SAFETY NET



My old blog and web page were among the casualties of this difficult year. No great loss. My writing about the place where I live elicited peculiarly intemperate responses from some of the local citizens. In the cosmic sense, these citizens matter very little. I reached the age when tilting at windmills becomes a spectator sport. Enough said.
This is a chance to start over. Books, food, and flowers will be recurrent themes in this new venue, as they were in the old blog. Social problems and local politics will not. Those I will save for stories I will be writing this winter unless I spend all my free time reading Balzac, who skewered provincial buffoons, the new rich, bloated bureaucrats with incomparable grace. I am no Balzac, but I know what he meant when he said,
“Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I am Madame Bovary.” I also know what Baudelaire meant when he wrote,
“…hypocrite lecteur,– mon sembable,–mon frere. Reader, hypocrite, my twin.”
It is this sense of shared humanity that separates good writers from mediocrities. Good writers may skewer, dissect, laser-cut boors but they never forget that there there is a boor in each of us. I understand that and yet fraternal chumminess, unconditional compassion and kindness elude me at the moment. I am not my brother’s keeper and neither do I care to be nice just now. Better to write about food than to put his character flaws under the knife. Trouble is, food writing has its pitfalls. Raymond Sokolov, Calvin Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten to the contrary, food writers belong in the pink collar ghetto of lifestyle pages. They are known as kitchen table journalists, recipe writers, diletantti.
“I write about hunger,” said food writer M F K Fisher to a critic who meant to demean her work. The critic is forgotten while Fisher’s continues to enchant its readers. As a freelancer, I was once eager to leave the on the fringes of food writing for the more challenging business of political reporting. I remember only too well the swagger of the hard news guy whose advice I sought. He delivered himself of this pearl of wisdom as we ate a big lunch,
“You wanna write about politics, you gotta toughen up. If you can’t play with the big boys, get outta the sandbox.”
I paid for lunch, figuring that he had earned it. Sadly, in this implacable new century during which the print media has lost much of its relevance, that big boy bags groceries for a living. I can say, in all humility, that it coulsd not have happened to a better lout.
The political writing I eventually did was all local. I can say now that I am happy to leave the sandbox to the big boys. My needs are modest. The corner of a university library where acquisitive academics stash ethnographic tidbits will suffice for my disquisitions. If, in a century or so, a social archaeology student researching the way we live in this obscure part of the world digs up my notes and has a bit a fun that will suit me fine.
What does not suit me is the crawling pace of this endless year and the heartache it brought me, such as the death of one of my beloved friends. It is no consolation to know that death freed her from the nightmare of being dependent on strangers in a country she never learned to like. I feel as if I will never be through mourning her. Much as I want to reach the stage where I can celebrate all the good memories I have of her, I cannot seem to reconcile myself to her absence. She would have loathed that. She hated sentimentality, self-pity, wimpiness, whining. Whenever I was in low spirits she would command me to snap out of it,
“Sursum corda!
If that failed to lift my heart, she would say, as if life were a battle,
Allons, du courage!”
And later,
“Leap!”
The love of good friends, that most reliable of safety nets, was always there. It still is. I shall leap. Eventually.

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