Sunday, May 21, 2023

In Fashion: Armadillo and Peacock

 I’m a great admirer of the work of linguist Deborah Tannen. She wrote “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation” and other books. A 1993 essay in The New York Times Magazine, "Marked Women, Unmarked Men," especially struck me. Observing men and women at an academic event, she wrote, 

“Each of the women at the conference had to make decisions about hair, clothing, makeup and accessories, and each decision carried meaning. Every style available to us was marked. The men in our group had made decisions, too, but the range from which they chose was incomparably narrower.”

Ain't that the truth. Women’s decisions resonate and, if asked, they’d tell the stories of clothing and accessories: where bought, who was she shopping with, the occasion, the hair stylist and salon. When writing this, I asked my partner Naomi to run down the details of which she wore at that moment. She related, “The pants and blouse come from J. Jill because they fit me. Clothes are hard to find because I’m petite so when I found these pants fit, I got them in four colors. The earrings come from the market at Yellow Monkey Village in Cross River. I was there with my friend Suzanne and artisans had displays and I liked these.”  

I’m proof that men’s range of options is narrow. I’ve joked I can dress in total darkness because my clothes are so standardized: jeans or khakis, mostly button-down shirts from Lands’ End , J. Crew, LL Bean, Brooks Brothers and especially Eddie Bauer, switching to Tommy Bahama beach shirts for hot weather. My shopping venue of choice: Goodwill stores and factory outlets, where I hunt for Levi's jeans and Merrell's hiking shoes. 

Still, if you scan the perimeter of my accessories you'll see that I carefully choose my watches and my ties. They carry a lot of delightful emotional freight and thrill me when I strap the watch on or pull the tie snug up against the neck of my button-down shirts. They might not be as noticeable or dramatic as, say, jade earrings, strappy high heels, or a little black dress from Nordstrom’s, but a careful observer could tease meaning from my adornment. Just ask.

Back when I had to wear ties to work as a member of the cubicle-dwelling white-collar proletariat, I settled on my specific style. I adored the Art Deco look for ties, with their bold colors and patterns. I also had a thing for  Italian ties I got in Italy in 1989, giving them so much use they finally fell apart. Two orange ties from the Princeton University Store are reserved for alumni events, where we Tigers swan about in glorious combinations of orange and black and nobody thinks we look peculiar. These days, I wear ties two or three times a year. My go-to ties for the past 20 or so years were designed by Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia. They were a gift and I treasure them. Garcia’s ties, like his music, totally sync with my tastes. What worked 40 years ago works now in my “touch of grey” phase of life.

The essential tie collection

Now, let’s talk about watches. I got into watches as a kid. I was big into 60s and 70s style watch bands, woven leather, black leather with multiple buckles (heavy metal!) and military olive. As an adult with some discretionary income, I indulged in watches that did a lot more than tell time. I started with an Art Deco Gruen piece from a flea market on the Upper West Side. On that 1989 Italian t, I bought a Raketa watch from the USSR, then a decade later two more, a Poljot (Flight) and a Komandirskie. The Raketa’s perpetual calendar ran from 1980 to the inconceivably distant year of 2000. They’re very distinctive lookinglike all Russian watcheskeep terrible time. As such, they're a perfect metaphor for the dysfunction of Soviet communism. But I still like them and wear them since my smart phone gives me the right time, anyway.

Heavy metal from Gruen, the USSR and Seiko.

The exciting news is I achieved my boyhood dream of getting a vintage Hamilton watch. This isn’t a modern digital version made by Swatch in Switzerland. I’m talking about the real deal from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the ones advertised for decades in National Geographic. I bought a Hamilton and an Elgin in a package deal at Shop Goodwill for a mere $40, then spent many many times that amount to get them overhauled and working. While the Elgin is cranky still, the Hamilton runs fine and is one of my adult dress-up watches, along with a watch from my brother Cooper. He’s a true watch connoisseur with an eye for fine mechanics. He got me a vintage Longines that had sat for 50 years in a Dallas safe deposit box before it came his way. When you see me at a swanky Westchester Country art opening or cocktail party, I'll be wearing my Longines or Hamilton with a Jerry Garcia tie.

I feel a lot of affection for my ties and watches. They define my look and add a splash of color and idiosyncratic style to the Levi's and Eddie Bauer schema I've always favored. I may dress like a colorless armadillo, but sometimes I my inner peacock take flight.
Raketa with the 20-year calendar. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Roughing It at Philmont, August 1973

I recently found this essay, which I wrote 50 years ago. In August 1973, to cap off my years in the Boy Scouts, I joined a trip to the Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico with other teens from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Once I returned home to Mission, I immediately turned my notes into this travel piece, about our sweaty, exciting, exhausting and enlightening adventure in the mountains of New Mexico. The altitude and cold were challenges for us flatlanders used to living at sea level. I omitted the "Lord of the Flies" vibe that settled over our hardy band on the way home, where male energy and tiredness led to some pushing and snarling, but at least no knife fights broke out. I wrote this when I was 15 years old.


Anyway, this Sunday I got back from a trip to Philmont. We gathered at our Council camp, Perry, on August 1. We gathered up health forms and spent about two hours decorating up our dilapidated bus. On one side we had “Rio Grande Council” and “Stewardess Wanted Badly.” On the other side was “Mafia Staff Car” and “Philmont or Bust.” Also there were initials, foot prints, “Army Surplus” and “Navy issue” on the front with “Don’t Honk we’re peddling as fast as we can” on the back window. I guess I was pretty excited because I didn’t get much sleep that nite.

Finally in the morning we stowed our gear, had a lite breakfast and waited around for a TV crew which never arrived. At long last we departed for the Kingsville Navy Air Base for lunch.

Now, describing our crew, it was not too large; 24 boys and two adult advisors, Mr. Don Hensel of Donna and Mr. Robert Barbosa of McAllen. We split into crews of 12. The bus was slow, loud and too small. Most of us had to share a seat, which isn’t much fun on long bus trips, especially when you feel like stretching out. One guy brought a tape player and another a cassette but they couldn’t be heard above the noise.

At Kingsville the young man in charge of us gave us a tour of the base, then we had lunch. One thing that impressed me was the food. Also, they give you a choice of about 10 drinks. I usually got chocolate milk.

From here it was on to Lackland of San Antonio. We had a long wait as Mr. Hensel tried to get us through, but I suppose it was worth it. It was the biggest and best of the four bases we stopped at. We stayed at the gym. That evening we went to a Rec Center where we blew our $$$ on pinball machines. Some went skating, but I was chicken (no co-ordination). Some of us wanted to go to a movie but that was voted down. We walked over to a bowling alley but couldn’t get in. We started talking with some black airmen and one happened to be an Eagle Scout from N. Carolina, I think. Also, he was (I think he said) Chief of his OA [Order of the Arrow] area and had attended the ’69 jamboree. All he could say was, “Man, I sure had fun in Scouting.” He was so enthusiastic it took ten minutes before we could leave. He says he might want to be a Scoutmaster once his hitch is up.

After this we went to the gym where we lifted weights, played handball and basketball.

The next morning after breakfast we took a tour of a museum and left. The next leg of our trip was from San Antonio to Goodfellow in San Angelo for lunch then on to Carlsbad. The scenery up to San Angelo was nice, but then it pretty well flattened out. From here to Philmont, most of the way was of dry, almost uninhabited, rolling land. It impressed as a huge, vast zip on the map. It was hard to imagine a place so big and empty, mile after mile. Another item that struck me was “Who would come out to string and erect all these phone poles?” They just run all over the place. I suppose somebody lives way out there. The evening of August 3rd we arrived at a Scout Aquatic Camp there. We spent most of the evening at an amusement park adjacent to us. Again, we went crazy on the pinball machines and the 25-cent “challenge” kind. When we left, most of us slept on the bus. We had a box dinner that we picked up at Goodfellow.

The morning of the 4th we ate breakfast at a restaurant then went to Carlsbad Caverns. We all wore red windbreakers and looked very sharp. I suppose it was OK, but since I’d been there before it was not very exciting. The walk through the Big Room was pretty much a drag. After this we got back on the bus and went to Las Vegas, N.M. We stopped in Artesia for hamburgers and drinks. We went to Las Vegas for dinner then to Storie Lake Park. We slept in cement picnic shelters. It was really cold.

Stowing my cardboard suitcase at Tent City after arrival, on the left,
Ranger Doug Kennedy in cool shades on the right. 

The morning of the 5th we started on the last leg of the trip. We reached Philmont about 1 PM. We all shivered a little to see those high peaks. We met our Ranger, Doug Kennedy of Kansas City, put our gear in Tent City, then had lunch, then the shakedown. Most of the afternoon we were at the Trading Post. After dinner we traded patches. I swapped the Ana Topa Hutsi I have and one 35th anniversary for a World Jamboree-Japan and two throw-ins. Also my lodge flap for a Tonkawampus in perfect shape. That night we went to the New Mexico Story campfire. It was OK.

That's me on the left with my elbows on my knees.

The 6th we started camping. A bus took us to near the stockade and we walked to Lover’s Leap. That morning I bought a film roll, hip strap and more patches. At camp we set stuff up then Kennedy herded us up a ridge for compass training. We then bush whacked to Lover’s Leap. On the way I lost my Army canteen. We amused ourselves at Lovers’ by throwing rocks and branches off (280 foot drop straight down). After the others left Doug and I tried to find the canteen. He left soon and I tried to find it alone. I learned an important lesson: obey the Rule of Three. I darn near got lost. I got down the ridge OK but couldn’t recall what road or trail went to Lover’s camp. Luckily two staff members came along and gave me directions.

The 7th it was off to Urraca—a scenic but-near the end—rough hike. That afternoon we went to the rapelling program. It as fun but the way to too long and I got to up and down once. That nite our crew Talespinner told us some Edgar Allen Poe stories and jokes. We were at the edge of a steep valley and they were having bear problems here and the bear came up the valley. That nite a staffer told us “Blue Lights on Urracca Mesa” which scared us all. We all made a big thing out of the bear and got nervous. It didn’t both me too much but I slept with my tennis shoes on, just in case.

The 8th we had a long hard hike to Crater Lake. Bad camp, lots of flies. Had the farthest back camp and had a long walk after we arrived. Program-orienteering, my team was almost last. We beat one guy who lost his card and pardner. Rained hard that afternoon while we were instructed, actually, pretty fun to go crashing thru the wet brush.

Just a pleasant stroll in the high country.

August 9th, hike to Trails Peak. Left packs in brush, hiked to top. It took a long time to up for there are no switchbacks, just straight up. Our camp that day was Lower Bonito, which was beautiful and had a good view of Trail Peak.

Aug. 10th, Off to Fish Camp. We relaxed there for a while and picked up food. A staff member gave us cold water and a tour of the fishing lodge, we also made flies. We walked about 1.5 miles to Aqua Fria, with Lower Bonito these were the best camps. Here we fished under a dark sky. I got a point blank foto of a chipmunk here. Had to walk back to Fish Camp to get a sweatshirt I left there.

Aug. 11th, camp at Apache Springs. This place had the best program along with Miner Park. The Indian culture, teepees, corn-grinding, arrow-making and Indian sauna really interested me. My crew ground corn. We cooked the ground corn up and nobody would eat the slop. The arrow making didn’t go very well and a storm forced us to stop. It got bone-chilling cold and rainy. Within an hour it passed on. Three others and myself tried the sauna but we didn’t heat the rocks enough, so it wasn’t effective.

Aug. 12th—Off to Porcupine for 2 days. Another dark day. Had campfire that nite. The 13th we hiked up to Clear Creek for Black Powder Shooting, another enjoyable and instructive stop. We were hiking most of the day. I took a shower here, the only one I had on the trail. Also washed clothes.

Aug. 14th—Got up late that day-7:15 am. Out schedule was to travel from Porcupine to Beaubien for food then on to Black Mountain Camp. Well, we made a slight wrong turn and went all the way down to Fish Camp before realizing it! We really felt dumb. We rested awhile then took off to Porcupine to pick up the trail. WE had lunch at the bend, we goofed on. Right after we started after lunch it started raining. Hiking in the rain is fun, but wearing a pack really makes you miserable. After an hour or so it stops. We had a surprise at Black—couldn’t find a camp. The ones near the front were taken so we walked on down the valley. We came to one—too small. There as no use in all of us walking, so four guys were sent ahead to scout around. They found one. It was narrow, rocky, sloping with high grass—but it had to do. The next morning we had a cold breakfast and left as soon as possible.

Showing my climbing skills.

Aug. 15th—to Miner’s Camp. We had a fairly easy trip that a.m. We had a lumbering days program which I thoroly enjoy. It consisted of pole climbing, log sawing, log hoisting, and starting a match with an ax. The only other crew was from Arlington, which was nice. Afterward about a dozen of us went on an Earth Science hike That nite we attended a really engrossing campfire story., mostly about Cimarron, Clay Allison, etc.

Aug. 16th—Finally, the last day! We got up at 4:30 for pancakes, it was fairly warm morning, not the bone chillers we got higher up. We were to hike ten miles to base camp. We went up and down and finally along Tooth Ridge. We left our packs and struggled up the Tooth—exhausting. From here it was all downhill and slippery. I stumbled about five times on the way—pretty bad. It was really maddening when we could see the Base—but from afar. We walked . . . it was hot and my mouth dried up badly. At long last we made it! We all flopped down on the side of the shower building. After recovering we went to Tent City, check in tents and cooking gear, then just messed around. It’s hard to describe the feeling of RELAXATION at base—especially after a nice (tho cold) shower. I bought a drink, then patches, a belt buckle and neckerchief slide. A few of us went to the Seton Museum which I enjoyed. We ate in the mess hall then got our Arrowheads that nite at a campfire.

The next morning we had the Continental breakfast, packed and left. The entire trip home was rather long and boring. We stopped in Lubbock and at Randolph A.F.B.

Home to Mission, ready to get cleaned up. 

Sunday, April 09, 2023

The Copy Editor's Dossier on "The Bucharest Dossier"

First-time novelist William Maz captured lightning in a bottle with 2022's The Bucharest Dossier. Drawing on his experiences as a childhood immigrant from Rumania and then student at Harvard, he spun a deliriously complex tale of campus spy recruitment, espionage mentorship, double- and triple-crosses during the bloody Rumanian Revolution of December 1989, and lost love. The book's film and TV rights have been optioned and a sequel will debut in June. 

It brims with great passages, as in this one from page 83, about main character Bill Hefflin and his undergrad mentor, high-society Catherine Nash:

That evening was to be followed by countless other magical nights during which she slowly brought him along, carefully, tenderly, until he had let go of his inhibitions. She had been his teacher in love as well as in spycraft.

Love and spycraft—you can't have one without the other, at least in fiction. 

As I devoured the novel about CIA analyst/maverick field agent Hefflin, I found myself taking notes, not just on striking writing but also on evidence of the decline of copy editing and fact checking in the publishing industry. One flub I could accept, but I made notes on at least six. 

The errors weren't typos, but rather indicated that the team at Oceanview Publishing needs to brush up on homonyms in Englishwords that sound alike but have different meanings—as well as history. Some are obvious and jarring, others a master of history and foreign language that could be explained as usages that, if corrected, could bog down the narrative. 

Here's my discussion, offered in the spirit of one writer/editor to others.

Page 25. "No need for that, Bill." Avery's face lit up with his spook's smile. "We've already put you through the ringers, and we're satisfied." Here's the first homonym. For a novel that pays attention to mangled idioms, this one really jumped out at me. You put something "through the wringers" to indicate squeezing or twisting to extract information via pressure, or to remove water from wet clothes. "Ringers" are people who make noise with bells, or an imposter or fake, as in a sports event. 

Page 26. Avery continues his spymaster spiel: "The issue is that we've never had an asset whose identity we don't know. That's a problem on many levels. We can't monitor him, provide aide if he puts up a flag, or influence him if he starts to waiver." "Aide" is a noun; "aid" is what an aide provides.

Page 36. Hefflin is musing about corruption in Rumania and worldwide. "I don't judge," Hefflin said. "In the Congo it may be a sack of flour, in Brazil a few reals, in America a lot more." This is the most subtle issue I found. It only jumped out at me because I've studied Brazilian Portuguese. The real is the name of the national currency of Brazil, but the plural form is reais. I could understand an English speaker creating the plural by adding an "s" to real, but, really, that's not accurate in Brazil's language. A worldly CIA analyst would know the difference.

Page 54. Let's go to Boston public transit matters. Hefflin is partying with fellow undergrad femme fatale and spy Catherine Nash. "We've both had too much to drink," she said to Hefflin. "He'll drive us back, then take the Metro." Would two Harvard students refer to the Metro? Author Maz graduated from Harvard and I doubt he called it that. Locals call the subway system the T.  Granted, that may sound baffling to readers who don't know Boston, so Metro conveys the transit idea. Still, "Metro" showed a lack of awareness of local nomenclature. 

Page 343. Hefflin is talking to his Soviet spy contact, Boris, who gives Hefflin details on his background as a soldier in the Red Army during World War II. "After the War, I joined the KGB. I was good at it, partly because I was no longer afraid to die." The reference to the KGB is technically accurate, since the KGB did exist after World War II, but the war ended in 1945 and the KGB didn't exist by that name until 1954. As of 1946, Soviet intelligence agencies were the NKGB, MGB and MVD. As a shorthand term for all these agencies, KGB works; explaining the name of whatever agency Boris joined would be distracting for readers in the context of the discussion. On the other hand, I'd expect two savvy Cold War operatives to use the right reference. 

Page 348. Let's finish off with another homonym. Boris is waxing nostalgic about fast times in Rumania 1989 (Christmas Day, to be exact). "Let us go back to the day when the Ceausescus were executed. It was a grizzly affair, no point masking that fact, but they deserved what they got." Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena (a/k/a "Mother of the Nation") were indeed executed, but by a firing squad; they were not the main course at the Christmas dinner of revolutionary grizzly bears, even if they did deserve that manner of dispatch. Boris meant to say "grisly." 

All this said, the book resonated with me on many levels. It had passages of great lyricism. This one deserves quoting at length from page 302, when Hefflin learns of the death of a beloved gypsy neighbor and fortune teller from his Bucharest childhood:

Hefflin sank into the chair. Tanti Bobo. in his child's mind he thought she'd always be there, the same way he had thought of his parents, and of Pincus. Now she, too, was gone. His past seemed to be evaporating, one person at a time, like a dream that fades away as one awakens. And now he'd be forever carrying the guilt."

That's powerful, something I'd like to write in my fictional efforts. I'm looking forward to the next book, The Bucharest LegacyThe Rise of the Oligarchs. I'm hoping Maz's success with his first novel gains him a bit more copy editing support for the sequel. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

The Prophet's Day Job and Other Microstories

I’ve recently been writing microstories, 100 word pieces. One will appear on the Fairfield Scribes site next month. I also did one for the Forward newspaper’s April issue on Israel’s 75th anniversary on the theme of “first visits to Israel.” Some are fact, some barely fiction; they all reflect reality.

The Prophet’s Day Job

Dawn had barely scraped the Judean hills when Jeremiah’s eyes flickered open. Last night had been rough. He secretly copied the prophetic scroll the king had burned, then stood before the Temple warning that the Almighty’s patience was exhausted and invaders were surging toward the city gates. Crowds laughed as he dodged camel dung hurled by the brats. His bones and heart both ached. “They’d better start learning Babylonian PDQ,” he muttered. Time for work; he lit the fire in his market stall to prepare his famous frothy “land of milk and honey” concoctions. For Jeremiah’s drinks, even the scoffers paid top shekel.

A Second and a Half

The police car’s lights flashed behind me as soon as I crossed the Katonah train tracks. I passed under the blinking gates as they rose, an infraction. Had I waited a second and a half longer for them to stop blinking, I’d be OK. Instead, the cop ticketed me and months later I appeared in traffic court. The judge fined me, then I took a course to refresh my driving skills. Weeks later, the judge was arrested for DWI and resisting arrest, and temporarily relieved from his duties. In my heart, I wished him well for he treated me justly.

Captive Audience

Ken read his book but the New Haven Line commuter in the facing seat demanded conversation. Beer in hand and jacket wrinkled, he groused about inflation, property taxes and schools ruined by changing demographics. Guys like him never got a break. “Guess you’re not interested,” he slurred to Ken’s silence. Ken shrugged “Sorry.” The lack of engagement led to muttering about Hartford screwing taxpayers. Ken glanced around, but other riders shunned eye contact as the complaints got louder. Ken was ready to edge away when the tightly wound man stumbled off in Westport. His captive audience’s clenched shoulders finally relaxed.

Language Lessons, or Saudade

That early online connection between Brenda and Flavio felt delirious, two souls crossing borders and languages. From IMs to coffee to movie dates, they progressed. Brenda loved hearing about his São Paulo upbringing, he enjoyed her stories of New York's River Towns suburbia. Then the trajectory faltered and flatlined. Frantic to stay connected, Brenda began studying Brazilian Portuguese so he’d help her with pronunciation and grammar. Flavio dissolved from romantic hope to coolly distant tutor.

She asked him to translate a song title: “What does ‘Eu Amo Você’ mean?”

“It means, ‘I love you.’”

Brenda drifted away onnow she understood the essential worda wave of saudade

“That’s what I’ve wanted to hear.”

My Kaleidescopic First Trip to Israel

I first visited Israel in June 1982 when I didn’t know an alef from a bet, but I was eager to learn. My Jewishly savvy girlfriend, Adina, urged me to go, so I joined a tour that arrived at the start of the First Lebanon War. I documented the trip with my Canon AE-1 film camera. Photos from Masada, Yad Vashem, Hebron and the Western Wall mix with ominous scenes of military trucks on the move, troops mustering and tank emplacements near the Lebanon border. Pictures show the 24-year old version of Van squinting in the blinding sun, standing against sun-blasted rocks and the ancient sweep of Jerusalem. In one photo I’m holding a copy of the Jerusalem Post with the headline, “Israel-Syrian Clashes are Escalating.” 

The kaleidoscopic experiences strengthened my growing engagement with Judaism. And as a young writer, I knew a good story when I lived one. So on November 14, 1982, the Yiddish Forward’s English section ran my 3,000-word account, “My First Time—Visit to Israel.” 35 years later, I wrote a six-part online series about my SECOND trip to Israel.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Mind Games from Texas 1975 to Brooklyn 2015

Do kids still send handwritten mash notes to one another, slipped into school lockers or textbooks, passed hand-to-hand in class, delivered by giggling messengers as in an Elizabethan comedy? Or, in a time when young people are besotted and savaged by instant messaging, texting, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, are written declarations a hopelessly passé technology dating back to their grandparents in the 1970s, if not older?

I don't know, but I can speak of the spine-tingling impact of anonymous written communications. Consider these two stories separated by 40 years.

On a visit to the Brooklyn Museum in 2015, I checked my backpack in the lobby. When I retrieved it several hours later, I noticed a piece of paper tucked into its outside webbing. The page had been torn from a museum map and said this:

I caught you staring at me from across the room but you didn’t come right over. Were you being coy, well it worked. Maybe you felt the need to see the others, knowing that I would seize your full attention. You held your hands behind your back, resisting your desire to touch me. I longed for you to come close but we had to keep our distance under the watchful eye of another. You slowed, staying long enough to see all sides of me. You quietly traced my contours with your looking. I am wondering how I appeared in your eyes. I don’t know if I am projecting but you seemed to be trying to uncover something, as if I held a secret for you. So did you get what you wanted from me? Course I am left with the lingering feeling of our encounter.

That’s all. No address, no name, no next step, no closure. After my pulse returned to normal, I wet a finger and ran it across a word to see if this was, in fact, an actual written note and not a pre-printed piece of performance art that a transgressive artist had photocopied and stuck into my backpack. 

The black letter smeared slightly. The writing was real, even if what was written had no relation to the reality of that evening at the museum, where I strolled with my girlfriend the whole time. The note could only have been slipped into my backpack in the check room. I wouldn't be surprised if the artist observed me finding and reading the note.

I’m left with a mystery of identity and intent that cannot be solved. It made such an impression on me that I wrote about it then, and now, following an open mic appearance about it last Friday, I'm writing about it again, with an update you can see in the comments of the original piece. 

Mind gamesthese had happened before with the same confounding sense of something beckoning from just beyond my reach. The Brooklyn episode happened 40 years after other notes popped up in my locker at Mission High School in Texas.  The similarity in anonymous, teasing targeting is remarkable. Somebody knows how to get inside my head, first in 1975 when I was a teen, then 40 years later. The mysteries of hidden and malicious human contact linger on. I knew back then I was getting played but, to paraphrase Shakespeare's opening of Twelfth Night, if anonymous notes be the food of (imagined) love, play on. 

Adolescent note writing directed at me started in junior high, when a messenger handed me a passionate declaration of love from a classmate, with her real name. That was obviously a goof because that girl and I never interacted and I had no inkling of any interest from her to, as she wrote, "go around with me, I really love you Van."

Anyway, this note business heated up in the steamy locker area of Mission High School with notes bearing the initials “M.R.” After the first one I somehow expressed my curiosity to M.R. with a response in my locker. She (or he?) responded with loopy adolescent female notes that eventually make references to her buck teeth and big ass. The piece de resistance was a hand-colored piece of cardboard, painted on one side with a stylized "W" and written on the other. Even if a fraud, the sign showed a high attention to detail and makes me wonder about which of my artistically inclined friends might have conceived this teenage masterpiece.

The back of the card said, "Someone lost something, all yours, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is a suviner from an admirer 'M.R.'"

I never heard more. I doubt M.R. used her (or his) actual initials. It could be one person, it could have been a group project from mean girls who wanted to see how I'd react. I imagine I responded exactly the way they wanted me to, like a hungry catfish swallowing a lure in the Rio Grande. Catfishing, today's kids might want to know, existed with nondigital forms of social media.  I’ll post this on Facebook—maybe M.R. is on my friends list. I never heard a bashful confession at high school reunions in Mission in the decades that followed, where liquor and loud music should have loosened up tongues and memories enough to reveal the real M.R. Am I being obsessive? You might say I'm Captain Ahab and M.R. is my now-postmenopausal Moby-Dick. Thar she blows! A hump like a snow hill!

Who was M.R., really? Maria, Mandy, Melissa, Marisol, Rosie, Renee, Rodriguez, Rivera, Ruiz, Reyna? Almost certainly none of them. Who was that sultry and oh-so-evocative Brooklyn note siren? I don’t know. However, the Brooklyn story has a coda that surprised me as much as the original letter. In 2020, five years after my original blog post about the note, I received an anonymous blog comment that led to this exchange:

Hi - I was just going through old papers and found this exact piece of paper amongst my things. I had forgotten about it until now. Like you, it was placed in my backpack when I visited the Brooklyn Museum in 2015. I thought it was real as well but now I’m thinking it was performance art. I haven’t been able to find anything else online about it. I wonder who the artist is!?

I'm curious: how did you happen to find my post on this mysterious episode, after five years?

I typed the text into Google search and your post popped up. I’m thinking about contacting the Brooklyn Museum to see if they know anything about it.

I copied part of the note’s text into a search engine. Only my blog post mentioned it. How many other such notes slid into Brooklyn backpacks that night? Could the anonymous commenter be none other than the mystery writer herself continuing the game from a safe distance? Or did M.R. teleport herself 40 years into the future from Texas to Brooklyn for one more round of teasing? While I doubt I'll ever know (or M.R. even remembers), the curious quest continues. 

Maybe M.R. will read this and IM me on Facebook—the preferred channel for us old people these days. 

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Reading the Actuarial Tables

Who’s ever looked at those online longevity calculators to see how long you might live? I have. As of a week ago, my results were: 83 from the BBC, 84.2 by Social Security, and an encouraging 93 by the more detailed NorthwestMutual Life Longevity Indicator, thanks to my boring but healthy lifestyle. It sounds right; my father lived to 92, and I exercise a lot more than he ever did.

Of course, nobody has a lock on another day of this life. Five men I know died in their 60s in recent months. Last Friday marked 39 years since my mother died at 63, cancer. Nobody knows the day or hour. Except in memory, time’s arrow flies in one direction only, endlessly converting the infinite future into our limited present and past.

Let me explain these musings on mortality and “how long.” They respond to this question: does it make sense for me to get lifetime memberships to associations or lifetime magazine subscriptions? Who makes out like a bandit on the deal, me or the publisher?

I got hooked on the notion of lifetime membership in 1984, when I stayed in youth hotels during a month in Europe. I became an annual member of American Youth Hostels (AYH then, HI USA now, part of Hostelling International), then learned about a lifetime deal. I was still in my 20s and ready for globe-hopping adventures involving hostels, so why not? My lifetime membership card is dated January 29, 1987, I was 29 years old. 

The last time I used my membership was October 6, 2001, on Amsterdam Avenue in New York I stayed at the AYH building there alone, by the way, after seeing my father and his wife. I was unemployed and my life was in a shambles and in no rush to get home to the suburbs. The group still sells life membership for $250. I can't even remember what I paid back then, $150? Still, I'm glad I got that membership and supported the organization. That card's still valid, you know.

I kept my eyes open for other opportunities. I sometimes bought the quarterly magazine Jewish Currents. Founded 1946 by communists—that’s right, by fanatical proponents of godless Marxism-Leninism, bound by strict Party discipline!—it now describes itself as “a magazine committed to the rich tradition of thought, activism, and culture of the Jewish left, and the left more broadly.” I like Currents' independence and ability to show me new perspectives. I sprang for a subscription in 2015 and even pitched then-editor Lawrence Bush on an article about my memoir, A Kosher Dating Odyssey. Bush wrote a pleasant rejection email, noting that a book with the word “kosher” in the title wouldn’t be “the cup of tea” of the Currents’ highly secular readership.

When I saw Currents offered a lifetime subscription for $300 in 2016, I checked the actuarial tables and decided I had enough years left to make the deal attractive. Hence, Currents will be rolling into my mailbox until at least the 2040s, so I hope. Or even 2050, if Northwest Mutual got it right and I keep up my fitness routine.

I found few magazines offer lifetime subscriptions. The most prominent: National Geographic for $895. That sounds like a great gift for kids, but I can read it at the library, which I never do anyway. Websites offer lifetime subscriptions to cloud storage services, but the way websites come and go, I prefer to use my 5-terabyte external hard drive for my scurrilous writings and thousands of pictures of cats and the Katonah train station.

Last month, I learned about a great offer from The Jewish Press. This is an Orthodox and highly conservative weekly based in Brooklyn, about as opposite of Jewish Currents as possible. I never subscribed but for decades I’d occasionally buy it to read about the wisdom of sages, advice for singles and their anxious parents, politics and global updates on antisemitism. The Press was offering a four-year subscription for $200. That worked out to $1 on issue, way better than the $3 cover price. After years as a “fellow traveler,” to user a term surely known by the politically aware folks at Currents, I signed up. Its 100-plus page issues roll into my mailbox every Saturday. 

Four years will get me to 2026. After that, who knows? If I'm still around, maybe I'll sign up for another four years while hanging out at a youth hostel during a globe-hopping trek. After all, I still want to get a lot of mileage out of that lifetime membership card. 

Thursday, December 29, 2022

2022 Highlight: Cutting the Cable Cord

 What do I remember about 2022 and plan for 2023? My retirement funds tanked, inflation gnawed at the family budget, I got Covid at a wedding in September, I spent more time on Twitter in 10 days than I had in the past 10 years, I had knee surgery in November to fix a torn meniscus, some of the people I voted for in November actually got elected, and I kept working on blog posts and performing at open mics.

But for real lifestyle impact going into 2023, I think of 2022 as the year we cut the cable cord. My partner Naomi and I had Verizon FIOS for years, topped off by Netflix, Amazon Prime, Showtime and HBO. While I liked the series we watched on streaming services (Babylon Berlin, Russian Dolls, The Girls from Ipanema), I’d still use broadcast to check in on the local news, Spanish-language programming like telenovelas and the talent contest Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento to test my limited Spanish understanding, PBS programming, and—my weekend treat—football and baseball games. Mostly I mindlessly clicked around expecting to find something to hold my interest among the hours of advertising-clogged dreck. Well, I did like watching that Canadian show about big-rig blizzard rescues, Highway Thru Hell. 

But this fall, as we overhauled our Verizon spending, we dropped FIOS, the landline and network/cable TV, but kept the Internet services. Roku became our source for programming, along with streaming channels.

Imagine my shock when after we did the Big Snip that I couldn’t get the World Series! No Houston Astros, no more college football, no more Greg Gutfeld on Fox News, no more On Patrol: Live on Reelz, no more Dallas Cowboys! I felt a physical withdrawal at lacking access to enjoyable programs. The compulsion to plop down on the couch and mindlessly slog through the digital wasteland was stronger than I ever suspected.

My response: like any resourceful American, I adjusted to changing circumstances. I found I could listen to baseball on the radio, just like I did in the early 1970s. I found a radio station, KURV in Edinburg, Texas, that broadcast the Astros online so I tuned in to that station on my computer. For those rare moments where I want to watch the local news (mostly crime, celebrities and funny animal videos), I can get New York’s CBS News on a Roku app. Saturday Night Live? I can see segments online, if I ever cared again to watch that tediously predictable show.

Roku is a source of wonders on our TV monitor. We get the PBS Passport for documentaries and British crime dramas. The library-supported Kanopy service keeps me stocked in film noir, musicals, Italian neo-realism, French New Wave and European Holocaust fare I can’t find elsewhere. They’re the standard entertainment during my morning exercise routine; it may take a week to work through lengthy masterpieces like L’Avventura and Rocco and His Brothers, but I like the black-and-white company at dawn. As the three films at the bottom of the screen shot below show, I'm into director Lina Wertmuller these days. 

On the aural front, I recently discovered a Roku app called iTuner, with access to radio stations worldwide. As a music fan, this is tremendous. I now listen to broadcasts from Israel, Brazil, Mexico, Haiti, Portugal, Italy, Cuba, France and Cape Verde. Combined with the equally awesome and genre-searchable, I get all the music I can handle.

With brain cells and attention freed up, I’ve increased my time both working on my long-gestating mystery novel and also reading novels. I just started The Lying Life of Adults, by Elena Ferrante. She wrote the novels that inspired the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, which we’re watching and enjoying.

As time passed, I felt less and less of a pull to watch favorites. Sports events on TV all take way too much time, so I never watched a game from beginning anyway. The others aren't so essential I want them back; I've engaged with other materials. The detox process is complete.

So, the bottom line: For 2023 I’ll use my expansion of free time to write and perform more. And if the Dallas Cowboys get into the Super Bowl, I’m sure I can listen to the game on the radio.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Learning to Read, 1851 and 1914

Everybody on my open mic events likes to read (since you’re reading this, you do, too). A love of words and reading is the gateway drug, so to speak, to writing—and we know that that leads to open mics, tangy pseudonymous blog posts and related scurrilous activities. So I thought, what was your gateway to a love of words, reading and writing? Reel memory back to those earliest influences. Dr. Seuss, Dick and Jane, the Bobbsey Twins, the Poky Little Puppy, picture books about baby animals or dinosaurs? Children’s Bible Stories? A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson? What were mine?

Let’s wind back to 1961 and the book my landlady back in Texas used to teach me to read when I was three. That was The Arnold Primer, copyright 1901 by Silver Burdett and Company. The author was Sarah Louise Arnold, “Dean of Simmons College; formerly Supervisor of Schools, Boston, Massachusetts, and Joint Author of ‘Stepping Stones to Literature.'” This Arnold Primer bears a precise script signature, date and location: Joseph Holliday Spilman, Mission, Texas, September 14, 1914."

It opens with “A word to the children, to be read to them by the Teacher.” The teacher would say:

“Children, here is a new book for you. It is a picture book and a story book. You have bright eyes to see the pictures and you have ears to hear the stories. Would you like to learn to read the stories for yourself? . . . The primer will tell you about Ned, and Kate, and Dot and Dan, other little boys and girls—about their toys, their games, their homes, and their friends.”

The book has charming photographs and etchings of children in late Victorian clothes, like plucky Ned in his sailor suit on the first page with the epic opening lines, “This is Ned. How do you do, Ned?” A literary-minded passage:

Kate can read and write.

She can write with pen and ink.

See her pen and ink.

She can write a letter. See her letter.

Can you write?

I treasure the memories of learning about Ben’s drum, Kate’s kitty, Dan and sister Ella, Uncle Jack’s cow Jess and their well-ordered world. By the end of the book, students are reading stories, learning cursive writing (a lost art these days, so I read) and even getting a look at the “manual alphabet" using hand shapes to create letters.

Now consider a book I recent acquired, The School Reader, Second Book, part of the Sanders Series of School Books. With a copyright of 1840, this copy goes back to November 1851. That’s because a man or, more likely, a boy, named Lewis B. Richards wrote his elegant signature several times in the front of the book along with the date. Lewis’s signature could have been from the Declaration of Independence.

The School Reader is a window into another era. Each lesson begins with a vocabulary list and then a story, with a strong moral lesson, including Bible stories like Jacob and Esau. Readers learned how to be a good girl and boy, the perils of betting, kindness to animals, finding lost lambs, being friends with school mates who are outsiders—timeless lessons all.

The details of some stories can match anything found in Edith Wharton’s tales of upper-class lifestyles such as The Age of Innocence. Consider Lesson VI, “Too Late for a Ride:”

Mrs. Morris had asked her little girl, at least 10 times to make haste and drink her tea, but she did not mind her.

She did nothing but play silly tricks; sometimes stirring her tea as fast as she could, to make a tea leaf turn round in the cup, then pouring it into the saucer, she would put bits of crust to swim in it and then call them her boats and her ships . . .

Her mother left the room, and, when she came back, she had on her bonnet and shawl, ready to ride.

“But, said she, “Charlotte, my daughter I am very sorry you have been so naughty; for I meant to have taken you to the gardens with me but you are now too late, and must stay at home.”  

Then Charlotte began to drink her tea, and to eat so fast that she almost choked herself.

But all her haste was of no use, “For,” said her mother, “your aunt is at the door with her carriage waiting, and as she has been so kind as to call for us, there must be no delay.”

So away went her mother, and though Charlotte screamed as loud as she could to go with her, she found it was all in vain, for she was too late.

Her mother was soon too far off to hear her, and the young Miss was glad to hide herself up stairs, that the girls in the kitchen might not laugh at her.

This was a very good lesson for Charlotte: for, although she lost her ride, she was always careful after this, to obey her mother, as soon as she was spoken to.”

“That the girls in the kitchen might not laugh at her”we’re in Downton Abbey territory here! And I'm enchanted that the story used the word “naughty.” The last time I saw that word must have been in an instant messaging chat on JDate, circa 2007.

What do new readers enjoy these days? I should ask my young relatives in Texas. I sent them a picture book, The 5 O'Clock Band, for Christmas, signed by illustrator Bryan Collier. My son learned to read at an early age as his mother and I constantly read to him. He later developed an appreciation for the Captain Underpants books. I’m not sure what moral lessons could be drawn from that series, but maybe I just need to do a close post-modern metatextual analysis of Captain Underpants.

Gazing at these books, I am borne back ceaselessly into the past (now where did I read that line?) of 60 years ago, learning those letters, figuring out how to write, soon checking out armloads of books at the local library. Those early lessons helped me gave me a good grounding in values. Today’s children could benefit from that kind of moral instruction as a bulwark against what splashes on them from sources that Lewis Richards and Joe Spilman couldn't even imagine.

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Reality Knees a Procrastinator Where It Hurts

In her 2021 book The Secret to Superhuman Strength, graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel describes her fitness obsessions. In one scene, she injures her right knee. “I don’t think it’s serious,” she says in a panel. Two years later, she talks to her doctor about the knee that didn’t improve.

Oh how I can identify with that. I read about Bechdel’s knee the day I learned I needed surgery for my aching right knee. To get to the news peg of this piece, I had that surgery Friday morning to stitch up my torn meniscus. Three months earlier something went haywire in my right knee on a walk in new shoes. It didn’t improve and I was loathe to cut back on my pandemic-inspired walking routine (10,000 steps the daily goal). Finally I limped to an urgent care center and the doctor said it seemed like a strained ligament. He suggested x-rays. I didn’t do anything except wear the tight knee brace he gave me. A strained ligament would heal, right?

“I didn’t do anything” has been a loser life strategy since I was a kid. Science projects, college classes and papers, one anxiety-wracked work issue after another, relationship discord. Through procrastination, I delayed but never avoided the inevitable reckoning. As I often tell others, hope is not a strategy. I should know. You can ignore the throbbing of psychic or physical pain for only so long. And then the pain doubles. Or triples. Several times I reached the edge of a nervous breakdown because I simply didn't reach out for help before I reached code red. This caused pain for me and the people who cared for me.

Books have been written on overcoming procrastination. I’ve read them. I knew I had a problem; notes from a summer 2001 therapy session include my plea, “Learn to take action!” And I have learned, in ways that improved my life. I’m in a better place now that I was 20 or 30 years ago. But still, a looming decision can paralyze me.

Case in point: my knee. After the urgent care visit, I soldiered along with more walking. The throb was more an annoyance than major pain; in other words, I thought I could manage the problem rather than get to the root of it. That's not a very effective crisis strategy. I even went whitewater rafting. I’m surprised that thrilling but bonkers experience didn’t put me on a medevac ride to the ER. Then I saw my internist on another matter and mentioned the problem. He immediately ordered X-rays and gave me the names of specialists. I STILL delayed, until after a weekend of whomping pain I got a clue and made an appointment with an orthopedist. He looked at the x-rays and sent me for a high-priority MRI. We met again after the MRI. The verdict: definitely a torn meniscus. He outlined the prep for the procedure, what he’d be doing, and the recovery.

And Friday afternoon I had the surgery. The surgery went well and I'm moving around with a walking stick. Now I’m sitting here with a bag of ice on my knee. I joined Lift Fitness gym and will go there on Sunday to start biking (I'm easy to spot there, look for the old guy in the baggy sweatsuit). But I'll do no major walking until the doctor clears me for that. Longer-term, I need to swap lower-impact exercise for those obsessive 10,000-step days loping over hill and dale at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation.

Did procrastination make the knee problems worse, or simply prolong the inevitable surgery? I certainly felt daily discomfort with almost every step. I had heard and hedged on suggestions from my partner to get an X-ray and consult an orthopedist sooner—advice I would absolutely give to others. What was my worry? Was it the cost? I have health insurance. That I didn't know what to do? Long ago I mastered the ability to pick up the phone and call my medical practice located about 300 yards away from home. Was it fear of admitting I made a mistake? Walking is not a mistake! A misplaced skepticism about advice? A lack of confidence in my ability to cope? Fear of bad news and the unknown? I know from hard experience that delay often makes the news worse. Master life coach Vito Corleone had a wise and effective approach toward difficult life issues: "Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately."

Editorial consultant Jerry gives me pointers on my open mic script as I ice my right knee.

Ultimately, once the process began, I moved fast, x-ray to orthopedist to MRI to surgery to recovery. The dam of delay broke. And how did I feel taking action? The same way I have in 100 percent of similar situations: utter relief that I did something to address the problem rather than stick my head up my tush. And this starts what can be called a “virtuous cycle” of action on other fronts. One involves learning how to use the Canon 40D camera I bought in 2012 and have barely used, and tinkering with my retirement savings allocation, now that I’m closer to retirement age. 

Final thoughts? I'm grateful I got help from caring professionals. And I'll try to remember my note to myself from 2001: "Learn to take action!" That flood of relief from tackling the latest challenge shouldn't be a one-off, the low point before the roller-coaster of procrastination starts again. Temporary relief can be, in fact, a grievous form of self-deception. Rather, I want this to be the pattern for whatever comes next. Because ultimately, inaction is THE most painful and self-defeating form of action. That's one lesson we all learn eventually. 

Do that and your friends and family and I and Alison Bechdel will all support you.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Whitewater Rafting, Chernobyl and the Tale of the Moroccan Dentist

Like so many stories, this one involves a cab ride. In late September I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, for an in-person gathering of my far-flung team at work. We haven’t met since 2019 and I looked forward to getting to know new members and reconnect with the veterans. A highlight of the schedule: A trip to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Based on the website, its visitors are the kind of people who would be featured in Outdoors magazine. The center enabled our hardy band of white-collar proposal writers, designers, managers and administrators to challenge ourselves by hiking, biking, rope walks, kayaking, whitewater rafting and zip lining.

I’ve never done zip lining or whitewater rafting. Rowing and canoeing as a Boy Scout 50 years ago I could handle, but online scenes of rafts plunging up and down in the center's foaming waters felt way too close to the conclusion of Moby-Dick. I’m ready for Social Securityat my age could I summon rafting savvy from deep in my reptilian survival instinct? I could have opted for hiking, but, well, you know what the kids say, YOLO—you only live once. I brought up a quick-dry t-shirt, swim trunks, Teva sandals and a sturdy band to hold my glasses on in case I went rafting and plunged into the raging waves. Responding to my doubts about whether I wanted to risk it, my younger brother Cooper texted me, “Come on!! Try something different!”

My reply: “Blub blub.”

Finally, I opted for the newness of whitewater rafting and zip lining. The guides at the Whitewater Center were extremely safety conscious, so I felt confident about taking the plunges, in the literal and figurative senses. My big concern was keeping my glasses on in the raft and not bonking my head on a rock if I got thrown into the water. I’m happy to report I stayed in the raft and the glasses stayed on my head. 

Next I did zip lining. After at least 30 minutes of safety prep, I climbed up the 100-foot launch tower for the Double Dare zip line and finally enjoyed 45 seconds (each direction) of soundless gliding over the water course and islands. I barely had time to orient myself to what I observed. But I found the airborne challenge exhilarating; the phrases "zipless" and "fear of flying" mingled in my mind.

I found myself musing, the experience took a half hour of talking and arranging, followed by a minute of ecstatic flying— so similar to other memorable adult endeavors, but that's a matter for another post (or another book). 

Daring zip-liner after challenging his fear of flying.

By that evening, when our team headed to the Optimist Mill food court for dinner, the afternoon of the strenuous life was already passing from activity to legend. During the cab ride, I said to colleagues, “I can take whitewater rafting and zip lining off my bucket list. I also want to go to Chernobyl, but that’s moved down my list, due to current circumstances there.”

One new colleague, Tanya, exclaimed, “You don’t want to go to Chernobyl! I grew up around there! Don't do it!”

The cabbie’s ears perked up. “You’re from Ukraine? I speak Russian!”

And he did. The driver and Tonya amiably chatted for a while then switched to English. Eager to join in, I offered that my paternal grandfather was born in the shtetl of Vishnevets, so I have that connection to Ukraine. I also talked about the itinerary of my 1987 trip to the USSR (Moscow, Tblisi, Sochi, Leningrad). The driver then shared more about his background. He came to the U.S. from Morocco, where he had been a dentist. He held up his cell phone showing a photo of him performing dental surgery. So he wasn’t jiving.

I finally asked, “How did somebody from Morocco learn Russian?” I was thinking, maybe he was an exchange student during the final years of the USSR, taking part in what the propagandists called the friendship of nations.

“Online dating,” he said.

“I can identify with that, that’s how I got interested in studying Brazilian Portuguese,” I quipped.

Besides English and Russian, our multilingual driver also spoke Arabic, French and Spanish, skills that must serve him very well while ferrying passengers around Mecklenburg County. He loved living in the U.S. and still returned to Morocco. He was the kind of tale-spinning, highly observant cabbie that pops up in movies. And here he was, in real life. What would have been a prosaic mile-long trip turned into a cross-culture, cross-languages adventure that I’ll always associate with whitewater rafting. 

And I also connect the ride to the delayed bucket list trip to war-torn isotope-ravaged Chernobyl. Just between us, I still want to get there one of these days, Tanya's well-informed warning notwithstanding. You know—YOLO. 

The wild waters, ready to welcome humans in rafts. 

In Fashion: Armadillo and Peacock

 I’m a great admirer of the work of linguist Deborah Tannen . She wrote “You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation” and other...