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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.

Zombies and vampires and the end of time, oh my!

April 1, 2017 Leave a comment

Some movie genres don’t connect with me. Zombies, vampires and evil geniuses intent on destroying Earth have never scared me because they aren’t real. End-time and post apocalyptic movies have never done much for me either. Jaws, on the other hand, scared the hell out of me; sharks exist and have been known to munch on people.
Nowadays I’m witnessing an evil entity—an asshole, clever albeit far from genius, but definitely evil—whose unwitting purpose seems to be precisely that, a global catastrophe of war and ecological devastation.
The most stunning aspects of this evil, amoral man are two-fold: a complete lack of ideology and his unique motivation, a narcissism so dominant, so overwhelming, it requires him to succeed, no matter the cost. He will trample everything in his path because he lacks empathy, he will foresee neither danger nor downside because he lacks intellectual curiosity, and he will neither perceive nor admit defeat because he lives within his own, gilded reality.
Contemplating the looming possibility of the apocalypse gives rise to other fears; if the rise to power of such a man is possible, can zombies and vampires be far behind?

Who needs a wall?

November 19, 2016 Leave a comment

If we really wanted to stop illegal immigration, we wouldn’t need a wall. If we really wanted the unknowable millions of illegals to return home, we wouldn’t need to round ‘em up.
All Congress would need to do is pass a law that jails those who employ illegals. Those employers would be fined—which would help balance the budget and reduce the national debt—but they would have to serve time. First offense: one year. And I don’t mean the lowly foreman. I mean everyone up the line to the top. It’s high time for CEOs to stop ‘taking responsibility’ while claiming no knowledge and suffering no consequences. [There might be a temporary building boom owing to the many new prisons needed]
We need not be draconian about it. Our wise Congress would surely include a provision to issue permits to allow the hiring of some illegals to, for instance, harvest tomatoes. [Or build new prisons] But to make sure illegals aren’t taking jobs away from hard working Americans, those workers would, by law, be paid at least minimum wage.
You may argue such a law would add yet another interfering governmental agency. Not at all. We could re-purpose immigration agents currently employed in keeping ‘em out, because no one would be coming in.
It could be that easy, if our government officials were really interested in addressing illegal immigration. And if the people that hire undocumented workers were equally interested. Once Congress passes such a law, we could sit back on our easy chairs, sipping (add your beverage of choice) and watch those many million unfortunate people return home. Keep in mind, though, we would be also watching the collapse of the US economy.

What scares white males?

September 29, 2016 3 comments

Eight years ago we elected our first black president. In a few weeks we are likely to elect our first female president. Rather than these been seen as great steps forward, they have given rise to fears, primarily among white males. I have been struggling with this, trying to understand what is so scary to my fellow white males.

I may have found an answer. According to Lynn Saxon in her book “Sex at Dusk: Lifting the Shiny Wrapping from Sex at Dawn,” in some deep sea angler fish species, only the female becomes a full adult.

I am sure she doesn’t mean to imply that all males or only males remain childish. After all, quite a few women don’t believe a woman should be elected president.

But it can get scarier than that. Apparently Charles Darwin (as reported by Ms. Saxton) found in some barnacle species “a number of dwarf males inside the female.” Even worse, the female had two little pockets, in each of which she kept a little husband. The troubling issue of size was first brought up by Marco (‘little Marco’) Rubio and it must concern not only Donald (‘tiny hands’) Trump, but many of his white, male supporters as well.

And if that isn’t demeaning enough, consider the male redback spider, who intentionally flips his body into a position above the jaws of the female in order to be eaten during mating.

I don’t know how much of a difference there is between a redneck and a redback spider. I’d guess less than the difference between a redback and a wetback.

The final insult may be offered by honeybees in their nuptial flight, once more, according to Ms. Saxton. “When a successful male mates with the queen: his ‘endophallus’ explodes to become a copulatory plug inside her and he drops dead. Why? It is a strategy to prevent other males from mating with the queen but for that privilege he loses both his phallus and his life. What’s more, the queen is able to pop out the copulatory plug and to mate again anyway.”

Am I going insane? Someone is.

June 21, 2016 2 comments

There is an old joke–all my jokes are old–about a man about to marry into a Baptist family. [I think it would work almost as well if the man would be marrying into an orthodox Jewish family.] The man asks the cleric about dos and don’ts.
Dancing is a no-no, he is told, but sex is okay.
“Really?” the man asks, surprised.
“Absolutely.”
“Any sex.”
“Yes.”
“In the bedroom, in the bathroom, in the kitchen?”
“Yes, yes and yes.”
“Indoors and out?”
“Yes.”
“Standing up?”
“Uh, no, that might look like dancing.”
Sadly it reminds me of the Republican, right wing stance on terrorism and assault weapons. “We are waging a war against terrorism. We must,” they say, “kill ’em all. Bomb them back to the stone age, hunt them wherever they hide, pursue them to the ends of the earth, do everything we can, whatever it takes, even if we kill a few innocents, even if we have to snoop on Americans, or on leaders of friendly countries, do whatever you can, even if it means hacking away their money, blowing away their resources and weapon caches.”
“How about stopping them from buying assault weapons in the USA?
“Uh, no, that might look like dancing.”

Time Stand Still while I hide behind the camera

June 17, 2016 Leave a comment

Last night Ruth and I attended a performance of “Time Stands Still,” a play by Donald Margulies, at the Langhorne Players, a seventy-three seat venue literally around the corner from us. What a treat. The play is very thought provoking, which is what led me to write this piece but, before getting to that, I must acknowledge the excellence of the cast, the direction, the production, frankly the whole thing. There was nothing amateurish about any of it even though everyone involved was a volunteer.

The only way I can evaluate acting is by suspension of disbelief. And that they did. Laura Scotti as the star photojournalist Sarah and Nigel Rogers as James, a journalist who is her partner in life and adventure were superb. At no time did I think they were anything but what they were portraying. And so were Tom Dinardo as Richard, their much-wiser-now editor and Sara Stepnowski as Mandy, his naive, unsophisticated and uncomplicated trophy wife. They all delivered their lines—and there were many of them—so smoothly and fluidly and credibly and with such good timing, while navigating the small stage, that much credit must be given to the director, Jean Brenner.

Ruth and I have attended performances at the Langhorne Players before, but after such a performance, we wondered why we don’t go more often. We will.

What led me to write this piece was the ending of the play, when Sarah brings out her camera [spoiler alert] and focuses on the departing James. One question raised in the play concerned the role of a journalist. “I’m there to take pictures, that’s my job,” Sara states at a key point when Mandy confronts her: why not try to save the poor kid dying rather than taking his picture? Why not save the baby elephant separated from his mother? Sarah believes the greater good comes from letting people know what is happening, while Mandy, who traversed the widest arc during the play, has matured into a person who understands what is important and is willing to put everything else aside.

It reminded of when my kids were doing gymnastics and I would film them. (I have boxes full of VCR tapes of their gymnastics exploits, tapes I keep promising myself I’ll translate into DVDs)

I got the big bulky video camera (this was around 1980 when one had to lug a recorder as well) to record them for posterity and to let them watch themselves and improve. What I discovered was that by getting behind the camera, I attained separation. By concentrating on keeping them in focus and in the frame I saved myself much anxiety and the worry that they would fall or fail at a trick.

Sigmund Freud defined happiness as the absence of pain. Those who take the biggest chances, he claimed, are likely to feel the most happiness when they succeed and the most pain when they don’t. By remaining behind the camera, I dampened the extremes, I got to watch their performances later, when I knew the results. I didn’t set out to do that, but it worked out that way.

In the play [spoiler alert] Sarah chose to return to the front lines, to feeling the adrenaline surge while remaining behind the lens, apart, feeling her subjects’ pain, but remotely. James chose a normal life, one with direct emotional involvement. Freud might have said (imagine Austrian accent) that Sarah wanted the highs while hiding from the lows while James was willing to roll the dice.

What Donald Margulies wanted to express, I can’t say, other than to pose questions, as good writers do. One of his points is clear though: life is horrible, and wonderful. Figure out how to deal with it.