Archive

Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Memoir Workshop Part II

June 16, 2015 Leave a comment

On day one, Tom McAllister asked whether the things you cared about were worth writing about. He suggested that to write a great essay we need to think deeply as suggested by Lucas Mann in the Atlantic. I’ll make it easy for you: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/06/to-write-a-great-essay-think-and-care-deeply/394628/

A good essay, if we look deeply, is about a narrow subject within a larger one. As if an essayist “always writes two essays simultaneously . . .one exploring. . .the situation, the other. . .the story.” http://brevitymag.com/craft-essays/locating-an-essays-dna/

When writing the essay, the more specific, the more interesting it gets. Sensory details help. Sights, smells, sounds. If you get the reader to care about you, the reader will care about the things you care about.

Phillip Lopate talks about the intelligent narrator. One has more tools than a novelist. When writing an essay, we can stop and explain, something a novelist has a hard time doing. http://philliplopate.com/2011/08/reflection-and-retrospection-a-pedagogic-mystery-story/

An example can be found in Joan Didion’s “Good Bye to all that.” Every so often she moves forward, such as the comment “. . .was anyone ever so young, yes I was.” http://essaysspring13.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/files/2013/04/Joan-Didion-Goodbye-to-All-That.pdf

Memoir is a type of narrative nonfiction. It is about what’s behind what happened.

Sam Ligon was of the opinion that fear, shame and joy are the three core emotions.

Alienation; everyone relates to it. Everyone has felt it one time or another.

Being likable: some readers won’t like you no matter what. Don’t fall into that trap. Tell the truth.
One example he mentioned, where the author goes on a sort of limb, writing about her stillborn baby while delivering a child a year later is “An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination,” by Elizabeth McCraken, a short memoir, maybe 40,000 words reviewed here by the NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/books/review/Rosenfeld-t.html?_r=0

Finally, keep in mind people want to be entertained. (That’s why I read) Acknowledging faults works.

El cañonazo de las nueve

July 21, 2013 3 comments

I fell into a pothole. One so large that the more I tried to get out, the deeper it got. I’m speaking figuratively, of course, about my writing. I definitely will complete my memoir spanning the couple years before and after Fidel’s ascent to power (1956-61), but after a few months of assiduous work, my enthusiasm has waned.
I decided to take a break and work on something more fun.
A few years ago I started “Entropy,” a thriller, but put it away because, after the very exciting beginning, (First chapter won a first prize at the 2011 Philly Writing Conference) I had no idea what happened next. Actually, I did, but it was boring.
So I dug it out, reviewed what I had, threw away most of it, and devised an exciting finish. I planned to write up a first draft in a month, put it away to flesh out later, and return to memoir writing. For these past three weeks, I woke up anxious to learn what manner of mishap awaited my heroes.
I haven’t progressed as far as I’d hoped. I’d read that Freddy Vargas, a French mystery writer, writes her first drafts in three weeks. In that same time I’ve only written about one sixth of the novel. Obviously she is fast, something I admire about French women.
It isn’t all my fault. It turns out that my main character isn’t quite who I thought he was. Kap’s plans keep backfiring and his relationship with Ellen, the woman who broke his heart ten years earlier, is not quite what I had envisioned. I’m concerned that if Kap and Ellen keep screwing up (not screwing around) they’ll compromise the exciting new ending. And then there is Millie.
She and Tico the cat have insinuated themselves as brand new characters. Not sure why, and that is a problem. I expect a visit from Chekhov any minute now, telling me I better make sure to fire that gun (or the cat, in this case), before the end. And Millie? Really? Is anyone called Millie any more? And is Kap having a thing with her? That’s what Ellen thinks. But it makes no sense: Millie is married, a ditz and not Kap’s type, ie., she doesn’t look like Ellen.

Nevertheless writing the thriller has been fun. A thriller allows me to make stuff up. The more stuff the better. And that is the fun of writing fiction. It is even more fun when the characters do it themselves. Not so for a memoir. It is only me. And the facts. “Just the facts ma’am.”
Part of the problem I’m having with the writing of the memoir is a two-fold lack of cooperation.
I have been reading copies of El Mundo, a Cuban newspaper of the time, to remind me what I knew back then, and to reorder events. I borrow El Mundo from the Library of Congress in microfiche form. But in spite of the full cooperation of the LOC, (the head of periodicals has given my requests priority), the Doylestown person in charge isn’t being helpful.
I can only hope that the next batch of El Mundo microfiche arrives soon and that it will rekindle my memoir writing. [Although reading from a microfiche machine gives me a headache]
The other source of spotty cooperation comes from my memory.
Remembering stuff from fifty plus years ago isn’t easy. Some of my friends, when asked about events they starred on, cannot even recall the event. But, to be fair, sometimes they remember events I do not, until they bring them up, like when Billy asked me if I remembered swimming with Fidel in Santa Maria del Mar.
Sometimes, events that are crystal clear in my mind’s eye lose clarity when I examine them in close detail.
Exploring those long ago remembrances is a little like stumbling inside a vaguely familiar building, and having to feel my way from room to room because most every room and hallway is dark. And when I’m encouraged by finding a brightly lit room, I often discover that the room isn’t as well lit as it seemed to be. Or that the light is uneven. And when I try to explore those murky recesses in my memory, I only have at my disposal a cranky flashlight, hardly enough to illuminate the dark corners where key details lurk.
And yet, sometimes it works. The flashlight glows bright and a completely forgotten event emerges from the shadows.
Writing a chapter on the pre-1959 period, when Batista was in power, Castro’s rebels on the hills and bombs went off every night, I wrote that the exploding bombs sounded like distant cannon. This image came to mind easily, but made me stop, to wonder how I knew back then, when I was fifteen, what distant cannon sounded like.
And then, unprompted, a brief flash reminded me that when I was a little kid living in La Habana Vieja, Old Havana, I heard a cannon fired every night.
Really?
Thanks to Google I learned that they still do. I even watched a recreation of the cannon being fired on You Tube.
My newly rediscovered old friend, classmate, and neighbor, Ernesto, confirmed it. When I asked him whether we could have heard it in Santos Suarez, our old suburban neighborhood, he claimed not to remember. But in Miramar, where he lives these days, sometimes he hears the distant rumble of the cañonazo de las nueve, the cannon fired since the 18th century—when Havana was protected by thick stone walls against pirates, privateers and buccaneers—to warn the city residents that it was nine o’clock and the city gates were about to close.