After Seeing The Social Network

Alley in CambridgeImage via Wikipedia

I went with my sisters to see The Social Network. I do not use Facebook (fear of viruses). My sisters use Facebook a little. The grandchildren use Facebook a lot so we get the family news via snippets the younger generation posts on-line. Sometimes what they say is so mundane that one has to wonder, “why?” Sometimes the news is quite earth-shaking family news that I will probably be the last to learn.

So I have spent very little time thinking about Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire or not. I found the film astonishing – how young they all were/are. Zuckerberg’s mind moved so fast but he seemed to play fast and loose with other peoples’ ideas. However, I get the feeling those other people would never have arrived at the place Mark Zuckerberg did. They were too interested in exclusivity.

Besides being brilliant and lacking certain scruples, Mark Zuckerberg seemed like someone with a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, so aloof and undemonstrative. He pretty much inhabited an invisible bubble. I read that he has had a girlfriend for the past seven years so probably not Asperger’s.

I enjoyed this view of the inception of an iconic website and of brilliance in a field which did not exist during my college years. I don’t know if I felt Mr. Zuckerberg deserved his wealth, but obviously wealth is not often about just rewards. The scenes in Cambridge made me feel, for a moment that I was walking there again. It was visceral.

I have one question. Did Farmville come about as a sort of insider joke from Mark Zuckerberg’s blog where he suggested comparing women to farm animals? Probably not.

It all made for fascinating viewing.

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Freedom of Speech

First and Front Streets, San Francisco, Califo...Image via Wikipedia

I’m worried about what political correctness is doing to freedom of speech. Everyone is a bundle of hair trigger sensitivities. Juan Williams and Shirley Sherrod are the latest casualties, but it feels like heads have been rolling right and left. It is a “hate” fest. We are so busy rooting out “hate” speech (of which there is actually a good supply) that we are unable to have an honest dialogue. It’s all finger-pointing and recriminations.

Glenn Beck can get away with calling our President a “Nazi” or a “communist”. Ahmadinejad can come to America and imply that we are awful people and say that there was no Holocaust. Then we overreact to some hard-working person who thought s/he was living in America where s/he was free to speak her/his mind.

There should be boundaries of civility in a society that prevent us from turning into a pack of wild dogs, and boundaries separating fact from opinion in the news. This is where freedom gets hard. There has to be a balance between boundaries and freedom. Too far in one direction and civility or truth dies, too far in the other and freedom dies.

The rise in levels of fear and distrust is directly proportional to the rise of terrorism around the world. After Pearl Harbor we rounded up Japanese Americans and put them in internment camps rather than have to make decisions about who might be a spy or an enemy among us. We’re not proud of it but we did it. Our fear of communism and communist spies gave reluctant permission to the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joe McCarthy. We’re not proud of this but we did it. Fortunately we do not seem to be planning to ostracize Muslims in America.

Juan Williams did put his finger on our basic insecurities in relation to Muslims in America. We don’t want to be guilty of profiling, but we have no magic divining rod to point out terrorists among our benign Muslim neighbors. Juan just echoed our discomfort in acknowledging that there are people who hate Americans and who don’t mind killing us. Who can be comfortable with that? However we need to hold on to as much of our civility and our freedom of speech as we can in uncertain times. We need to stop assuming that good people who give expression to real fear have gone off the deep end into extremism. We also need to stop assuming that people who deliberately feed our fears are good people.

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Back from the Abyss?

It is very interesting to finally be near the mid-term elections. Soon we will know the new numbers for the House and Senate. We will know exactly how many Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Tea Partiers will hold our fate in their hands for the next two years. Will they come up with legislation that improves our economy and generates new jobs? Will they still be mired in divisive stances and unable to accomplish what they need to? Will personal greed still skew our government towards corporations and special interests rather than an intelligent, objective analysis of what America needs?

Ads make it seem as if the mid-term elections will tip the scales of the future in one direction or another and maybe they will. But probably not. We will wake up November 3rd with the same groups squaring off against each other and accomplishing little or nothing. Will our fears slide us backwards into the economic abyss we fear? Are we still the land of the free and the home of the brave? We’ll see won’t we. At least we won’t have to watch those dreadful political ads anymore (for a while).

Chapter 25 – Summer, 1970, Drugs

Lena and Linda are on the run. They are camping out in state parks because the “pigs” are after them. But we see a lot of them, the boys and me. They stop by in the evening and listen to music with the rest of us. They seem to get along pretty well, which surprises me. Lena is the “butch” and Linda is the “fem.” Linda never seemed like the type to bow to authority and Lena is definitely in charge. Still, somehow they get along.

They are always offering everyone in the apartment free drugs. They provide all the grass. The boys drop acid everyday and everyone is always saying things like “don’t bring me down (usually to me) or “I’m flyin” or “I’m peaking” or “I’m crashing.” They don’t really act like they’re high. They just do the same things we all do. It’s summer so we go outside a lot. We go to the park and lay on the hill in the sun. We go to the water tower in the park and watch stars and other people. We sit at concerts in the park and it just seems like an ordinary summer day.
There’s an old amphitheater in the park. There is a stage at the bottom of a bowl shaped arena. The seats are built into the grassy slope as terraces. Rocks face each terrace and grass tops it. The amphitheater is invisible from the outside. Trees and an old wrought iron fence surround it. I never knew it was there until this summer. Now the gates are opened up and there are concerts there, and plays and festivals. They are all free. Whole little hippie families show up and sit around on blankets on the grass at the bottom of the bowl. The kids run nearly naked, long hair flying in the wind. Vendors sell jewelry and kites and imported tchothkes. Lots of smoking is going on, both legal and not.

I have never tried acid. In fact I have never tried any drugs except grass and hashish. These drugs sometimes make me high, but sometimes make me paranoid and sleepy. Lena thinks I should branch out. One day I try a black beauty. It doesn’t do a thing for me. Another day I try a half a barrel of sunshine acid. Whoa! That does something. The air around me seems thick and syrupy and the light appears layered, like looking through a piece of old, thick glass. My skin tingles, colors fragment, movements blur. When I wave my hands in the air I see afterimages. I’m not sure I like it. It makes my brain feel like it will explode, like I will go crazy and end up hospitalized mewling like a kitten until I’m old and gray. After a while I want my trip to end, but it doesn’t go away until the drug leaves your system, almost eight hours. Once in a while if you smoke really strong grass you feel like this, but it wears off quickly. This lasts and lasts. You can’t even really sleep through. It certainly is an economical high; you get a lot of bang for your buck. You don’t have to keep stopping to refuel. But it’s too risky. How do the guys do this everyday? Now I know what “trippy” means. I decide that I might give this one more try later, much later. One day someone talks me into trying a “blue dot”, which is just a piece of paper with a circular blue splash of chemical something on it. That’s milder, my head’s in a better place. I have a good trip. Still – not my drug of choice. I decide I will not drop acid again.

I’m tired. We’ve been partying a little too hearty. There has been a lot of beer and grass over the weekend. I have to get up and go to work but I’m dragging. Lena hands me a little yellow pill. “What’s this,” I say. “Its methedrine,” she says. “It will perk you right up.” It does. I have lots of energy now. I also feel smart and confident. I eat my day up and have energy to spare when I get home. This feeling I like. Lena gives me several more. She warns me that although they have these positive effects for a while, they will eventually let you down hard. When you crash, you will feel like shit for a few days.

I like this very efficient, clean feeling I suddenly have so I keep taking the little yellow pills. I start cleaning the apartment feverishly, I don’t need food, I can’t sit still and when I do I start drawing these very inventive pictures of tiny little mazes on every available sheet of paper. I may be turning into an artist. At work I feel like I’m a whiz. But eventually I find that my fingertips hurt when I have to type and that my mind cannot stay on one subject, and that I can’t look my boss in the eyes while he tries to explain a new project. Lena’s gone when I run out of pills. I crash. I miss a day of work. I lose my job. Apparently I wasn’t the whiz I thought I was. I still have my tutoring job in September, but right now I’m broke and I’m not happy about it. That’s the end of the methedrine. No matter how much I like it, it has to go. I have never been fired from a job before.

It’s almost August. Annie got into a state university and she’s leaving to go find a place to live in her new college town. The timing couldn’t be worse, but she’s doing the right thing. Lena and Linda tell me they are tired of camping out. They offer to move in and help with the rent temporarily. They want to stop dealing drugs. They are both thinking about college too. They do have a stockpile though and they need to get rid of that. I tell them they can’t live here if they are dealing drugs, but they know I’m a whuss. They plead with me. They say they will hide their stash outside the apartment in the basement and they will not sell out of the apartment. I have no rent money, and worse, I have no cigarettes. I relent and let them stay. They take the bedroom upstairs and I move to the mattress in the living room.

I decide to try another tab of sunshine. Maybe if I try one out in the country, in a beautiful natural setting, it will set me free. I hitchhike to a camp my family members have bought out in the back of beyond. I decide hitchhiking is not for me. Everyone who picks me up is a married man and everyone makes suggestions I am not interested in. I’m lucky, they don’t push it. They just let me out of the car. It takes six rides to get where I’m going. I let myself into this flyblown shack, which is my family’s, camp and try to make it pretty so I’ll see nice things when I’m tripping. I find a good radio station. I don’t really know why I’m doing this, to prove something to myself, I think.

I make myself a sandwich with the groceries I brought with me. I eat it standing, looking out the window across the long narrow lawn. There are no other camps around. A green lush wilderness lies beyond the lawn, a dirt road heading straight as an arrow through it. I drink some iced tea from a thermos. I go outside and set up one of those woven plastic chaise lounges that can be laid flat or adjusted for sitting. I put on my bathing suit, drop the tab of acid, and go out to the lounger. Whoosh! The acid hits and I’m tripping. I don’t like it any better this time. The sun is good, it’s really pretty out here, but I feel sick to my stomach. I get up and go inside and turn the music up. I’m OK. I somehow get hung up on a mirror. I’m seeing my face as if for the first time. I see my mother there, I see my father. I see my heredity written across my features, my bone structure. I don’t really like my face right now. I turn the mirror away. I use the outhouse and think about the past when everyone had one of these odorous contraptions. I think about how convenient our lives are. I am now shivering. I can’t stop. I’m not cold; I’m just overwhelmed with drugginess. I change back into my clothes.

The sun is setting. I watch it and shiver. It’s beautiful, but I’m feeling sorry for myself. I’m so alone. I forget that that was the whole idea. Lena and Linda are coming to pick me up. It keeps me together. It’s dark now. I look out the window. I’m in an alien, wild place. I’m not a nature girl I guess. There are dwarves holding lanterns walking through the tall grass. Look at that! So many of them. I hear the car in the driveway. I can’t wait to get out of here. I turn everything off, grab my backpack and as I walk out the door, I realize that there are no dwarves. They are fireflies. I sleep all the way home and vow once again to never take acid. This time I stick to my vow.

Not working is not good for me. I don’t feel grounded. I’m nervous and I don’t know how to fill up my day. I can’t buy cigarettes regularly and I hate when I don’t have any. I actually pick up a long butt off the street one day. I think about who might have had it in their mouth before me, but I still fell calmer as soon as I have a couple of puffs. I’m a derelict. I tell myself that in one month I will be working again so I should just try to enjoy my freedom. I try to get a schedule going, have meals at regular times, do dishes and housework in the mornings and evenings. Read, if I happen to be alone in the afternoons. Lena and Linda don’t stay home much, but the boys are here a lot once they actually wake up and start their days.

Lena and Luke’s older brother, Lincoln, is at our apartment. He’s visiting from the west coast. He’s very handsome, blond and muscular. A man, really. I don’t know what he’s doing here. Why didn’t he go to his mom’s? Why don’t they all visit there? But he sits on a chair in my kitchen. I give him a cup of tea. We don’t have much to say to each other but Lena is happy and keeps the conversation humming along. Now I know why he’s here instead of home. There’s a packet of cocaine sitting on my kitchen table. He wants to share it with all of us. I don’t really want to try it. This is a serious drug. One you can get hooked on. I once met this couple who were jazz musicians. They were also heroin addicts. Every time they went into a methadone program, one would drop out and go back to heroin. Then the other one would join them. Back and forth they went. They were very much in love, terribly co-dependent, and totally miserable.

But I was curious and saying no did not seem worth the hassle. Link got out a mirror, spilled some coke on it and cut it into lines. He rolled a five-dollar bill into a tight straw and we each, in turn, snorted a line. Coke is also called ice because of the way it makes you feel. It reminded me of methedrine.

Thank goodness I did not want to do it again. I decided I was through with all drugs except, once in a while, pot. No more pills, no more acid, no more anything. I really liked my natural state the best. I was saved from a drug addiction, but I’m not sure how. It may have been just a matter of body chemistry. But I was still going along with my deal to let Lena and Linda sell the rest of their LSD.

House Shopping – Neverending

Logo of the Federal Housing Administration.Image via Wikipedia

Don’t do a 203K FHA Mortgage. No one really knows what they are doing. I was told I could use Lowe’s and/or Home Depot. One and a half weeks away from closing I was told I needed to find a new contractor because I couldn’t use Lowe’s or Home Depot.

FHA requires three references. Lowe’s and Home Depot have a privacy policy. Neither is allowed to give references. They don’t mind giving up the business. They don’t care if they are only giving the names to the Federal Housing Administration, not selling them to telemarketers. But you can’t say no to the Federal government so they cannot build my kitchen or lay my floor.

Lowe’s and Home Depot also always get paid in full up front, no exceptions. The FHA pays no more than 50% up front, then they inspect the work, then they pay the other 50%. So there are irreconcilable differences between the FHA and Lowe’s and Home Depot, although other states and other mortgage companies have found ways to qualify both companies.

I am finding this out one week before my closing, and I have been given the assignment to find a new contractor. Yes, I am bummed. I would just drop the kitchen project and just do the furnace, but the appraisal has already been done. The house might not appraise for enough with just the furnace.

To top it all off my lawyer calls me and tells me they have no papers: no abstract, no title search, no whatever else is needed.

I have been dreaming about walking up to my house and opening my own front door (or back door) every day and night for years to come. It does not look like this is going to happen now. I think my mortgage team let me down, not my real estate agent, but all the others.

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