Sunday, December 1, 2019

STELLAR


There’s an old grandfather clock in one corner of the room. It’s large, but is one of those models that hang on the wall, not free-standing. It ticks with a low hollow sound. More like a slow, solemn klok-klok-klok than a tick-tock. It truly marks the passage of time in real time in the quiet of the small-town neighborhood on the edge of the city limits and in the uncomfortable silence of this living room. Klok-klok-klok-klok...another minute passes—but who’s counting? On the hour and the half-hour, the clock makes a mechanical, whirring, gear sound, seems to hold its breath for an instant and then goes thonk, its chimes having been muted to keep them from being a half-hourly nuisance.
There’s a big Admiral console black and white TV in another corner. It’s off. Usually at this time of day, Sunday afternoon, it would be blaring away and the regular occupants of the house, my great-grandmother, Mary Landis Cavinder, and my Great-Uncle Jesse, would have turned their straight-backed wooden kitchen chairs toward the screen to watch it. Each would have been wearing a pair of the dark glasses that are in their cases on a wooden kitchen table in the middle of the room, because there have been some rumors that too much unfiltered TV-watching can make you go blind.
But TV has been foregone today because there’s company. We’re the company. I would vote for switching the TV on if anyone were to ask me, but no one does. And my mother, Reba Mae, has forewarned me to behave, to keep my mouth shut, not to ask for anything, and to speak only when spoken to. I’m six, so I’m obliged to obey, because, if not, there will be consequences.
The clock and the TV are the only things in the room that, by any stretch of the imagination, could be considered “luxury items.” Everything else here is characterized by its utilitarian simplicity and by obvious poverty—the straight chairs (three), a couple of other wooden chairs with arms on which the upholstery long ago wore out and which are now neatly wrapped in several thicknesses of disused towels, cut to size and held on with wide strips of elastic, a very carefully preserved davenport that takes up most of the wall on the opposite side of the room and that is reserved for company, an oil-burning stove for heat in the middle of the far end of the room, a small end-table strategically placed under the single sash-window, between the two wooden armchairs and loaded with the kind of magazines Uncle Jesse reads (National Geographic, Argosy, Field and Stream, and, on a small under-shelf, a several-seasons-old Sears & Roebuck catalog). And then there’s the kitchen table in the middle of the room, which is not a retro version of a country kitchen table, but the genuine article, marred and worn with decades of rural service.
Seated, my great-grandfather Job Cavinder and
my great-grandmother, Mary (Landis). 
Standing, my great-aunts Ruth and Edith.
It is all neatly ordered and impeccably clean. Even the well-trodden linoleum floor-covering is so spic and span that it shines like a mirror, except in the places here and there where it has worn through to the black backing.
This is the only room of this house that I really know. I can’t recall ever having asked for the bathroom. I don’t even know where it is, although, I assume, somewhere off of the kitchen. There’s a master bedroom off of the living room but the door is always shut. There’s a door out of the room that leads into a hallway that goes to the front door, and to the foot of a staircase that leads to a second floor, where, I assume, there are probably a couple more bedrooms. But I wouldn’t know for sure because I have never been up there. And I’ve never come in or come out of the front door because, according to country-people rules, family comes in the backdoor. The door between the living room and hall is usually open and I can see a hat-tree there that holds a couple of coats—one is obviously Grandma Cavinder’s and the other Jesse’s—as well as several hats and caps.
I have been in the downstairs bedroom, but only once, and a long time ago, when I was three. I barely remember it. My Great-Grandpa Job Cavinder had had a heart attack after a day of raking leaves. He took to his bed and never recovered. All I remember about that visit or about Grandpa Cavinder, for that matter, is how my mother took me into the twilight of the bedroom, where Grandpa Cavinder lay gaunt and pale in his bed, his ever-dark mane of hair and thick black moustache in sharp contrast with his pallor. I recall Reba Mae picking me up and holding me down close to her dying maternal grandfather so that I could kiss his brow.
The only other room I’ve ever had a glimpse of is the kitchen. Sometimes when we’ve come on one of our rare visits, the door to the kitchen, which is across a small backdoor entry hall from the living room, has been open and I’ve sneaked a peek before Grandma Cavinder shuts it. She always does. She wouldn’t want “company” seeing her “messy kitchen”, where you could literally eat off of the floor.
Job and Mary with Myrtle, who is holding my sister, Darla.
It’s a much cheerier room than the living room, with sash windows that look west and north and a lot of natural light. There are home-made, carefully painted cupboards, a sink with a hand-pump in it, a gas range, a woodstove, an antique refrigerator that dates back to the barely post-icebox era and another big square country-kitchen table, this one topped with linoleum—the perfect surface on which to roll out pie dough, egg-noodles or pot-pie.
This wasn’t always the Cavinder home. My great-grandparents moved here after their children were mostly grown—my Grandma Myrtle, my great-aunts Flossie, Ruth and Edith, my Great-Uncle Ivan and Jesse. There were a couple more children, I believe, but they died. No one talks about them. Back before they came to town, they farmed. And then, later on, Grandpa Cavinder had a job with the railroad. Perhaps it was then that they moved to town.
Jesse moved with his parents. He remained with them all their lives. And would take his own life another six years from now after his mother died. He had had spinal meningitis as a boy and was small and twisted. I was fascinated by his shoes, one a normal, lace-up, black ankle boot, and the other one, identical to the first but sitting atop an always shiny black platform that was a good four inches tall. Jesse still limped, obviously, but a lot less than he would have without that special shoe. This was, now that I think about it, the only other “luxury item” in the house. Thanks to the orthopedic shoe, he never used a cane or a crutch, and out on the farm, although I don’t know how, he used to carry out many of the hard tasks of family farming in those days, including walking behind the horse-drawn plow.
I never know how to act on these visits. It’s mostly a matter of sitting on a chair and being seen but not heard. So I notice things. One sight that I find fascinating is how my great-grandmother has pieces of wooden toothpicks stuck through her earlobes. I can’t take my eyes off of them—fascinating and a little horrifying at the same time. Later, my mother explains that her grandmother has pierced ears. I’ve never known anyone with pierced ears. The women in my family at this time wear either clamp and screw-on earrings. Piercing won’t be popular until I’m a teen. Reba Mae explains that Grandma Cavinder only has one pair of earrings, good ones, silver with tiny diamond sets. She only wears them when she goes out. If she doesn’t keep her piercings open, my mother explains, they’ll heal shut. So she cuts off the two business ends of a round toothpick and sticks one through each earlobe. It seems barbaric to me. But what do I know? Later, I’ll have one of those earrings which my grandmother has had a local jeweler convert into a tie-tack—a legacy from her mother to me.
My great-grandmother and 
grandmother with my mother,

Reba Mae, between them, and my 
sister, Darla, beside them.
The restroom used to be outside. It was in an unobtrusive place in the garden. Once while Grandma Cavinder was in the hospital for a few days, Jesse and my mother’s younger brother Kenny decided to give her a surprise. They installed an indoor running-water bathroom and they also installed a gas range in the kitchen, where previously there was only a woodstove. They did it all in record time, and then removed both the woodstove and the outhouse because, Uncle Kenny reasoned, she’d no longer have any use for them.
When my great-grandmother gets back home, she is more incensed than surprised. Who the devil did they think they were? What made them think she wanted them to change anything? She had never understood indoor plumbing.
“Why on earth would anybody do those things inside the house?” she demanded. “There’s a reason bathrooms are outdoors,” she said.
As for the gas range, if she’d wanted one, she’d have gotten it. Things baked in a gas oven couldn’t compare to those made in a woodstove.
Uncle Kenny would later say that the reason she had been so upset by the removal of the woodstove was because she always had a fire going in it, and it was where she spit her tobacco juice. She’d just lift up one of the burners and let fly.
“Tobacco juice?” I asked incredulously.
“Sure,” Kenny said. “Didn’t you ever notice how she didn’t talk much and always held her mouth shut real tight? Well, that was because she always had the space between her gums and her cheeks full of Mail Pouch.”
“I want my outhouse and my woodstove put back right now,” she told my uncles, “and no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
Kenny and Jesse obeyed. When Grandma Cavinder spoke, that’s what you did, if you knew what was good for you.
But they also left the new bathroom and the gas range in place. And little by little, Grandma Cavinder began to use them. Turning on the gas was a lot quicker than building a fire. And, although as Uncle Kenny described it, her outhouse was neat as a pin, it was a lot more comfortable to bathe in a bathroom than in a tub in the kitchen, and a blessing not to have to sprint across the backyard to the outhouse in winter. But both men knew better than to mention this capitulation on her part. Doing so would be a sure way to guarantee that she never used either the range or the bathroom again.
Grandma Cavinder was little—barely over five feet tall—but she made up for her size in feistiness and obstinacy. She seldom smiled. In fact, I don’t ever recall seeing her smile, but then I only really got to know her after she was widowed.
She seldom if ever had anything to say to children, beyond a cursory hello and a hug. But I remember once when I was twelve, shortly before my great-grandmother died, seeing her for Christmas at the home of my Grandma Myrtle, her daughter. I was full of joy and Christmas spirit and when Grandma Cavinder and Jesse arrived after we did, I took her by surprise by rushing to give her a big hug and to wish her a merry Christmas. I had spurted up in height that year and now wore the same shoe-size as my father. My soaring new stature was taking a lot of getting used to and now, seeing how I towered over my great-grandma, I blurted out, “Grandma Cavinder’s so tiny that I could just pick her right up.”
“You do,” she said, “and it’ll be the last thing you ever pick up.”
I believed her.
My mother said that although her grandma had never exactly been the life of the party, she’d gotten a lot sterner and sadder after Grandpa Job died. She and my great-grandfather had shared a quiet contentment that was uncommon, my mother said. Even with the hard work of the farm, they had always found a quiet time for each other that didn’t include children or grandchildren or anyone else but them.
“She was never much of a talker,” my mother said, “and Grandpa Cavinder was so soft-spoken that you sometimes only realized he was talking when you saw his moustache moving.
“But I’ll never forget this one time when I was a young girl,” Reba Mae said, “when I was visiting them on their farm and I heard them get up and go out early to do the milking. Since I helped Mom with the milking at home, I decided to go out and see if I could give them a hand.
“It was still dark and kind of chilly. I could see the light of the coal-oil lantern coming from the barn. For some reason I knew better than to just burst in. And what I saw made me stop and just stand there in the dark watching. I saw their two milking stools a few feet apart. Grandma was sitting on hers and Grandpa was standing next to her as she gently milked a sweet-looking Guernsey. He took his pouch of tobacco out of his barn coat pocket and offered her a chew. She accepted, stuffing the leaves into her mouth, and he served himself. Then he pulled his stool over next to hers and as the milk from the Guernsey pinged into the metal bucket, they just sat there chewing and chatting in that quiet, quiet tone of theirs.
“I still remember it as something very beautiful to watch.”  
Jesse
Why I remember this particular Sunday, though, is because of Uncle Jesse and something very special he gave me that day. Jesse’s illness had made him shy and withdrawn. But it had also left him with a childlike quality that was endearing to me. I liked it during these infrequent visits when, although quiet at first, he would grow almost as bored as I was and would discreetly motion me over to the table to show me something while my mother made mostly one-sided conversation with her grandmother.
He had an entire collection of treasures that he had discovered in the furrows of his plow as a boy. He had kept them all and consulted books, magazines and local historians to learn more about them.
“Know what this is?” he would ask. And when I shook my head, he would say, “This here’s a real injun tomahawk head. Some was sharper than others. Depended whether they was a-choppin’ trees or people. You had your work tomahawks and your war tomahawks.”
Then he’d rifle around in the shoeboxes where he kept these precious objects and come up with another collector’s item. “This here’s a scraper,” he’d say. “They used these to scrape the meat loose from the leather of the deer they killed. They never wasted nothin’. They ate the meat and innards and used the skins for their shelters and clothes. They was real smart people, the Shawnees here abouts.”
But today, on this particular Sunday, he leaves the room and then comes back with something extra-special.
“Know what this is?” he asks. I shake my head. But my eyes are already trained on the strange object. He puts it on the table for me to ponder over and then takes his time, taking out his pouch and paper, rolling himself a smoke and lighting up. He takes a big draw on his cigarette and says, “Go ahead, pick it up.”
I oblige. It’s very strange. It fits neatly in my two hands but is very heavy for its size. “Heavy, ain’t it?” Jesse asks, watching the wonder on my face.
It looks almost man-made. Perfect in shape. Like a globe that has been evenly pressed in the middle to make it into a thick, well-rounded disk shape. Its surface is covered with small, evenly distributed, nearly uniform craters. The words impeccable and pristine come to mind.
“Is it like some grinding stone the Indians made?”  I ask.
Jesse grins, shakes his head and says, “Nope, that there used to be a star. A star maybe bigger than the earth. And then it fell out of the sky and burned and burned and burned until this here’s all that’s left of it. And for some reason, it picked my dad’s cornfield to fall into. And I just happened to hit it with my plow.”
I turn the meteorite over and over in my hands, enjoying its uniform roughness. In my mind, I try to imagine it as a star. A star bigger than the earth. And the thought intrigues and amazes me. Jesse has uncovered a star with his plow, and now I’m holding it in my hands.
“What do you think?” Jesse asks me.
“I think it’s amazing. I love it!”
“Well, you can take it home with you, if you like.”
“You mean it? You’re giving it to me?”
“Well, lending it to you at least. If I ever need it back, I’ll let you know. But if you like it, you can have it.”
That day, I took a piece of another world home with me. It was an alien world, but it also formed part of Jesse’s lonesome but rich and special world. And he’d given it to me. He’d given me something more precious than I’d ever had before. My very own star.   

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

A TIMELESS MOMENT OR A MOMENT IN TIME



Sometimes in dreams I will go back to a particular moment in time when the world seemed so perfect and beautiful that it brought a smile to my lips and tears to my eyes. These might be actual dreams, from which I awaken sad to have come out of the trance and desperately wanting to close my eyes and go back. Or they might simply be waking daydreams, where, for a moment I lose track of current reality and time-travel back to that exact instant and place.
What’s important about this is that the moment itself isn’t a dream. It is very real. It existed in real life, and exists still, if only in my mind. I consider myself fortunate that there have been more than one. Although, at the same time, it makes me sad that I haven’t been able to maintain a level of self-awareness that might have provided me with many more of these special moments, which are the only real definition of complete happiness.
These were times when I was momentarily blind to the crime, violence and dirt of the streets, and to the major problems of the world. They were moments in which all I was aware of was myself and my commitment to the path that I was choosing. It still happened to me, very occasionally, in my early years as a journalist, despite my job’s leading me to witness harsh, often even brutal realities on a daily basis. Perhaps back then I was more able to compartmentalize, to keep the reality that I was reporting separate from my own. Maybe it was even a survival mechanism. Who knows?
That’s probably why as I’ve gotten older and, hopefully, world-wiser, these moments have become, sadly, ever more rare. It’s that I no longer seem able to separate myself from the world I live in. And, search for them though I might, those moments of pure joy and self-realization are rendered practically unattainable, or at least they are no longer unadulterated.
I recall these special moments as timeless instances in which there came a sensation that everything around me was mere scenery that could be just as beautiful as I wanted to make it, and that, just beyond it, in a place I couldn’t quite touch or see, only sense, there was something else. Something more.   
Epiphany. I think that’s probably the word for it. A moment of lightning-bolt realization. An instant stripped of doubt, sorrow, regret, rage or cynicism. A moment of simply being, and knowing that that, in itself, is enough. That it’s a miracle. Life is. Being alive, breathing in and out, seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, loving, that it’s all cause for indescribable joy. For a fleeting moment in time, you might capture it. You hold it in your heart and mind and it fills you. And then it’s gone. But not forgotten. It is branded on your heart and brain and, if you’re lucky, from time to time, it will come back and let you recall it as if it were a snapshot or a video that plays over in your mind, but one that includes more than image. Emotion, feeling, state of mind, all just like they were right then. It’s primitive, unbridled, so simple
Henry Miller -- literary epiphany
and pure that it’s an enigma.
For author Henry Miller, for instance, that sort of moment was eminently literary. In Black Spring, Miller writes:
“And then one day, as if suddenly the flesh came undone and  the blood beneath the flesh had coalesced with the air, suddenly the whole world roars again and the very skeleton of the body melts like wax. Such a day it may be when first you encounter Dostoievski. You remember the smell of the tablecloth on which the book rests; you look at the clock and it is only five minutes from eternity, you count the objects on the mantelpiece because the sound of numbers is a totally new sound in your mouth, because everything new and old, or touched and forgotten, is a fire and a mesmerism. Now every door of the cage is open and whichever way you walk is a straight line toward infinity...It was exactly five minutes past seven, at the corner of Broadway and Kosciusko Street, when Dostoievski first flashed across my horizon...”
Harper Lee -- a new angle
For Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, that moment of epiphany is experiencing something that causes you to view a world you’ve known all your life from a different angle, and as if seeing it for the first time. She paints that instant through the words of her child protagonist, Scout Finch, when the little girl, as narrator, says, “I turned to go home. Street lights winked down the street all the way to town. I had never seen our neighborhood from this angle. There were Miss Maudie's, Miss Stephanie's—there was our house, I could see the porch swing—Miss Rachel's house was beyond us, plainly visible. I could even see Mrs. Dubose's... Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them. Just standing on the Radley porch was enough.”
Scout --the world from the Radley porch
My moments of wonder have been much more pedestrian, if just as epiphanous. The first one I can recall happened when I was still a boy, an adolescent of sixteen. It was Christmas-time. I was from Wapakoneta, but nearby Lima, Ohio, had become “my town”. In our rural area, Lima was what passed for “the city”, a big industrial town back then, with an urban feel to it.
No one could have told me even a few months earlier that I would be where I was right then. I had been a drummer in a couple of “kid bands” that played in teen centers for a small cut of the meager cover charge. But then I got a part-time job working in Lima’s biggest music store and my whole life changed. Suddenly, I was in daily contact with all of the professional jazz musicians in the area and at sixteen, was playing as a relief drummer every Friday and Saturday night for at least union scale. It was a dream come true to still be in high school and to be working as a professional musician, a percussion instructor and a respected member of the staff at the music store. I knew every bar and nightclub with live music in the area. And I knew all of the best area musicians by name and was treated like one of them. I had my own car. I had my own money. I had my own life, even though I was still in high school.
The Lima Square by night
It was around Christmas-time of that first wonderful year of dreams come true. The changes had opened up a whole new view of the year ahead. I was inspired to not only play every gig I could but also to give free rein to my other artistic endeavor by starting to take my writing seriously. And, therefore, to also take my reading seriously.  By the end of that year, the future I foresaw was as writer by day, musician by night, in a dream world that couldn’t get any better.
The special moment in time came one night when I was working at the store until nine. I had just been on my supper break. I had walked up Main across the Lima square and half a block up to Gregg’s Department Store, where they had a restaurant I liked on the upper floor. I’d had the ham steak with mashed potatoes with sides of green beans and slaw, washed down with iced tea. And while I ate, I finished reading, for the first time, what was to become one of my favorite short stories of all time—J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé With Love and Squalor.
When I came out, with Salinger’s words still ringing in my ears, the cold had turned sharp as a knife and the sky was mostly clear. Still, snow flurries were falling from some unseen cloud, since, overhead, the sky was infinity-black and dotted with glittering stars. The square was dressed for the holidays, with twinkling colored lights, wreaths, fantasy candy canes and bright red, green and gold ribbons everywhere. And in the middle there was a huge tree with magical lights, silver icicles and oversized ornaments to delight shoppers. Woolworth’s, Penney’s,  Sears, The Leader, Gregg’s and other downtown department stores glistened with holiday cheer, and on the corner, out in front of George Anthony’s Sweetland candy store, coffee shop and restaurant, a group of my newfound colleagues had formed a brass choir and were playing Christmas carols with that sweet, clear, harmonic brass sound that is like no other.
Between tunes they were passing a flask to keep warm and as I went by, one of them called out, “Hey kid!” and held up the flask offering me a snort. I laughed, thanked them and politely refused. And then, as I reached the other side of the square and headed south toward the store, I suddenly felt tears well up in my eyes and the thought that came to me was, “This might well be the happiest moment of my life.”  
As an adult, I remember a New Year’s in Buenos Aires. Virginia and I had invited a number of people to our Mid-town apartment to ring in the New Year. We’d held the celebration at home. I was off from the paper, since the next day was one of only a handful of non-publishing days each year, so I was completely relaxed. Lots of friends and some of Virginia’s relatives showed up, many after they had started bidding the old year farewell elsewhere. There was a surfeit of food and drink and good music on the stereo, and it had been a really fun time, capped by all of us standing together on our eighth-floor terrace, watching a plethora of fireworks burst in dazzling colors above the rooftops.
Then about two or three in the morning, people started peeling off a person or a couple at a time and heading for home. At last, it was just us with a couple with whom we had become intimate friends. They lived upstairs then, and we saw each other several times a week, sometimes daily, and dined together and went out together and took vacations together. We had become like family. Or like something more than family. We truly loved each other.
When everyone else had gone, our friends suggested we go downtown and get a nightcap—champagne, he was buying. So I got my car out of the parking lot around the corner and off we went, east toward the river and downtown along Avenida Corrientes. Partying was still underway in a lot of private homes, but from Mid-town to Downtown, traffic was sparse and many places were already closed, closing or had never opened. It was a rare thing, something almost magical to see the city so abandoned on a warm South American summer’s night.
New Year's fireworks in Buenos Aires...a few hours later the
streets were deserted.
Stranger still was to see the ever busy Avenida Nueve de Julio, the city’s main north-south downtown thoroughfare, practically bereft of traffic. There along that main drag, we found a place that was still open. The refuse of year-end revelers was everywhere, but the fireworks were over with. The place looked jaded and its weary owners less than happy to see us. A little way down the street, a couple were sitting on the pavement, their backs to the front wall of a building, a liter bottle of beer on the sidewalk between them. She was leaning against his shoulder, looking a little the worse for wear, but he was still going strong, strumming the hell out of a box guitar and bellowing out the lyrics of every folk tune he could remember, his voice echoing in the deep canyon of Nueve de Julio where it cleaved a broad swath through the midst of towering buildings. There was no traffic to drown the singer out and he was making the most of this improvised amphitheater.
Inside the bar they were already cleaning up, but our friend talked the owner into letting us sit at one of the tables outside on the sidewalk, and into sending out a bottle of chilled champagne. Suddenly, what might have been the sordid scene of celebration’s end seemed mystical. As if the city were ours alone, with only the scraping guitar and rasping voice to entertain us, as we sipped ice-cold champagne under cones of light from the street lamps, in the grey glint of a sultry summer’s dawn. For perhaps an hour, the four of us sat there joking and laughing and just enjoying being together, putting aside our individual and collective worries and letting trust, love and cold champagne set the mood. By the time we drove back to Mid-town, we had the shimmering streets of Buenos Aires practically to ourselves.
Back home again, I dropped Virginia and our friends at the door of our building. I left the motor running and got out of the car with them. We all hugged and truly meant and felt it, warm as only love can be. Then I went alone to take the car back to the parking lot. It was as I was coming out of the lot that the sun suddenly broke above the horizon and flooded the street around me with the golden-orange first light of a summer day.
I turned to face it, closed my eyes and felt its warmth on my eyelids. My breath caught and a knot formed in my throat. I was completely, unequivocally grateful. It was a new year. I was writing daily for a living, I was married to the woman I loved, I was in the company of friends with whom we shared an almost passionate relationship, and a whole future of promise seemed to be stretching before me. A future that was mine for the taking.
It was a moment of almost uncontainable joy, and one that I would remember forever, even in the hardest of times.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

THE EXPATRIATE’S COMPLAINT—OUT OF PLACE AND OUT OF TIME



The expatriate lives in a world of dichotomy. You’re always torn between the land of your birth and the country or countries where you live by choice or by destiny. Your heart tells you to see things from the perspective of the place that will always be your birth right and the culture that you suckled at your mother’s breast. But cold observation and logic will teach you to also see the world and your native country from a neutral, objective viewpoint and to understand how others see you and yours. And depending on your personality, you’ll either be humbly apologetic or obnoxiously arrogant about it. 
You’ll never feel completely at home in either world. No matter how long you live where you live abroad, no matter how many decades, you will always be a foreigner to the natives, but more importantly, to yourself. You may congratulate yourself on how well you’ve adapted, how well you speak the language, how well you fit in. But it will always be that—fitting in, adapting, camouflaging yourself as something you’re not. And no matter how good you get at it, it won’t take long in a conversation, with those who are born and bred, for you to be found out and fingered as a stranger, even if as a warmly welcomed one.
Unless you consistently seek to keep abreast of the evolution or decline of the place from which you came, you will see your original home in a picture that is frozen in time. It becomes a museum piece. Especially after your most referential figures have faded away and you become the generation that your parents and grandparents were before you. And every time you return “home”, you won’t try to find out what has changed but will seek to confirm what has remained the same, because that’s what makes you feel “at home”.
You’ll bristle when others tell you that you’re being naïve, that things are nothing like they used to be. And are they ever better? Not likely. It seems they never are. You will want them to be, though, because they are a big part of who you were before you became who you are today. You’ll look, as in a dream, for glimpses of your past, for fragments that tend to reaffirm “who you are.”  You’ll walk once familiar streets trying to remember what used to be there, attempting to see in your mind’s eye the building that once stood where there is now a parking lot, the department store that’s now a thrift shop, the tavern that’s now a set of law office, the rambling old house where your grandparents lived and that, for the past forty years or so, only continues to exist in your memory and in your heart.
You’ll yearn to bump into people who are long since dead but who live on in your mind, just as they were. Or to meet up with classmates whose adolescent images have remained timeless in your memory so that you probably wouldn’t recognized them if they passed you on the street—just as you no longer recognize the reflection that stares back at you in the mirror while you shave.
No matter how long you live abroad, you will have moments of terrible longing to be “back home”. But when you go there for a visit, you’ll find that you no longer fit in completely, that you’re treated as “a guest”, that your vision is another one, at once familiar yet foreign. And should you decide to go back and stay for a time, you’ll find that it feels more like a holiday than a homecoming and that you can no longer be in one place without missing the other.
You’ll also have regrets. You’ll be grateful for the time spent with parents and siblings and life-long friends when you were back on always too short visits. But you’ll mourn the times you weren’t there, the life-events you missed, the comfort you failed to give, the always thinking there would be more time, another visit, a new homecoming, when those reunions were never to be.
Expats are destined, then, never to be quite satisfied, never to be quite happy, always to be out of place and time.
That sensation of “not belonging” is heightened when you journey from one hemisphere to another, because even the seasons are opposite. I was thinking about that on this blustery spring morning in Patagonia. I was remembering that October was the month that my mother, Reba Mae, loved best, because she loved the autumn. And in Ohio, September can still be somewhat summery and winter can come early in November. But October is the quintessential month of autumn.
Reba Mae talked in October about “sweater weather”, and about “bright blue October skies”. She loved the sweet, tobacco-like smell of the fallen leaves on the damp ground, and she missed the incense smell of the dead leaves burning along the curbs in town before burning was banned and people started having to bag or mulch what they raked.
But mostly, she loved the fall colors of October, the fiery reds and yellows, as if the maples were aflame, the soft yellow hue of the cottonwoods, the rich red-brown of the oaks. “No matter how good you were,” she used to say, “you couldn’t paint this. A camera can’t even do it justice. It’s just breathtaking!”
Sometimes we would take a ride out in the country on an October Sunday, gasping, ooing and aahing at the flaming colors of the woodlots, while Whitie, my dad, stayed home, snoozing on the couch and pretending to watch the ballgame. Reba Mae’s voice would tremble when she would say, “I feel so sorry for your father. He just doesn’t seem to see any beauty in anything. I think he would feel so much less depressed if he could just learn to love nature, to stop and look at all this, to let it into his heart.”
Later in life, after a great deal of psychiatry, anti-depression drugs and help with what doctors call his “chemical imbalance”, Whitie got so that he would go on walks or go places now and then with Reba Mae, where nature was particularly prevalent. By then he had learned that being able to see your surroundings and be awed by them and grateful was a sign of sanity and that failure to perceive beauty was a symptom of mental illness. He was nothing if not smart in this way. And so he might stand watching a sunset briefly and then say, “Boy, that’s pretty!” And if this failed to elicit a response from Reba Mae, Whitie would nudge her with his elbow and say, “Ain’t it, ‘Mau’? Ain’t it?”
It was as if to say, “See how I’m seeing it? See how I notice things now?”
And Reba Mae would stand there with a lump in her throat watching the sun go down, fighting back tears, and thinking that she’d give anything for him to believe what he was saying and to feel it the way she did.
Over the years I’ve learned to celebrate Christmas in eighty-five-degree heat with a cold buffet and chilled cider and champagne. Or not to celebrate it at all.  I’ve learned that we can have one of the worst snowfalls of the year on July Fourth. I know that the first day of spring is September 21st and although the secretaries in Buenos Aires are anxious to wear their new spring outfits, as the day ends you can usually see them carrying a spray of flowers that they’ve received at work to celebrate the onset of the season of love while they shiver at the bus stop in the persistent winter chill.
But October will always be autumn for me, no matter where I am in time and space. And it will always belong to Reba Mae.

Monday, September 30, 2019

LIFE’S SURPRISES



Some of you—I hope—have probably been wondering where I was. Others, perhaps the majority, haven’t missed me at all. But here I am, finally, back again.
I have no legitimate excuse for my absence except, perhaps, a lesser concentration level for multi-tasking than I once had, which, back in the day, was so formidable that it surprised even me. But then again, it’s not like nothing happened and that I’ve just been a lazy bum. How it can best be described is that, for the past six weeks or so, I’ve been living through a series of rather existential surprises.
No, I didn’t win the lotto...although hope springs eternal. But I have been awed by the fact that just when you think you’ve got everything figured out and know exactly where things are headed, destiny proves to you just how full of crap you are.
Last year, as many of you already know, I had a bad year. In fact, I nearly died...twice. But when all that was over with, and I was on the mend, I had a whole new outlook. Suddenly, few if any of the things that had appeared of capital importance to me the year before now seemed of any consequence whatsoever.
What happened?
I had been graphically reminded of something I knew all too well when I lived through dangerous times back when I was young to middle-aged. Basically, that while, like the inimitable Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” the chief fact of life is that all you’ve got, whether you’re nineteen or ninety, is right now! And as such, the present is the most precious asset you own, no matter what your reality might be.
Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over"
Arguably there are present realities that are better than others and moments when you might ask yourself, “What’s the use?” But the alternative is that you cease to exist and such questions become not merely rhetorical, but are no longer even in the realm of asking.
What you do with your present moment, then, should be of paramount importance. And maybe the greatest trick of all should be learning not to squander it on futile striving. With the key word here being “futile”, because, also whether you’re nineteen or ninety, there’s never a day that you shouldn’t strive for whatever you can to make you feel fulfilled. You just need to stop sweating what doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. 
To quote amazing superstar Cher—who, let it be said, is in my same age group, but is otherwise so out of my demographic that she resides in the stratosphere, while I, as my eloquent Aunt Marilyn says, am “down here peckin’ shit with the chickens—“I’ve been young and I’ve been old. Young’s better.”
And, to a certain extent and depending on what kind of youths we’ve had individually, this is probably not a very original quote. However, Cher also once said, “I feel like a bumper car. If I hit a wall, I’m backing up and going in another direction. And I’ve hit plenty of fucking walls in my career. But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality: I just don’t stop.”
Bravo!
Cher at 70--The Bumper Car Theory
My bad year last year actually turned out to be a good year because it proved to be a wake-up call, like those we get from time to time, that helped me get my head back on straighter than before. I already started being aware of this while lying in a hospital bed feeling sorry for myself, unable to get up, even to go to the restroom, because there was a tube in my side attached to a canister into which a couple of quarts of blood were being siphoned from my ruptured lung. At first I was alone in the room, but then, while I was being visited by a doctor and a nurse, I saw out the corner of my eye how a guy came in and lay down on the other bed, fully dressed, coat, shoes and all, and lay there stiffly, staring up at the ceiling while the medics finished doing whatever they were doing to me.
I was thinking, “Crap! Just what I needed. A roomie!” All I wanted was to be left alone with my injuries, not to be bothered. I had basked in the isolation of intensive care, and now that I was in a private room, I still wanted to be able to lie there concentrating on trying to get better while self-indulgently wallowing in poor-me-pity.
“Maybe if I ignore him...” I thought. But as soon as my doctor and nurse left the room, the guy, who was waiting for them to finish admitting him, sat up on the edge of his bed, looked over at me and said, “Carlos Plastina, pleased to meet you.”
I tried to be non-committal, but with Carlos it was impossible. This was at about nine in the morning. By noon we not only knew each other’s medical histories—he was a cardiac patient with a couple of surgeries to his credit, who was now back in to check out why he’d had some severe chest pains the night before—but had moved on to much more interesting things: our professions (he was a self-employed baker with a real passion for breads and pastries), our mutual former lives in Buenos Aires, our very different youths in two separate countries, our worlds in general and how they were different and how they were alike. By the time lunch came, I’d also been introduced to his (second) wife and to his son (by the first wife) who was also his business partner, and, as it turned out, a close friend of his current wife’s.
If Carlos was a highly professional baker, who had made something of a local name for himself, he was also a hilarious amateur comic. Within our first couple of hours together, it was as if we’d been pals for years, and I kept having to say, “Carlos, stop it. Don’t make me laugh! You’re killing me!” But then he’d tell me another joke, or make some wisecrack to one of the nurses, and, again, I’d have to try hard not to laugh the drain out of my side.
And suddenly, I thought to myself, “This is the most fun I’ve had in ages!” Who’d have guessed that three days before, a team of doctors had been working into the wee hours of the morning not at all sure they would be able to keep me from bleeding to death. I figured, by the time I got out of the hospital, the same day Carlos did, that we would be friends for life. That we’d call each other up, meet for coffee or a beer, stay in touch. We didn’t. It turned out to be a hospital friendship. Two guys in dire straits, like shipwreck victims sharing a lifeboat, who for a brief time couldn’t be closer, because where they are right then is all there is. But as soon as the threat is abated, it’s back to business as usual.
Still...that living the moment, you realize somewhere deep inside, is what life is all about. If only you could bear it in mind when the everyday world again clouds your judgment.  
Anyway, when all of that was over, and I was back home, I tried as quickly as possible to get back into the swing of things. Part of my workload had already been reduced for me. A publisher for whom I’d been translating a bilingual magazine for over a decade was having budgetary problems—he subsequently went out of business—and decided that a good time to dispense with my services was while I was in intensive care.
Nice guy.
But that was okay, I figured, since I’d been wanting for a long time to slow down a little and increase the time I spent working on my own writing: the newsroom memoir that I’d been struggling to complete for over ten years, several books of selected essays that I was anxious to publish on Amazon, pieces of a half dozen novels abandoned in my desk drawers, and so on. There never seemed to be enough time. Now there would be more and I still had my other full-time client of a decade, a man with whom I’d researched and helped write a couple of books and whose bilingual blog I had created and helped him keep up, and for whom I’d written speeches and presentations.
But then, toward the end of the year, he let me know that his wife was terminally ill and that he was suspending all non-essential activities to accompany her. He was sorry. It was all very painful. But despite the long friendship and working relationship that we had enjoyed, he would no longer be using my services.
I said I understood and I sincerely did. But from my own selfish viewpoint, here I was, at age sixty-nine, out of work for the first time in thirty years. But then I thought to myself, hey, when was the last time you were out of work for any time at all before somebody came looking for you, without your even having to send out a résumé? Besides, all these years, isn’t this what you’ve always longed for, to be able to devote all of your time to your own writing. Relax! Life’s short.
So I put out a feeler here and there for random translation work and started dusting off my half-finished manuscripts to work on them. This went on for six months and I was reasonably content doing what I was doing. But still, when you’ve been a fully employed wordsmith for four decades, a dry spell starts making you fear that nobody out there knows you anymore, or cares. As age seventy edges closer you can have the nagging feeling that you’re over the hill, that your days as a literary hired gun are finished, that you’ve become obsolete.
But I put those negative thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on my own stuff. Then, one day, earlier this year, I get a call from a publisher for whom I’d done some ghostwriting twelve years before. They were hoping I’d be interested in ghosting an “autobiography” for one of their almost-famous clients. We met, talked over numbers and deadlines, I researched and wrote a trial chapter, and we were in business. I felt lucky. It was a pleasant surprise, and it was recognition of my value as a writer. It made my own work go a lot easier because it restored my confidence in my perceived worth.
I had no sooner started on that job when a really major Hollywood film company got in touch with me. Somebody had recommended me, they couldn’t recall who, as a capable editor and translator to adapt a series of scripts in Spanish for the American screen. I accepted, got signed up with them, and within a month was working on the first script, and enjoying every minute of it.
While I was juggling those two jobs, I got a message from my friend and mentor of forty years, renowned journalist and editor, Robert Cox. Bob told me that the biggest newspaper in Patagonia was looking for an ombudsman and he’d thought of me.
A what?
An ombudsman, I was told, a sort of permanent editorial consultant to help the publishers improve what was already a well-established, century-old publication.
Rubén Blades--"La vida te da sorpresas"
I couldn’t have felt more honored by his confidence in me. It sounded like an interesting challenge, so I contacted the publishers. We met, talked over the parameters of the job, and I was hired, with the agreement between us being that we would work together until one or both of us decided my services were no longer needed.
So, as I stride swiftly toward my seventieth birthday, I find myself the busiest I’ve been since I was in my forties and, one week out of every month, back where I’ve never been more at home—in a newspaper newsroom, with stories all around me and the smell of printer’s ink in my nostrils.
As Latino actor and entertainer Rubén Blades sings, La vida te da sorpresas, sorpresas te da la vida , “Life can bring you surprises, surprises life can bring.”