Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tikkun Leyl Shavuot

At 10:55 last night I began creating a henna tattoo of a Blue Mariner butterfly on my right foot.  This was the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of study, reflection, and wondeer over the events that brought the Ten Commandments, and maybe the whole Bible, into being. But this? An activity, really. It has history, like the Bible, but that history goes to the wedding rituals of the old Yemenite Jewish civilization. . But who was I marrying – or rather, who was marrying me, since the painting of henna was done for the bride and her retinue. As a heterosexual male, I suspended my disbelief and kept detailing,  This activity begged the question. What was I doing here, and why henna painting, and not, for example, nipple piercing?

The evening marched on as Hanna the Henna artist painted a flower on my daughter. The flower must have been a lotus – it must have had a thousand petals.. Rebecca sat silently and still, noting the artist’s precise motions as she traced every petal while holding my daughter’s arm as carefully as you would a painted Ukrainian Easter egg..

“You are a very patient girl, Rebecca!” Hanna of Henna interjected.

“Thank you,” my socially inward child replied.

Hanna finished her henna drawing and we descended to the ballroom for the signature activity of the night – under the guidance of a prominent artist who is a member of our community, we made larger-than-life sized tiles based on a roughly sketched human form.  These, and hundreds like them, would be stitched together to form the Occupy quilt for this year’s July 4 demonstration. My son etched bold black outlines on his figure, rending the background in two by hurling forest green paint from his sketch’s outstretched left arm and sinking the dark green from his booted foot. On the blank side, there appeared nothing but a quote from George Washington, “Even though I was shot, I survived by great trust and loving friends.”

Rebecca and I painted in tandem on our Occupy panel. When she painted a cloud, I painted a cloud. When she drew a heart, I drew a heart. Her brush strokes were smooth and thin, mine were stippled and heavy. Her paint was mixed a shade or two darker, but otherwise our figures and landscapes mirrored each other.   She pored heart and soul into the 99% that her half of the image represented; I mirrored her gesture in the meaner spirit of the 1% that wants for nothing. Work paused only because in Rebecca’s zeal for the project, she had confused the paint with the bucket of water for the brushes and had ten fingers dripping Forest Green.

The time for study had arrived. My son, Erez, sat on one knee, Rebecca, on the other. The tractate that we study by tradition on this holiday would come many hours later. Now, we studied Pirkei Avot. This book, known as “Ethics of the Fathers,” is a small but controversial piece of Talmudic literature that speaks to how people should live in society. I imagine groups or Rabbis scratching their heads to come up with a system to encode revolutionary messages to their followers. Revolutionary or not, the acts of tzedakah (righteousness, charity) and kindness speak through the often contradictory text.

Two days earlier, I had “bought” ice cream for the children and myself, but discovered that I had no cash in my wallet and worse yet, my card was rejected.  I explained to the manager, who has known my family for years, that I had a little over $1,000 in the bank, and would he please let me bring the money back to him a little later. Fearing the worst, my son paid the check with his own money while I was occupied with my daughter. As I had promised, we finished our ice cream and went off for cash. Erez patted my right shoulder.

“Don’t worry, Dad,” Erez intoned soothingly.

I looked at him, puzzled.

“I paid the check already.”

Honesty had been an issue for Erez ever since my marriage to his mother imploded. In fact, one source of his ability to pull off a gag was to lie about himself, falsely incriminating himself only to have a good laugh when evolving facts prove him blameless.  So I had to check. I returned to the ice cream vendor prepared to pay the check, but instead found that, true to his word, Erez had paid for the ice cream.

No “I told you so” followed. Just a tender, profound hug.

As I was putting the children to sleep in the Teen Lounge this Leyl Shavuot, I told Erez that we were all studying Tzedakah up there, but he didn’t have to.

“Erez,” I told him,

“Yes, Daddy?”

“You don’t have to study Tzedakah. You ARE tzedakah!

He squeezed my hand and mumbled, “Dad-dy,” and drifted off to sleep.

Those henna tattoos on my daughter and me? They began to deteriorate before I put Rebecca to sleep.

“Look at my flower!” pouted Rebecca, in obvious distress.

“Baby,” I replied, There is a certain  kind of sand painting that people make over hours and days and even weeks, and when they get it just right, they either leave it to fall apart or they celebrate and pile the sand up again. Just because the painting was destroyed didn’t matter. What mattered, Becca,“ I whispered, “is that it was perfect once.”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Short story author

Shereese Maynard, writer of short stories and literary critic, also manages to post interesting links for the art, craft, and business of writing. Check her out:

Friday, May 11, 2012

tiempo para esperar

si te dibujaria bastante veces
podre pasar las paginas
desde llegas a mi

voy a mirar a tiempo mismo
como mirete tiempo? faltas reloj, faltas
no mirare reloj,digo. mirare el tiempo

en la ondulación de voces en una multitud
la conjelación de vapores en forma nube
la desapareción, la descubración del sol

en la manera des mareas superponen
en forma de las tijieras
la forma de las ondas que resulten.

en las alas invisibles de un colibri, cuando come
los impresiones tomadon por cado muchacho extranjero
como juega en atender a las reflejos en la charca

la manera que cado copo de nievese sienten sobre estatua que he construido por ti
y los veces que  he la construido otra vez
cuando mis sueños permitieron mi mente para vagar

y si no tu pintare con bastante bien detalle
y si no dibujare tu forma con tocas bastantes ligeras
que no llegas al final

aun asi cuento el tiempo
en gotitas de sangre
en anchura de rio de lagrimas.

Time for Waiting

if I draw you enough times
can I flip the pages until
you arrive at me

I will watch time itself
how will you watch time there is no clock
I will not watch a clock I will watch time

by the undulation of voices in a crowd
the way clouds congeal
the covering and uncovering of the sun

by the cut of tides, patterns slicing
the sound waves thus produced

by the beating wings of the hummingbird
each fleeting glimpse stolen by a stranger
pretending to see ripples in a pond

by the way each snowflake layers itself on
the marble statue I have built for you
and by the times I have rebuilt it, for my mind wandered

and if I can't paint with enough precision
and if I don't draw with light enough stroes
that you come to me at last

Still I will measure the time
In drops of blood from my beating heart
In the width of a river of tears

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Crear Más – Mucho Más

Anna’s father, Ernesto, had taken the day off from his practice in order to give the keynote address – more by the profit motive than by support of his daughter. Ernesto’s business practices book sold out at the Homunculus of Desire performance, and Lopez bought another 500 copies for his management and sales staff. Within months, the book hit the non-fiction bestseller list at #25 in Mexico. One of its rules – not entirely original – that Anna practiced to her benefit in the first two sales seminars she had held was to underestimate the house. If the turnout would exceed expectations, the problem of supplying the unexpected crowd was a happy one; if the event bombed, but places were only set for a fraction of the expected house, people would be impressed with the good planning of management. In this case, Anna was clearly overwhelmed, and despite all efforts by her friends from the theater company, the good businesspeople had taken to attributing to Anna the lack of punctuality they had come to expect out of their countrymen.  César was the first to note this to Anna in person.

“I thought about paying for my secretary and my intern to come with me. I think I still could. If you need them, let them come for free and they’re your slaves.”

“Interns, Sr. Castilañez. Remember, we are all learning to build relationships here. To get me to say “yes,” you have to show me how you are offering value. When you offer me value, I will look for a way to provide value to you in return. If you provide me with slaves, I’ll just look to see how I’m being used.”

“Señorita Garcia, tienes razon. Of course, I was just kidding.”

“César, may I call you that, here you will use every contact to maximize the value you build for other people. When you create value for others, you may increase the belief that clients, prospects, employees, and even your volunteers have in you – in the value you provide.”

César’s business eyes pierced his own muchacho-on-the-make gaze. “Crear para creer,” he assented.
Punto. You don’t have slaves, you have skilled interns. You are negotiating with me a meaningful role for your junior colleagues as you seek the value that we can provide by training them. You will bring this value back into your firm. Not to mention,” Anna punched César in the bicep in the manly gesture of an auto mechanic, “you want to keep Señor Arguello’s junior architects and draftsmen out of the ring with me.”  Her wink toward César’s amigo made it clear that she was de modo  with the sports and political worlds travelled by Arqueo’s near-namesake, worlds that were, at least in the Spanish-speaking world, exclusively travelled by men. 

The architect, upon hearing his nickname used in such an overtly competitive fashion,  shot his own eyebrow up faster than you can say, “Fascinating, but highly illogical!”

Okey Señorita Garcia. If you will provide my bookkeeper Magdalena and my co-op, Armando, with your attention, and assure me that they will report directly to you,” César proposed, noting that Arqueo’s copy of El Economista had disappeared under his arm faster than a breakfast taco at a construction job, replaced by a small black tablet with a keypad on it, “I promise that you will have the time and capacity to communicate more effectively with your clients and prospects, of which we are clearly two.” Arqueo grumbled. César had been beating him up since both men were eight years old sparring partners in a gym in which, Anna would have chuckled slyly to know, the career of Alexis Arguello was celebrated in every detail from the packed dirt paths of Managua to World Champion in three weight classes. 

“Arqueo,” Anna practically giggled, “cierre el cellular. Good idea, but César was first in the ring. César 1, Arqueo 0. TKO. Now,” she turned back to César, tell me about each intern in a way that will make me want to give you the best deal possible, and under that, will not bore me.” Anna switched to English, paraphrasing the well-known bromide used to teach sixth-graders the difference between adjectivos and gerundios en Inglés: “I do not like to be boring.” 

All three laughed like brigands.

“Armando Frias works for me as a draftsman-detailer, but his heart is in graphic design. I hired him on the spot at his senior gallery at BUAP. He has the eye for detail of an Escher. I take him on client calls, and inevitably he comes up with a revolutionary idea that would cost me my shirt. Although I like my shirts, I admire the precision he employs in executing the more manageable designs I give him.”

“Well spoken. What about the other?”

“ Magdalena da Silva, my bookkeeper, is a lot like you, Anna. She runs the commercial sourcing end of her father’s produce business. Xtalplagpwsfhui bzyfondre, como galvcycbreniamo sobre Albdhv. Rsajgb en OFG, esterlvualy aqursnvfu, en aofnruh, Magda sdjkdacbd. Ninciu, en su vida vieqbofboqb como o2chfbo. Okwhdhvbobhdovhcfdobvvohabbirihfhhcb whbcds…

There were syllables, words, even. Some syntax fragments. Several sentences in it dawned on Anna that César had finished trumpeting the virtues of Magda da Silva Hjort, Anna’s best friend since childhood. It had been six months since Magda and Anna last spent an evening on the rooftop, discussing Magda’s need for a second job and listening to Puebla go to sleep.

The man is cute. And he certainly impressed Magda, enough for her to take another job with him. I wish I knew what she was thinking about him – but no, she’s a lesbian, she says, so she might see him like I do, or she might not. Maybe I can get her to go out with me and double-date Arqueo. I had better re-engage in the conversation; it’s my convention, after all.

“I went to BUAP.”
“When did you graduate?”
“From which major? I have two.”
“Really, what are they?”
“Communications, of course, and…”
A flash of self-doubt crossed Anna’s brow.
“And theater.”

“Theater? What’s wrong with that?” César offered. “Isn’t this all theater? Aren’t we all actors,” now both quoted Shakespeare in unison English, “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, signifying nothing?”

“Hilario! Tu inglés es exelente!”  Anna slapped César just under his left shoulder, on his chest, It was solid. It reminded her of Hector. César’s and Anna’s eyes met. César’s eyes were deep, soft, subtle – in short, everything that Hector’s were not. 

Anna remembered the time. “César, here is my card. You may call me.”  When she flipped her curls to end the conversation and return to business, César saw what other men had seen, César saw the perfectly styled, thick, shiny hair, just beyond shoulder-length. César noticed the aquiline, Conquistador nose, the thin but expressive lips, the long, statuesque neck. He took the proferred card, fumbled for his own, and offered it with a smile and a slight bow.

Mentally, César removed Anna’s pinstriped suitcoat, and tasted her rose colored bare shoulders, ruing that she had chosen to wear a strapless bra under her white cotton blouse with its embroidered white frill on the neckline. César’s gaze slipped to her trim but healthy waist, cumbered by a wide patent leather belt with a brass buckle that would have suggested naquismo on a man, but served to tie together woman and outfit. The skirt, a matching pinstripe, hit Anna’s shapely thighs above the midpoint. César wondered how long Anna had shopped to find a banker’s suit with a miniskirt instead of a standard issue midcalf dress. The legs that pivoted  away showed an almost insanely perfect sense of proportion – an anatomist placed the long, thin hamstrings tying to the knee, each head of the large calf muscle perfectly defined but not bulging, and tapered down to the grey suede strap on Anna’s perfectly fitted pumps. How César wished that he could see more! How he wanted this woman! 

Callate, gorilla!  The line is moving – we are next.”
Arqueo’s voice shocked César out of his reverie.
“Beside, César, you’re here to learn about relationship marketing, not about relationships.”
César turned toward the registration table, but shot a glance back at the departed empresaria.
“Padrísima. Múy, múy padrísima.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Two Big to Fall (2001)

“It was like a big rumble – first I thought another train had just passed, but then after a few minutes, the rumble just got greater and greater. Shit, Dimitri, I was less than two stops away from being turned into human sawdust.” Arnie Goldstein, Dimitri’s brother-in-law, a Princeton professor and thoracic surgeon specializing in pulmonary trauma, had invited the family to his six-bedroom, four-bath Toll Brothers mansion in Hamilton for Rosh Hashanah dinner. Dimitri usually arrived last at family gatherings, and was first to leave. His father, Maksim, still could barely say a full sentence to Dimitri without mentioning his disappointment as an immigrant parent on the choices Dimitri had made. This time, because Arnie had made a point of befriending Dimitri while engaged to Dimitri’s sister,  Dimitri came early in order to spend some man-time, free of the status differences between them.
“Yeah, I had a prep first period. The kids in my second period are always the hardest, because they’re the Russian and Ukrainian kids. They know I’m Russian, so all they want to do is jabber on in Russian with me. So I’m sitting at my desk, trying to get some materials together to try to keep these guys from going off on – “
Dimitri slowly became cognizant that he had just disrespected his brother-in-law’s near death experience for a full fifteen seconds and…
“Arnie, you were WHERE!?”
“Yeah, Canal Street, headed south. Another two minutes and I’d have been rubble.
“JEEEEzus!! What happened!?”
“The lights go down, flicker, then off. At first, I say, Damn. I am not going to make it.”
“Make what?”
“I had an appointment with a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald. He wanted to look at my research for stenting a collapsed lung for commercial viability. I think I mentioned that when I was at your parents’ house for Passover.”
“Right. That was one of the few things I remember. You know how much I like those gatherings.”
“Give ‘em a break, Dim. You really never know what might happen.” Arnie’s half-hatched dodo of a thought needed no completion. Not this New Year. Not this September. As Rabbi Amnon of Mayence said about the Book of Life – and Death, “the seal of every man’s hand is set thereto.”
Arnie continued as Dimitri looked pensive – and oddly receptive.
“I never thought of what a cocoon the subway is. You just check out of the world, cocksure you are going to emerge – like Jonah and the whale.”
“From Hebrew school. You know, the whale picks you up in the maelstrom and uncertainty of Manhattan life, and then it vomits you out on dry land, hopefully safe and sound, right where you should be. Not this time.”
Dimitri inched to the very front of the taupe fluted leather Chippendale chair in Arnie’s drawing room. With his elbows on his knees and his jaw resting on his fist, he looked for all the world like Rodin’s sculpture, “The Thinker.”
“When the lights went out, and the subway stopped, I was thinking only of what the suits at Cantor Fitzgerald would think about me showing up late. The whale never sleeps. You can make an appointment anywhere in Manhattan at 4:30 am. The next thing I remember was the blue glow of all the cell phones. Rows of blue rectangles. Then, a buzz of consternation.”
“Right, duh. If you just can’t get a signal in the beast’s belly at a random train stop on a good day, what made us think that we were going to get any action out of our devices in an emergency? Someone did it – a conductor, I think – the woman made the announcement in our car to pay attention to her voice only in this car.  She instructed us to save our batteries, and turn the cell phones off, because we were safe where we were, and that she would bring the news to us as soon as she got any. She had the wisdom to suggest that we get to know each other, The woman must have known something. She suggested we tell our seatmates or fellow straphangers what work we did in seven words or fewer.”
“So what did you say?”
“I came up with something like, ‘pop balloons in lungs to heal walls.”
“I bet that one crossed some eyeballs.”
“May have, but I couldn’t see. Nobody could. I thought that it would be a good idea to follow up by asking people questions, but all they wanted to hear about were my balloons. The I. P. lawyers at Princeton – I. P. means “intellectual property” – buzzed in my ears, you know, if I release the information into the public domain, I can’t get rich off it, but I told them anyway. One of the passengers, I guess a college student at NYU, created a good laugh when she called it “a condom that goes down the wrong way!” 
“Did you tell her you’d copyright that line if she didn’t do it first?”
“Good one, Dim. The weird thing is that it started a discussion of different ways to die – like a kind of gallows humor. Sex and death. I mean, it was sick! Sick, but funny. I think that the whole car picked up on the theme. I overheard the blessed, “I want to pass out of consciousness in bed with my beloved,” to the sick, “I saw this cartoon once that had someone beheading his boss in a file drawer  and sticking a bunch of daisies in the empty neck.”
“Too bad someone didn’t have a recorder on. Or maybe they did.”
“If so, you’ll be able to find it on the Internet soon enough. It’s amazing what people will say when they’re contemplating the end.”
“My students would love it. Maybe I’ll teach a lesson on black humor. I might even ask Mom if she remembers any in Russian.”
“Ask your dad instead. Your mom seems way too polite.”
Dimitri fidgeted at the thought.
“How long did you sit in darkness like that? How was the air?
Arnie lifted his head ever so gently, slightly, as if to remember the olfactory sensations of the day.
“Funny you would ask that. I expected to notice a slight staleness of the air as time passed, but quickly I saw people taking Kleenex out and sniffling or sneezing. I didn’t think that we were under attack at that moment, but I guessed that a part of the subway had collapsed. Then I thought about all the redundant construction techniques in there, and I thought, “Naaah. No way. An airplane could hit the Amsterdam Gardens and the people in the subway would feel a shock, but that’s it. No breach. I read a briefing once that covered that kind of accident.
“So I stopped thinking about above-ground accidents, and started wondering about a bomb. You remember the last time they tried to bomb the Towers, right?
“I was in Israel at the time.”
“Well, ever since then, I’ve been looking for a truck bomb to go off in the Lincoln Tunnel. A hundred million PSI of the Hudson River washing away half of Midtown. Now I was sure in my own mind that some Khaled Abu Jihad or somebody had planted a bomb on the subway. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to freak anyone out. I’d be the one who would have to tracheotomize the victim. After a good twenty minutes, our conductor comes back, and confirms what I already knew. She says ‘There’s an explosion up ahead of us that has cut power to the subway. It’s a mess, but MTA has all their towing engines on the job, and all the trains are being towed out of the area. Please stay calm, and wait for more instructions.’
“Well, we weren’t about to jump out the train and wage war against the rats. So there was little to do but sit while our conductor kept whispering to the motorman. Looking back, I can’t believe that I made it out alive.”
Dimitri put his hands on the curved leather wing of the Chippendale chair. He shifted positions, not from boredom, but from dead sensation he was feeling in his legs from the pressure of the edge of the seat on his major blood vessels.
“After a while, we heard a pneumatic gasp from a valve open, which I guessed was the motorman’s door. I looked up, and noticed a spotlight falling out of the front cabin. Recognizing what was happening, I told the other passengers that the motorman had put on an emergency helmet with a spotlight, and he had jumped out of the cabin. Someone suggested he committed suicide. I calmed the moron down, ‘cause I knew he wouldn’t have put a hardhat with an emergency lamp on if he were planning on offing himself.
Dimitri interjected. “So how long did you have to wait until someone said something?”
“You read my mind – again, ” Arnie continued. “Practically before the parabola from the guy’s headlamp stopped, our conductor announced that they had hatched a plan. They were going to shut the emergency brakes, one by one, and assuming the third rail was still live, they were backing up to Canal Street and evacuating from there. I was really concerned about my appointment at this point, so I called above the murmuring, ‘Will there be alternate service to Cortland Street from there?’ She replied that the explosion had shut down the area, and that people were being evacuated from the World Trade Center area.
“What happened next could have been an acoustics experiment in reinforcing and dampening harmonics, because everyone gasped and went, “What happened?!” in the same moment, some loudly, some soft, high, low, but all at once. The conductor had put her hard hat on. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was pretty good. Like they’d rehearsed this scenario.”
“Well?” Dimitri urged, leaning forward into history.
“She said something like, ‘It’s no surprise to anyone in this car, but something big has occurred. First, our evacuation plan will put you on Canal Street, where you should turn toward the docks. The air is filled with dust and ash, so make sure you have one hand free and something to cover your face. What I know is that the World Trade Center has been hit by a plane, and that one of the towers has collapsed.’
“The buzz on the train now sounded like crowd noise on a sitcom.  The conductor repeated that a tower had collapsed, and that burning debris was everywhere. ‘I have been given no further information. I need to know what’s happening too, and I will relay information the moment that I get it and have been cleared to do so. The motorman has reentered the cabin, and we are reversing to the next emergency brake.’ Did I mention that the low hum of a generator served as a soundscape for this insanity?”
“No,” responded Dimitri, “but it would make sense.”
The pause that fell on Arnie’s drawing room felt like a news broadcast over which the camera had lingered just a bit too long. Like everything this week, things just weren’t right. Dimitri did not follow up. Arnie was supposed to go next, but he sat still for a moment, pendant from the moment that just passed and the moment that was to come.
“Well, now the hum increases in pitch – I swear I thought it was coming from inside my head, and maybe everybody felt the same thing.  We back up with a start – and then a stop. It doesn’t take much to travel the sixty feet between emergency brakes on the subway. This process repeated five times in all, and then what a sight when we got out at Canal Street! Imagine a snowstorm had hit Manhattan, and you were getting off the subway after drifts of snow had blown down into the subway. Only it wasn’t snow, Dimitri, it was ash.”
Dimitri gasped. “Bozhe fucking moi! It’s like the Towers were two giant crematoria, but they got the gas wrong and blew up the building along with the Jews inside. If it had happened tomorrow, the Black-Hatters would have trumpeted that this was the punishment for the sin of not observing the Lord’s Festivals or something.”
“Yeah, as it was, we felt pretty much like a marching herd of zombies. I guess you could call it a “life march,” instead of a death march. I think the people at MTA were just doing what they had been trained to do, but by my account, they sure did it well. I don’t think they were coordinating with the Coast Guard, but by the time we got out of the ash-trap called a subway entrance, there were two ferries and several riverboats waiting to take us to Bayonne. “