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July 12, 2005

Foreign Subjects and Objections

Roy Meachum

Almost from the start, Thanksgiving 1984, my local columns have drawn a limited amount of kvetching for words that critics say the “average reader” cannot understand. (“Kvetching” is one of those words: it’s Yiddish for complaining.)

They have cried elitism, which strikes me as passing strange from folks who presume to identify and isolate what is “average,” suggesting either they are somehow separate or it applies to them. In any case, they speak for no one but themselves, which mirrors exactly my pretensions.

As America’s once-celebrated but now mostly forgotten bard, Walt Whitman, wrote: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself…”

And that means, of course, like the former reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, I frequently make mistakes. My life, like Whitman’s, is littered with living proof that intelligent and smart are frequently incompatible. I am always grateful to editors who manage somehow to reduce the number of times I come across as absolutely foolish. Sometimes I am.

But those who mean to chastise and pillory me for either language or choice of subjects miss the entire point of what I have been about the past 20 years, and why a few brave and hardy souls surprisingly clamor for my writings, going so far as to flock in comforting numbers to The Tentacle thus earning my awe and astonishment.

Early on in the Frederick column game, I surprised my admired publisher, George Delaplaine, by confessing my astonishment that anyone really gave a damn about anything I had to say. Knowing me well, my deeply valued friend was willing to go along, although maybe not completely persuaded.

Being a writer himself (see his column in Maryland Life magazine), George is certainly aware that all creative processes demand a manic-depressive state of mind.

While I was living in Rome, covering the Vatican, novelist Gore Vidal who owned a haughty villa off the city’s center, confided to an Italian reporter he simply could not abide the other expatriate scribes and journalists because we were all alcoholics. I will confess a great deal of time hanging over the foreign press club bar bawling for “vodka tonica.” (If you need a translation of “tonica,” stop reading.)

Mr. Vidal neglected, of course, to catalogue his own extreme adventures into vices, which were very well known among Rome’s American community and probably not unknown to the La Stampa reporter. (Trivial Pursuit question: In what Italian newspaper did the Vidal interview appear?)

No musical notes could be strung together, no marble chipped, no oils splashed on canvas, nor any sentences hooked together without a firm conviction, in every instance, that the world was waiting breathlessly for the result. That way lays a form of madness, naturally, which produces a resulting depression.

Because, of course, normally even kith and kin, friends and close acquaintances, all those people who count most react casually, letting us know they care but are altogether uncertain about what we are trying to do.

Why else do you think Van Gogh cut off that ear, and Edgar Allen Poe drank himself to death? To cite the most famous examples of what I am talking about. To say each gentleman was certifiably insane merely invests each with an exaggeration of the virtue that nurtures all creative souls.

England’s Alfred Lord Tennyson observed: “I do sing because I must and pipe but as the linnets sing…”

Let me hasten to explain I have no idea what a linnet is, but when let loose some of my Frederick critics would insist Tennyson’s “linnet” should be changed to “bird,” since that is the most obvious explanation.

Under extreme pressure or only when a minor difference occurs have I consented to a substitute that clarifies chiefly my editors’ understanding, while feeling that I am somehow copping out on my “average reader.”

For I submit to all my nay-savers that after better than 20 years, most readers have chosen to accommodate my eccentricities, or not. Take the time to plow through my frequently murky prose is their choice, or not. Newcomers can make their own decisions.

The identical logic applies to the matters I subject to what can turn out to be excruciating examination. Whatever the effect on others, writing on the Middle East, for example, inevitably occasions pain for me. I suffer deep frustration that my countrymen relish their ignorance about a part of the world so central to their lives.

If you doubt that last statement, simply scan the headlines. If you need further proof, drive up to your neighborhood gas tank. I submit the human tragedy and economic mayhem that dominate today’s scene could have been easily avoided if Americans would have paid better attention to yesterday’s happenings at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Exactly 20 years ago this summer News-Post Executive Editor Tom Mills slugged for the paper’s front page the first column derived from my extended stay in Egypt. It had to do with the hijacking of a TWA Cairo-Rome flight that had provided my lifeline to the West, or at least the way I reached better food. In those years public dining in the land of the pharaohs was doubtful at best.

While its topicality and front-page position may have drawn some attention, my subsequent writing on the region fell into a trough between general apathy and specific protest from those who considered any attempt to portray Muslims as human beings became automatically anti-Israel. In fact, a delegation of local community leaders called for my firing on the basis that I was anti-Semitic.

Whether out of regard for the First Amendment principle or a belief I was saying things that should be said – I was never told – the paper’s publisher and editor permitted my columns on the Middle East to run untouched.

Some readers continued to fiercely object to my observations over the years and never more so than when I cried out against the run-up to the Iraq invasion, citing the probability that the only predictable outcome was the current situation, which I described as urban warfare and the Pentagon calls “insurgency.” Same difference!

In the event, readers of my columns over the past 20 years enjoy the edge, if for no other reason than I caused them to think about a subject most would probably have avoided. The others deserve pity for refusing to open their thoughts in directions that did not originate in their navels. They are the ones to blame for the mind-boggling costs at the pump.

On yet another midsummer’s day on North Market Street, worrying about the patio’s flowers and rain, looking forward to a glorious promenade with the equally glorious Pushkin and summing up once more my responsibility to you, our readers, let me state, clear and plain:

I will never write down to you, choosing words or subjects that demean your intelligence or curiosity, but always willingly accept that sometimes my topics and my vocabulary can turn you off. Ma’alesh, as the Arabs say: It doesn’t really matter.

The sole important element in our relationship is your demonstrated willingness to keep coming back to discover what can be produced by my sometimes feverish brain. And for that I am grateful. It’s what’s kept me going since 1984. Thanks.

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