Cooktops, airplane tickets and silent TV

September 16, 2017 Leave a comment

I woke at five, worked on the memoir, mostly revisions of re-edits–sometimes I find it hard to forge ahead–and eventually did things, like lift the broken cooktop to measure the counter opening, tried to open it up to see if I could isolate the broken igniter without blowing-up the kitchen, thus allowing us to use the other burners (no luck, or much luck since I didn’t kill myself) tried to contact the sales people to find out whether the new cooktop we selected would fit, (“no problem, we’ll take it back if it doesn’t fit.” “Yeah, but it’s a four week delivery.” “Oh, yeah, I see what you’re getting at.” ), tried to get air plane tickets to California and attempted to cash the United coupons they so graciously offered after last year’s Lisbon flight fiasco (coupons expire today) learning, after doing almost everything on Orbitz that I have to do it on, until froze, but did get a nice, helpful, young woman from United in the Philippines (better English than mine) re-re-doing all the bookings after which, at long last I got back to the cooktop lady and bought the new one. And, after four weeks of eating who knows what, I’ll get it, be disappointed and have to start all over while fighting someone.
So why this litany? After hours of that, each of these took over one hour, I wanted some mindless relaxation and turned on the TV. Mindless enough? Not quite. Nothing on. College football, games of no interest, sort of boring with announcers bursting with false excitement, and then I came upon a solution, albeit a temporary one. I switched channels, found a documentary, but I still wasn’t interested. Still found too jarring, even as background noise. So I shut off the volume. That made it a lot more peaceful and interesting if I tried to guess what they were saying. Then I started to make up what they were saying. Unfortunately, while doing that I couldn’t read at the same time which of course is what most people do when watching most anything on TV. Sometimes you can’t win. Sometimes?


The Scopes Monkey Trial, nearly a hundred years later

August 19, 2017 2 comments

It was almost a century ago that we had the infamous Monkey trial. A teacher named Scopes was accused and found guilty of violating a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of human evolution in any state-funded school.
One would think that after a century of science and engineering triumphs that propelled America to greatness, that placed unimaginable marvels within reach of even the least sophisticated among us that science would have triumphed over superstition.

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Might as well reprint my letter to the Inquirer

August 13, 2017 Leave a comment

A challenge for Trump
A comment on the president’s proposed immigration requirements:
Five decades ago I came to the U.S. as a political refugee with only a high school degree and rudimentary English language skills. After years of struggle and menial jobs, I earned an engineering degree and started to climb out of poverty. Today I am a law-abiding, taxpaying husband, father, and grandfather. The United States offered me sanctuary and a lot more, a chance at having a life. What President Trump does not understand is that the American dream is not about where you start but where you want to end up.
As far as English language skills, I dare say that, compared with the president, I have the better command of the language. (Remember: It’s not where you start.) I’m aware that English is his native tongue, while I still suffer from the occasional grammatical error, no doubt due to English being my third language. Nonetheless, I would be willing to challenge the president to an English-language duel. The stakes? How about if the winner gets to tell the loser: “You are fired.” Win or lose, it might get him the Emmy he’s been pining for.
|Jim Kempner, Holland

How to stand guard at a Tokyo bathroom

“I don’t speak English,” the ñato said, pressing an index finger to his nose. Ñatos is what we Cubans called flat-nose people. In English we might have called him pug-nosed, but it’s not the same. I don’t think ñato is an offensive word, some men go by that nickname, but I wouldn’t go crazy with it.
“I don’t speak Japanese,” I replied, fighting the urge to press an index finger to my nose. For all I knew the gesture was a Japanese insult.
It was my third night in Tokyo. Before boarding the direct Pan Am, JFK-Narita flight, I’d promised myself that I would eat whatever was placed in front of me—I was a picky eater—and would be extra careful to avoid cultural gaffes. I didn’t want to offend anyone, least of all my new friend, who in broken English had told me he’d boxed professionally, as a welterweight. Judging by his boneless nose and the constellation of scars around his eyes, I could tell he’d used his face to stop many a punch.
This 1981 business trip was my first visit to Japan. I’d been tremendously excited, never imagining I would get to travel to such an exotic place. As a bonus, I got to stay at the luxurious Okura. The hotel, which features an ever blooming, Japanese cherry tree in its foyer, was located across the street from the American embassy. Also across the street was Rudi Bey’s, a peculiar bar at which, for some reason, we were sitting drinking beer.
I did know the reason: Kennedy. He liked nothing better than beer and that made Rudi Bey’s his preferred choice; a German rathskeller where one sat at long communal tables hoisting steins of beer while belting-out German lieder. I didn’t know what was more disturbing, the waitstaff—skinny Japanese boys wearing ledenhosen and zaftig Japanese girls wearing Bavarian dirndls—or that the all-Japanese clientele knew the lyrics, or that Bauer, one of my colleagues, also knew all the words to the German songs, or that I was one of the bar patrons, or that the songs were performed by a Chilean band.
The previous night we had enjoyed a traditional twelve course dinner seated on tatamis. Our hosts had arranged for a fabulous meal in a restaurant in an ordinary looking building in the middle of the city. But once inside, we were transported to a different world, to a traditional Japanese restaurant whose rooms opened to a perfect garden surrounding a coy filled pond and populated by peacocks and flamingos and cranes and other wondrous creatures. It had been my first Japanese meal and I’d been apprehensive but the dishes were exquisite and the service outlandish. Kimono garbed women served each of us, one by one, kneeling and bowing when entering the room, kneeling and bowing before serving each of us, kneeling and bowing when taking their leave and once more before exiting the room and sliding the shojis closed. (Those women must have had great abs and calloused knees).
Naturally, I’d expected that on our first free night we would expand the experience by doing something Japanese, like visiting a typical bar to sip warm Sake.
Instead we ate at the hotel and walked across the street to this German bar in Tokyo. To dial-up the bizarreness of the evening, someone informed the Chilean band—certainly not me—that a Cuban was in attendance. The band leader called attention to my presence by requesting that I stand and take a bow and calling for a round of applause from the audience. I had to take not one, but two bows. In my honor, the band leader announced that the next set would consist entirely of Cuban songs.
I was stunned. Had they never seen a Cuban? Of course I was touched, and amazed. I would have been even more impressed had I recognized any of those obscure songs, if they were Cuban at all. But hey! It’s the thought that counts, I told myself.
Not that it mattered. The crowd went on drinking and humming/singing along and laughing and my boxer friend was mighty pleased to learn I was Cuban and therefore a boxing aficionado, considering the many great boxers Cuba had produced. I did a lot of nodding and clicking of beer steins and so much smiling my face started to hurt.
After a few more beers and many kampais, we finally—and thankfully—called it a night. We followed Joe, our leader, to the front, to settle the bill with the cashier, who did double duty behind the crowded, gleaming, wooden bar. Kennedy was warned to stay away from the large bell at the end of said bar; striking it meant the ringer would be buying a round and there must have been well over a hundred people at Rudi Bey’s.
While Kennedy contemplated the bell, my Japanese-boxer-friend asked me to guard the men’s room door while his woman-friend used the facilities. Apparently she couldn’t wait for the Lady’s room to come free.
I am not sure how I get into these situations. Even before agreeing, I spied her entering the men’s room. I was considering how to point out that he would be much better suited to guard the door when I noticed that he too had slipped into the men’s room.
Kennedy rang the bell. Some animated discussion followed between the barman speaking Japanese and Kennedy, whose command of English wasn’t great, even when sober. He continued the discussion with a typical Kennedy response; he rang the bell again. Joe had paid and was urging us to leave but I couldn’t: a young Japanese man wanted to use the men’s room.
I speak a couple of languages and can communicate in a couple more, but none of them were Japanese.
I realized my predicament as I tried to explain the situation in English, augmented by improvised sign language. It only frustrated the man who decided to slip past me using some fancy footwork. I managed to keep my body between him and the bathroom door until, eventually, no doubt viewing me as a lunatic, the type of crazy, ugly American he’d been warned against, he gave up and returned to his seat.
By the time a cackling Kennedy rang the bell a third time, I had had to turn back another two men. I was being pulled away from the men’s room door by Bauer while Joe tried to get Kennedy out when the boxer and his woman-friend emerged from the men’s room.
He waved the two men into the bathroom and bowed his thanks to me.
It was a relief to step outside. It was brisk and the coolness on my face felt good. Best of all was the sudden quiet. Joe wasn’t pleased with how the evening had proceeded. He was a thoughtful, measured, serious man, not given to outbursts, but he didn’t approve of Kennedy’s behavior. He felt it reflected on him, on us, on Americans.
Joe, a tall, white haired man, had served in the Navy during the Pacific campaign. That afternoon, while he, Bauer and I were enjoying a boat tour of Tokyo bay, he mentioned that it had been thirty-six years, almost to the day, since he’d first been on Tokyo bay. Back in 1945 he’d been on deck of the USS Missouri witnessing Japanese dignitaries in formal dress and top hats signing the WW II terms of surrender. Since then he’d been to Japan many times. The Japanese treated him with deference, which he returned but, by the way he’d told us about the Missouri, I suspected he had mixed feelings.
I made it back to my room, my head spinning, feeling confused. I had only slept a combined six hours the previous two nights and, between the excitement of being in Japan, the beer, the spending an evening in a German bar in Tokyo and my tiredness, I didn’t feel like myself. I felt weird, as if it wasn’t me on that bed, as if I was living in an alternate reality.
The one guy I knew for sure was happy was ñato, my new Japanese friend. He and his woman-friend had emerged from the men’s room with big smiles on their faces. They were enjoying whatever reality they were living in.

Do Albino peacocks get laid?

May 12, 2017 1 comment

People ask how I felt returning to Cuba after a fifty-six year absence. In truth, I don’t know. Most Cuban exiles in similar circumstances concentrate on what was versus what is, like the collapsed roof of my childhood apartment in La Habana Vieja, or the sad condition of the streets and parks where we grew up. And so did I, but I’d been told, so I knew what to expect. The best part of my experience was being there.

In general, when Ruth and I travel, I like to wander around, a personal quirk she doesn’t always appreciate. This time, traveling with my sister—who was only fourteen when she left—and our spouses, neither fluent in Spanish, plus having a Cuban travel agent suggesting a framework, changed the tenor of the trip. Our Havana guide, a twenty three year old engineering student, took us along a prescribed route, down calle Teniente Rey, past Sarránow a museum—and toward the cathedral; the sort of itinerary tourists enjoy.

We started our walk on El Capitolio and because of new construction I was disoriented. When I asked our guide if this was calle Egido (it was) he didn’t know; he’d never heard of calle Egido. I soon recognized where I was and paused to peer down calle Bernaza and, of course, detoured on calle Villegas to point out the store where I worked—now people live there—and the spot where I chased and caught the bra thief, and where “Our Man In Havana” was filmed, and the hole in the wall were I drank my daily eight or ten cups of café, and the spot in the colonnade where the ostiones man had his little stand. The excitement was all mine.

Next day, when we took an enjoyable day trip to Las Terrazas, a former coffee plantation in Pinar Del Rio, now an Eco-community—I may do a full write up of the place—what stuck with me the most was the unexpected: there was a regular peacock on the parking lot, showing off his colors even though he was being harassed by tourist but, on a side patch I spied something even more magnificent. An albino peacock. ,

Of course that was my judgement, as personal as when comparing what was with what is. From the peacocks point of view the one opinion that counts will be rendered by the peahens.

Jose Marti and I; BFFs?

May 4, 2017 2 comments

I came back from Cuba last week, after eight days in Havana and el campo. (Habaneros consider that everything outside Havana city limits is el campo, ie., the country, the provinces, the place where farmers dwell). This was my first trip back in fifty-six years. In Havana we went all over, including in Old Havana the house where Jose Marti, the father of our country, was born–now as then a museum. Afterward we walked over to where I lived until I was ten, on Compostela street, a couple of blocks away. Alas, although the roof on Compostela street has collapsed, people still live there. My wife Ruth was saddened that people have to live under such conditions but, apparently, even if the government had been willing to fix the place, the residents would have to move out during the renovation and there is neither a place for them to go or a guarantee that they could move back in once the place is fixed. I spoke to the woman hanging clothes to dry on the balcony; she wasn’t impressed that I’d lived there some sixty five years ago.
I used to stop by Marti’s house when I lived nearby, (it was free back then) to admire the small rooms crammed with furniture where our greatest hero was born and raised. Nowadays the museum has none of that furniture and instead has documents and mementos and a two CUC admission fee. (I don’t know what CUC stands for but you get one for $1.10. That rate of exchange was obviously designed to show that CUCs are more valuable than dollars. Don’t knock it: nowadays reality is what you think it should be and clearly, quite a few people have, and act, on the basis of their own reality)
Marti died in battle, May 19th, 1895, but had he been alive when I lived on Compostela street, I’m sure we would have been best friends. (I would have advised him not to rush out and charge the Spaniards which he did, succeeding in his intention to become a martyr). Marti wrote poetry (like his Versos Sencillos), some of which has been adapted to song, La Guantanamera, and I like to sing. He wore a mustache, I a beard. He wrote, I read. We were both Cuban. We had tons in common.
Yep, there is no question in my mind, (Ruth thought so too), we would have been best friends and, with any luck, we would have hung together, snapped selfies and gone places, maybe even to the US, to pal around with Andrew Jackson–my new favorite president. I know Andy signed into law the Indian Removal Act (he said you can’t stop progress) responsible for the Trail of Tears and the death of thousands of native Americans, (he thought it was best for them), that he was a slave holder (also best for them), but I’m sure he was a swell guy, once you got to know him, and Marti, Jackson and I would have been best of friends, if only they had stayed alive.

Categories: Uncategorized

Andrew Jackson and Fidel Castro

May 3, 2017 2 comments

I have been reading newspaper accounts of January 1959–refreshing my memory, not of the events, just their sequence–of the time when Fidel Castro gained power. There were lots of things that had to align just right for Fidel to succeed and for Batista to sneak away in the dead of night and it occurred to me that Fidel would have had no chance if Andrew Jackson had been president (instead of that wishy-washy Eisenhower who knew nothing of making war) Apparently Andrew Jackson was mad as hell when Castro won.