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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.

They are doing it to us, and we are letting them.

April 8, 2016 2 comments

Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are doing it. Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul did as well, just as president Obama did eight years ago. They kept their federal jobs, their titles, salaries and wonderful benefits while openly seeking other employment.
The Hatch act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity. Even state employees who are principally funded by the federal government are subject to this law. So why should it be possible for members of the Senate and House to keep their jobs while running for higher office?
Silly me. Because they pass the laws and they carefully exclude themselves from being affected by those laws. And yet, they do like to carry on about their ‘solemn duty’ to follow ‘laws’ that don’t exist. (see phantom Biden rule about supreme court justice nominations.)
So, while I am paying their salary, they not only aren’t showing up for work, they don’t even mind being filmed and recorded while pursuing this other job. If they worked in industry, my HR department would fully support my decision to fire them and no court in the land would dispute my being right.
If you were paying their salary, and you are, why wouldn’t you fire them?
Which brings up a related situation: the GOP platform is explicit about wanting smaller government. They are big on shrinkage, something akin to the “Costanza rule.” So why doesn’t the GOP question whether some positions are needed at all, such as state governors. Does New Jersey need one?
Chris Christie spent the last year seeking other employment. (Some may argue he has spent a lot more time than that.) Even when it became clear he wouldn’t get the position he sought, rather than returning full time to his current duties as governor of the state, Mr Christie chose to take an unpaid internship as Mr. Drumpf’s lackey, in the hope that it may lead to some undefined, albeit well rewarded, federal job.
Fortunately, at least in Mr. Christie’s case, as the ancient knight in the Indiana Jones “Last Crusade” episode said, “he chose. . .poorly.”

I need trash can advise. Please?

July 3, 2015 2 comments

We recently bought a new trash can, when the pedal-operated can we used for recyclables broke. The new can featured a self opening lid: it seemed a convenience.
It scared me the first time I walked past it—maybe a bit too close—and it snapped open. The combination of sound and action startled me. It’s happened again but I’m getting used to it.
It reminded me of Woody Allen complaining that his appliances conspired against him. It was a funny bit. Woody used to be very funny, before he turned into Ingmar Bergman.
Not that I mind Bergman. His movies were good, not necessarily enjoyable, but very good. And I was young then. I even liked the ones in black and white. They are fine. Hey, even my printer is black and white. But sometimes you need color, like for a photo. Fortunately Ruth has two color printers.
I soon discovered the Epson is unequivocally broken. It says so in its little liquid crystal window, while advising you to call a technician. No ambiguity. Nothing I tried dissuaded it. Call a technician, it insisted.
The other printer is newer and should work. It did for a while, Ruth said. When I tried it, the printer claimed to have no paper, even though it did. It actually claims to have no paper even when it takes it in. How is that possible? It took the paper and now it claims it didn’t? I forced the issue and it rewarded me with a different message: it cannot handle paper so small. Small? It’s regular size, for Pete’s sake!
I unplugged the new printer, moved it to my study—next to the new computer—loaded drivers from its CD and powered up its wireless feature. It still didn’t see the paper.
The HP people on the blogosphere suggest to disconnect and reconnect. Okay. I had jut done that, but what the hell, I did it again.
No help. So HP says to place it on its right side. Meaning what? It needs to be burped? And how do you know which is the right side? Your right? Its right?
I tried the right, I tried the left. Neither worked. I tried front and back—for good luck—I examined the paper space with a flashlight, jiggled the paper, raised it, fed it one at the time: I tried every which way.
I sat back and stared at it for some time, trying to figure out if there was something else I could try. That’s when the paper lid snapped open. Which scared me. It wasn’t the flip or the sound or the surprise; it was the timing. Was the HP printer mimicking the trash can?
I pushed back on my chair. This had to be a coincidence. That’s when this loud, horrible roar rose from the corner. The shredder had come to life. By itself. No paper jammed, nothing on top. Nothing even near it. It just turned itself on. I got the message: the shredder has teeth.
I can’t tell who else is in the conspiracy but I’m not getting into the massage chair anytime soon.

How to select the president

Why do so many people want to be president? It does offer some unique perks, such as good housing and free transportation, not to mention excellent health and retirement plans but still, it has to be one of the worst jobs in the world.
Part of the reason we have an oversupply of candidates can be traced to the willful misapplication of our most basic laws; when selecting the president, we are following an unconstitutional system. Our Constitution specifies that the electoral college should decide who should be president. George Washington was not selected by popular vote. He didn’t go to New Hampshire to kiss babies. [There wasn’t even an Iowa] Presidential electors, all sixty nine of them, voted for him. That’s how he got the job.
Nowadays everyone thinks that the electoral college system is antiquated and should be eliminated. Nonsense. Although I would suggest a minor change.
I propose that the electoral college should continue to select the president, but not from those who proclaim their desire to be president (they are automatically eliminated), but from those who ought to be.
After the secret selection process, conducted in an undisclosed location, our future president should be approached, discretely, preferably on some public space. If the person accepts, calling it a great honor and thanking the electoral college, their parents, God, the great American people and the Academy, (not necessarily in that order), the messenger should apologize and say, “oops, sorry, we made a mistake. We thought you were someone else.”
But if the person says No! and runs away, we should give chase because that man or woman will be the next president of the United States of America.

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.

Robbing Peter and Paul

June 27, 2011 Leave a comment

Robbing Peter and Paul is a mystery I completed. It uses a bit more humor than most and is about 100,000 words long.

Start of Chapters 1 follows.

Chapter 1

I lie. It’s true.

I know it sounds bad, like I’m some sort of pathological case study. But it’s nothing like that. Lying is more of a philosophy. Like with Linda.

I lied to Linda, of course, but for her own good. And mostly about her brother, after the thieving idiot got himself killed.

My lying started soon after I found Ramesh and Gwen in bed—my bed. At the time the three of us co-owned a tech start-up and, unfortunately, one almost expects partners to screw each other. Alas, Gwen had been, until that instant, the love of my life.

But all that is in the past. Forgotten. We sold the business, dissolved the partnership and got rich. Two years have passed since I caught them, two years since I wised up. Before that I’d always been ‘earnest Ernie’ or ‘good old reliable, trustworthy Ernie.’ Sure I might’ve been a bit of a pain, warning them over and again that the business was about to go under, but they didn’t want to hear it. The truth only served to unite them against me.

I moved on. I developed my new philosophy and was rewarded when I met Linda, who is so stunning, so drop-dead-gorgeous, her mere presence reduces men’s speech to baby-like sounds and boing boings their eyes out of their sockets.

Categories: Fiction, Mystery, Novel Tags: , ,