I have a cold. I’ve had a lot more colds since having grand kids. Every time I return from visiting my lovely granddaughters in the West coast, I’ve brought back some malady. And now that I have two grand kids nearby and get to see them every week or two, the opportunity to enhance my immune system has improved immeasurably. None of it comes as a surprise because the kids, almost since birth, have frequented germ-exchange sites, ie, nurseries, day care, parks and the like.
A cold shouldn’t be a big deal, but it can be. In my case they always start in my left nostril, where they dawdle for a while before moving to the right one. I thought it peculiar and asked an MD about it when I was a teen in Cuba.
“Of course,” he said, “you have a deviated septum.” He didn’t add “you moron,” but I could read his thoughts in the little dialog bubble above his head.
Back then I didn’t know what a septum was. I still don’t other than apparently I have one. I never looked it up for fear of what I might learn and assumed—I have no reason to think otherwise—that it’s worse than a sixtum. I didn’t care for the ‘deviate’ implication either.
So I have a cold. My lovely twenty month old granddaughter who adores me and is a master cuddler, has a faucet for a nose, according to her mother. So I’m in for a few more years of immuno-enhancement therapy. Hopefully.
The cold is still in my left nostril. I hope it moves to the other nostril and out before I visit my California grand kids next month. I can deal with just so many germs at a time.
The first time Ruth and I visited Paris was the first time we went anywhere. After my cousin Manolo—nicest man I ever knew—died in his early forties, I told Ruth that, no matter what, we were taking the next trip.
By next trip I meant the MIT travel brochures we received regularly, featuring vacations we couldn’t possible afford; my classmates were obviously doing better than me. Incredulously, the next brochure offered an inexpensive week in Paris. Paris was at the very top of places I wanted to see.
My parents and sister offered help. They drove the 300 miles from Boston to baby sit Evan and Joanna. My sister Sara loved the kids as her own, my mother adored her grand-kids and my father loved them as well, in his own way. Nonetheless that was quite a nice thing to do.
Other aspects of the trip proved nerve wracking. Not being a US citizen—though Cubans could become citizens after living in the US for one year and I had been here for fifteen, I hadn’t gotten around to apply—I needed the IRS to certify that I didn’t owed them anything within thirty days of departure. Afraid I might lose the plane/hotel tickets I’d paid for in advance, I showed up at an IRS office one month before departure only to be told I was early. Our departure date was late April and since March has thirty one days, I was required to return the next day. “Thirty days before you leave, not thirty one,” the IRS clerk said.
The French government didn’t help either. Because I was still classified as a political refugee, they didn’t grant me permission to visit until a week before departure. They had been concerned I might decide to remain in France, but just in case, I had to fill forms providing detailed information about my education, income, etc.
Evan who was six and a half, and Joanna who was only twenty seven months old, were happy to have everyone in the house. But the kids had never been separated from us and I had concerns about their reaction. To get to Kennedy I had rented a car I would drop-off at the airport. The evening of our departure, after stowing our luggage in the trunk, I noticed Joanna sitting in the middle of the rental car’s back seat. She had dressed herself in her little pink raincoat and had somehow snuck out of the house and into the car.
“Lets go to Paris,” she said, and broke my heart.
What made me think of that long ago trip—other that Joanna is in Paris with her husband, children and in-laws as I write this—is the book I have been reading, “The Speechwriter,” by Barton Swaim and in particular some examples of extreme rudeness. Swain’s memoir spans the three years he spent writing for then governor Sanford, infamous for ‘hiking the Appalachian trail,’ and mentions examples of his rudeness.
It reminded me of Parisians’ rudeness. I was taken aback the first time a Parisian allowed a door to slam behind him rather than holding it open for me. A simple gesture. Then I noticed they did it to everyone, not just tourists, not just me. Store employees did not wait on you either and when they finally did, they made it appear as a favor. Alas, that habit has spread to the US.
But the rudest episode took place our first day in Paris.
Our charter flight, ‘the sardine express,’ left hours late. By the time we landed, got through formalities and were bused to our hotel, it was early afternoon. And we were staying in La Defense, not in Paris. Nowadays La Defense is a destination favored by business people but at that time it was a remote suburb. I didn’t understand any of it. I thought we were in ‘Paris’ and I wanted to see it. We took the hotel’s shuttle to the train station, which I thought was a subway stop.
I didn’t speak French but I had done a bit of preparation. Back in 1977 people in Paris didn’t speak English and if they did, they kept it to themselves. The lady selling tickets asked where I was going. When I said Paris she asked something else. I shrugged. She shrugged back and sold me two tickets.
A group of fellow tourists who’d come along in the shuttle were so impressed by my French speaking skills that they asked me to get them the same thing. I warned them that I had no idea what I had bought. They insisted.
“La meme chose,” I said to the lady and she sold them tickets.
We got off at the first train stop and as we ascended the escalator into Paris, the sky was filled with a magnificent sight. The Arc de Triomphe. Who knew it was so beautiful and so massive. A most impressive way to be introduced to the city.
We started to walk down the Champs-Élysées when Ruth, who was four months pregnant with Michelle, announced she was starving.
“Right now. I have to eat now. How about there?” She pointed at a restaurant across the street.
It was past four in the afternoon and we hadn’t eaten anything since leaving home. I bought a Michelin guide and learned that “Le Fouquet’s,” the restaurant across the street, had four dollar signs. And it was way too early for such a fancy place. I found a more reasonable restaurant on a side street, where we ordered as planned: spécialité de la maison. I figured if they feature it, it it must be good, and I didn’t want to try and interpret a French menu.
I even had a prepared answer for their next question, “une poisson et un viande,” one fish and one meat. But their next question threw me. I had no idea what the waiter wanted. Eventually he got another waiter plus the maitre’d plus a diner—everyone was quite nice—and I finally understood the question: how I wanted the meat cooked.
“Medium,” I said. “A point,” the waiter nodded. No use asking for medium-rare in French.
Ruth was served the fish, a lovely Dover sole she thoroughly enjoyed. For my first meal in France, I had their specialty: T-bone steak and French Fries. A raw steak at that. In subsequent business trips to France I learned the French prefer their meats cooked less well done than we do. In addition to raw hamburger (tartare) they have ‘bleu,’ (the meat heard of fire), saignant or rare, (once saw a flame), à point (their medium) and finally bien cuit, which my Parisian friends refer to as McDonalds.
At least I could look forward to dessert. We were seated on a table for two, one of many arranged side by side and a mere few inches away from each other. A pair of New Yorkers (I could tell by their accent), sitting two tables away, were served desert as we were being served our main courses and I instantly decided that would be my dessert as well, but, between my tiredness from the sleepless flight and the tension of navigating into the city and finding an affordable restaurant and ordering, my mind went blank. I could not think of the name of the dessert.
I leaned forward, excused myself, and asked the New Yorkers the name of their dessert.
“Que?” One said.
“Je ne comprend pas,” the other said.
“Oh, stop it. Cut the horseshit,” I said. “Just tell me the name of the dessert.”
They hesitated until one said profiteroles before dramatically turning his head away.
And so I discovered, albeit based on a very small sampling, that New Yorkers are ruder than Parisians.
I have been to Paris and New York a few times since and have found no reason to change my opinion.
As far as governor Sanford rudeness, (he had to resign and yet last year South Carolina elected him to the House) apparently he liked to read while seated on the passenger seat of his chauffeur driven car. Once done with whatever he’d been reading, he threw it onto the back seat, whether anyone was sitting back there or not.
The problem with football is that it attracts so many geniuses (or genii, whichever you prefer.) Too many of these supremely gifted individuals flock to the game instead of channeling their unique talents toward finding a cure for cancer, reversing global warming or designing safety caps seniors can open.
I can only hope that Jeff Lurie, a very responsible team owner, will recognize that his social and moral duty demands he release Chip Kelly, so he can redirect his talents for the benefit of all mankind, rather than a few suffering Eagles fans.
I’m sure I used to have a sense of humor. When the Dilbert strip started I thought it very funny. When I sat at work meetings—which unfortunately I did most days, for big chunks of the day—I often got distracted by the unintentional humor, often to my detriment: sooner or later someone would notice the smile on my face or ask for my opinion and I would be left to choose between allowing I had long lost track of what they were saying or having to make up some non-answer answer. To my shame I usually chose the latter.
As my company changed, not for the best, and I found myself inhabiting the Dilbert realm, I stopped thinking Dilbert was funny. Since I retired, it’s been funny again.
I can’t tell whether I still have a sense of humor. Recently we watched the first episode of a Netflix comedy, “Master of None.” Neither Ruth nor I thought anything even remotely funny took place during the half hour show. In fact, we thought it particularly unfunny. And yet, a column by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker (11/23/2015) thought it was “strong, wide-ranging and genuinely funny.” She thought an incident was particularly funny: the main character, musing about having kids, thinks it could be an amazing experience though, what if he wants pasta and he couldn’t find a sitter?
“What? I’m not eating pasta? That would be horrible.”
That’s the punchline. Obviously I no longer know what is funny.
Maybe I’m old. (Actually, I am old) What I mean is that a sense of humor may deteriorate with age. Why not? So many other things do. Maybe. But I still crack up watching “The Court Jester” for the umpteenth time.
Last night we watched “Doll & Em,” an HBO comedy on its second season. I don’t know if Ruth likes it, its about two women friends. After watching the third half hour episode episode I tried the fourth and then I begged off, I could take no more.
Ruth asked me if we had watched the whole last season of “Episodes,” a Showtime series. Like “Doll & Em” it is based on English actors in America. All four seasons of “Episodes” are available on demand, so I replayed the last show. Ruth remembered it as soon as it started but we re-watched the whole show and we both laughed. It was funny when we first saw it and it is still funny.
Nussbaum’s article claimed “Master of None” cracks open, starting with the second episode, an ‘instant classic’ about second generation immigrants and their parents. Alas, I’m afraid I will miss it. I feel toward it the same way I feel about torture: the threat of it alone would be enough to make me confess. To anything. No way I’m watching that show again.
I’m not a “professional engineer.” I have a post-graduate engineering degree from the world’s foremost engineering school, I made my living as an engineer and yet, according to the authorities, I’m not a professional engineer. To become one I would have to pass a test. I would have to be certified as one to bid on government work .
I dare say that the same legislators who reasoned that the public requires the extra protection afforded by a test certifying a minimum level of competence, wouldn’t consider consulting a physician who hadn’t attended an accredited university and passed the required boards or a lawyer who hadn’t passed the bar.
And yet, it has never occurred to them—at least no law has been passed—that anyone aspiring to become a legislator or a governor or the president of the United States, should first be certified as competent to hold such a post. That anyone who wants to write our laws, influence our economic policy, even decide whether we should send our children to war, should have demonstrated a minimum level of knowledge or competence before becoming eligible to run for office. It seems they’d rather ascribe to the ‘everything is fair in politics’ dictum.
This helps explain why we have reasonably competent doctors, lawyers and engineers but the same can not be said for those holding political office.
Forty three years ago, Hal Krieger (2nd from the right) hosted the “Lab 54 Where Are You?” party at the house he shared with Maria and their German Shepherds in Germantown. Hal invited everyone who’d ever been involved with the lab. To my surprise, many who had not been involved for years, showed up. Hal threw the party to celebrate the dissolution of the laboratory, and for that matter the whole of Fibers Research. The party’s title was inspired by a then popular TV show about fumbling policemen titled “Car 54 Where Are You?”
The party, as expected, was extraordinary. And weird. When Ruth and I walked in we met Vic, a Peruvian technician who’d left the company before I joined. I’d met him briefly when I interviewed. Someone pointed out that Vic—who was manning one of the ill-fated Anim/8 lines—spoke Spanish and suggested we converse. That’s always awkward. What do you say in Spanish in those circumstances? I said hi and he said “don’t come work here.”
Minutes later Hunter arrived with his wife Judy. He came in and without hesitation, grabbed Vic by an arm and said “you are under arrest, fellow.” Hunter, a PhD chemical engineer who’d been hired after me and had never met or heard of Vic, was tall, Waspish and looked the part. Vic dropped to his knees, dissolved into pleas, swore he hadn’t done it and begged for a break.
There are so many stories about lab 54 and its characters that I could write a book, except no one would believe any of it, except those in Rohm & Haas, who’d accuse me of white washing the truth.
One such story involves a tech whose name escapes me. The day after being warned about his chronic lateness’ he arrived at the lab two hours late. Called on the carpet—we did invent an excellent soil hiding carpet yarn [which is yet another story] so the cliché should be allowed—he claimed he’d been on time but, when he got to the gate remembered he’d left a chicken cooking in the oven. And so, he explained, he had to return home to turn the oven off but, since the chicken was done, he sat at the table and ate it. Hence his late arrival. He wasn’t fired.
On my second day at work, sitting at Bernie Robbins old desk (yet another story, one that made national news) I received my first piece of official mail. I must confess that I was excited. Here I was, a real engineer, fresh out of school, at a real job. (That’s what I thought at the time, Peruvian Vic’s warnings notwithstanding.) The envelop contained literature for a ‘penis extender.’ Being the new kid I suspected I was being watched, and tested, I turned to Paul Cox, my office-mate, a middle-aged, short, rolly polly Southern gentleman with tremendous experience in the fibers business (he was out of place and quit a few months later) and suggested I’d gotten his mail by mistake.
Paul had a loud, high pitched hehehehehe laugh. This attracted others into our office—we had about five cubicles across the hallway from the main laboratory—and Paul, when he stopped laughing, told us about ‘bank walkers.’ When he was a kid and the boys went skinny dipping, they shed their clothing and ran into the river. Except those who were particularly well endowed, the ‘bank walkers.’ They took their time sauntering along the river bank before going into the water.
That first piece of mail had no doubt been sent by Mel, our janitor and porn purveyor. A large young man in army fatigues and a few days blond beard, Mel was an opera aficionado who had season tickets to the Met, where he surreptitiously taped the performances before copying them for sale in one of his high end reel-to-reel tape recorders. Mel knew operas by heart and sang arias all day. I suppose he also took time to study because years later, when I met him, he was a respected PhD psychologist hired to counsel some of our troubled employees. The stories about Mel would fill a book by themselves. In lab 54 he did most everything, except clean.
The four years I spent at the lab where the times Ruth thought I was most interesting. In close contact with managers, fellow engineers and technicians (plus one janitor) I knew everything that was going on. A few months after the lab’s dissolution I got promoted and, according to her, no longer knew anything.
In the picture are Pete Grant (far right), Hal and to my right, Courtland Gee. Courtland started in the lab at bit before I did, in 1968. He was seventeen and doesn’t look much different now. He must have a rotting portrait in some closet somewhere. The four of us got together for lunch yesterday. We may have exchanged a story or two because lunch stretched for four hours. Maybe one of us will put together another list of names and have another go at a “Lab 54 where are you?” party although, alas, many former lab 54ers are no longer with us.
I’m pretty sure that was Joe Louis at the far end of the platform. I don’t look for celebrities or get a thrill from spotting them, but I seem to notice my fair share. I may have a hard time recognizing my neighbors, but celebrities often make it easy.
This past Monday I flew to LA next to a ten year old boy and his mother. She quickly revealed they were on their way to meet with the kid’s agents and managers. I’m sure she used the plural. The kid sings, dances and acts. A very polite kid with lovely dreadlocks and a proud, nice mother. I’m sure he’ll be famous. Someday.
Which made me think back to another celebrity sighting, long ago, in the early eighties, in the Hilton hotel in Brussels—I can place it exactly because that first business trip to Europe included my first ever visit to Germany, which is a whole nother story. The elevator doors were closing when a young woman, accompanied by two other giddy young people, barged in.
She was a vaguely familiar, pretty little thing. What intrigued me most was the young woman’s jacket, an elaborately painted bombardier’s leather jacket.
I have such a jacket. It remains a favorite even though its old and its lining its shredded: I would never consider decorating it with paint. The blond girl looked away from her chatting companions to smile at me, before performing a graceful 180 degrees twirl. Three oversized letters painted on the jacket’s back spelled out P-I-A. She twirled back to face her friends but kept an eye on me.
Pia Zadora was a fleeting minor celebrity whose rich old husband was promoting her film career. The marriage was later lampooned in a “The Bonefire For The Vanities,” by Tom Wolfe.
I was considering a comment along the lines of, your mother made sure you wouldn’t be losing your jacket in summer camp, when the elevator reached my floor and we were spared the razor sharp edge of my wit.
But Joe Louis was no ordinary celebrity. He was Joe Louis. Thinking back on that day, I didn’t wonder what he was doing standing on the New York bound platform in the Trenton train station, but what was I doing there, heading to NY City, by myself, on a weekend afternoon?
Such are the thoughts that scamper across my mind while trapped for six hours in a metal cylinder flying to the West coast. (Seven and a half, if you count the delayed departure)
In the end I deduced it must have been one of the times I went to see and help translate for my cousin Manolo when he came from Venezuela to the Sloan Kettering for diagnosis and treatment. My cousin Manolo, for whom the phrase “the good die young” must have been coined, first came to the States for treatment around 1970.
But there he was, Joe Louis, the man who knocked out Max Schmeling and Hitler’s-Nazi-Aryan-superiority line of bull.
I’m never sure what to do in these cases. Being an iconoclast I tend to do nothing, but this time I nodded. Joe Louis was by himself. The few other people on the platform were at the other end. Mr. Louis smiled back.
I have been next to more “important” people—although I could have easily survived without seeing Fidel or Che in the flesh—but Joe Louis was a bit of a thrill. I remember going back upstairs for some reason, maybe to buy a ticket. When I came back down Joe Louis was gone.
I got into a conversation with a uniformed guard. When I mentioned seeing Joe Louis he became agitated. He hadn’t seen him. He said he normally looks for big people that may be of help in case of an altercation. He hadn’t noticed anyone resembling Joe Louis.
“Are you sure it was him?” he said.
It was him. No question. Joe Louis had a recognizable, innocent face. A nice man’s face. And even if it wasn’t him, by the guard’s own admission, he should have noticed a really big guy. And gray hair or not, sweet face or not, even in old age, I bet that Joe Louis could punch like a mule.