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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.

Are Parisians rude?

December 28, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Was that Joe Louis?

August 13, 2015 Leave a comment

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.

Just deserts

July 31, 2015 2 comments

I suppose that I misunderstand idioms because English is my third language. Or why I mishear words. I just learned that the song “Killing me softly with insults” is actually “Killing Me Softly With His Song.”
I still think it makes more sense my way. Another phrase that makes no sense, an idiom, is “getting his just deserts.” To me it implies getting a deserved sweet reward, right?
Apparently not. Which took me back to the olden days, when I was a freshman chemical engineering student at Northeastern University. All engineers had to take drafting classes. Imagine that. I liked drafting but the homework took forever and, in general, I didn’t do homework. (I’m not proud of it)
One of our classmates was a weird kid, a loner who had trouble expressing himself. I’d heard Howie was a genius, or at least a near-genius. What was clear is that he had social and physical issues. He wrote in very large letters, much like a child, quickly filling notebook after notebook he stuffed into a full bag which, of course, he regularly dropped, creating a frantic scene when the notebooks spilled and he feared their loss.
I’m not sure how much of a genius Howie was, or how well he was doing, but drafting class was a no-go for him. Toward the end of the school year a bunch of us decided to help him—I had more reason to help than others, but that is another story—and tried to tutor him, enough to at least get him a passing grade.
In part we wanted to show the flunkies who teased Howie without mercy that he could pass a course they were likely to fail. Out of the 105 freshmen that started chemical engineering studies, only twenty five graduated on time.
But Howie could not draw a straight line. Literally. He held his pencil like Anthony Perkins held his knife in Psycho, which explained why, rather than drawing a straight line, Howie’s pencil ripped a jagged tear through the paper.
We couldn’t get him to relax his grip on the pencil. We made some progress, at least in explaining what he was supposed to do, even if he physically couldn’t, but when the time for finals came, we weren’t hopeful.
Proctoring that final we found a teaching assistant, a young woman we’d never seen before. Our drafting professor—a very elegant man in fitted suits who started each lecture by removing and exquisitely folding his jacket—had proctored every test till then. It shouldn’t have mattered.
Emo, one of the kids who’d worked the hardest with Howie, was a genuinely nice guy and a good student. He reminded me a bit of Perry Como, a mellow crooner with his own TV variety show. When he finished the test, Emo turned to Howie, who was sitting on the draft table behind him.
“How you doing, Howie? You doing good?” Emo asked in a natural voice. I was sitting a couple rows back. When I heard him, I looked up from my paper.
The TA, an athletic young woman wearing a tartan skirt, leaped from her chair and charged Emo, finger pointed, accusing him of copying from Howie.
The room broke out in laughter.
“No, no, I wasn’t cheating,” Emo said, offering the test. “See? I was done.”
“I saw you with my own eyes.”
“No, no,” Emo pleaded, “you don’t understand…”
Loud laughter isn’t the normal response to having a classmate caught “cheating.” Maybe that confused her. Maybe she felt we were questioning her authority. There weren’t many female engineering students in 1962; we had none in our class.
“Oh, I understand, I most certainly do,” she said, as she tore Emo’s test in half and threw it into the trash can. “This will teach you to cheat.”
That’s what I mean by ‘just deserts.’ You would think the phrase means something good, some well earned just reward. I suppose it doesn’t.

Cokes and Knives in Batangas

June 27, 2015 2 comments

Driving around Batangas province, in the Philippines—we were exploring potential sites for a chemical plant—we stopped at a roadside stand for refreshments. It was hot, it was humid and it was crazy on two lane road snaking south from Manila. The stand, a no-walls, thatched roof structure, offered limited choices. I ordered a Coke. I seldom drink sodas, but Coca-cola is a much safer bet than water when traveling through parts of Asia.
The stand was dominated by three large, glass counters containing nothing but knives. Thousands of knives. I dare say every conceivable size, style, color knife was on display. In addition to two colleagues from the States, the van driver and a guide, we were accompanied by two executives from our Philippine subsidiary. I asked one of them about the knives.
“Batangas is the knife capital of the Philippines,” he said.
“Ouch. ERs must get plenty of knife wound practice.”
“Nope,” he replied. “Very few cuts, because everyone in Batangas carries a knife.
I was reminded of the incident after an NRA official placed the blame for the Charleston church killings on the victims. “It wouldn’t have happened if they had carried a gun,” was the gist of what he said.
That Philippines trip took place almost twenty years ago. I said nothing at the time. I might have asked him what would happen to people carrying a knife if someone showed up with a gun, but I didn’t want to compromise our business relationship nor did I want to antagonize him, after all, we had quite a ways to go, and we were in Batangas, so odds were he was carrying a knife.
Maybe I should have asked. He might have laughed and said: “The same thing that happens to people with guns when someone shows up with a Kalashnikov.”

The ceramic fish

June 20, 2015 1 comment

It was a miracle nothing broke, and indeed nothing broke, until it broke. I was thinking back to yesterday’s blog, when I mentioned my three Venezuelan cousins and how projectiles flew around their home.
When my parents went back to Cuba, ending our short-lived Venezuela adventure—a whole nother story—I was left behind for a couple months (I’m sure they didn’t mean to abandon me. . .though, come to think of it, I didn’t have their Cuban address), to finish my third year of high school. I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle and my three cousins. I didn’t mind. I didn’t want a repeat of the problems I encountered arriving in Caracas half way through the previous school year. And I loved my cousins.
The three of them were forever battling, throwing things around, showing no regard for all the glass and crystal around. At times it seemed the whole of their living room was made of glass, so I stayed out of those clashes. Most of the time. Another reason was my uncle, usually a calm, easy going person, a nice man really, until he appeared belt in hand. I didn’t want any part of it.
One weekday afternoon the four of us were playing catch in the living room, while the grown-ups were at work. Whatever we were using as a ball hit a ceramic fish sitting perfectly happy, minding its own business on a prominent end table. The fish, my cousins promptly recognized, was my aunt’s favorite.
“Now you are gonna get it,” they warned each other, arguing as to who was to blame, with no consideration given to who was the thrower or who muffed the catch. One thing was clear: we were all in trouble. Major, major trouble.
The fish, about eight inches high and about a foot long and thin, like most tropical reef fish, had broken into half a dozen pieces and a few chips.
“Maybe I can fix it,” I suggested.
All three loved the idea. Why not? At that age we believe anything is possible. In this case we were talking nothing less than magic.
I did the gluing on my youngest cousin’s desk, using what we had on hand, white glue (this happened eons ago, well before crazy glue), the kind of glue kids use on third grade projects. I took my time, applied glue in the right spots, fit the parts carefully and the fish was whole again and apparently solid enough. But the cracks were obvious. The fish looked awful. Every chink, chip and fissure showed a ghostly white.
“Coño, it looked better when it was broken,” my oldest cousin said.
That made no sense except it was true.
“I’ll paint it.” At this point we didn’t believe in magic that much, but I went ahead. I used a kid’s tempera set and did my best to cover the cracks, matching the many hues of the multicolored fish.
When my aunt and uncle came home the fish was back on its place of honor. No one noticed anything was amiss. No one said anything.
Some thirty years later, while visiting in Venezuela, we were talking about old times. The fish was nowhere in sight but something reminded me of the incident and I told my aunt the story.
“So that’s what happened!” My aunt clapped her hands. My aunt Julia was a formidable person, a woman with innate authority. Words came out of her mouth chiseled in stone.
“What? What happened?”
“Last year the fish fell apart. The maid swore she hardly touched it, that the feather duster barely grazed it and the whole fish went ‘poof.’ It disintegrated. She said it was as if a bomb hit it. She was in tears when she told me. I was miffed, I liked that fish very much, but she was a good maid and a careful worker, so I had to take her at her word.”
We had a big laugh. My aunt was quite amused. She liked the story of the fish even better than she’d liked the fish and was amazed that she had never noticed, that the fish had survived one move and all those many years of dusting.
I laughed, of course. And felt proud, but that quickly changed to relief. I can’t imagine how I’d have felt had she fired the maid.

Categories: Memoir Tags: , ,

The Book Architecture Method. Stuart Horwitz.

June 19, 2015 Leave a comment

I assume the PWC brain trust schedules high energy presentations for the end of the day. Such was the case Friday with Dan Maguire on creativity and Saturday with Stuart Horwitz @Book_Arch
on Book Architecture. http://www.bookarchitecture.com/ I was a bit suspicious at the outset. I feared Horwitz was about to talk about my cousins.
As a young teen I lived in Caracas for a couple years. At the time I was very close to my three cousins, all boys, who ranged in age between my little sister and me. My oldest cousin had an elegant bookshelf with glass doors filled with the Espasa-Calpe encyclopedia, the world’s largest, I suspect. My cousins put to good use the 100+ volumes, each the thickness of three bibles, each tome lettered in elegant gold letters on a black spine, by using them as bricks with which to build fortifications, which they needed for their battles, when they threw stuff at each other. And they threw everything at each other.
I did love that encyclopedia. It had everything in it. If you had a paper to write you didn’t have to look anywhere else. Sort of a Google/Lego predecessor. That massive encyclopedia, albeit used in such an unorthodox way, served my cousins well: two became architects.
Fortunately Stuart Horwitz had other things in mind. He probably doesn’t know my cousins.
Stuart spoke of “The Three drafts.” That’s how many you need, provided you take the time between drafts to do certain things. [A shock to people like me who have drafts with Roman numerals exceeding the latest Superbowl]
Of course, when Horwitz defines a draft, he isn’t talking about tinkering. Taking commas out is tinkering. It is important to know which draft you are in.
1st draft. It is about “Pantsing” (writing by the seat of your pants) vs. outlining, which you should do between 1st and 2nd draft.
To get to that 1st draft,
1.- Count your words. You can’t simultaneously create and know the value of what you have created. You can set goals. A great session for him is 1,750 but he is happy with 1,000 words a day. I recall Jonathan Maberry saying that he writes 4,000 words a day. Sounds like a lot, but you need to consider Maberry is a big guy.
2.- Find a neutral audience. Not the critics (or naysayers) nor the cheerleaders (Aunt Thelma). A writing group ought to fill that need fairly well.
3.- Don’t try to organize anything.
4.- Make the time. That follows Maguire’s (and everyone else’s advise as well) but don’t count the time, that’s not the point. Make the time and from then on write. Remember point #1: count the words.
5.- Listen.
6.- Have fun. The most important aspect.
The good news (and bad) is that the first draft is the easy part.
Scene, series and theme.
Horwitz said to keep it moving. Don’t be Lot’s wife. Don’t look back. Stay away from salt.
Intelligent Planning is not the enemy of creativity.
Brainstorm all the scenes. But don’t look at the manuscript. Highlight the good scenes (by intuition) don’t tinker. Lots of things could be better.
This may be a good point to explain that Stuart does this for a living. He is an expert on book structure and book revision and has written two books on the subject, so this lecture was a quick overview.
Between drafts 1 and 2, he suggests locating the missing scenes. Those are the ones you want to write. So you should, but keep in mind, they are 1st draft scenes. And you also should erase some scenes, those are the ones you don’t remember. Repetition and variation form the core of narrative.
If a character, a place, or an object only appears once, we can’t track it or assign it any meaning. If they reappear, and/or change, then we can get excited.
If you can live without a scene, there is no way to justify bringing it through all the drafts and hopefully to a reader’s attention. Limitation is the key to revision. And nothing limits your action, your cast, your plethora of worthwhile ideals better than a good theme.
The 2nd of 3 action steps is to cut up your scenes. Print them. Spread them. Give them names. Each scene needs to be able to stand on its own. This is the best way to figure out what belongs in the draft and what doesn’t. Now you can start making an outline.
Stuart shared pictures of J K Rowlands grids for one of the Harry Potter Books. http://bit.ly/1K0LdfR A sort of spread sheet where each line is a time period, like a day, and each column a chapters, or scene, or plot point, etc. Joseph Heller did the same; he wrote his in pencil.
Stuart spoke of the archery target. This time you arrange your scenes as a practice target, with the theme as the bulls eye. Then you place your scenes around the theme, closer or farther from bull’s eye/theme based on relevance. Obviously what you are doing is selecting relevant scenes.
There is a method to discover your theme. Your book can only be about one thing. [He might have been inspired by Jack Palance in City Slickers] You gotta believe (in the validity of that one thing)
I think Stuart believes that having a single, clear theme is crucial.
“Its not how you fall in life, its how you get up” originality isn’t important for the theme, originality isn’t important.
2nd draft. This is where you bring up the best parts up a level. Make it better. If you’re in the second draft, remember what you’re looking out to fix, but also what isn’t broken. http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2013/01/30/book-architecture/
Between 2nd and 3rd draft bring in the beta reader. Someone who can give you a good idea of what needs to be changed. The ideal is between 3 and 7 beta readers.
But along the text, your beta reader gets a questionnaire. Some mechanism for you to understand why he/she likes/dislikes, etc., some way for you to evaluate the evaluator. Maybe the beta reader of your ghost story hates ghosts stories. That would be good to know, when evaluating her input.
3rd draft
If you’re in the third draft, think commando raid, get in and get out. Keep it moving. Hit it and get out. Just go to the places you want to fix. Make decisions. It will never be perfect.
That’s about what I got. Obviously he has a method and we got to see an overview. Hope it helps, if not, you know who to call. (Hint: not me)
On second thought, maybe Stuart Horwitz does know my cousins. One married a Horwitz.