Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Red Jacket


Grandfather said:
“By 1948 the world had got pretty much back to normal, or as normal as it was going to get with the Russians lurking around every corner. All the men who went off to war had come home, at least those that were coming home; they bought new homes with mortgages, went to school on the GI bill, had kids, joined the Masons, purchased new cars with car payments, and gave their wives Mixmasters for Christmas. I was ten and the world looked pretty promising.
“One day, Todd, my friend, came by on his bicycle and said, ‘Come on let’s go down to Albertson’s Department Store there’s this neat jacket in the window’. I asked my mother if I could go, and off we went. And there it was in the window: a red jacket with white stripes down the sleeves made out of this silky stuff. And, on the back was the sign for The Chicago Cubs, my baseball team. I wanted that jacket. It cost ten dollars. I rode home as fast as I could and asked my mother if I could have ten dollars to buy that jacket. It was so neat. My mother said, ‘Honey, we just can’t spend ten dollars right now, and it doesn’t sound like a jacket that your little sister could wear when you out grow it’. Nearly my entire wardrobe was ‘hand me downs’ from my cousins; I only got new clothes at Christmas when I wanted a bicycle or something. I just had to have that jacket. Wow, the Chicago Cubs!
“At the beginning of summer my dad would give me two dollars and tell me it was for spending money, and I had to share it with my sister. Mostly we would spend it at the ice cream truck that came around each day. You could get a big ice cream bar for just a nickel. So the two dollars would last us most of the summer. But this summer my dad gave me my two dollars and shook my hand just like a grown up then turned around and gave my sister two dollars too. On one hand that was a good thing because I didn’t have to share my two dollars with my little sister, but why should she get two dollars. She was only six years old. She should only get, maybe, seventy five cents. But I was glad I had two dollars for the jacket, and only eight more to go.
“But how was I going to get eight dollars. That was a lot of money. I thought maybe I could go around the neighborhood and see if anyone needed any help with the yard or something like that. Then one Wednesday I was sitting on the curb in front of our house when this guy named Raymond came by and asked me what I was doing. I told him I was trying to figure out some way to make some money. Then he said, ‘I’ll give you a dollar if you sit right here and watch for Mr. Clark’, the Clarks lived just down the street from us. He told me that I was to watch for Mr. Clark, and when I saw him, I was to run up to the door at the Clarks and yell that Mr. Clark was coming home. And for that I would get a dollar.
“I sat right there on that curb, and Mr. Clark never came home. A while later Raymond came out of the alley and gave me a dollar. Now I had three dollars. I only needed seven more. I did this for the next two Wednesdays and got a dollar each time. Now I had five dollars. I was half way to wearing that neat jacket.
“Then on the third Wednesday while I was sitting there reading a comic book waiting to get my dollar from Raymond, I saw Mr. Clark’s car turn at the corner and come up the street. I shut that comic book and ran to the Clark’s house opened the screen door and yelled, ‘Mr. Clark is coming home’. Then I went back to the curb and waited for Raymond to come with my dollar.
“I waited and waited and Raymond didn’t come. So I got up and walked back to the alley to see if I could get my dollar. I found Raymond there behind a big bush. He didn’t have any clothes on. I asked him if I could have my dollar because that would give me six dollars and the jacket cost ten dollars. He told me that if I went to the Clark’s front door Mrs. Clark would give me a package. Then he would give me two dollars. I ask him if that was one regular dollar and another dollar or was that one regular dollar and two other dollars. He told me that he would give me my regular dollar and then another two dollars. Man, that was three dollars. That would give me eight dollars. Only two to go.
“I knocked on the Clark’s front door and Mrs. Clark came to the door carrying a big package. She handed me the package and kind of looked over her shoulder and said kind of loud that I was to take this to my mother. She handed me a dollar too. Now this was something. I didn’t know if this was one of Raymond’s dollars or not or If this was a whole ‘nother dollar. If it was a whole ‘nother dollar that would give me nine dollars. Wow, only one dollar to go.
“So I ran quickly to our house and gave my mother the package. She looked kind of surprised, but I didn’t care I was going to get three dollars for picking it up.
“I ran back to the bush in the alley and told Raymond that I got the package from Mrs. Clark and took it to my mother just like she said. He got real mad at me. I asked him if I could still have my three dollars, because I took the package to my mother just like Mrs. Clark said. He told me he would give me four dollars if I would help him find a sheet or a blanket on a clothesline along the alley. I told him I would rather just have my three dollars now. He got mad again.
“So, I walked along the alley looking into the back yards, and I saw some sheets hanging on the Sharp’s clothesline. I went to the house and asked Mrs. Sharp if Raymond could borrow a sheet. She just laughed and said that she needed all of her sheets. So, I walked along the alley some more and found an old blanket by the Frank’s trash can. I took it to Raymond, and he wrapped it around himself and ran down the alley. I ran after him asking if I could have my four dollars now. But he just kept running out of our neighborhood where I wasn’t allowed to follow him.
“I wanted my four dollars. That’s ten dollars I could get that neat jacket. Then I got an idea. Maybe Mr. or Mrs. Clark would help me get the four dollars since that’s where Raymond visited. He must have been a real good friend of theirs. Maybe they would pay me the four dollars then they could get it back from Raymond.
“I knocked on the Clark’s door and Mr. Clark opened the door. I explained to him, ’on Wednesdays Raymond would pay me a dollar to tell him when you were coming home but you didn’t come home except for today and I ran to the door and hollered just like I was supposed to because you were coming home but today he must have lost his clothes because he was in the alley behind a bush and he had promised to pay me four dollars to get him a sheet off a clothesline but Mrs. Sharp said she needed hers so I found a blanket by the Franks’ trashcan and gave it to Raymond who was still behind the bush he took the blanket and ran down the alley but I couldn’t follow him because I wasn’t allowed to go that far and since you and Mrs. Clark were friends of Raymond could you help me get my four dollars because there was this jacket at Albertson’s Department Store that Todd showed me and it had the Chicago Cubs on the back and the Chicago Cubs was my favorite baseball team’. Mr. Clark looked real mad. He hollered ‘Gladys’ and slammed the door.
“I never did get that four dollars. Todd and I rode down to Albertsons Department Store and looked at the jacket again. You know, it was a crummy jacket anyway”.

I wish I had a purse


I just read a piece by Nora Ephron. It was titled, “I hate my purse”. In this piece she bemoans the fact that she must carry a purse just to have the things close by that she needs for everyday living. Actually, the way she describes it she has enough to outlast a minor siege.
Men, don’t carry purses. I’m not sure why. Maybe, it’s because we have to have both arms free to do the things that men have to do. I mean how could you fight off a mugger if you had one arm out of commission holding a purse. I suppose you could hit him with your purse, but that would sound bad when you told the story down at the pool hall, or while drinking beer with the guys. Who would want to be considered a purse hitter. Men simply would not do that. Maybe another reason for not carrying a purse is that it would hamper you when you needed to climb a tree to save a kitten, or climb a tower to rescue a damsel in distress. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a damsel, but I’m just saying. We go through life having to be prepared for all sorts of emergencies that would prevent us from carrying a purse. Some Italian men have worked this out. I think they just purposely avoid situations where they would be called on to use both hands. Well, real American men would never shirk their responsibility, and you never know what lurks around the corner.
I work sort of an inside outside job. Actually I own a construction management company that supervises the construction of sewage treatment plants, a noble job but a stinky one. I like to watch the look on peoples face when I tell them that I am in sewage then walk away with-out explaining. Most days I am in and out of an office trailer or an office building. And, during the winter I have to dress for the cold.
When it’s cold outside I wear a coat, then when it’s particularly cold I wear a vest along with the coat. Now consider this: I have four pockets in my pants, four pockets on the outside of my coat then two on the inside, two pockets in my vest, and two in my shirt, that makes fourteen pockets for me to carry the all the tools of my trade and weapons of manly responsibility.
With winter coming on I went into the attic to get out my winter clothing. I have a very good green Carhart coat and a matching vest, although it’s brown. Carhart makes a real mans’ coat. I mean this coat can not only keep out the cold, but when combined with a Carhart vest they can stop up to a .38 caliber bullet—I think. This is tough he-man clothing. If the pioneers would have had Carhart the west would have been settled fifty years sooner.
As I brought my Carhart armor down from the attic, I went through the pockets to see if I had any of the tools and weapons that I needed left over from last year. I found a number of vital things: in one pocket there was this gray furry hard thing that turned out to be a lemon ball. I want to keep this in case I need a sugar fix while at the plant. I also found a receipt for a custom pool cue that cost $800; I told Mary that I bought it used for $25, then told her when the credit card bill came that Meucci was a specialized testing firm, and I would have to bill it out. I don’t know how I’m going to pull this off, but I’m clever. Someday when she’s in a real good mood, I’ll laugh and tell her, “Boy, I got you on that one”, then hope she thinks I’m witty. That I have to destroy by fire; simply throwing it way will never do. I found a post-it telling me I had a doctor’s appointment that I missed: the doctor makes me pay whether I make it or not if I don’t cancel at least twenty-four hours in advance. No one pays me anything when they don’t show up, but, then, I don’t save lives I only build places to deal with their poop. I found several gas receipts that Mary had first asked me for, then demanded I give it her. I think I told her the machine was broken and wouldn’t give receipts. I found some gooey stuff that resembles something that came from the plant; some things are better left unknown. I’ll have to scrape it sometime this winter, and I have to remember that that pocket is out of commission. In a vest pocket I found a watch. I thought it cool one time to have a pocket watch with the fob hanging out then pulling out the watch, flipping open the lid, reading the time like they did in the cowboy movies. I don’t think it works anymore, but I’ll keep it anyway.
Women have to carry many more things than men do. For instance, men don’t need cosmetics, at least most men. None of us need to carry tampons, that’s for certain. We never carry tissues; that’s not a man item. We carry handkerchiefs, or at least we are supposed to. We are not allowed to carry the check book, and only a small amount of cash. If we get too much cash we tend to get in trouble. My kids help with the cash monitoring. I used to have cash in my pocket. I could pull out a knot and peal off some bills. Then I got children, and now I have no cash. We may be allowed to carry a credit card with strict instructions to keep every receipt and write down anything you buy on the phone or internet. No excuses. There is an implied death threat with this one.
Women have several rings, so they can organize their keys. They have a ring for their house keys, a ring for their car keys, and another ring for other keys that might have. Men just bunch everything up on one giant ring. Some as a badge of honor clip it to their belt so all can see that they are important people; they have the keys. On these outside rings men will carry a flashlight, a bottle opener, even though beer bottles have screw off caps, you never know, or even a Swiss army knife with twenty-five blades complete with magnifying glass. I would bet you they can’t tell you where all these keys go.
Women have to carry things for kids to play with while waiting in a restaurant, and many, many more items that are foreign to men. They keep this all well organized in the various compartments and purse pockets. There is never a time that I can’t ask Mary for something in her purse that she can’t direct me to the exact compartment and the position the thing holds. They can walk along the street with this hung over their like it is an appendage to their body. No matter the occasion they are ready. War, famine, pestilence, no matter bring it on.
Sometimes I think I do pretty well with my fourteen pockets, or thirteen with one temporarily out of commission. I only carry the things that I need to go about my day. I carry a Buck pocket knife big enough to skin a bear, again you never know. I have a cell phone that rings then hides in one of my pockets. I have to search frantically trying to find it before the answering thing takes over. I have one of those pocket computers that allows me to access the internet where I have every bit of the fund of human knowledge from the beginning of time at my finger tips. I never use this because I don’t know how to work the little software programs, and the battery is invariably discharged when I try. But, I carry it anyway; people think I’m a right up-to-date guy. Mary bought me this nice leather cover noted pad; it even has a pen in a little loop on the inside. My instructions were, “Write it down!” This was said with authority. I sometimes have trouble remembering things. It seems I forget more things that I used to. Oh, I can remember Connie’s phone number from the ninth grade, and I can remember Leslie’s grandfather’s amateur radio call sign, but I can’t remember the pin number for the bank. Some days I think I could hide my own Easter eggs.
When I stop for coffee early in the morning, I stuff any available pockets with goodies to get me through the day, and to sustain me if I am taken hostage by some crazed sewage robber. I really drink tea, but coffee sounds more manly.
Then I got a lap-top computer. This worked great. I could carry it with me and have all the plans, specs, e-mail and everything else right at my fingertips. But, it will not fit into any of my fourteen pockets. It doesn’t work for me to carry it in one of those padded cases designed to protect it and keep it handy. I tried this but I was always walking off and leaving it then spending the rest of the day backtracking trying to find it before it either got stolen, or knocked in a tank of you know what. I thought of getting a backpack. This seemed like a good Idea. But thought about how I would look like a Sherpa traipsing along looking for some mountain to climb.
The other day I bought one of those new ten inch lap-top computers. This is the thing—snazzy. It is small enough to carry around and big enough to be able to read things. This is the answer. But, it still will not fit into any of my pockets.
If I only had the nerve to carry one of those big purses that women have wrapped around their shoulders, I could stick my new computer in it. I could get myself organized and be able to find my cell phone when it rings. I could just stick my hand down in the designated pocket and get my pad when I need to write something down. This would be my shoulder office.
Now if I was to carry a purse, I wouldn’t want just any old purse. No, I want something like a Gucci bag, or at least a knock off Gucci bag. I want one of those designer bags that you see on television. If I’m going to do it, I want to do it in style.
And, if I do decide to start carrying a purse, I have to practice saying, “Yeah, that’s a purse. You wanna fight about it?”

Charlie's Boots

Charlie’s Boots

I have worn boots most of my life. Boots have helped to define just who I am. Now I wear tassel loafers; that should tell you something about me today. I was raised in the sand hill, tumbleweed, no rain part of Kansas. And, if you are brought up in Dodge City and have something to do with horses; you wear cowboy boots. Point of fact, no question. I probably started wearing cowboy boots at a pretty early age; I don’t remember exactly. But, I’m sure I did.
I don’t remember how old I was but we were still in the bicycle stage. There was this kid named Charlie who had a pair of boots. These were not any ordinary boots, these were BOOTS. They were black cowboy boots with pointy toes, so pointy that he could have kicked a hole in almost anything he set his mind to. They had red, white, and blue eagles inlaid in the stove pipe stops that went almost up to his knees. The vamps, that’s the bottom or foot part, had red leather sewn on them kind of like wing tips.
These were the coolest boots I had ever seen. How I envied Charlie. Any kid that had boots like this had to be way off the cool scale.
One Saturday morning I happened to be at the Montgomery Wards store for some inane kid reason, and I ran into Charlie. And, you will simply not believe this: he was buying a black leather motorcycle jacket. I mean he was buying a black leather jacket. Man, if having the boots was not cool enough the black leather jacket with all the zippers and buckles blew him out of this world. He was five dollars short , and I felt such a honor to loan it to him. After all I was contributing to improving the coolness of the world.
Charley would wear his boots and that jacket riding his bicycle all over town. Although I didn’t see it, people would stop their cars when he road by thankful just to be in the same world with this cool guy. Shop keepers would leave their stores and come out on the sidewalk to watch him go down the street. I’m sure they wished that he would come to their store to buy something just so they could tell him, “There’s no charge, Charlie, just having you stop in is the bright spot of my day”. Charlie with his boots and jacket was the paragon of coolness, the zenith of our teen aspirations.
From then on Charlie set the “cool” mark for me. And, maybe the only time I got close was in the middle 70’s. DISCO TIME. This was when they had music where even white people could find the beat. It was the time of Gloria Gaynor, “I will survive”, and George Clinton, “Burn Baby Burn” and Donna Summer, “Let Dance”. And dance we did. There were Disco clubs all over the place. I spend one winter in South Carolina at a racehorse training center. And everybody knows where there are horses there are women. And, I was single, and Aiken hosted three disco places. WOW!
I moved to New York City and worked as an exercise rider at Belmont Park. New York City is the most exciting city in the world; it has the absolute worst and the absolute best of everything. I took to it like a monkey to a football.
Now check this out. I bought a pair of Kroop high heel exercise boots, they are sort of cool, not as cool as Charlie’s but okay. I wore starched and iron jeans, turtle neck shirts, and a leather sport coat.
I had a full beard which I kept well coifed and a small gold ring in my left ear. I topped this off with a fedora like Indiana Jones wears on his big adventures. I was studying writing at the New School in Greenwich Village and fencing at the Santelli Fencing Saloon on Sixth avenue. And on top of that I was riding horses for a living.
How cool was I. About two notches below Charlie.

You can't have romance without finance

You Can’t Have Romance Without Finance

Mary is always asking me to write something about how it was to grow up in a small western town in the 1950’s. I tell her that Larry McMurtry has already done this with “The Last Picture Show”. Growing up in Dodge City in the 1950’s was a lesson in contrasts. My first thought is to use the analogy of Rush Limbaugh and The Wizard of Oz. But this does not seem like such a contrast. You have a man sitting behind a microphone expounding his attributes of wisdom and power. That’s also what Frank Baum did as the Wizard of Oz, so there is really little contrast.
Being a teenager in the 1950’s was, and still is, a time when little hormones are smashing around in teen heads like atoms in an atom smasher. Boy and girls alike run around in some sort of faux fertility ritual. Their thought processes are steeped in pure fantasy anchored down to the ground with parental threats. Most times the anchor cables stretch to the point that they are only being held by one small wire, the final threat of having to call your grandmother and tell her what you are doing in school and would she like to help you with your homework.
I have a fifteen year old daughter, and believe me I try very hard not to think of my days as a fifteen year old when I look at her. Thank God, she has her mother to guide her and to rein in my suggestion of activities for her. I have a tendency to over react where she is concerned. If I had my way she would go to a day convent and come home and sit beside me every night. But, mother steps in with some sanity.
Things have changed a great deal since I was a young teenager. For instance, she comes to me and says, “Dad, Can I have some money. Josh, (that’s her present boyfriend) and I are going to the movie”. My first thought is: Wait this is not the way it’s supposed to be. It should be “Father, I would like to go to the movie with the nice boy, Josh, who I barely know from school. I would like for you to meet him and make sure that you approve. I have a copy of his police record and his parent’s credit report for you to look at. I would prefer if you drove us and then sat in the back of the theater, so you can drive us home”. But, that’s not the way it happens.
I have this friend, Tony. When his daughter was sixteen she came to him and asked if she could go to the movie with a boy. His first reaction was to lock her in her room until she came back to her senses. But, as it should be Mom stepped in. Well, this boy was going to drive them in his parent’s car. That’s when the real negotiating started. It was kind of like the Geneva talks on atomic disarmament. The compromise was: she could go to the movie and the boy could drive them and Tony would follow along in his car. Then when the movie was over they were to call Tony so he could drive to the movie and follow them home. I used to laugh when he told me this. But, now it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
And one other point. When I was a teenager the girl didn’t pay for anything. It would have been a black mark against my teenage manhood if I would have allowed her to spend a nickel. Girls didn’t even need to know what money was all about. A carry-over from this is the guest menus in restaurants that have no prices listed.
One time this kid, Leslie, ask me to go the movie with him and his “girlfriend”, Susan, and sit with her cousin as her “date”. Now, Leslie was a good friend and so I said I would. At that time the funds you needed for a movie date was calculated at $3.50 for two people. That would get you into the movie, buy two popcorns, and two cokes. That was it $3.50. So we each put together the necessary funds of $3.50 each. I don’t know how old we were but we weren’t old enough to drive, because Leslie’s mother was to drive us. So on the big night we got all dressed up, at our mothers’ behest, and went to pick up the girls. On the way to the movie Leslie’s mother said, “Hey Kids, the circus is in town. Why don’t you kids go to the circus instead of the movie?” This hit us like the first booms surprised the commander of Fort Sumter when the South started shelling. The girls of course thought this was a great idea. And Leslie and I could not say a word, and didn’t think too much about it—then. So we were let out at the circus and Leslie and I went into purchase tickets. They were $1.75 each. ONE DOLLAR SEVENTY FIVE CENTS EACH!!. Yikes, that was all the money we had. We were doomed. What else could we do. We certainly couldn’t tell the girls this. Not Diamond Les and his rich sidekick. So we bought the tickets knowing full well that we would have no money for intermission.
The girls enjoyed the first part of the circus, and Les and I watched the circus of horrors. Monsters kept attacking us wanting us to buy soft drinks and cotton candy. And intermission was coming. What were we to do? We looked around to see if we knew anyone who could spot us some money. In those days we didn’t even know anyone who had any extra money. So there we sat.
Then the horror of horrors came—Intermission. All we could do was sit there smiling and making small talk as other people came and went with all sorts of goodies: cokes, hot dogs, cotton candy, balloons. I think, and Les would agree, that this was the longest intermission in the history of the world.
Well, we survived the night, but not unscathed. Our honor was crushed. We were social outcasts. We just knew that we were on the “Never-ever date list of lowly human beings”.
I like to listen to “Old Country Blues” on the radio. The other day a disc jockey put it as well as I think it can be said: “You can’t have romance without finance”

December 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Money Supply & Health Care

Let me give you a little food for thought. The grass root issue with our economy is low money supply. That is, it requires X amount of dollars in circulation for each of us to have enough to go about our daily business.
Over the past thirty years we have been shipping money out of the country to the tune of net $750 billion more than we are bringing in from exports. This put a tremendous strain on our money supply. If we look back on things we can probably, don’t quote me on this, go back to the Carter years. To increase the money supply Regan lowered taxes and built up a very big government debt. The economy needed this, but it was a band-aid. It didn’t cure the basic problem of money leaving the country.
Along came the Clinton years and we still had a short money supply. What did we do to increase the amount of money in circulation? Simple, we created new money in the form of consumer credit. This was a stop gap measure which didn’t address the real problem: Trade Deficits. It was also a time when we began to see a wholesale exit of jobs from this country. Due to the zealousness of other countries we saw nearly our complete manufacturing base leave the country. And, money was pouring out of the country at an even greater rate. But our economy was robust because of all those credit cards adding to the money supply.
Depression, or recession, happens when the money supply gets too low. And during the Bush years when greed became the byword, money began to go out of the country at a crazy pace. Just think about every time you buy a gallon of gas or anything from Walmart, just how much of that dollar goes overseas.
The Bush years added a new wrinkle, “Let’s get the government out of our business, so we can get even richer”. And, they did. A new channel was opened up for the money outflow: private pockets of those who were in a position to grab it. By this time everyone had their credit cards maxed out, so a new source had to be found to keep up. The bankers and other power brokers began to look around and see that Americans were sitting on a gold mine, a new source of money supply that would benefit those who wanted it, the elite. So they sold Americans on the idea of taking equity out of their homes and spending it. This was a real boon for our money supply. All those years that people had been paying those mortgage payments and accumulating equity was set up to be tapped. And to help this government relaxed and rescinded many of the regulations put in place to insure that our economy didn’t run amok.
Thus, this is where we are today. The money supply is concentrated in too few hands. Now before you start jumping up and down yelling “redistribution of wealth”, think about it. The once money supply that was in the hands of consuming Americans is now in banks in China and Saudi Arabia. Sure, they return it to us in the form of loans and investments, but remember loans are expensive and have to be paid back and investments means we are selling part of our country.
In order for us to stop hemorrhaging money supply we are going to have to begin to stop up those areas where it is squirting out. For instance, stop sending so much money every day to the countries in the Middle East. Oil is too expensive to use the way we have always used it. Offshore drilling provides no answer. First, it is expensive and it would be ten years before we see the first drop of that oil. No, the answer is to rethink the way we get energy. Carbon based fuels are a thing of the past. We have to look at new areas. I was raised in western Kansas where the wind blows all the time this is such a great source for energy. But, let’s manufacture the equipment to change to wind power in the United States, not China.
It has become somewhat of a moral imperative for employers to pay for worker health care. There is nothing wrong with this if it can be done in a sensible way. But, that too has gotten out of hands. Some twenty years ago I read that the cost of steel in a new car is much less than the cost of worker healthcare. The onus of providing healthcare for workers is a good part of the reason that America is no longer a major player in world manufacturing. This burden must be taken off the manufacturers. In most of the industrialized countries in the world, who are major players, it is the government who provides for healthcare. If we are going to stay in the market place, we are going to have to start thinking along these lines. Those that say that health care reform will bankrupt American need to stop and realize that it is already bankrupting America.
The things Americans consume must start to be produced by American workers. Outsourcing must be replaced with insourcing. It is only then that we can stop this flow of money supply out of the country and keep some of it at home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Land of Green Plums

When Herta Muller was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature I, like many others, had never heard of her. Outside of a small European and academic readership she is little known. In comparison to most of the earlier Laureates her canon of work is not very deep. Many have never been translated from her native German language.

I searched our local libraries trying to find some of her work, and finally found a copy of her 1994 novel, The Land of Green Plums, at the James Madison University Library. Surprising to me that in the land of academics, this book was on the shelf. I wanted to like this book. After all the controversy over the Obama award, I wanted to be able to argue the infallibility of the Nobel Prize Committee.
Herta Muller was born in Romania in 1953. Her father was a Nazi SS officer during World War II, and her mother was sent to a concentration camp in 1946. She was raised by her grandmother. They lived in a German speaking part of Romania which set them apart as outsiders in the eyes of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
The Land of Green Plums is an autobiographical narrative of a young woman’s attempt to start her life under a very repressive political regime. This young woman, we are never given her name, is privileged to be able to attend a university where she can learn a profession. She lives in a dormitory with five other girls who we learn little about except for one. Lola is a young girl from the provinces who is very poor. She has to borrow clothes from the other girls. In her attempt to survive in the university she stoops to prostitution and subsequently hangs herself with a rope borrowed from our protagonist.
After graduation “our girl” gets a job in a factory. She meets three male friends and forms a very platonic relationship: no sex, albeit, she does have a short fling with a married coworker. As people from the German speaking part of Romania they come under the suspecting eye of the local police who harasses them. They talk about trying to escape from Romania but hear stories of people being killed trying to leave.
For no apparent reason she is fired from her factory job and tries to work as a tutor for some wealthy kids, but this does not work out either. Her, along with her three male friends, goal is to immigrate to Germany where they end up at the end of the novel.
The story reads like a prose poem rather than a novel. This could be in part because it was translated from German by Michael Hoffman, a poet. The narrative is stiff and non-engaging lacking the fluidity of language that invites the reader into the story. The characters are one dimensional like they are cut from cardboard. Her three male friends are named for us but are interchangeable lacking no real definition. The overriding goal of the characters is to immigrate to Germany and the danger of escaping is to create a tension in the story line. However, we find that when they are ready to leave, they simply go down to the passport office and get a visa. Then move to Germany.
We always have to question when we read a translation: is it the story or the translation we are judging. Since, I can-not read this in German I can’t answer. But, I found the story flat and lacking any real dramatic direction, and the characters unappealing. The single imagery in the novel is the title, The Land of Green Plums. The ever present soldiers stuff the green plums in their pockets to eat while on duty. The grandmother tells the girl that you should not eat green plums they will give you diarrhea.

Intimate Distances

Intimate Distances
By Fred Shira

When I met Mary she was working on her MFA at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a pretty high powered art school. And for an artist to complete a Master’s Degree in studio art, they must prepare and show a body of their work at the school’s gallery.
We, of course, had no money; I was galloping horses and going to school, and Mary was working as a hot-walker at Belmont. We lived in a little, I mean mini, apartment that we shared with our Australian Shepherd, Casey, two cats, Piewacket and Atticus, and about a million cockroaches and mice. I won’t list their names but just know that we were very close. Let me take just a second and tell you something of New York wildlife. When I say we had cockroaches, I don’t mean the little winged things that you may occasionally see around the kitchen. No, these are New York cockroaches: Puerto Rican Eagles, the Godzilla of cockroaches. They could crumble a Japanese cockroach city in a flash. As for the mice, I would go each payday and buy about five of those little boxes of mouse poisoning. You know, the kind that looks like little feeders. The mice would eat this and yell for more. You could hear them behind the refrigerator shouting out, “Hey Fred, this thing is gettin’ low. We’ll try to make it to payday, but I don’t know if we can.” This was before cats. The cats came and the mice packed their little suitcases and left. I’ll save my New York City rat stories for another time.
Mary’s medium was watercolor, and it required some rather extensive framing. As I said we had no money, so we set out to do the framing on our own. We found a place on Long Island that sold framing materials and bought what we needed. In Mary’s mother’s basement there was a small workshop where I worked at building frames. And, if I do say so myself, we did a pretty good job. I don’t remember my shop teacher’s name, but he would have been proud of me.
It’s customary to have an opening event for an art show complete with invitations and a buffet table. Now remember this is a student show. Mary made the invitations and sent them out. For the buffet we went to Manhattan and got some Bluga Caviar, Alaskan King Crab, foie gras from a little village just outside of Nice, and we topped this off with a nice white Chateauneuf- du-Pape from a very good year. Right!. Mary and her mother did make a nice table of finger goodies and a nice sensible wine; it even had a cork rather than a screw cap. We had the most popular gallery in the building everyone looked at the paintings and made nice remarks while holding a plate of food. I think the food ran out before it reached the wino’s grapevine or we would have had another group of art connoisseurs.
There were three of four other gallery’s in the building each with a different student show. Mary’s was the most popular and the only one with food. I walked into the next gallery and saw these large pieces of paper put on the wall with push-pins. On each one there was a drawing of some abstraction that looked like it had been made with a carpenter’s crayon.
Now, I should mention that Pratt is a pretty times forward kind of art school. Avant-garde is the norm. Mary once told me about how a student came to class with a paper sack that had a used tea bag stuck to it, and they spent the whole class period talking about how this showed the passion of modern man. But, I digress,
I stood in this gallery and looked around at the drawings pinned to the wall and thought about all the work Mary and I had done to get ready for her show. I could have done this in about twenty minutes. Whenever I look at a piece of artwork and say, “I could have done that”. Mary will reply, “But you didn’t”. There’s a reward that goes with doing things first.
At the entrance to the gallery was a table with an open book for signing your name and making comments. I looked at this book and saw the comment, “Love your intimate distances”. “Intimate distances.” What the hell is “intimate distances”. I’m a pretty good wordsmith, but I was baffled by this. Usually when I ask Mary about something like this, she tries to explain and then looks at me with that loving smile that says, “You wouldn’t understand this in a million years”. But, even she was at a loss at this time.
It wasn’t until about four o’clock one morning, “as I pondered weak and weary over a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” (God, I wish I had said that first.) that I finally after all these years grasp a meaning for intimate distances. I don’t think it is the same thing that writer in the comment book had in mind, but it makes sense to me.
Since I have been playing around with “Facebook”, I have opened up relationships with old friends, people that I knew from my earlier life. Old friends are very much a part of who we are. I broke away from that life many years ago, not looking back very much. Facebook is a great place to pull your life together and look at yourself in a perspective that you’ve not done before.
Over the years I have always thought that all my friends from youth had lived these wonderful lives and were very successful and happy. I was the only one who tromped around the world trying to locate himself in the universe. I stayed away because I felt like I couldn’t measure up.
Facebook has shown me that not everyone has lived like Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. Everyone has had their ups and downs just like me. We’re not that different. I think all people have a story to tell, and they want to tell it. I don’t like to think that I am in the twilight of my years, but I am in the afternoon of them. And, I think when people reach this stage of life they want to tell others about themselves, not just they have raised a family, worked a job, and bought a retirement home, but to tell that little story that has been inside for all these years: that they have lived with their spouse for many years and have never really known love, or that their perfect childhood was not as perfect as they led everyone to believe.
This is where Facebook comes in. It provides them with a forum for self-expression and self-validation. They can write to someone that they know who they may not have seen for many years and tell their story. They do not have to place the story in context because both the reader and the writer share a fund of knowledge about their past. They can say see I am a real person. I have another dimension you didn’t know about. They can broadcast this to their list of friends or keep it private to a single friend. This is the wonderfulness of Facebook.
Since I have started playing with Facebook I have remet many old friends; I had forgotten just how precious old friends are. It sometimes becomes necessary to connect the parts of your life, so you can have some sort of continuity. I realize that families provide a sense of connection, but there is still that something that is missing; that thing that is yours and makes you truly yourself. You can become a person outside your family and still not cheat the husband and kids.
So when you get to feeling alone and caught up with yourself, write it on your Bulletin Board and see that you not alone, but have empathetic friends out there wanting to tell you their story. You can have both the intimacy along with the distance of place and time.

August 2009



Journey into the heart of Afghanistan

A film by Mohsen Makhmablbaf

Kandahar is a story of a young woman’s odyssey into Afghanistan to find her sister who has become so depressed with life under the Taliban that she is contemplating suicide on the same night of the last eclipse of the 20th Century. The film is based on a true story of the Afghan born Canadian journalist, Nelofer Paziera, who with her family was forced out of Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Her father, a doctor, her mother, a professor of Persian Literature, Nelofer—then sixteen, and her brother lived in Kabul. Because of his refusal adhere to the Taliban’s ban on male doctors assisting women patients her father was arrested and placed in jail . He spent sixteen months in jail. When he was released he gathered his family and with only their clothes on their back, they walked for ten days to the Pakistan border. From there they were able to emigrate to Canada and begin a new life.

Nelofer finished school and became a journalist. Since leaving Afghanistan she had stayed in touch with a friend back in Afghanistan. Her friend, an economics graduate who had a job working in a bank, wrote how depressed she was that the Taliban had forced her to quit working and stay home. She was not even allowed on the street without a male family member. Fearing that her friend was contemplating suicide, Nelofer flew to Iran and tried to enter Afghanistan. As a journalist she could not get a visa for Afghanistan making it necessary for her to go in illegally. At the refugee camp on the Iranian border she tried to enlist someone to help her get to Kabul but was told that it was far too dangerous for her to travel across Afghanistan. If she tried and was caught she would not only endanger herself but others as well, perhaps even her friend. With that caveat she abandoned the trip and returned to Canada. A few years later she heard from her friend; she had moved to Mazer-e-Sharif in the northern part of Afghanistan where conditions were more relaxed.

In the movie Kandahar, Nelofer plays an Afghan born Canadian journalist, Nafes, on a trip to find her sister who is contemplating suicide. She arrives at a refugee camp on the Iranian boarder with just three days to reach her sister. At the camp we are given a glimpse into life in Afghanistan. In 1979 when the USSR invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist government that was growing shaky from a civil war, as many as five million people poured across the borders. Three million went to Pakistan and the other two to Iran. Nafes is to travel with a group of young girls returning to Afghanistan.

“This will be your last day of school,” the girls are told, “but remember the wall is tall but the sky is taller”. The education of women was abolished by the Taliban.

Before leaving the girls are given a lesson on how to avoid land mines. The Soviets had placed over a million landmines during the war without any mapping as required by the Geneva Convention’s rules of warfare. In places they had carpeted the ground with “butterfly” mines dropped from an air planes. They looked like butterflies as they fluttered to ground landing easily to avoid detonation. In an act of cruel desperation the Soviets had disguised bombs as dolls and stuffed toys. War is not a pretty thing. The bombs were small and not designed to kill, but to wound. The Soviets felt that a wounded, crippled person would be a greater burden than a dead one.

Because of the mines Afghanistan is populated with people with only one leg, or no legs at all for that matter. The International Red Cross has a program for providing artificial limbs but it is nowhere close to filling the needs. In a scene in the movie artificial legs are dropped by parachute from a helicopter as if floating down from Heaven and the crippled men rush out to gather them.

Reminiscent of Nefeler’s father’s plight, along the path Nafes meets a doctor trying to treat women. He is an American who came to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. His job is a difficult one. He has to try and treat the women without even looking at them, they are on the other side of a blanket hanging from the ceiling. He must use her child as an intermediary to talk with her as he is not even to talk with the women patients.

The landscape of Afghanistan is barren with only about twelve percent of the land cultivatable. Mostly it is mountains and desert. The great Hindu Kush mountains in eastern Afghanistan are some of the roughest in the world. Rocky and with very little vegetation they are spotted with a few valleys that can be used in agriculture. The Afghan people are only a few generations away from being nomads who moved across the land grazing their livestock until the grass ran out then moving on. Before the Soviets came and the civil war that followed there were areas that produced pomegranates and grapes for export. But, the trees, vines, and irrigations systems were destroyed by war. Today Afghanistan’s major crop is the opium poppy which is exported to Europe and the United States to be made into heroin. Afghanistan produces 70% of the world’s opium poppies. In the tradition of the herding nomads, the second biggest export is Karakul skins, the hide of a new born lamb taken while the fur is still curly. About 800,000 skins are exported annually. One skin will bring about $30 on the open market, a big price for a farmer whose total income for a year may not exceed $200.

After the Soviets withdrew in 1989 leaving a power vacuum, Afghanistan erupted into a civil war with several groups vying for power. Afghanistan has never had a real national conscience being a land made of up of tribal areas that reach into history over a thousand years. Even the national boundaries we put in place by the British in the nineteenth century to keep Russia out of India. The one unifying factor is Islam. In the 632 the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven from Jerusalem, leaving behind a fanatical army of horsemen to spread his message. From here the Arabs began to take Islam into the outside world. By the seventh century it had reached Afghanistan where Buddhism was the biggest religion. It was centered in Kandahar, Herat, and the Bemiyan province where in the third and fifth centuries the Buddhist monks built two large statues of Buddha over 150 feet high. In 2005 the Taliban bombed and destroyed these statues as a mortified world watched in disapproval.

Islam is a very important factor in Afghan life. Whether it is saying prayers five times a day, or fasting during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, or giving zakat, the mandatory giving of alms to the poor required by the Quran. No other people show more observance than the Afghan people.

There is an old saying about Afghanistan: “It is me against my brother. It is my brother and I against my cousin. It is my brother, my cousin and I against the world.” Afghanistan is a land of warriors. If they have no common enemy they war with each other. When the Soviets left, so left the common enemy and civil war broke out. The loosely knit cohesive social fabric that existed during the war with Soviets disintegrated. There was no system of laws. Power was to the strongest. After a rape of twelve year old girls in Kandahar and several murders, the Afghan people wanted some sort of order. Enter the Taliban. With their harsh ways and strict adherence to the Sharia, the laws of Islam, they also brought order.

The Taliban, which translates to student, are the holy warriors for Islam. They are of the Sunni sect of Islam with the goal of creating a purely Islamic culture governed by the strictest interpretations of the Sharia, Islamic Law. This set of laws requires the most austere of lifestyles: no music, no books except the Quran and other Islamic texts, and very little social interaction. Women fair very badly under the Taliban; they are not allowed in public unless wearing a Burka, a dress that covers the woman from head to toe leaving only a screened area for her to see and breath. This is to keep men from wavering in their dedication to Islam and becoming tempted by the flesh. Women must be accompanied on the street by a male blood relative, and they are prohibited from attending school or work. Under the Taliban public executions are common, and the Sharia prescribes the most barbaric of punishments: the cutting off of a hand for stealing, beheading, and blinding.

The Taliban are tied very closely with the Wahabbi Sect of Sunnism of Saudi Arabia another very strict culture. The rich Saudis contribute a great deal of financial support to the Taliban as well as supplying them with young enthusiasts from their madrassas’, religious schools. On her journey to Kandahar, Nafes, encounters a young man who had been expelled from the local school, a school that teaches only the Quran and the attributes of the Kalashnikov rifle. The goal of the school is to send out Mulahs, religious leaders. The madrassas’ are the only form of education in many Islamic countries and this presents a real problem. The young men educated in these schools are taught the Quran and other Islamic texts but no other skills. They in turn are not prepared for any other occupation and are unable to find employment. Many of them emigrate to Europe seeking employment with no employable skills creating a problem for many European governments.

As the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, they began to provide a safe haven for Al-Qaeda and their road to 9-11. Ironically as the Saudis provide much of the financial support for the Taliban. That money comes from oil purchases from the United States.

Makhmalbaf, the Kandahar film director, uses his camera as a wide brush to paint the long horizons of the desert along the Iranian Afghan border. The sand is interrupted only by low growing spindly plants spaced apart from each other. And, thus the road to Kandahar.

The DVD, “Kandahar” is available at the many public libraries.