Thursday, March 31, 2011

Self-Portrait, 2011



Q: If you had to live in just one place – without ever leaving – where would it be?

A: That’s a very tough question. For a goodly portion of my adult life I was all over the map, owing mostly to my being a foreign service employee for a dozen years. That accounts for most, if not quite all, of my foreign travel: western Europe, Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, European Russia.  But I’ve also lived all over California, in both Washingtons, (state and D.C.) Maryland, Virginia and (very briefly) Nevada. 

My first gut-level answer would be Paris, but I don’t know. Paris is actually a rather small city, at least the interesting part of it, and I think I would get claustrophobia there after a while. Los Angeles has plenty of elbow room, but having grown up in southern California, I feel like I've had enough of it. New York? Forget it. Ironically, "the city that never sleeps" is not the place for a guy who has as much trouble sleeping as I do.

I guess I would have to say that I’d rather be dead than live in one place without ever leaving. That’s subject to change, of course. The older you get, the less inclined you are to wander. Having said that, as of this writing I'm packing for the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Q: What do you plan to do there?
A: Teach English and stare at the mountains.

Q: Do you plan to do any writing while you're over there?
A: As the Mexicans put it, "No se, vamos a ver." I'll make notes of course; I always do that.

Q: Do you prefer animals to people?
A: I like both. But I agree with Truman Capote, who once observed that people who feel more warmly toward dogs, cats and horses than they do toward people are often secretively cruel. Hitler loved dogs.

Q: Are you cruel?
A: I try not to be. I regard cruelty as the most abominable of vices. I can think of nothing that makes me angrier than cruelty of any kind, and one of my problems with the British in general is that so much of their "comedy" is based on cruelty. But sometimes I am cruel with my big mouth, especially when I’m angry. But I always regret it immediately, and either do what I can to make up for it, or, if the victim of my cruelty chooses not to be forgiving, beat up on myself about it. I’m still carrying around past cruelties for which I have not forgiven myself. All I can say is, that’s a strong incentive not to repeat the crime.

Q: Do you have many friends?
A: No. Most of my friends are dead. There are maybe five people I more or less trust.

Q: What qualities do you look for in friends?
A: Well, patience is a big one. I have taxed the patience of everyone I’ve ever loved, and in some cases taxed it beyond endurance. I’m as aware of this as I am of the fact that I’m sometimes cruel, and loathe this tendency in myself just as much as the other, that I lay upon other people the patience which I don’t have. Compassion is important. And intelligence. I have never had a friend who wasn’t intelligent, although once or twice I have been in love with women who, despite great gifts, turned out to be stupid. I’m currently in love with a woman who is smarter than I am, but doesn’t like to read.

Q: Are you often disappointed by a friend?
A: Not really. I’ve had some unpleasant surprises with people I thought to be friends, but not since I was in elementary school has anyone who purported to be my friend ever betrayed me. But friends change as do we all, and sometimes I find that I like the later version of a friend less than the earlier one.

Q: Are you a truthful person?
A: I think so. That’s not to say that I always tell the truth, but I’m a miserably poor liar, so I usually just don’t try it. I wouldn’t have made a good actor, although some people have told me that I should have been an actor. I disagree. If I say something and I don’t mean it, you can tell. It’s easier to lie as a writer of course; no one can see your face when you do it. But I don’t like lying, it makes me uncomfortable and gives me guilt, especially if I’m lying to someone I love.

Q: Do you believe in God?
A: Yes, but I think that question raises more questions than answers. I believe in God, but on the surface of it anyway, I don't really think God and I have much use for each other. "Nonsense," orthodox believers will huff. "God made you. God loves you." Well, I don't know. I once made a water balloon to throw at somebody; that didn't mean I loved it. Anyone who has ever watched a cat play with a mouse has some idea of how I envision my relationship with God. Mark Twain famously considered God to be essentially malign; well, Twain's daughter had died and he was extremely bitter.

Having said all that, I have as much impatience with Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris and the rest of that "new atheist" crowd as I have with my landlord's pea-brained neighbor who has a truly nauseating vanity license plate that reads, "IR4GIVN." Isn't that just the most icky-poo cutesy thing you ever heard? I can't STAND religion when it stoops to the bumper-sticker level of discourse, especially when it borrows the sick-making argot of advertising agencies: "Got Jesus?" (That one really makes me want to puke.) But the insidious operative principle, in the case of both atheists and fundamentalists, is "certainty."

Atheists are always talking about how much cruelty and misery religion has caused. I don't see that atheism has a great track record for spreading, peace, love and joy either. I wouldn't want Robespierre, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha or Kim il-Sung coming down my chimney on Christmas Eve.
I really don't see a whole lot of difference between Truly Convinced fundamentalists and Truly Convinced Atheists. Both think they have the True Answer, and people who think they have the True Answer often become killers in the name of it.

Q: How do you like to occupy your spare time?
A: I really like to read. I always have. Reading coalesced for me when I was about six, and I’ve never stopped. My favorite authors when I was a child included Madeleine L’Engle and Scott O’Dell, and I loved the Hardy Boys mysteries. As a preadolescent I was crazy about science fiction for a while – Arthur C. Clarke was a favorite. As an adult I have admired Hemingway, Faulkner, Henry Miller and Saul Bellow on the American side of the pond, Joyce, Nabokov, Tolstoy, Proust and Mann from the other side. I wonder if it's a coincidence, by the way, that Philip Roth considers himself a disciple of Kafka, and while admiring Kafka's genius, and Roth's brilliance, I find Kafka and Roth both depressing. Orson Welles thought his film version of The Trial the best movie he ever made. Perhaps it is, but it depressed me almost beyond endurance.

I love movies, although I have not been inside a theater to see a feature film since 2006. I usually rent them from Netflix or watch them on my computer. A list of my favorite films would include Mr. Roberts, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, and believe it or not, Francis Ford Coppola’s little 1987 time-warp fantasy Peggy Sue Got Married. (Memory is the closest thing I have to a fetish, and films about going back in time are one of my weaknesses. Peggy Sue Got Married always makes me cry, as do Somewhere in Time and (in its final moments) Field of Dreams. I had a troubled relationship with my father, but we both loved baseball, and at the end of the film, when Ray Kinsella and his long-dead father begin playing catch, look out: I’ll be crying within moments.

 By the way, have you ever noticed how many of the plots of mainstream American film dramas center around the idea of revenge? Revenge seems to be the nation's pet fantasy, as reliving (and, by implication, correcting) the past is mine.

Q: What are you reading these days?
A: Rilke.

Q: Why especially Rilke?
A: I'm fascinated by him. Can't make head nor tail of him. I think James Merrill said the same thing about him. Hey, if he's good enough to confuse a poet like Merrill, who am I to complain? Merrill said that it was Rilke's sheer eloquence he found so compelling. I would have to agree.

Q: Anything else?
A: I just finished reading Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, and have given a re-read to parts of Henry Miller's wonderful album of California memories, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch. As you can see, the motion of my reading can best be described as Brownian. It's a flit-and-dive thing.

Q: Of what are you most afraid?
A: Homelessness. Death, too, of course, but death is something you only have to deal with once. The idea of ending up homeless scares the shit out of me. I see homeless people all the time, as do we all, and try to hand them a couple of bucks when I can. Then I think of the song Eleanor Rigby and my heart sinks into my shoes. There but for the luck of the Irish go I.

Q: You're not Irish. Your last name is French.
A: Uh-huh, but that's on my Dad's side. My father's people were canucks -- they came down from Trois-Riviere, Quebec in the early 20th century and wound up in Massachusetts, where my father was born. My biological grandmother on my mother's side was Irish. Her name was Annie Russell. Her family came from County Meath. That's where Kells is. You know, The Book of Kells? Can't get more Irish than that. My maternal grandfather, Bertram Winrow, met Annie Russell on a steamship bound for Peru in 1914. They were married that same year. She died in July, 1921, when my mother, their only child, was three months old.

Q: What happened to your mother after that?
A: My grandfather brought her to America. Born in 1879 in England, he was in the British merchant marine for a good many years. During his seafaring days he met and became friendly with a family in Pittsburgh, PA named Gray. There he met Edith Gray, who became Edith Gray Winrow in 1924. She and my grandfather went on to have three children of their own, but Edith Gray embraced and raised my mom as one of her own. Edith Winrow was the woman I knew as "Grandma." She died in 1967, when I was 11 years old.

Q: England, Ireland, Peru, Pennsylvania. How did you end up in southern California?
A: Grandpa Winrow came west in 1929 to join a friend of his in a business venture, which I understand was to have been regular air cargo freight service from the west coast of the U.S. to South America. But one of my family's curses is its ill-timing (and mine is absolutely the worst.) You can probably guess what happened. 1929. Yes, the stock market crashed, Grandpa Winrow and his buddy were wiped out, and the family was mired in San Diego County. Eighty years on, there are only two of us left here now, myself and my sister Carla. And I'm looking to get out.

Q: Why would anybody want to leave a beautiful place like San Diego?
A: The family's gone, and the family homestead, a house my grandfather bought in 1941, was sold after my father's death in 2005. There's nothing left here for me but memories. If you saw the Woody Allen film Radio Days, you might remember its poignant ending, in which Allen, as voice-over narrator, reminds one and all that memories fade with each passing year. All this played out against Kurt Weill's September Song, to me the saddest song ever written. By the way, the photo at the head of this blog was taken on the front porch of that very same family homestead I just mentioned. It was taken in the spring of 2005. Behind me, in the house, is my father. He has less than six months to live.

Q: Did you know either of your grandfathers?
A: No. Grandpa Winrow died six years before I was born, in the very same room in which my father would die 56 years later. I don't even know what Grandpa Dupuis looked like. My dad probably didn't know, either. My paternal grandfather ran off and deserted his family when my father was a little boy.

Q: What shocks you, if anything?
A: I touched on this above. Deliberate cruelty. Cruelty for its own sake. And any work of art, be it film, book or whatever, that is deliberately mean-spirited or makes light of mean-spiritedness. Very hip people thought the movie Blue Velvet a sophisticated spoof of something. I saw only ugliness. I hated every minute of it.

Q: It’s been three years since you published Three Flies Up, your memoir of you and your dad. Reader reaction to it was surprisingly good, you said. What have you written since?
A: A novel, The Vespers of 1610. It was a disaster. Nobody read it, and those who did, didn’t like it. I had a copy of it sent to the woman I love, and I suspect she threw it away unopened. Good for her.

Q: What went wrong with it?
A: Well, it takes a special kind of dude to make the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk fly, and I’m no Richard Wagner, what can I tell you? Nobody offered to help me with it, so I tried to do the whole thing myself: writing, editing, proofreading.

No one can be their own editor. The book was too long, its story line too amorphous and some of its moments stretched credulity. My oldest lit-crit friend said he couldn’t understand what the point of it was. He went on to say that I tried to “stuff too much into it,” too many ideas, too many concepts. It didn’t work. The best thing about the book was the painting on the cover, which I painted, by the way. Gesamtkunstwerk. Well, I tried.

Q: Do you exercise?
A: Not as much as I used to. I was doing some light weightlifting and leg-lifts every afternoon, but I gave myself a nasty case of tendonitis in my right elbow. I used to be a dedicated jogger, but gave it up. I recently bought a new bicycle, but I can’t seem to find time to ride it. I gave myself a surfboard as a birthday present last fall and I haven’t even taken it to the beach yet – have to figure out a way to strap it to the roof of a taxicab.

Q: Still, I can see that since the last time we saw each other, you’ve lost a lot of weight. What’s your dieting secret?
A: Believe me, you wouldn’t want to go on the Kelley Dupuis Diet. I don’t recommend it to anyone. The first thing you do is, go into a near-suicidal depression. Then you start self-medicating with booze. The liquor turns you into a Jekyll-and-Hyde, and you drive away the only woman who ever gave you perfect, unqualified love, the only woman who ever truly made you happy. After that you get sick. Gut-sick. Throwing-up sick. Then, facing the shambles of your life, you realize that you have two choices: quit drinking or quit living. So you quit drinking. It’s too late to save anything but your own worthless skin, but you do it anyway. Then, your body suddenly deprived of all the sugar that resides in alcohol, your weight begins to drop. The “booze fat” melts.

Q: So how much weight did you lose?
A: When I left Alexandria, Virginia in July, 2010 I weighed about 200 pounds. The following March I weighed myself at a doctor’s office, and I was down to 172. I was surprised; I didn’t think I’d lost that much weight. My sister, a nurse, advised me strongly not to lose any more weight. Any further weight loss, she hinted, might be unhealthy. I guess. At 55 I weigh only seven pounds more than I weighed in high school.

Q: What’s the most hopeful word in any language?
A: Love.

Q: And the most dangerous?
A: Love.

Q: Have you ever wanted to kill anybody?
A: Yes, but never for more than five minutes. And I’m not a spur-of-the-moment kind of guy, so thus far the casualty count of my homicidal rages is 0. Zero people, that is. Plenty of lamps, chairs, computers, tables, beds, vases, bottles, glasses, typewriters, walls, doorknobs, doorjambs, beverage bottles, windows…and one Xerox machine.

Q: Whose Xerox machine was it?
A: The government’s.

Q: Is there any particular thing you feel that you lack the courage to do, but would do it if you had the courage?
A: Sure. Commit suicide. If I had the guts, I would have killed myself four months ago.

Q: Why?
A: Well, there's never any one reason, is there? It's like you never become depressed for just one reason. It's always a concatenation of things. Suffice it to say that if I had had the courage to do it, I would have killed myself the day Holly Inder told that she didn't love me anymore. I don't find a whole lot that's admirable in Goethe's character Werther, but I do admire him for having the courage to off himself for unrequited love. It was the best career move he ever made.

Q: You're joking of course. About killing yourself.
A: Yeah, probably.

Q: What are your political interests?
A: I have none. As a former journalist, I’ve had my share of contact with elected officials, and I can honestly say that I have never met one, Republican or Democrat, whom I would trust holding the stake for a football pool. I don’t vote anymore, I don’t read newspapers anymore, nor do I watch TV news, listen to news on the radio or follow news on the Internet. When people send me those conservative e-mails bashing Obama or expressing outrage over immigration policy, I delete them. It’s not because I like Obama particularly, it’s just that the news itself depresses me. Outrage is both time-and-energy consuming, and what good does it do anyone in the long run? 

By the way, before I opted to become completely nonpolitical, (one of the best decisions I ever made) I used to be quite conservative. But I haven't become "liberal" in the sense that the media use the word, not by a longshot; you'll never hear me trying to sell the idea that more government is the solution to any problem. Still, I have moments when I wonder what people are thinking. The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said something like "There Are No Hyphenated Americans." I understand the sentiment, but that particular one is unrealistic. "Hyphenated" Americans are the only kind we've ever had, or been. Just look at any account of growing up in say, New York or Chicago a century ago. The wops, spics, kikes, micks, bohunks and whathaveyou were forever chasing each other up and down city streets, looking to bust heads. The discourse may be less brutal now, but we've always been a nation of immigrants, and never, really, a "melting pot."
I voted for John McCain in 2008, but not with any particular enthusiasm, and I will never vote again in any election. I'm done with it. I guess you could say that I’m a recovered journalist. I like what Cary Grant said at the beginning of the film Father Goose: “Two years ago I made my peace with the world. If the world can’t keep the peace with itself, that’s not my problem.”

Q: If you could be anything, what would you like to be?
A. Financially independent, same as everyone else. Next, invisible. Imagine the possibilities of that. Finally, it would be SO nice if I were able to simply erase memories selectively, as some people I know seem able to do. I envy them that, Oh God, how I envy that ability.

Q: What are your chief vices? And virtues?
A: Well, I don’t drink anymore, and I never did do drugs. I don’t gamble. You couldn’t pay me to watch TV. I guess the only vice I have left is cigars. And smokeless tobacco, since you can’t smoke in a cab. Virtues? I think my chief virtue is gratitude. Only once did I ever betray someone who was kind to me, and I have never stopped regretting it, out-of-my-head drunk, depressed and angry as I was when I did it. What I did was to hurt — and perhaps even briefly endanger – someone I adored, and it was inexcusable. My gratitude to her remained, and remains, profound, however, along with my gratitude to artists in every medium, poets, composers, playwrights, novelists and painters who have warmed my soul most with their works. I think I understand a lot about writing in particular, and when I read something really good, I’m engulfed in a sense of wonder. That goes double for music. Music is a form of magic for me.

Q: Do you have a particular guiding principle that you live by?
A: Yeah. "If it looks too good to be true," it is.

Q: Suppose you were drowning. What images, in classic tradition, do you envision rolling across your mind?
A: A wintry day around Christmas, 1958. I’m three years old, and sitting in a pile of snow in the backyard of my family’s home in Burlington, Vermont. I’m pretending I’m Santa Claus, and the pile of snow behind me is my sleigh. I look over the rooftop of the house and in the late-afternoon blue sky, see the moon.
Summer, 1967. Silver Strand State Beach, Coronado, California. I get caught in a riptide and almost do drown. Fortunately the lifeguard is paying attention to his responsibilities, sees I’m in trouble, and comes to fish me out of the surf. My mother, getting wind of what just happened, drags me all over the beach trying to find this lifeguard so she can “thank” him. Already feeling stupid for having gotten caught in a riptide to begin with, I’m now so completely mortified that I want to crawl off and die.
Fall, 1968. Spokane, Washington. I’m thirteen, and come home from the Cinerama Theater, where I’ve just seen 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, so awed by the experience that my younger sister has to come sit by my bed and talk to me for a while before I can get calmed down and go to sleep.
February, 1986. Snow-covered Manassas, Virginia. Late on a Saturday night. I’m sitting in the living room of a two-story townhouse owned by the girl of my dreams, whom I met barely two months earlier. We’ve been out for dinner and are back, quietly talking. She’s smoking one cigarette after another. I want terribly to kiss her, but I’m afraid of being rebuffed. Suddenly, in a flash of courage coming from I-don’t-know-where, I pluck from her fingers the cigarette she’s preparing to light and say, “Why don’t you skip this one?” Then I do kiss her. And to my delighted surprise, instead of smacking me in my presumptuous bazoo, she kisses me back. We sit there and kiss for a long time. Then, toward dawn, she takes my hand and we go upstairs to bed. I’m beside myself with lack-of-sleep fatigue, but happier than I can remember being in a very long time.
August, 1995. Lloret de Mar, Spain. A person with whom my involvement got me sent home to Washington from the American embassy in Moscow the previous year suddenly appears before my eyes in the lobby of a hotel. She’s talking to another woman, facing the other way, and doesn’t see me come in and put my suitcases down. She is dressed as I had never seen her dressed in Russia, in a sleeveless yellow blouse, dark gray skirt and sandals. She has cropped her hair close since I last saw her. I’m a day late, thanks to mechanical problems with an Air France L-1011 back in Washington. She sees me and throws herself into my arms.
October, 2000. I’m sitting in the living room of my one-bedroom apartment in Baltimore, Maryland, watching Richard Gere in The Cotton Club on AMC with my pal from Moscow, Boris Demidov. The telephone rings. It’s my younger sister, sobbing. My mother had a stroke yesterday, and they’ve taken her off life-support. My mother is dead.
Now the Polaroids begin to slap down in more rapid succession: My high-school graduation. My initiation into adult sex at an ocean-view resort on the Pacific  in Ventura, California, late summer 1975. Disembarking from a TWA flight from JFK to Frankfurt in March 1986, the first time I set foot on European soil. Another plane memory: looking down at the Russian countryside around Moscow while flying for the first time in Sheremetovo in May, 1993, and thinking that this part of Russia looked a lot like Ohio.
Many others. But I’m fading as they fade. As the poet wrote:

It’s not fading, but it’s falling apart,
this artifact from a family Christmas
like all the other family Christmases
of which I knew nothing and was no part.
Why have I kept it with me all these years?
You tell me. The dog in your arms has died,
and you’re an adult now. You weren’t that day.
Your expression makes that winter-dawn clear.
It was not so at all when you gave me
this small gift. We were young – that’s obvious
from the unspoiled arrogance that I see
in those ineffably convinced brown eyes
and parted red lips, awaiting the click.
We’re idiots. Only pictures are wise.

Okay, The poet was me. The real-life girl in the Polaroid described by the poem was the dream-girl alluded to above, the chain-smoker whom I impulsively kissed that magic late winter night in 1986.
And I do believe that only pictures are wise.

Monday, March 28, 2011

In Everyone's Life, There's A....

I've been keeping a journal since I was 13.

My first journal was a pale blue wirebound cardboard datebook from a drugstore, 5 x 7. How I came to have this little notebook I don't remember. Perhaps my mother brought it home and didn't use it, and I found it in a drawer somewhere. Perhaps I bought it myself. Those details have escaped me, and so have all the journals that I meticulously kept all through high school and college.  Hundreds of pages worth, gone, including the journal entry I wrote on the morning of the day I graduated from Chula Vista High School. June 15, 1973. I've thought about having a hypnotist put me "under" and see if under hypnosis I might be able to reconstruct what I wrote that long-ago morning before I donned that blue cap and gown and went off to fetch my diploma.

But you see, on the eve of my 22nd birthday, in 1977, a girl named Melody broke my heart. Overreacting, as poets so often do, (yes, I was a teenage poet) I took all of the journals I had kept during the previous seven years, tossed them into a metal drum and put a match to them.  Written records of high school and college days, gone.

Of some of those destroyed notebooks I say, "Whew. That's a relief. No one will ever see that." Of others, well...

It was in the early spring of 1969 that I began keeping my first diary. My family was living in Spokane, Washington that year. I was in the eighth grade. Entries were short, terse and didn't say much. "High 59. No mail. My sisters watching Dark Shadows after school. Drab day."

Well, I was 13. You couldn't expect my diaries to run in the same crowd as those of Samuel Pepys or Anais Nin.

On the other hand, some noteworthy things did work their way into that first-ever notebook of mine.

My first kiss, for instance. Although the notebook is long gone, this page I remember clearly.

I'm talking about my first real kiss, the first time I ever kissed a girl on the lips, not just the cheek. That's a rite-of-passage in anyone's life. Or it used to be, anyway.

First kiss. Yes, I do remember mine.

Her name was Nancy. Nancy Layton. She was a school friend of my late younger sister Lynn's.

Nancy, the poor girl, had the misfortune to be extremely pretty. She was a pert little blonde, her hair worn Beatles-style, with bangs in front, and on the sides hanging just down over her ears; slightly oriental (or feline, if you prefer, a trait she shared with my second wife) green eyes; slightly turned-up nose. Nancy was also precocious in her development, by which I mean of course that at age 13 she had gotten a jump on puberty and already had well-developed breasts. Big ones. I call this "misfortune" because naturally, being so well and so precociously endowed, she had the boys after her all the time, and also (I knew this because I was a boy) talking about her when she wasn't there.

By the time Nancy started the seventh grade at Jonas Salk Junior High School in Spokane that fall, she already had "a reputation." Boys were on Nancy's tail constantly, you know, like those packs of dogs you see sniffing around the local girl-dog when she's in season. Nancy didn't have to ask for this attention, nor did she have to exude any special aroma. It was just there, owing to what nature had been either generous or mischievous enough to give her.

I shared my first kiss with Nancy. Lucky me. The late Johnny Carson, when he was a young GI during WWII,  once got to dance with Betty Grable at a USO event. I know how he felt. I got to kiss Nancy Layton. I know exactly how Johnny must have felt.

My family moved back to California about a year later, and I only saw Nancy one more time after that. From a distance: I returned to Spokane for a summer vacation visit with my old school chum Tom Caulton in the summer of 1971. He and I had ridden downtown on our bicycles, and on our way home, as we were cycling up the long hill of Monroe Street back to the north side of town, I glimpsed Nancy, who would have been maybe 15 by then, walking up Monroe Street with some guy, her head on his shoulder.

I didn't stop and say hello; in fact I didn't stop at all. I just rode on by and kept going.

I have every confidence that Nancy was probably pregnant by age 18 if not sooner. By the time she hit 40 she was probably a grandmother. Sex does that.

But on the afternoon of June 28, 1969, Nancy was barely 13 and despite appearances, probably still a virgin; eighth-grade boys, or even ninth, were more talk than conquest in those days.

She came to our house on Lynn's invitation. They were sixth-grade classmates at Loma Verde Elementary School, which, when Carla and I returned to the old neighborhood in 2004 after scattering Lynn's ashes in the Spokane River, we found to have vanished. Only a park remained where the school had once stood.

Our home at 6204 North Alberta Street in Spokane had a big backyard in 1969, with a pool. It was a small pool, maybe ten feet square and four feet deep, with a deck and a fence surrounding it. It took ten hours to fill the pool with a garden hose. It had no heating or filter; when the pool was filled late in the spring with water from the garden hose, it would be far too cold to swim in; we would have to wait a couple of days, letting the sun shine on the water all day until it became merely cold, not icy.

It was too small a pool for real swimming of course, but on a 92-degree July day, the splashing-around we were able to do in it was both refreshing and fun.

Nancy came over to our house that day, on Lynn's invitation, to go in the pool.  Nancy wore a one-piece swimsuit, dark blue, and memory might not be serving me correctly, but I somehow recall that her swimsuit also had a little skirt-ruffle around the waist; swimsuits sometimes did in those days. Anyway, Nancy, Lynn and I all went out to the pool.

I would turn 14 that fall. I was a more-or-less normal boy for that age, as horny as all of my friends were, and every bit as susceptible as they to Nancy's charms, but shy, fighting acne and probably more than a little self-conscious owing to, among other things, that idiotic first name my mother had given me which, until I quit using it halfway through my sophomore year of high school, always made me feel somewhat set apart from the other kids. A freak of sorts. And I was morbidly sensitive. In short, I was as shy and unsure of myself at age 13, confronting Nancy Layton, as I would be 17 years later with another girl, Holly Brayton, who resembled Nancy in some other ways besides the fact that their last names rhymed.

Somehow, that afternoon, probably in a half-joking way aimed at protecting my hurt pride should I be rebuffed, (again, much the same way I would approach Holly in 1986) I managed to make Nancy understand that I would like to kiss her. Nancy was no stranger to that situation. She let me kiss her. A real kiss, on the lips, deep enough, though I'm sure not "French." It was my first real kiss with a girl. And of course it was intoxicating, magical. Kissing is, by its nature. That's why it's been so popular for about 10,000 years. Goethe, no monk himself, held kissing in higher regard than the sex act itself, owing to its spiritual overtones as opposed to the more "animalistic" character of the other. I don't know as I would go that far, but there is a good reason why the poets, Goethe included, have for all these centuries rhapsodized about the magic of a kiss.

13 year-old Nancy with her 18 year-old body knew all about kissing, and was more than willing to share her erudition with a shy boy who just happened to be almost a year older than she.

As boys will, I kept count of the number of kisses Nancy and I shared that afternoon in and around the pool. And being already a journal-keeper at going-on-14, I duly recorded the experience in my little blue notebook: "Nancy Layton came over to swim, and I kissed her 28 times in the afternoon."

Later, when I saw the film Summer of '42, there was a moment in the movie that rang familiar bells. In a movie-within-a-movie moment, the two boys in the film, Hermie and Oscy, accompany two girls, Miriam and Aggie, into a theater to see Now, Voyager starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid. The boys are of course looking to put the moves on the girls. In the darkened theater Hermie begins caressing and squeezing what he thinks is his date's breast, only his hand has taken a wrong turn in the groping and he's actually squeezing her arm. Oscy looks over and notices his friend's mistake in the semi-darkness of the theater, and tries to silently correct his pal, but Hermie doesn't get the message, shoots him a dirty look and goes on squeezing.

After the movie, as the boys are on their way home, Hermie boasts of having squeezed and caressed Aggie's breast "for fourteen minutes." A "record," he says. Oscy needles him: "Are you sure it wasn't an arm?"

They haggle over this detail. Oscy insists it was an arm Hermie was squeezing, not a breast.  "Make sure you know what the hell it is you're squeezing, Hermie," he finally shouts, "especially if you're puttin' a CLOCK on it and goin' for RECORDS!"

They wind up laughing all the way home. I guess teenage boys didn't change much between 1942 and 1969. And probably haven't changed much since, come to think of it, although technology has certainly enabled their concupiscence to an extent far beyond what was available to us boys of the 1960s and '70s, who were restricted to sneaking a peek at Playboy when we sought initiation into The Mysteries. Nowadays teenage boys are so marinated with cyber-porn and late-night video that first kisses probably don't carry quite the throw-weight in a boy's memory that they once did. And first kisses are, or were, so very important,  At least mine was.

Of course there was a fallout: I was more like Hermie in the film than I was like Oscy. Hermie was the romantic dreamer, Oscy the lusty boy who just wanted to "get laid." I couldn't kiss a girl like Nancy, or many years later, like Holly, and then simply file the experience away and move on to the next thrill. I had a bad crush on Nancy for the first few months of my ninth-grade year at Salk, just as, years later, I could never get Holly completely off my mind, right through X number of relationships and even two marriages. What might have happened if Holly had bestowed my first kiss upon me, rather than Nancy?

But oh, that couldn't have happened. We were kids, and kid-dom is a world unto itself. A couple of years' difference in age, no big deal when you and your date are both in your forties, are a very big deal when the years and the perspective are still short: when I was 13, Holly was only seven. No, it couldn't have happened, even if I had lived in Athens, Greece, where Holly lived at that age. She was in the second grade when I was in the eighth. An ocean of time, then.

Still, if I had to pick my two all-time most memorable, and most significant, moments with girls, they would be June 28, 1969, the day Nancy granted me my first real kiss, and February 13, 1986, the night sweet Holly opened her arms to my sorry, beaten-up ass.

God bless them both. Each was in her own way an angel, and neither knew it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Out On A Limb

One of the funniest articles I ever read in TV Guide magazine was about a program that ran on a local television station in Spokane, Washington, back around 1976.

For those old enough to remember 1976, (and our ranks are already thinning, alas) that was the year that the United States of America celebrated its 200th birthday.

Television was, of course, in the forefront of all the hoopla. Remember the Shell Oil Company's famous "Bicentennial Minutes?"

For those who don't, every single night, starting on July 4, 1974 and leading right up to the big day, July 4, 1976, a celebrity would appear on your TV screen around 8 p.m. and rattle off some important event in the American struggle for independence from England that had occured 200 years ago that night. (With "Yankee Doodle" playing in the background, as I recall, you know, the way that song would suddenly start playing on the soundtrack of Green Acres whenever Eddie Albert launched  into one of his windy diatribes about the greatness of The American Farmer.)

By the time all of this wrapped up, 729 Bicentennial Minutes later, comedians were making jokes about it.

Local TV wanted to do its bit as well. Everywhere a local public television outlet could afford it, documentaries and dramatizations popped up about American history. Some of them, if not most, were woefully low-budget, and that's where the fun began.

The author of the article I read had been involved in the filming of one such local history program, this one for the PBS audience in Spokane, Washington. (A great little city, by the way. My personal favorite city in the whole country.)

Because these programs were low-budget, utilizing local actors and a local production crew all working for low pay if any, production sloppiness inevitably got into the act. Of course nobody caught any of these bloopers until the rushes were being viewed. The article listed three doozies that I remember:

  • In a scene where an Indian brave was sneaking through the underbrush, preparing an ambush upon a group of unwary settlers, no one noticed that the Indian brave was wearing sunglasses.
  • In another scene, in which the settlers and the local Indians were having a meeting together, nobody noticed that the Indian chief was wearing a digital wristwatch.
  • And in one big battle scene, no one (including the camerman) noticed that right in the middle of the action, the camera had captured a pickup truck passing in the background.
OK. The word:


1. Rhetoric . the anticipation of possible objections in order to answer them in advance.
2. the assigning of a person, event, etc., to a period earlier than the actual one; the representation of something in the future as if it already existed or had occurred; prochronism.
3. the use of a descriptive word in anticipation of its becoming applicable.
4. a fundamental conception or assumption in Epicureanism or Stoicism arising spontaneously in the mind without conscious reflection; thought provoked by sense perception.
5. Pathology . the return of an attack of a periodic disease or of a paroxysm before the expected time or at progressively shorter intervals.
1570–80; < Late Latin prolēpsis  < Greek prólēpsis  anticipation, preconception, equivalent to prolēp-  (verbid stem of prolambánein  to anticipate ( pro- pro-2 + lambánein  to take)) + -sis -sis

I have in mind here, specifically, Definition #2.

I've been thinking about this, don't ask me why, unless it has something to do with my lifelong movie-watching and reading habits. Prolepses and anachronisms prop up all the time in literature of course; I think even in Shakespeare. Isn't there a line in Julius Caesar about it being "eight O'clock" or something? The Romans didn't have clocks, only sundials.

But I was thinking the other day about my 1982 telephone interview with Ray Bradbury, the legendary science-fiction author (and one time purveyor of prunes for Sunsweet, if you remember those ads.) . I told him that my favorite among his short stories was There Will Come Soft Rains, from his great 1950 collection, The Martian Chronicles. This story, which takes its title from a poem by the American poet Sara Teasdale, depicts with wrenching poignancy, the more so for the fact that there are no human characters in it, the aftermath of a supposed nuclear war on Mars, waged between...well, you know. The earthlings who colonized Mars and brought along their bad habits.

Bradbury complimented me on this choice. He said it was his own favorite among his stories. "You have very good taste, young man," he said to me. I was 26 at the time and still qualified as a young man.

But it got me thinking about what a tightrope-act the writing of science fiction, or futuristic fiction of any kind is. Unlike most mainstream fiction, sci-fi and futuristic fantasy go out on a limb in predicting -- or assuming -- the sort of world we might find down the road. In 1950 the U.S. was developing the hydrogen bomb, and the USSR was getting ready to steal the information it needed to develop one. Rockets going into space were still a cartoonist's (or a sci-fi writer's) dream. By 1952 the H-bomb would be a reality, and by 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, rockets going into space were also part of contemporary life.

But earthlings have not reached Mars, let alone colonized it. We reached the moon in 1969, but there's no colony there either, just some junk we left, and one American flag. (Oh, yes, and the late Alan Shepard's golf ball -- in 1971 he became the first, and so far only, man to hit a golf ball on the moon.)

Contemporary history has been, by and large, a disappointment to authors who have indulged in crystal-ball gazing. Yes, we have artificial intelligence (sort of), and robots and computers that can do many of the things that kids used to laugh at on The Jetsons. But more often than not, writers who have gone out on that limb and tried to show us what they hoped --or feared -- life would be like in their future, or their children's, have been either sold short or just turned out to be dead wrong.

Countless books have been written imagining future dreams or nightmares that didn't pan out quite as predicted. Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward, 1887-2000, written in 1887, thought we'd all be living in the perfect Socialist Worker's Paradise by 2000. (We may have a form of socialism these days, but it ain't no paradise.) Aldous Huxley had us all going off to the "feelies,"the form of popular entertainment that would succeed the movies in his Brave New World. No, or not yet, anyway, Aldous. (Although the last I heard, the mad scientists working on "virtual reality" were trying to figure out a way for us to have "virtual sex" with holograph-figures -- natch:  it was probably the first techno-kink they thought of. All I can say is, God help us when and if the government tries to get mixed up in that.) And while illegal drug use is flourishing as never before, "soma" has not yet replaced booze as the opiate of the masses.

Those are classic examples that everyone thinks of. How about The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler's post-WWI jeremiad that got just about everything wrong? (But is still a favorite in some quarters, including, not long ago, Vladimir Putin's Russia.)

I can think of some more examples from popular culture. Let's go back to Ray Bradbury for a minute. His conceit in the novel Fahrenheit 451 was that in the totalitarian nightmare of the future, books would be illegal. The novel's protagonist, Guy Montag, is a "fireman." Irony in the job description: Montag's job isn't putting out fires, it's starting them. He and his minions, whenever they get a tip off that someone somewhere has books, those dangerous purveyors of ideas that might threaten dictatorships, they go roaring off in their "fire engine" to incinerate the books in question. The story ends on a hopeful note, as a subterranean "priesthood" of wandering scholars called "living books" appear. These are people who have memorized books and will repeat them to those who want to hear, since nobody can get their hands on actual books any more.

When Bradbury published the 1951 story that he later expanded into a novel, he of course could have no idea that books would somebody become, not banned but obsolete, as some are declaring them now. In the world of the Internet and such gizmos as Kindle, books have not been banned but superseded by forms of communication lighter, faster and easier to carry. I have a friend who refuses to touch a book anymore. He prefers to live on the cutting edge of technology with his Kindle, which holds the digital equivalent of...what, 5000 books? Something like that. In 1951 Bradbury feared books would become outlawed. Instead the opposite has happened: you can carry an entire public library in your pocket.

The late British filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, in collaboration, first with sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke and then later with novelist Anthony Burgess, gave us some highly publicized pieces of dire prediction that went awry in the face of duller reality. In his classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, (1968) Kubrick, from the vantage point of the mid-1960s, gave us a glimpse of what he thought the world would look like in 2001.

He got some well-deserved kudos in later years for the way in which some of the film's special effects, most notably those involving spacewalks, (Extra-Vehicular Activity or EVA, as they're known in the bureaucratic gobblydegook of NASA) predicted accurately what the spacewalk videos of the space shuttle program would look like.

But look at the bloopers of pure assumption that Kubrick slipped into this film. First, there is the most obvious: he envisioned a fully-colonized moon by 2001, with regular shuttle service provided to and from the lunar colonies. And look who provides that service! When Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) travels to the moon in 2001, he's "flying" on Pan Am. On his way to the moon he meets and chats with a small group  of Soviet scientists. It is implied that Cold War tensions have extended themselves to the celestial sphere when one of these scientists refers to "our bases" on the moon as opposed to "your bases." When Floyd places a phone call home to earth and talks with his daughter, (played in the film by Kubrick's real-life daughter) he places the space phone call via Bell Telephone.

In the 2001 we all remember now, the real one, there were no colonies on the moon, and the Soviet Union, Pan Am and the Bell System had all three long since gone belly-up.

In Kubrick's next film after 2001, A Clockwork Orange, (1971) we were served up one more nightmare vision of a future that failed to materialize.  When Anthony Burgess wrote the novel A Clockwork Orange in 1962, the global power and prestige of the Soviet Union were at apogee. Russia would never again be either as powerful or as influential globally as she was in the 12-18 months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Some intellectuals of the time, Burgess among them, looked at the future and assumed it would be Russian. Hence, the young hooligans of Burgess' futuristic nightmare-Britain in A Clockwork Orange spoke a slangy patois among themselves called "Nadsat." Nadsat consisted almost entirely of words borrowed from Russian, since Burgess assumed that Russian, i.e. Soviet culture was going to lead the way into the 21st century. In Clockwork Orange milk is "moloko," money is "deng," young women are "devotchkas" and their breasts are "groodies;" blood is "krovvy," and the hero's friends are "droogs." Eyes are "glazzies," and to see something is to "viddy."

And then there was the topper of them all: anything considered very good was described as "horrorshow," a play on the Russian word "Хорошо," (pronounced "chorosho")  meaning "good." All of these "Nadsat" slang terms came from the Russian language.

Wrong again, prognosticators. It's English that dominates the global discourse in modern business and political affairs. In fact, now that school children in the former eastern European satellite countries that made up much of the Soviet empire are no longer forced to learn Russian, relatively few people are bothering to learn it at all. The beautiful Русский язык has little use outside Russia these days unless you're dealing with the import and export of Stolichnaya vodka, or doing business with the Russian global mafia, a more potent and more vicious force in the modern world than the imaginary Russian-spouting teenage gangs of  Burgess' and Kubrick's futuristic "London" ever were.

Which is not to say that the crystal-ball crowd is always wrong. A couple of years ago the Internet burbled briefly with news of a short film, 1999 A.D., supposedly made in 1967, which gave a snapshot of life in what was then the imagined techno-future. Among other things, the documentary short in question seemed to predict -- somewhat eerily, perhaps even suspiciously...the Internet. It showed a very wired young family performing such chores as ordering lunch and shopping through the use of a computer interface. In fact the film seemed so prescient that many people suspected it was a hoax. 'Net surfers flocked to for confirmation of the trickery. But one of the actors in the documentary was a young, then relatively-unknown fellow named Wink Martindale. An early '60s southern California radio personality, Martindale later went on to a high-profile career as a TV game show host, appearing on such shows as Gambit, Debt, High Rollers and Tic-Tac Dough. Still alive and well in the early 21st century, Martindale was inducted on to the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006.

Interviewed after 1999 A.D.  came to light, Martindale assured one and all that the film was indeed a genuine product of the 1960s. (Some saw confirmation of the film's legitimacy immediately in its quaint touch of sexism -- Mom calls Dad and Junior to lunch, and decides what she'll order for them to eat. Also, Mom handles all the shopping.)

Someone scored a lucky hit. More power to them. But I still say it's a dicey proposition at best, trying to predict the future face of life. There are just too many variables -- and surprises -- in history for anyone to get too smug about how we'll be living in 50 or 100 years. Personally, I'm having enough trouble adjusting to change from one month to the next to worry much about the year 3535, in which a rock music duo named Zager & Evans declared --way back in 1969, the year we reached the moon, -- that we would see all of our daily thoughts and sensations available in pill form.

Sorry, but I can't resist the obvious retort: I'm not swallowing that.

Not without a stiff shot of soma, anyway.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Answer the Shoe Phone, Dummy!

It seems that I used to work for the CIA.

The only problem is, I didn't.

But people don't want to hear that. America isn't buying my story.

It has another idea about me which it seems to prefer hands-down to the boring truth.

Over the past 50-plus years, the republic has become so besotted with spies and spying, soaking up books, plays and movies about the fun-filled world of Spookdom, that now, anyone and everyone who has read a John Le Carre novel or seen Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor thinks that he or she has the subculture of international espionage all figured out.

Telling people that I used to work for the State Department, and then denying their sneers, winks, guffaws and innuendos about what they're absolutely sure I was really doing overseas, is like telling someone that you had dinner with Justin Timberlake last night and that you just forgot to bring along your cellphone-camera, so you have no photo to back up your claim.

Eyeballs roll. (After the winking of course.) And then you get those grins.

You know the kind of grins I mean. The kind you get when you're trying to convince your friends that you and your date really DID run out of gas on Paradise Road last night.

I've been dealing with this ever since I left the State Department in 1999. Tell someone that you used to be a State Department employee working in overseas embassies and consulates, (which I was), and right away the person you're talking to assumes that you must have been under cover, getting your real paycheck from those nice folks at Langley who brought you god-knows-how-many expensive, failed coups d'etat -- (and who knows how many other mind-bogglingly stupid wastes of your money?) -- since they tried to get rid of Fidel Castro more than 50 years ago (and weren't able to get rid of him then, or in all the years since.)

Actually, I was dealing with this phenomenon before I even left the State Department. It's sort of an ongoing vaudeville act in which nearly anyone who has ever been on the payroll of the Foggy Bottom Brown-Nose Brigade has occasionally to play straight man (or woman) to some random moviegoer's stand-up comedian.

The more you deny it, the firmer they believe it.

I joined the State Department in 1985 as what was then called a Support Communications Officer. (Yeah, yeah, like those guys in The Falcon and the Snowman. Huh boy.)

I went overseas for the first time in 1986. My first assignment was the American consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. I pulled traffic, stuffed pouch bags, sent cables, shuffled paper, swept floors, went out to Offenbach to fetch the mail and to Rhein-Main Air Base for diplomatic pouch-swaps, was pulled out of bed at all hours of the night for "high precedence" traffic, and drank a lot of beer.

When I came home for a visit two years later, I found that everyone seemed to have a clearer idea of what I was doing in Germany than I did.

I went to visit the family of my late high-school friend Randy, a more-or-less regular habit I had acquired since his death in 1977.

Randy's dad, Ron, was watching the San Diego Chargers on TV when I walked in. He didn't acknowledge my presence in the room until there came a commercial break.

"Now, where have you been, again?" he asked me.

"Frankfurt. Germany. I was working at the American consulate."

"My grandson Danny says you're working for the CIA."


"After you left for Washington, Danny stood right where you're standing and told us over and over, 'I'm telling you, he's working for the CIA.' "

"I'm not."

I winced as Ron grinned one of those "jist-between-you-'n-me" grins that I've been seeing so much of in the years since. "I wouldn't put it past you," he chuckled.

"Well, then you must know something about me I don't. Because I'd put it past me," I said. "I don't work for the CIA. Never did. Never will."

Mercifully, the pitch for Nissan or maybe it was Toyota ended, and Ron's attention turned back to the Chargers, as usual getting trounced by Denver or whoever. I hadn't convinced him of anything, I'm sure. But I'm just as sure that he forgot the whole conversation as soon as I was gone.

Why am I bringing this up now? Now, more than ten years after I left the halls of government, vowing never to return to that trillion-dollar playpen of smiling, ass-kissing, back-stabbing, prevaricating, two-faced don't-rock-the-boat types, that overpaid, underworked, benefit-showered, tax-fattened, double-dipping, budget-padding horde of professional meeting-attenders, clock-watchers and paper-shufflers? Those wasters of the taxpayers' money, from whose ranks I was so glad to escape? 

Because the subject came up again just last night.

I picked up a couple in my taxicab shortly before midnight. They wanted to go to Taco Bell. I took them to the drive-thru there. After they had placed their orders and handed me money to pay for them, (I do this for my customers all the time) I overheard the woman reminding the man that they were at Taco Bell because he had complained about McDonald's.

"They made me pay extra for maple syrup," he grumped.

Overhearing, and with my usual inability to avoid pitching in my $.02, I said, "When I was in Germany I went to Burger King and was annoyed when I had to pay extra for ketchup."

"Where were you in Germany?" he asked.

"Munich, that time," I said.

"What were you, in the Army?"

"No. At that time I worked at the American embassy in Bonn. I was with the State Department."

Immediately the guffaws began. "Oh, yeah. State Department. Sure. You mean CIA." (Grin, snicker.)

"No!" I said. "I was NOT with the CIA. I was with the State Department. Not all State Department employees are spooks in disguise, never mind what you might have picked up from Oliver Stone. In fact very few are. You know, I sometimes wish I HAD been with the Agency. I'm sure I would have been paid better money, given better quarters, probably promoted faster, and I certainly would have gotten more respect."

More snickers. "Sure. That's part of the cover, right?"

"What, you mean being underpaid? If it were, they wouldn't get many volunteers."

But I could see that I wasn't getting anywhere, so, having played this game so many times before, I decided to cash in my chips.

"Okay," I conceded, tired of having this conversation with people in any case. "If you want to think I was CIA, fine. Does make me seem more glamorous, I guess."

Where do people get the idea that intelligence work is glamorous? (I think I answered that question above. See "books, plays and movies.") The late William F. Buckley Jr. did some intelligence work for the CIA in the 1950s, and he told an interviewer years later that one of the reasons he gave it up was because it was about as exciting as waiting for a pot of goulash to boil over. "You might spend eight hours staring at a building," he said, "your only instruction being to make a note if anyone walks through the front door."

Do you remember Antonio Prohias' truly great cartoon series in Mad Magazine, Spy vs. Spy? I certainly do. When I was in the sixth grade we loved these cartoons. You can still get them in book form on

The cartoons were wordless. And priceless. They featured two characters, the White Spy and the Black Spy. They were identical except that one of them wore white and the other wore black. They both slightly resembled pelicans wearing sunglasses and giant Panama hats, (one white, the other black) and they spent about 30 years in the funnies, basically taking turns blowing each other up.

Often their shenanigans included tiptoeing around and ducking behind potted palm trees in a building with a sign out front reading "EMBASSY."

Whether Prohias' brilliant buffoonery had much to do with it or not, somehow over the years, Americans from kindergarten up have absorbed the idea that embassies are a sort of AMC Family Fun Center for spies.

Well, in all honesty, embassies are used for spying, by everybody, and by "everybody" I don't mean every employee, but every country. In the spook world, embassies are known as "stations," and the head spook-in-residence, the boss of all the little spooks, is called the "Chief of Station." And by the way, for those of you who weren't paying close enough attention at the local cinema eight-plex, CIA employees directly involved with espionage are not called "agents," they're called "case officers." Case officers don't do the spying; they recruit other people to do it, e.g. natives of the host country willing to rat-fink on their own government for a few bucks. It's those people who are called "agents." 

But all of you movie buffs out there already know that, don't you? Still, counterintelligence is far from being the only thing that embassies do. But let's face it: diplomacy, visa interviews and passport-stamping are as dull as dry cleaning. War, political destabilization and espionage, that's the stuff movies are made of.

Ironically, I think that Hollywood's thrill-factory has actually inflated The Agency's puissance (to use a word that Shakespeare liked. Ah, go look it up), not to mention its general competence. I once commented that I wouldn't trust the CIA to deliver a pizza.  "It would end up on the wrong continent," was my surmise, based on things I had seen with my own eyes. Let us not forget that these are the people charged with keeping tabs on the innermost workings of foreign governments, and for forty years they obsessed about the Russians. So why did the collapse of the USSR in 1991 take them as much by surprise as it did anyone else?  I have some idea. See my "pizza" comment, above.

For the truth is, I did have my share of contact with agency people during my years overseas. I never worked for them, (except for doing the dirty jobs that their telecommunications people wouldn't soil their hands with) but I worked in close proximity with them. Some were even personal friends. I dined out with them. Had them over for dinner. Had dinner at their homes. Went shopping with them. Rubbed elbows with them at social gatherings. Chatted with them in the embassy cafeteria.

When I mention these things to people, they always ask, "How did you know who the spooks in the embassy were, if they were all under cover?"

Well, in fairness to the agency, usually you didn't. And you were told not to express too much curiosity, so we didn't. But when I'm asked this question, I always remember the classic quip of my last roommate in California before I headed east in '85 to go to work for the State Department. Sitting around bullshitting over a drink one night, he and I, we discussed this very question. "How are you gonna know who's who?" (That is, if you care. And I didn't. Not enough to ask, anyway.)

Jeff had a quick, sometimes devastating wit. His guess: "They'll be the ones wearing those fake glasses with the plastic noses."

I almost suffocated with laughter.

But actually, as experience was soon to teach me, he wasn't all that far off.

The real world's short answer to that question is: basic stupidity. "They compromise themselves more than we ever compromise them," said a now-retired co-worker in Frankfurt who had much experience in embassies and knew what he was talking about. The things "they" did to protect their "Mr. Hyde" personae while playing Dr. Jekyll in daylight were sometimes risible.

For instance, at one embassy where I worked, there was a guy working under cover who, to protect his "real" identity, would take the back stairs, not the main stairwell off the lobby that the rest of us used, whenever he wanted to go from his "cover" office to the one usually called  "The spook house."

Smart, real smart. He might as well have had a sign scotch-taped to his back reading "GUESS WHO?"

Fortunately for him, the rest of us kept our observations of his Barney Fife-like attempt at "discretion" amongst ourselves. Whether the locals working in the embassy noticed it or not I couldn't say, but my own experience working in embassies taught me that diplomatic and consular posts are hotbeds of gossip, particularly among the Foreign Service Nationals, as embassy local employees are called, so most likely his "secret" was no secret to anyone.

Then there was a case I heard about, but didn't see because it happened at another embassy, one where I hadn't worked. According to the story, some under-cover nitwit decided that instead of keeping "them" scattered about the chancery in various offices, "they" should all be consolidated in one place under a fake office name, "Pol2," or something like that.

For unadulterated, shining brilliance, this ranked right up there with Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner by combining metallic bird seed with a giant electromagnet ordered from the Acme Corporation. If some "unfriendly" host country individual wanted to know who the spooks were, all he or she had to do was get hold of a copy of the "old" embassy telephone list, put it alongside a copy of the "new" one and let the old fingers do the walking.

"Sheer genius!" as Wile E. Coyote himself might have said.

I have reached the age where I can no longer assume that everyone I'm talking to "gets" the jokes. But no baby boomer could fail to recognize the picture I put at the beginning of this rant: Don Adams in the role of secret agent Maxwell Smart in Get Smart, Mel Brooks' inspired sendup of the "007" movie craze of the 1960s.

But for those born later than 1980 or thereabouts, I'll have to explain.  The show premiered on NBC television in the fall of 1965, the same fall that I had my tenth birthday.

All kids loved Get Smart. The loony humor was irresistible, the punchlines ("Missed it by that much!") delectable, and for the older crowd there were the inside digs at Washington and at bureaucracy in general, guaranteed to tickle the funnybones of an America shocked by the murder of John F. Kennedy two years earlier, then started on a long road to cynicism by Lyndon Baines Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War in the same year this show premiered.

But I read an article a few years ago that tickled not only my funnybone, but my sense of irony. The zany gadgets that were always popping up on Get Smart, from Max's famous "shoe phone," a rotary-dial ancestor of the iPhone, to the infamous "Cone of Silence," the ever-malfunctioning tempest-and-sound-proof plexiglas dome which Max would always insist be lowered over the Chief's desk when they discussed classified matters, were apparently very close to some of the "real world" gadgets of government monkey business. So close, in fact, that eventually the CIA became suspicious that someone was leaking information, not to the Russians, the Cubans or the Chinese, but to those incorrigible subversives Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the producers of Get Smart. (I especially loved the portable Cone of Silence, twin plastic bubbles into which Max and the Chief would seal their heads, then shout at each other through a plastic tube.) And who could forget David Ketchum as Agent 13, the poor slob who was always couped up inside a mailbox or the back of an ice-cream truck ("Does the light really go off when the door closes?") from whence he conducted "surveillance."

I always think of these guys, and their toys, whenever anyone leers knowingly at me upon being told that I used to be with the State Department. I have a touch of claustrophobia, so I probably wouldn't have enjoyed performing surveillance from inside a garbage can or a water cooler, but on the other hand I would have given almost anything to watch some officious Secret Twit tell his supervisor to "lower the cone of silence," only to have the damn thing crash through the boss' desk and keep going right through the floor, as it did once on the show.Your tax dollars at work.

It's odd: mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent was forever having to perform quick costume changes and feats of legerdemain to protect his "real" identity, Superman. Over the years I've had to deal with the opposite problem, that of people thinking I'm "Superman" (so to speak, although I can assure you that none of the agency people I've ever known, as loony-tooney as some of them were, ever resorted to wearing capes and tights, which doesn't necessarily mean that some of them didn't) and I have to try and convince them that I'm just Clark Kent and nobody else. No "secret identity" here, no Mr. Hyde, just simple, unassuming Dr. Jeykll, who served his time in the duller of our overseas bureaucracies, and was damned glad to put it behind him and go back to the private sector, where lunatic behavior certainly exists, but it isn't so consistently and relentlessly rewarded as it is in government.

Now, if you'll all excuse me, my shoe is ringing.