I woke up a little before eight in the morning. I do this in the winter, when daylight begins late and, mixed with fog, allows the dark night to linger. Out the window I saw bare trees and a sky turning silver. The day will be nice, I thought, no need for an umbrella.
I went down to the kitchen to get my coffee. I usually drink two cups, the first regular and the second decaf, and in between I do my morning exercises. Mental exercises that is, on my cellular: first Spider Solitaire, followed by Free Cell, followed by a solitaire called simply Solitaire and finally Sudoku. Since I’ve been doing it for a while, I am at the expert level. The four games take me no longer than 30 minutes, unless I have a bad morning and keep losing.
I had seen an unpleasant movie the previous evening — Bombshell– so I took my time with my solitaires and added a few games of Hangman which is perfect for washing the bitter taste from one’s mouth and prevent one from thinking about the ugly world we live in, if we actually think about it.
By ten, I went upstairs to my office, powered up my computer and started writing. I mostly work at my novel, The Ultimate Patient. I do it according to a loose plan, at the tune of about five hundred words plus/minus a day, including weekends. Today I was lucky. I had an easy part of the plot to develop and in less than two hours, I was done. I felt good about myself and, relieved, I went back to the kitchen.
My wife was just leaving the house for a little shopping of course, — what else would someone do at the end of December? I decided to reward myself with a few pieces of whole grain toast, smoked fish salad, slices of provolone cheese, two Campari tomatoes with salt, pepper and virgin olive oil, a power bar with nuts, peanut butter and chocolate and a glass of sparkling water. When I eat lunch alone, I usually watch the news or tennis on TV. It was a boring news day — impeachment talk without end — and a replay of a 2019 final at some tournament. So, I flipped a few channels and ran across an Al Pacino movie — The Recruit. I had never seen the movie before and I started watching it from the middle. I don’t care what film it is when I watch Al Pacino. He is always great, always Al Pacino. The movie had a beautiful female protagonist (Bridget Moynahan) and, before I knew it, I got sucked right in.
I had a 2 PM tennis game to go to and I had planned to read until then, but obviously my plans had to change. So, I watched the movie until it was almost too late and then I dressed for tennis in front of the TV and left before the movie ended.
I played doubles, and I lost the first two sets. We were leading in the third, when one of the opponents pulled a hamstring, and eventually conceded.
In the parking lot, after tennis, — as I suspected the day turned out to be very nice — I stopped to talk to one of my tennis buddies. He wanted to know how my novel writing was going, and then who my favorite authors were, and then he told me a joke that was funny, but is too long to be repeated here. I said I liked Philip Roth and Richard Russo. I mentioned Updike and Saul Below, and he asked me if I read Malamud. We talked about Salinger. We switched to movies and he told me about a movie theater in Bethesda that he likes. Then I mentioned politics and how depressing the landscape was, and he said we had reason to hope. Many of those who voted for Trump had finally understood what an immoral con artist he really was and would not vote for him again. We rationalized that since he had won in 2016 by a margin of 80,000 votes in three states, and would lose only 2% of his supporters in the right states, he would be in trouble. That cheered me up.
Back at home, I had a little less than an hour time to read, before we had to go to a party in Baltimore. I am reading, believe it or not, The Count of Monte Cristo! Why? Because it’s been about fifty years since I opened the book and recently I came across an essay by Umberto Eco, in Paris Review, maintaining that this world famous novel is poorly written. I decided to see for myself if I could agree with the Italian scholar. I borrowed a copy from the local library — all 1260 pages of it bound together in a volume as large as a brick. I am at page 856, and still going. Yes, the writing could be better, but the novel is outstanding nevertheless. Like watching Al Pacino, I could read Dumas anytime.
Traffic was light and we got to our friends’ Baltimore place in no time. On the way, I told my wife about my day and she told me about hers. We are good in that way: communicating.
There were about fifteen people in the living room, dining room and the large kitchen. The hosts welcomed us with crab canapés and eggnog. There were cheeses, crab dip, jumbo shrimp, vegetables, crackers, sliced baguette and desserts arrayed on the dining room table and on the kitchen counter. The eggnog was served in silver chalices. As I finished my eggnog and switched to a Pinot Grigio, I started talking to a doctor whose parents had emigrated from Turkey before the war. He heard I write novels. He asked me about point of view and if I ever changed it midstream. ‘Clearly,’ I responded, ‘that would be difficult.’ We talked about writers’ workshops, reading other people’s work and providing critical comments without being hurtful. I admitted that my insecurity is part of the creative process. ‘Most writers,’ I said, ‘are rarely confident in their work.’ He seemed surprised. A woman joined us and asked me if I was an extrovert or an introvert. She was a psychologist. “Extrovert,” I answered. She had overheard parts of my conversation with the doctor, and asked if I thought that most writers were extroverts. I said that writing is a solitary process and, after finishing their daily work, writers like to be surrounded by people and talk about their craft. She mentioned Sally Rooney, the Irish author who found expressing herself difficult, unless it was done in writing. Since we were blocking the access to a dish of crab dip, more people had gathered around us. I told them I was born in Romania and English was my second language. I mentioned my immigration novel, Planet New York. ‘I speak with an accent,’ I said, ‘but I don’t write with one.’
By the time I switched from Pinot Grigio to Petite Sirah, I was talking to a gentleman from Hamden and his wife. They had two electric cars. He used to be a real estate appraiser. He was retired now.
Baklavas were served. I had one, and then another, and then my wife said it was time to go. In the car she told me she had spoken with five or six ladies, who were doing interesting volunteer work serving one cause or another. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘they have the benefit of free time.’ She said, ‘Why do you think these women volunteer and men do not?’ I fell silent and drove.
At home, I read an email from a high school friend who lives in Bucharest. In my last email to him I had complained that electronic communication, while so much easier, requires a rushed response. Emailing, like messaging, implies an instantaneous reaction. I love taking my time and mulling over my letters. He agreed with me. Then he wrote: Each time C. A. Rosetti (a Romanian literary and political leader of the 19th century) received a letter from his wife who happened to be Paris, he liked to sit down in his favorite armchair, hold the envelope in his hand, contemplate what her letter might contain, and eventually open it with a fancy paper knife… His wife, Mary Grant, who was Scottish, was a remarkable personality. Among other things, she posed for Rosenthal, a painter who worked on a canvas entitled Revolutionary Romania (the revolution of 1848). In other words, our Romania was represented by a Scott painted in Paris by a Jew of Hungarian origin.
I smiled. To my friend, this anecdote was proof of the Romanians’ cosmopolitan interests. To me, a Romanian American who had just returned from a party where I met a doctor of Turkish descent in the house of friends who happen to hold dual American and Irish citizenships, diversity is as normal as getting up in the morning. Regardless of current political reality, America is still the melting pot.
The topic of diversity brings me to the last conversation of the day. Since it was only 10 PM, we decided to watch To Kill a Mockingbird. My wife had just finished rereading the book, in preparation for the play, which we will see in New York next month. The delicate story and the racial conflict masterfully depicted, kept us riveted to the end. Then we talked, comparing and contrasting the movie and the book, the challenges of the writer, the actors and the movie makers in describing the cruel realities of the day, a father’s love, and the people, divided and conflicted by invisible lines.
So that was it: five hundred words, half an action movie, a little exercise, a talk, some reading, a few drinks with interesting people and a movie that doesn’t die. Not too bad for a short winter day!
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