Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mi Tía Dora

My beloved aunt Dora died last night. She was only 84 and full of life, so the news came as a very sad shock. I imagine she was still teaching yoga. I know she was still interested in movies and books, politics and culture. I got an email from her just a couple of weeks ago, responding to my wishes for a happy new year. 
I am going to miss her generous appetite for life and laughter.
She was my mother's sister. They were very close. When my sisters and I were kids, every time we had an argument, which was often, my mom used to boast that she never ever argued with aunt Dora. I found this impossible to believe (how can anybody not fight?), but indeed, I never saw them argue. I now suspect Mom wasn't bluffing. She could not fathom why we were at each other's throats, while she and Dora were always the best of friends.
Dora was warm, charming, funny, and delightful company. You could talk to her about any subject under the sun. Mom and her fed off each others' robust sense of humor.  They invented a non-existent millionaire uncle from Australia, Uncle Wilbur, who never met us, but was going to leave us his enormous inheritance nonetheless. They made up endless puns in Yiddish, Spanish, English and French. They lovingly nicknamed their podiatrist, "Buster", in honor of Buster Keaton, since he never smiled either. They called Gregory Peck "Peckory Greg", and Tyrone Power something to do with the word for fart in Spanish. And so it went on.
They were always ready to make good-natured fun of things, but they did not have a mean streak. Anita and Dora were sophisticated and salt of the earth. And Dora was always fun. She had a sunny nature.
She made it a family tradition to close the Passover seder by channeling her inner mezzo-soprano at the very end refrain of Chad Gadia, the very last melody of a very long evening. She brought down the house every year. It is safe to say that her wisecracks contributed to make all our family occasions much more fun than average. And in adversity, she rallied, and let that bright sunshine of hers peep out even when she was sad.
She traveled the world and was welcome everywhere. She got along with everybody. I will miss her enveloping warmth, which I think is what best describes her, a radiant, cozy, comfy, warmth. I will miss her big heart, her sonorous laughter, and the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Gung Ho!

I saw the martial arts film The Grandmaster yesterday and the sage philosophical musings of some of the different schools of Chinese fighting led me to ponder how is it that every time the American government wants to start a war with someone, they waste no time shouting it to the winds. What about the stealth, the element of surprise, the strategy? What about knowing your enemy? (If they did, they would think twice about it).
I do tai chi, which is not, as you may think, a gentle stretch for little old Chinese ladies, but a martial art. My teacher is always saying things like, you gotta have strong legs so the first thing you do when confronted by a possible attack is, run the hell out of there. The first rule of Chinese martial arts seems to be to avoid, deflect, defuse, and discourage confrontation. If that is not possible, however, then that swift, out-of-the-blue, lethal kick will come in handy. But if you let your enemy, (and the enemy of your enemy, which in the case of Syria is also your enemy) know two weeks in advance that you intend to kick his ass, it may not work out as well.
I just came back from France, where the national pastime seems to be to sit in cafés and talk. The French are obsessed with thought and discussion, and having as much paid vacation as possible. The Magnificent Arepa had an epiphany that the reason why there are so many French philosophers is that the French like to sit at cafés, smoke, drink coffee, and think. Like Sartre and Beauvoir at Les Deux Magots.
Americans however, are obsessed with action. No sitting at cafés in the middle of the day for us. We do shit without thinking.
This is the only way I can explain the surreal moment we are having right now about going to war with Syria. First, we don't do anything when it's the time to do it, if ever; we wait until the guy has killed 100,000 people and then, when he steps over "the red line" (which, as Jon Stewart points out, is a dick measuring tape), we bluster and threaten and announce our intentions to attack. Obama whips his dick out, and not to be outdone, many of the putrid vermin that populate Congress follow suit. This is the one issue in which Republicans all of a sudden stand behind a President they have stonewalled every step of the way. They strangle health, education, immigration, economic issues, but war? BRING IT!
Has there been a thoughtful conversation, analysis or debate about this latest hankering for infernal action? Can this President, who promised to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan now say with a straight face that we are going into Syria as well?
The problem with Americans is that ours is a lethal combination of "gotta get things done, but first we need to brag about them". We neither do them when it is advisable, if ever, nor talk or think about them enough, which should be always. So by the time we take action, we do it thoughtlessly, unleashing even bigger messes, more enmity, and more chaos.
There must be an alternate way, a way of reason and brilliance. This takes true brains, and is therefore rarely used, but this constitutes the ideal scenario: people with great strategic thinking come up with smart, complex, unfolding solutions; not gung-ho, easy as a fart, morally abject posturing that is going to get us into a whole world of trouble. Again.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Extra Step

A woman once said that the French think they are like Germans, but they are actually like Italians. Some stuff they do spectacularly well: The wine, the cheese, the bread. The trains work, the roads are pristine and clearly signalized. The bathrooms are spotless clean.
But when it comes to service or process, it's not that they are chaotic, it's that they love bureaucracy. They love steps. If you can do something in thirty steps, as opposed to one or two, pourquoi pas?
If you need a part of a stove replaced because its glass cover exploded in the kitchen (don't ask) and you call the numero de service of the appliance store, the monsieur you are speaking to, who displays an admirable balance of hostility, impatience and propriety, insists on talking of Electrolux when you clearly said Airlux. Twenty minutes later, he throws in the towel and advises you to take a picture of the serial number label to the store, so they can deal with you there. C'est tout he can do for you.
The trip to the store becomes three separate trips to three different stores, because in each one, the person in charge disavows himself from the responsibility of helping you: it's not their department, their phone doesn't work, Madame de Pompadour called in sick. But when you finally make it to the third store, the one they should have told you to go to in the first place, the lady behind the counter knows exactly what you need, and where to get it, and your suffering is over in five minutes. It is uncanny, as if she knew your sad story with the exploding cover all this time and was just patiently waiting, like Proust in search of lost time, for you to show up.

Try doing something on a French website. I tried to reserve a taxi, because I'll have you know that cabs in Paris are always mysteriously absent or have arcane, incomprehensible rules of where they pick up and where they drop off passengers. Why can't it be in the same place? Je ne sais pas. There are empty taxis parked at the TAXI sign. Some of them have drivers in them, but they cannot take you. There is even a hopeful-looking button you press that goes, like something out of Camus, unanswered.
But at home, there is an internet taxi reservation site. They even have an English version! I fill out all the info: name, time, place, and give a final, relieved click, only to run into the little extra step: they want a cellphone number to send me a code to confirm and verify that I, and not the Marquis De Sade, ordered the cab. But then the site won't accept a foreign number, so after a good 15 minutes of filling out forms and trying Kabbalistic number permutations, there is no cab to be had.
I should have called, but what if the guy sent me to the other guy, the one that works for Cardinal Richelieu? Plus, when I dial, a prerecorded female voice tells me something about the nature of the call I am attempting and she scares me off the phone.
Here in the US, you can go on a kafkaesque limbo of customer service hell, sans doute, but it usually takes one interminable step. Over there, it's a waltz. 

Bonjour Tristesse

I was recently in France, where pretty much everyday, like every French person, I put a golden, fragrant, crunchy, chewy baguette under my arm; and unlike every French person, waited to get home before tearing into it in the middle of the street.
Last Sunday, I went into a boulangerie and purchased a ficelle, which is a smaller, thinner baguette (so as not to appear like the grosse cochonne I am).
I ate this glorious thing sans anything. No butter, no jam, no jambon, no fromage. It was so spectacularly good, it did not need anything else. I ate it in the park and could have eaten five more, but I have my dignity.
New York may have pretty much everything the heart desires, but there is no good baguette to be found. Those of you who think there is, are deluding yourselves and should stop immediately.
We have found a very decent croissant and pain au chocolat, and French pastries a block away, but a simple, wholesome, perfect pleasure like a baguette, which is flour, salt, water and yeast, New York cannot muster. This makes me extremely sad.
Some say it's the water. Pourquoi?
I just feel like crying.