A week ago I met an activist. He told me so, as we navigated through the ghoul, princess and demon infested streets of West Philly, on Halloween eve.
I’d been forewarned he would try to get me to talk politics, a subject I find pointless; no argument, no matter how valid, will change the other person’s mind. We believe—myself included—what we want to believe although, since I’m aware of this basic human failing, I tend to question my beliefs a bit more than most people.
He did bring up the subject, while I noticed that the best and cutest costumes had been inflicted on babies and toddlers too small to fight back, by mentioning that, as an activist, he’d been personally involved in saving the people of East Timor.
I was impressed. I once saved a toddler from drowning in a hot tub and once contributed in saving a girl from drowning in the sea, almost drowning myself in the process, but I’ve not saved ‘a people.’ He followed his disclosure by asking me what I thought about Henry Kissinger’s recent assertion that Israel would disappear within ten years. It turned out that my new friend, the activist, was strongly anti-Zionist.
I didn’t know how to respond so I said that I am pro-Israel and don’t care what Kissinger has to say. After all, as foreign policy mastermind under Nixon, Kissinger pushed for detente, (before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan) and for strengthening the Shah of Iran as the key to peace in the middle east. No one should be surprised. Kissinger is a Harvard graduate and Harvard, as more and more people are coming to realize, is not the school to trust in Cambridge.
By this time I had been able to admire a few dogs dressed up for the occasion, some wearing whole outfits and a few wearing capes. One medium sized, brown dog, trotted past me wearing a towel, which led me to conclude that either the owner was out of capes or the dog had just stepped out of the shower. Ruth grabbed me by the arm, either to rescue me or to remind me that the whole point of our being there was to enjoy watching our three year old grandson learn how to extort candy from strangers through threats of an unspecified nature.
I’ve thought a bit about my discussion with my activist friend and realized he was the sort of well meaning person always pulling for the underdog, as do so many of us. Like rooting for the Phillies, Philadelphia’s beloved baseball team, a team that has amassed a record 10,000+ losses in its less than illustrious history.
And yet, in the 2000′s, for a few delicious years, the Phillies became the best team in baseball, winning a World Series (for only the second time in their history) thus proving that now and then, an underdog can turn the tables.
And so it is with Israel, who was, and remains, the underdog. They are that rarest of real life examples when the underdog overcomes the odds—as well as seven well armed and thoroughly indoctrinated Arab armies.
So now that Israel appears powerful (they are), those who came in late and root for the underdog see them as the bad guys. In truth, there has been a shift among Israelites. The continued Arab hatred and unwillingness to make peace—Hamas textbooks claim the Israelites were annihilated long ago thus making Zionists impostors with no historic claim to the land—and their endless assault via boycotts, hijackings, bombs, threats of annihilation and what not, have pushed the Israeli labor party out of relevance, shoved the liberals to the middle and the moderates to the right. So I understand how Israel may seem, to those with limited historic perspective, as the big, bad guys, when in truth Israel, with a population of less than eight million, remains David to the Arab Goliath. (Cairo alone has the same population as the whole of Israel).
I have been hoping to meet my activist friend again so that I can run my underdog theory by him although, in truth, I know it will be pointless.
I just learned [Thanks to Stephen Kinzer's “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War http://www.amazon.com/The-Brothers-Foster-Dulles-Secret/dp/0805094970] that the Dulles brothers, who were in charge of overt (State Department) and covert (CIA) foreign policy in the fifties, were corporate lawyers. It gives me agita just trying to digest the idea that a background in corporate law can prepare one to run State or the CIA.
Once given charge of American foreign policy, the Dulles brothers set out to redress their corporate defeats. First they went after Iran’s Prime Minister Mosaddegh, who’d nationalized oil company holdings of Dulles’ former corporate clients. The 1953 coup returned oil interests to the Dulles’ clients. And, oh, by the way, in exchange, it gave the Shah absolute power.
Then in 1954 they deposed Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz. He was a danger to another client, United Fruit, a company that at the time owned 40% of Guatemala’s arable land.
The Dulles brothers didn’t stop there. They concocted the domino theory, fanned the cold war, refused to met with Stalin’s successor Malenkov, botched the Hungarian revolt, betrayed our allies after the Suez canal nationalization, got us into Vietnam after they refused to accept Ho Chi Minh’s victory and on and on, with the Bay of Pigs fiasco being the final straw. Is it all in the past? Not a chance, their legacy lives on—see Iran and Cuba and, well you get the idea.
I earned an advanced degree in engineering from a very prestigious university and yet, to conduct engineering work for the state, county or city, I’d have to be licensed as a professional engineer. For that I’d have to pass a difficult, multidisciplinary test and be licensed by the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs. I understand, just like I understand that none of us would want to see an unlicensed physician when ill. Our medicines and medical procedures have to be FDA approved. If we want tax advice we seek it from a Certified Public accountant. In short, our government has seen fit to protect us from our own gullibility and from charlatans eager to take advantage—no matter how charismatic they might be—by requiring most professionals to demonstrate knowledge and competence by passing a test. Unless said charlatans seek public office.
Why don’t the same licensing principles apply to those who write the laws or set policy? I would much prefer that my alderman, councilman, congressman, senator and president, regardless of sex, race, religion, culinary preferences or anything, have demonstrated reasonable knowledge of local, national and global history and geography, economics, business, law, science, and most important, that rarest of skills, common sense, before being allowed to run for or hold office.
My new Facebook pal, Lorenzo Martinez, has a great interview with Fernando “Fernán´Hernández about his book [The Cubans: Our Footprints Across America and The Cubans: Our Legacy in the United States] on what Cubans have achieved in the US http://bit.ly/1bq729u
It does make me feel a bit inadequate though, particularly when compared with “Mr. New York,” Ysrael Seinuk (1931-2010) a lantzman and fellow Litvak (on my mother’s side)
I fell into a pothole. One so large that the more I tried to get out, the deeper it got. I’m speaking figuratively, of course, about my writing. I definitely will complete my memoir spanning the couple years before and after Fidel’s ascent to power (1956-61), but after a few months of assiduous work, my enthusiasm has waned.
I decided to take a break and work on something more fun.
A few years ago I started “Entropy,” a thriller, but put it away because, after the very exciting beginning, (First chapter won a first prize at the 2011 Philly Writing Conference) I had no idea what happened next. Actually, I did, but it was boring.
So I dug it out, reviewed what I had, threw away most of it, and devised an exciting finish. I planned to write up a first draft in a month, put it away to flesh out later, and return to memoir writing. For these past three weeks, I woke up anxious to learn what manner of mishap awaited my heroes.
I haven’t progressed as far as I’d hoped. I’d read that Freddy Vargas, a French mystery writer, writes her first drafts in three weeks. In that same time I’ve only written about one sixth of the novel. Obviously she is fast, something I admire about French women.
It isn’t all my fault. It turns out that my main character isn’t quite who I thought he was. Kap’s plans keep backfiring and his relationship with Ellen, the woman who broke his heart ten years earlier, is not quite what I had envisioned. I’m concerned that if Kap and Ellen keep screwing up (not screwing around) they’ll compromise the exciting new ending. And then there is Millie.
She and Tico the cat have insinuated themselves as brand new characters. Not sure why, and that is a problem. I expect a visit from Chekhov any minute now, telling me I better make sure to fire that gun (or the cat, in this case), before the end. And Millie? Really? Is anyone called Millie any more? And is Kap having a thing with her? That’s what Ellen thinks. But it makes no sense: Millie is married, a ditz and not Kap’s type, ie., she doesn’t look like Ellen.
Nevertheless writing the thriller has been fun. A thriller allows me to make stuff up. The more stuff the better. And that is the fun of writing fiction. It is even more fun when the characters do it themselves. Not so for a memoir. It is only me. And the facts. “Just the facts ma’am.”
Part of the problem I’m having with the writing of the memoir is a two-fold lack of cooperation.
I have been reading copies of El Mundo, a Cuban newspaper of the time, to remind me what I knew back then, and to reorder events. I borrow El Mundo from the Library of Congress in microfiche form. But in spite of the full cooperation of the LOC, (the head of periodicals has given my requests priority), the Doylestown person in charge isn’t being helpful.
I can only hope that the next batch of El Mundo microfiche arrives soon and that it will rekindle my memoir writing. [Although reading from a microfiche machine gives me a headache]
The other source of spotty cooperation comes from my memory.
Remembering stuff from fifty plus years ago isn’t easy. Some of my friends, when asked about events they starred on, cannot even recall the event. But, to be fair, sometimes they remember events I do not, until they bring them up, like when Billy asked me if I remembered swimming with Fidel in Santa Maria del Mar.
Sometimes, events that are crystal clear in my mind’s eye lose clarity when I examine them in close detail.
Exploring those long ago remembrances is a little like stumbling inside a vaguely familiar building, and having to feel my way from room to room because most every room and hallway is dark. And when I’m encouraged by finding a brightly lit room, I often discover that the room isn’t as well lit as it seemed to be. Or that the light is uneven. And when I try to explore those murky recesses in my memory, I only have at my disposal a cranky flashlight, hardly enough to illuminate the dark corners where key details lurk.
And yet, sometimes it works. The flashlight glows bright and a completely forgotten event emerges from the shadows.
Writing a chapter on the pre-1959 period, when Batista was in power, Castro’s rebels on the hills and bombs went off every night, I wrote that the exploding bombs sounded like distant cannon. This image came to mind easily, but made me stop, to wonder how I knew back then, when I was fifteen, what distant cannon sounded like.
And then, unprompted, a brief flash reminded me that when I was a little kid living in La Habana Vieja, Old Havana, I heard a cannon fired every night.
Thanks to Google I learned that they still do. I even watched a recreation of the cannon being fired on You Tube.
My newly rediscovered old friend, classmate, and neighbor, Ernesto, confirmed it. When I asked him whether we could have heard it in Santos Suarez, our old suburban neighborhood, he claimed not to remember. But in Miramar, where he lives these days, sometimes he hears the distant rumble of the cañonazo de las nueve, the cannon fired since the 18th century—when Havana was protected by thick stone walls against pirates, privateers and buccaneers—to warn the city residents that it was nine o’clock and the city gates were about to close.
I assumed my phone calls and emails were being monitored well before this latest scandal. About a year ago I found my old friend Ernesto in Cuba through the miracle of the internet. We had been best friends for years but lost touch 50 years ago—it was my doing. I was delighted that we were able to reconnect and felt great pride when I learned he was an economics professor at Havana University. Who knew what we would become when I left Cuba at nineteen.
After exchanging a few emails he asked me to look over a PowerPoint presentation he was readying for his graduate students. After getting over the surprise that PowerPoint was being used in Cuba—don’t we have an embargo?—I tried to read the slides. But they were filled with economics jargon and three letters acronyms, all in Spanish, of course. [My Spanish isn't what it used to be but then, nothing is what it used to be]
In my next email I asked him to explain some of the terms, one of which was IEDs. I couldn’t resist mentioning that around here, an IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device, or bomb. The moment I typed IED I realized the NSA would pick up the word. Why wouldn’t they? A mention of IEDs in an email to Cuba should register somewhere. But, I pressed the send button anyway. I should continue to live as a free man and they should continue to do their job. [Ernesto's IED acronym stands for some sort of international monetary exchange unit.]
As far as my phone calls, I doubt anyone is listening in. When I was a teen playing with short wave radios, back when I lived in Venezuela, almost 60 years ago, my friends and I once stumbled on a long distance conversation. We listened and giggled, briefly, and then switched the dial. It was boring. I suspect any outsider would find my conversations even more boring. Besides, with a US population of 330 million, each constantly and obsessively using the phone, I doubt any government could hire enough people to listen to all the inane messages filling the airwaves. And if they store one billion calls a day, the figure I heard quoted, they must only be storing a small fraction of all the calls and texts.
But, there is a bright side. This new ‘scandal’ gives congress something to do—hold hearings to investigate the appropriateness of the law they passed. Otherwise congress would be left with only the AP snooping and the IRS targeting organizations claiming tax exempt status [if only I could claim exempt status] before having to fall back on old reliable Benghazi or whether the Washington Redskins should change their name or repealing Obamacare yet again. Think of it, with no scandals to investigate, congress may have to start passing laws.
I was fifth in line and growing impatient. I’m blessed with some uncanny abilities, like choosing the wrong line. At an airline check-in line I have managed to be behind the guy refusing to pay extra for his two 200 lb bags. Once at passport control I found myself behind a guy who got on the wrong plane or arrived at the wrong country. In any case he didn’t have a valid visa, knowledge of the language or a clue—after all the checks? How is that possible? At this Costco line I could hear the cashier tell the incredulous woman that her credit card had expired.
“Impossible,” she argued, “I don’t owe them a penny.”
None of the people in front of me seemed aware, let alone bothered by the delay. The four people ahead of me remained aloof, their carts askew. A few years ago I might have chastised myself for being so anxious and might’ve thought their attitude right, proper and healthy. One oversized cart carrying an under counter refrigerator wasn’t quite in line. It had come to a stop at a sharp angle, as if it was trying to sneak in from another line while its owner, a round bellied man with a teenaged daughter, was absorbed by his phone, thumbing feverishly away. Like everyone else in line.
We seem to have evolved into a country of misplaced people who, regardless of where we are, need to communicate with someone who, unfortunately, is somewhere else.
When talking into a cell phone was all the rage, I used to wonder who exactly were all those people talking to, a mystery solved by my children, who call me while they are in transit.
I am not complaining. I like to hear from them and I’m pleased I fill a void in their busy lives. So I imagine that all those on their cell phones are talking to their parents, even if they are driving. Particularly if they are driving.
But since I don’t receive any texts—unless it is a wrong number text—I have no clue what is in them or who is at the other end of all those urgent messages being so assiduously texted by the four people waiting in line ahead of me.
Once the credit card snafu was fixed, the people in line remained so attached to their messaging devices and oblivious to everything else that a clerk had to pull up their carts and unload them onto the belt. Other than me, no one else noticed.
What could be so important that it demands being communicated that very instant at the exclusion of everything else?
This morning I read a news item about a woman who’d run over and killed a boy. She’d been texting while driving. Her response was to flee the scene while texting “I’m an idiot. Just got in an accident and I drove away.”
I have similar misgivings about blogging. I’ve been told many times that I need to write a blog, that otherwise I won’t succeed as a writer. One would think that reading something I’ve had published would better serve an agent or editor to gauge my ability and style [http://bit.ly/L4SmND] and how I deal with subjects that interest me [http://bit.ly/RrQjaO]. Alas, apparently my Google ranking trumps all that. A bad break for me since I have to contend with the Jim Kempner art gallery and its numerous and repetitive references.
I could change my name. Perhaps something like Alexxxander with three xs. That might work. There can’t be many people named that, with or without art galleries. The alternative, writing a blog so compelling that it would trump the art gallery seems improbable. Besides, that’s what I try to do in my writing. And there are so many blogs one has to wonder who is reading them? I can’t. If I read blogs I don’t have time to write or read books. Tweets? Shorter but even less compelling. Who can keep up?
I know all this doesn’t bode well for me and neither complaining or imagining how Salinger would’ve dealt with these issues will help me at all. (I’m not suggesting I should be compared to Salinger. For one thing, he is dead). What makes us think our every opinion, our every thought is so important that it must urgently be shared? Wise men (and women, I’m sure) instruct us to learn by listening, not by talking. I’m sure that I’m far from the first to comment or complain about texting and blogging and tweeting but I must. I’m compelled to do it. That’s why I decided to write about it in my blog.