An inquiry into the unexplained disappearance of pens

January 17, 2014 Leave a comment

As long as I can remember pens disappear. When I was gainfully employed it was less of a concern because, presumably, I left them behind at meetings or in labs or at any of the many places where I spent time during the day: a modern ballpoint Johnny Appleseed. My secretary, on the other hand, likely suspected me of trading them in the black market given the frequency with which I asked her to order a new shipment. There was a silver lining, though: by the time I needed a fresh batch I had found an even better pen to order.
Alas, the new style pens never failed to disappoint. Time and again I was duped by a freakishly good specimen I had stolen from someone but by the time I realized this, that one extraordinary pen was long gone and I was stuck with a whole bunch of inferior pens.
However, even since I retired a dozen years ago, I haven’t been attending meetings or visiting labs and our pens still disappear. We bought a gross last year and we are down to the last box of twelve. Strangely enough not all pens disappear. Those that don’t work remain. Even after throwing them away, they somehow reappear, usually when I have an urgent need for one.
Ruth suggested a black hole exists by the kitchen counter, somewhere near the telephone. I’ve been scientifically trained so I set out to investigate.
Black holes, as you know, exert such a strong gravitational pull that even light can’t escape. So of course, they can’t be seen. Their gravitational pull is so large that nearby stars are accelerated to tremendous speeds. That’s one way to detect them. Another is by their emissions. Only high energy radiation, like gamma rays, escapes them. (Whether gamma rays escape or are expelled is a matter of conjecture. I submit they are expelled because not even black holes want gamma rays.)
Those proven astrophysical approaches didn’t seem applicable to my research. Neither did the use of pens as bait. Placing one on the counter led to its disappearance; but we already knew that. It was only when I placed a special pair of socks in the washing machine and could find only one afterward that I realized how the black hole worked. It selected one sock and left the other alone following a similar mechanism to the one it uses in devouring only working pens. Our kitchen black hole with subsidiary holes in the laundry room and my closet is selective. Perhaps it is only a black hole in training, a sort of dark gray hole.
But something was missing. Where were the emissions? Shouldn’t there be something expelled? Something nasty? The answer came to me by accident. Literally.
I tripped on a wire hanger. Where do they come from? I get my laundry shirts boxed and yet every time I turn around I find a few more wire hangers. The clothes Ruth buys come with peculiarly useless plastic hangers. And yet we are awash in wire hangers. That’s when I saw the connection. Gamma rays are as undesirable to black holes as wire hangers are to humans, unless we are in need of a makeshift antenna.
Ruth doesn’t think much of my theory—she doesn’t believe I loaded the washing machine either—but I’m getting a pair of lead gloves to handle the damn hangers anyway.

Categories: Uncategorized

On the nature of friendship

December 19, 2013 Comments off

When I left Cuba I lost my best friend. Ernesto, unlike many of my friends, kids I’d known since kindergarten, was a Christian, and dark enough to pass for mulatto.
We met in high school (Instituto de la Vibora), on a boxing ring, facing each other from behind sixteen ounce gloves, because the PE instructor caught us arguing. [“There will be no fighting in my class,” he was fond of saying]
After we punched each other for one interminably long round, we discovered we were neighbors, started to walk to school together and became friends.
We celebrated Batista’s fall together—Ernesto is the one who woke me very early on January first 1959 with the news that Batista was gone and we had to go capture Vibora high school, for the revolution. And yet, we didn’t become Castro’s acolytes. We remained on our seats while everyone else jumped to their feet to cheer, stomp and clap every time a movie house newsreel showed Fidel, or Che, or Camilo. We discussed our learnings endlessly—we used to talk for hours and hours and after saying good bye, talked some more—and after a few months concluded that Castro’s was to be a communist regime.
But we didn’t panic. We didn’t run for the hills. We set out to see what communism was all about. I soon concluded it was not for me but my friend embraced it, hook, line and doctrine. A couple ever worsening years later, I managed to get out.
We remained friends via long letters. I imagine my letters reflected my struggles (I have been known to complain) just as his letters reflected his environment, the excitement he felt as the revolution developed. His letters were tinged with unintended propaganda. If there is one thing Fidel Castro excelled at was propaganda, constant, relentless, repetitive, pervasive propaganda.
His letters made me angry. I was poor—refugee poor—and lonely. And cold. My other Cuban friends were in Miami or New York or almost everywhere else in the world, not in Boston. I was working my way through school while my parents, who came to the States a year after I did, struggled.
I didn’t have time nor patience for more of Castro’s lies. At first I felt compelled to challenge him and reveal the real truth. It was no use. I stopped writing.
In my mind he remained my friend. I never thought of him as anything else. With the advent of the Internet I tried to locate him. After years of trying I succeeded a couple years ago, only because he had done so well. He is a respected scholar and a published author.
My first email—sent through his publisher—elicited an immediate and happy reply. We resumed our friendship as if nothing had happened but the passing of fifty years. He didn’t question me, he didn’t ask why I stopped writing. We caught up by email, we exchanged pictures of wives and children and grandchildren. Pictures of our present selves.
At times I asked him about events we shared, moments I am including in my ‘forever in progress’ memoir. Each of us remembered things the other had forgotten. We exchanged so many emails I fear the NSA must have opened a special storage facility for them.
We still email from time to time. We remain friends, albeit separated by distance and circumstances. His emails are still tainted with Castro propaganda. He can’t help it. He doesn’t see it as such. It is what he believes. It is how things are over there. He is a communist of the first magnitude because he understands it. But I’m no longer troubled by his comments. I no longer challenge or try to argue.
Perhaps this means that after fifty years I have mellowed, or grown up, or perhaps I am able to separate political belief from the person’s inherent nature. He was a good man and a good friend back then and he remains so.
I would like to go back and visit. I would like to revisit places where events took place that are important for my memoir. I petitioned for a permit. I’m willing to bet that if I’m allowed to go, we’ll embrace and resume talking and interrupting each other as if nothing had happened. Maybe this time I’ll take notes so I can remember what it was we had so much to talk about.

Ghouls and activists on halloween

November 7, 2013 Leave a comment

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.

What does a statesman need to know?

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment

     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.

What Cubans have achieved in America

July 26, 2013 Leave a comment

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)

El cañonazo de las nueve

July 21, 2013 3 comments

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.
Really?
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.

Shocked I tell you.

Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
Croupier: Your winnings, sir
Captain Renault: Oh, thank you very much.

There are many great lines in Casablanca but the one above is the one that I think of most often. Like during these last few days, since Snowden ‘revealed’ that our phone calls, texts, emails, etc., are being monitored. Really? You didn’t know? And then again yesterday, when foreign governments protested that the USA is monitoring their conversations as well.

I’m shocked, shocked to find out spying is going on in here. Right. Like they aren’t doing themselves. Like any of this is news.

Back in the ‘good old days’ in Cuba, during the period covered in my (work in progress) memoir, 1956-1961, we knew that every conversation was being taped. We knew that even if we spoke in Yiddish the conversation wasn’t private. Did we bother to figure out how it was possible? At a time and in a place where telephones weren’t all that reliable? No matter. We knew. And even if we suspected that it was impossible to monitor all the conversations, we didn’t worry about them; we knew our conversation was being taped. So we spoke accordingly. And so, I’m afraid, do the people we need to worry about.

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