Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

“Waiter, there’s a cockroach at my table”

In Animals, Artists, Collage, Drafts, Food, Hautvoir, Music on November 30, 2013 at 7:56 am

For nightlife in this town, you have three options: 1) stay home – read, write, surf the web, sort papers or unmatched socks; 2) take in one of the two movies at the local cinema; 3) go to l’ibère, the one and only venue offering food, drink and live musicians.

l’ibère was packed to overflowing last night. The main musician in the group had prepared the lamb couscous; the facebook relay stations worked overtime. The group plays at local weddings and anniversaries. Even seventy-year old women get up to dance once the music starts. Meanwhile children run around, babies get passed from arm to arm. ’tis not a mournful place.

Which may be why the small vignette sticks to my mind. All tables are taken. There’s an empty chair at my table for two. The owner asks if I mind and points to a gentleman waiting for a seat. No problem, hello, welcome, says I.

Oy. The man almost bolts out through the front door. Gets a grip, and shuffles into his seat after eye contact of the minimalist kind.  OK, I tell myself, pretend he isn’t there or he’ll have a nervous breakdown. So I eat my couscous and drink my wine. Chat with everybody who walks by, and watch the man settle down somewhat. Once reassured I’m not about to pounce on him, he asks me something in a voice I can’t make out in the growing din. I lean forward. “How’s the couscous,” he asks.

I spare the reader up to the point where he comes out with his main purpose in attending public events, these days: he wishes to spread the word about an unscrupulous impresario who held a group of artists hostage for extra payment. As the sordid story unfolds, I look at the man in more detail, trying to pinpoint the initial impression he gave off. Droopy grey hair, droopy anxious eyes darting from side to side. He doesn’t look like Franz Kafka and he looks nothing like a cockroach either. And yet.

Sidebar : the story ends well. I expressed the requisite disapproval over the sad tale of exploitation. “I’m telling everyone I meet,” he says. “I feel it’s my duty.” I don’t know if he took some time out from his mission to enjoy the music. Given the decibels, I doubt too many others got the word of warning. Meanwhile, a little girl I’d never met before offered me a gift. She’d glued two post-its together and drew hearts and squiggles on them. They now grace the space below this screen.

Shapes, Forms, Materials

In Collage, Current reading, Dante Alighieri, Drafts, Local projects, Music, Poetry, Tea on November 29, 2013 at 8:13 am

“If you’re not nice to me,” the nine-year old girl said, “my father will have you punished.” This gets the session off to a bad start. She balks at everything, whines, sulks, refuses to work. In a typical display of role reversal, the nine-year old boy at the heart of the family feuds sits across from  her, angelic for once. Neat, orderly, obedient. Something is amiss.

The dispute between the two families must have ramped up now that lawyers are involved on both sides. I can’t blame a little girl for repeating language and behavior patterns but I can’t condone them either. So while Mister Good finished an elaborate drawing, the Miss and I repaired to another empty room in the school for a quiet sit-down which ended in apologies and tears. They keep telling me we must  not have physical contact with the children. I say: how can you not lay a quiet  hand on a child’s head to let her know the world is still turning as it should?

One short-term project winding down; two more on the horizon. As always, with students in remedial classes. The beauties of working with kids labelled as Most Likely to Fail are many; so are the frustrations, both with the kids and with the system. I’ll stay with the beauties for right now, since it’s early Friday morning with no immediate emergencies in view. Beauty number 1: ordering a list of words describing opposites, to make the words easier to grasp. (See that word? Grasp? See the light go on when somebody “gets” it? The difference between recent and new, for example? Beauty number 2).

Beauty number 3 on one of these projects: playing with fonts, types of paper, lay-outs. How it will all play out in real time, who knows.

Writing almost at a standstill right now. A lot of re-organization going on at subterranean levels. The next phase in something. Unfolding, like those Chinese tea flowers when you pour the boiling water over them.

Plus, collage. Organizing materials for.

Current reading ranges from Simon Singh’s  Le dernier théorème de Fermat, Le Apollinaire illustrated by Aurélia Gandin, and good old Dante’s Purgatory in the bilingual edition with French translation by Jacqueline Risset.

As for music, this great tape of Sister Rosetta Tharpe in Manchester, thanks to a facebook recommendation. The coat, the gueetar, the train station … Roll on, brothers and sisters, roll on.


A Merry Band of One

In Animals, Circus, Current reading, Drafts, Hautvoir, Local projects, Music on November 28, 2013 at 7:35 am

New York is far away, and getting further.

Walking in the Theater District with friends and acquaintances passing themselves off as same. A steakhouse dinner with portions large enough to feed a family of six. Had to wonder how many tons of food got trashed. The prick of discomfort not adding up to a jolt, by any means. Brits, Americans, Swedes, and others. Labor union types, the labor being of the artistic variety.

A long time ago. Even the pace, rythms and lilts of the pitches on the book houses tell me I don’t speak the vernacular any more.

The funny part: I don’t speak the vernacular over here either. In both cases, the disconnects  occur at a level having to do with perception of what matters.

The song running through my head as I made tea in my icebox kitchen. Mawkish is as mawkish does. Factual isn’t mawkish. The song? They’re playing songs of love, but not for me. You see the potential for self-pity; except that’s not how it was playing in my  head.

These days, most of the people I know well live in semi-converted tannery buildings or – as I do – in past-splendor homes with minimal heating. Floor to ceiling, unsealed, single-glazed French windows on the North face of the building. High ceilings. Winter turns the place into something like an indoor camping expedition; same as summer calls for air-flow management to keep myself, the dog and the computer from overheating.

By some stroke of reverse logic, the more my expectations diminish, the greater the humorous potential grows.

Although I may be the only one to get the joke.

Why fiction?

In Circus, Drafts, Hautvoir on November 27, 2013 at 7:45 am

Easy answer: as an escape.

Who needs to escape? Everybody. Why films, video games, drugs, holidays? Why time away from even the work or the people you like? Because the world’s a bigger place than a regular day can accommodate. Same holds true for all that goes on inside your head.

I woke up several times in the night. Each time, I was in a different internal landscape. Different mood, different outlook, different way of experiencing a past event or an anticipated one.

Escape? Well and good. Congratulations, you are free to go wherever you want. Ten to one, you’ll head straight back to the place you came from or to its closest approximation. Ten to one you’ll beat  yourself over the head for that – what’s wrong with me, why can’t I make a better use of my freedom, my unexplored higher realms and nether regions. Should I see a doctor, should I take up kung-fu or easy-does-it water exercises for the elderly? Who am I, what am I, to the wherefore of the whatever are we blithering idiots off to – etc.

On the last stop of the night merry-go-round, I was back at the entrance. The easy part. What easy part? Once you realize you are part of the universal joke, you do what every clown must do: use your own backlot for props, costumes and story ideas. Find your own patter, and learn how best to take your own falls.

Tragedy’s the easy part. Comedy is one hell of a lifetime commitment.

Where are you going?

In Drafts, Visual artists on November 26, 2013 at 8:10 am



I’ll know when I get there.

(illustration: Rebecca Dautremer)

For your next assignment

In Drafts, Film, Hautvoir, Local projects on November 25, 2013 at 7:30 am

At yesterday’s film presentation for kiddies, mice flattened a cat by slamming a door. Or paddled out of a water hose now connected to the feline’s telephone. Cartoons are unrealistic. If some events in real time appear just as unlikely, you (the I I’m addressing as you) do your best to see the humor. Your best doesn’t always add up to much, you try anyway.

To whit, an incident, among the many absurd reversals yesterday: I’m trudging up the hill from market. Given the weather and the woebegone appearance of my old winter hat, I bought another for three euro. Someone I’ve never met before whizzes by, turns on me and says: “Without the European Union, we’d be finished already!” He says this pointing at my new hat, and pursues his rapid walk up the steep-and-getting-steeper rue de Peseignes.

Between huffing, puffing, coughing and blowing my nose, I ponder his words. The fact my woolen bonnet was bought on the market? Meaning someone in a foreign land was exploited? An off-the-wall kook in need of hearing his own voice out loud? Happens.

But no. Something tells me – ah.

Such are the times that the simple act of buying a woolen bonnet carries implications and coded meanings. In my case, the coded meanings were two:1) something to cover my head 2) something that wasn’t black or grey or dirty brown. I chose red. The man assumed I supported the “bonnet rouge” anti-Europe protest in Brittany.

If I can speed up the metabolism a bit, the entire week will play in the same absurd mode. If I can speed it up enough to get the writing where I want it, the same will hold true of the current draft. For the nonce, I brace myself for the onslaught of missteps, misunderstandings, misinterpretations, missed appointments and agenda screw-ups just ahead of me. Like so many barrels waiting to rumble down the hill. I’m laughing because doing anything else uses up too much precious energy.

Call this post a Kilroy Was Here

In notes on November 24, 2013 at 9:01 am

I give myself full points for getting some writing done yesterday. What the mess looks like, I can imagine. The mess will have to stay messy for now. Food is no great obsession at the moment. Will become so if I don’t make my way down to the market. Exotic diseases make good reading for hypochondriacs but the good old common cold is the great leveller in real time. The body feels like a lump.

However. The boy who promised a paper and didn’t deliver promised all over again over the phone yesterday. In my mailbox today, sure thing. The teachers don’t seem to be aware there was a kafuffle over one of the questions in the survey to be done in their classrooms. I’ll survive the fact the final result will be picked apart by the funding people. The Nouvel Observateur did a lead paper on the Culture of Resentment yesterday. That’s one way to put it. I see it more as a culture of nit-picking. Complaining as a protective covering. Moments of clarity through it all when the nonsense shines  bright.

Humans are silly – I’m falling asleep on my chair so I guess that will be my contribution for the nonce.


All I can say is :

In Drafts, Hautvoir on November 23, 2013 at 9:55 am

For the full flavor, you have to go beyond the conventional school-book illustration of the sower spreading the grain far and wide on his well-tilled land. Plus the school-book moral in old-fashioned script informing the child that as he will  have sown, so shall he reap.

You must also go beyond  the little stickers indicating the school child has done a satisfactory job, and beyond the report cards, and on to the Psychological Evaluation of said school-boy’s abilities. From which I gather French school psychologists in the fifties didn’t report kids as I.Q. numbers. Instead, they indicated if the child was exceptional, brilliant, average, mediocre or worse. I didn’t read beyond mediocre which was the notation given to this particular child. Take that, and run with it, little boy. Of course, you’ll stumble and fail, even if your mother buys into all kinds of programs and educational gizmos. You shall stumble and fail because you are mediocre. Says so right here in the psychologist’s report.

All I can say is good luck, little one. All I can say is: next time out in storyland, I’ll tell you all about grading systems and diagnostic tools. I’ll tell you about the psychiatrist who labelled a sixteen-year old in depression as a schizophrenic. I’ll tell you about the ones who thought a lobotomy might be the best way to deal with that child’s negativity.

First, I have to make it through to the end of this draft.  Meanwhile, remember :I promise you they’ll laugh at you. I promise you they’ll take their frustrations out  on you. I promise you they’ll pick at you and consider it’s all for your own good.

All I can say is: stuff your ears full of wax, and row. Every chance you get, look up and keep an eye to the sky. Do your best to enjoy the view, every chance you get. Remember most of them mean well. Remember all of them are just as clueless as you are. Remember laughing feels better than crying, but don’t let that stop you from crying your fill when you must.

There’ll be better days, again? Of course, there will. For all I know, this may turn out to be one of them, fever, sniffles, flu and all.

The Phases of the Moon

In Drafts, Games, Local projects, Music, Poetry on November 22, 2013 at 7:43 am

The mindset gives me a lot of trouble. Although my sympathies lean toward the left, I don’t see much difference in basic attitudes, no matter what the politicians’ Big Plan may be. In all instances, reality is put on notice to match up with the Power Point presentation, or else.

Which brings me back to the question we explored the other night over food, wine, books and laughter: how do you get adults to play again?

The image trotting through my mind since last night (following meetings filled with expectations, checklists and deadlines): the harried mother experience. The harried mother, her mind a snarl of Things To Do, decides she must take her small child to the park for the prescribed quality time on today’s agenda. Says so right in her agenda: four-thirty to five – quality time with Timmy. Half-way down the way to the sidewalk, Timmy falls in love with a fallen leaf. Crouches. Lifts the thing off the ground, and discovers a teeming world under it. The harried mother presses Timmy to get a move-on; the swings in the park await! come on! haven’t got all day! Phone calls, next. Supper. Report to write. Laundry. Quality time with husband. Come on, Tim!

In real terms, over here? Whatever will get done today, will. Meanwhile,  a twelve-year old girl  discovered something wonderful yesterday: the small crescent, the bigger one and the round thing that glows in the sky at night? One and the same thing. If that moment wasn’t worth witnessing, I don’t know what is. It even led to her talking about her trek to this country with her mother and small brother, and her father’s trek through different channels.

Don’t ask me how that led to her mastering the French sound ou (similar to the o in who); I couldn’t have predicted it or planned it in any way.

Checklists. Game plans. Political agendas. Keeping track of my own priorities through other peoples’. Getting my own takes on reality down in writing.

Allez. Friday, November 22nd 2013.

Dream on

In Animals, Circus, Drafts, humeurs, Local projects, Music, Sanford Meisner, Sundays on November 21, 2013 at 8:54 am

Q -“I’m not saying you have to like the book. I’m asking you what you didn’t like about Treasure Island? I’m asking you what you’d like to read instead?”

A – “I don’t like to read.”

From where we moved on to: if you could be anybody you want in the whole world, who would you choose? He chose to be Ronaldo. Managed to produce four lines of Notes from his Fantasy Life, the last one reading: “I earn thirty-five million euro per day.”

Q – Will he go to the library this weekend and chose a book as suggested in strong terms by me – cartoons, mangas, Ronaldo’s Mansion, whatever? (Strong terms meaning to his question “do I have to”, I answered “no you can go on Monday instead”)

A – Find out next Wednesday.


She’s eleven years old. The length, breadth and width of a full-grown woman with a baby face perched on top of it. Reading? For meaning, let alone fun and enjoyment?

We set aside Chapter 8 of the story she’s supposed to read as homework. She can’t remember what happened in Chapters 1 to 7, and the first paragraph in the novel has her stumbling over where to make the s sound, where to make the k sound, every time she reaches a c.

Pull out a large illustrated recipe book for ages 6 to 8. Pick her favorite dessert. Read the recipe, bit by bit. Find the letter c in each sentence. How does that word sound? Why? Because of the letter that follows.

And so on.


Reading. Writing. To make sense of your own experiences. To understand something of other people’s takes on reality. To discover other ways to act or think or behave when the frustration makes you want to put your head down on the table.


I saw him two years ago. All he cared about was tomato soup. He’s back this year, giving me the wink and the thumb’s up every time he figures out the exercise. “Throw me another,” he says. He’s seven. He’s short, round and pudgy. He sees himself as the Ronaldo of the spelling bee.

High five and more power to him.


My assignment: come home and wind my way through the bogs and bayous of fiction writing. (I use the back of old drafts as scrap paper with the kids. When I turned over one of the sheets yesterday, I came across:)

“Zéphyrin Poilfin (an aside to readers):  Gentle reader, soul of my soul, the author is having a slight case of nerves. Nothing serious, don’t worry. I know her well, she gets all excited, then flops down like a soufflé. I’ll take care of everything. I’ll have the Inspecteur back on his feet in no time,  you’ll see. Excuse me, I must sing back-up for now: ‘sing the memories of my tender youth, sing the beautiful days, forever flown away, bom-bom-bom, …’  (To be continued next Sunday)