Month: April 2015

The Pre-Memoir Memoir

They say you always remember your first time. I have the distinct first memory of floating in my mother’s womb, kicking and waiting to be born. I recall emerging from her body to bright lights, getting slapped, screaming on arrival. I remember my crib had a swirling carnival of circus animals above it. I pooped a lot. I recall the first time I stood upright, teetered for a few steps, and then fell back on my butt. My parents applauded as if I had just flown solo across the Atlantic. My first words were a bunch of gibberish, a cross between “mama” and “caca-sissy-boom-boom.” My first birthday party was most noticeable for the number of adults in the room chain-smoking cigarettes. It was the early 1950s and the Marlboro Man was just as likely a doctor as a cowboy.

Of course, I remember no such events, at least not consciously. In fact, I can’t recall much of my life before the age of seven. I probably ate my fair share of paste and occasionally wet the bed, two accomplishments considered neither preconscious nor book-worthy.

Henry James encouraged writers to be one of those upon whom nothing is lost. Joseph Conrad piled on with his rule claiming the task of a writer is to make readers see. But what about those of us who set out to write a memoir yet are equipped with faulty or incomplete memories, writers with recollection skills that are less Sherlockian and more like what popped out of Mrs. Malaprop’s mouth?

Watch any Godzilla movie and you’ll probably see someone looking away at the precise moment of debacle, unaware that the great monster of film lore is about to roast another metropolis. I am a kindred spirit to that unaware person, which makes writing a memoir especially challenging for me. I admire writers who can plunge the depths of their life like James Cameron in a submersible and bring up jewels. I splash around in the shallow end of the memory pool and call it a day.

Perhaps that’s because other writers are better armed to wrestle with their past. James Thurber, for example, claimed a near-photographic memory and, even late in life, said he could recall the birthdays of his fellow students from elementary school. I can’t recall what I had for breakfast this morning but I believe it involved whole-wheat toast.

Then, of course, there’s Marcel Proust, the father of all memory writers, who after savoring not toast but a French cookie known as a madeleine, went on to write a seven volume novel based on the experience and titled it Remembrance of Things Past. That’s an exaggeration, of course. His seven volumes cover more than a cookie.

I have my own cookie memory. During my senior year in high school I lost twenty pounds to “make weight” for the wrestling season. My parents didn’t know what to do because I was starving myself by sticking to a diet of five hundred calories a day, supplemented mostly by laxatives. Before long I was as emaciated as a vegan on a cattle drive. My Swedish grandmother came to my rescue and made me a five-pound tin of butter cookies; I ate them all in one day. My cookie memory is only a paragraph, not seven volumes, but that’s my point.

Maybe I had pancakes this morning?

Put another way, I write with the broad strokes of an Abstract Expressionist rather than the tiny dots of a Pointillist. As a más o menos kind of writer, I round up or round down without distinction and as the mood fits. I like to think of myself as a big picture sort of writer. I may not reach for all the gusto I can get, but I grab for the Gestalt.

Case in point, my “Uncle Teddy” episode.

I was eight and my sister was ten. Whenever we visited relatives in the San Francisco Bay Area, we always stopped by to see Great Aunt Selma, a feisty old woman who drank far too much whiskey, read The Police Gazette with the religious conviction of reading the Bible, and resided in a quaint cottage, along a curved cobble-stoned path, behind a large house in Alameda.

At the time, Selma lived with Teddy, her third husband, a retired Merchant Seaman confined mostly to bed. It seemed all he did was sleep. But to me, Teddy wasn’t just an Old Salt collecting a Seaman’s pension—he was a pirate. And to reinforce his pirate status, Teddy wore a patch over one eye.

Every visit ended the same. Before we could leave, Aunt Selma would ask us to “Come and see Uncle Teddy.” My parents would remain behind in the living room, while my sister and I cautiously followed the old woman, Hansel and Gretel-like, into the bedroom, a dark and smelly place.  Aunt Selma would turn on the brass light by the bed, rouse her husband awake, roughly shaking him by the shoulders, and, using both of her hands, pry open his one good eye. “Look who’s here to see you, Teddy,” she’d tell him. “Look who’s here to see you!” The groggy ex-sailor would mumble something and fall back to sleep.

After a brief pause, my great aunt would pull back the sheets and expose the decaying fish-white body of her husband. She’d turn to my sister and say, bitterly, as if warning her to stay away from all males, “See what I ended up with?”

Any writer with a better knack for detail and a mind capable of remembering things past would be able to describe the exact perfume Aunt Selma wore, by brand and fragrance, and would flash back to days gone by whenever catching a whiff of the same in streets or stores.  If I were better at my job I would instantly recall the color of the bedroom carpet and could devote an entire chapter to discussing its texture. I could make you, the reader, smell the thick stench that hovered in the closed-up room like a peat bog, see what long-forgotten TV show was flickering on the small black and white set topped with rabbit ears. The truth is I can’t even tell you which eye Uncle Teddy covered with a patch. To this day, I don’t know for sure, but since Teddy wasn’t a spider I can guess one of two eyes and have a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.

There’s an old joke about a visitor to a cathedral. The bishop in charge is giving the visitor a tour. They end up in the bell tower, just as the bell-ringer pulls the rope to do his job. The rope snaps in two and falls to the floor. Undeterred, the bell-ringer swings into action. He runs head-first as fast as he can into the bells. The bells ring once.  He takes another run at the bells and rings them a second time. He charges at the bells and rings them still again. The bishop and visitor watch in amazement. Finally, the visitor turns and asks, “Who is that man?” The bishop says, “I can’t recall his name. But his face sure rings a bell.”

If we meet on the street and I can’t remember your name, I ask your forgiveness in advance. I wish I could blame my limited recall on the aging process. But I’ve never been good at remembering details or paying close attention to them. I suspect the only practical reason I still carry around a photo ID is so that I won’t forget who I am.

The stories in this collection take place long after my seventh birthday and are all true, except the ones that aren’t. And at this point in my life I’m not sure I can tell the difference. That’s because, unlike James or Conrad or Proust or Thurber and so many other writers I respect and admire and envy, I have a mind like a steel sieve.

Now I remember. I had a bagel for breakfast. With a schmear.


I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Pollen

It’s spring in beautiful downtown San Miguel, when a young man’s fancy turns to many things, especially sneezing. I am no longer a young man but I have what’s known as the trifecta of histamines racing through my body at various times of the year: allergies, asthma, and atopic dermatitis.  Put another way, if I were a three-headed creature from the Greek underworld made by Disney, I’d been known as Sneezy, Wheezy, and Scratchy.

Since moving to the middle of Mexico, my wife, Arlene, has seen her allergies explode.  Every March, when the drop-dead gorgeous jacaranda trees are in bloom, she sneezes with wild abandon. I imagine one could sneeze with mild abandon but I have yet to see it. Thus, our house in San Miguel, a city known for its flowers, has become a flower-free zone. For two months every year, we shake our fists and curse the blooming jacarandas.

According to at least one common theory, allergies are a dated flaw in the design of the human body. When the body’s immune system detects a mostly harmless allergen as life-threatening, some mechanism in charge somewhere deep inside the body shouts, “Release the Histamines” and that’s when the fun starts. Cue the sneezing, wheezing, scratching, weepy eyes, many sleepless nights and more than one trip to the local doctor’s office. Different bodies react differently to allergens, however, and the event can prove life-threatening. Allergies, if you pardon the pun and the dust, are not to be sneezed at.

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.  We’re told the best defense is to avoid irritants, yet we’re surrounded by them.  Grass. Tree pollen.  Weed pollen. Dust mites. Mold. Smoke of any kind. The three poisons: ivy, oak, sumac.  Jewelry.  Household chemicals.  Perfume. Rubber. Nickel. Cotton. Wool. Bees from every nest.  Yellow jackets, hornets, and wasps. Just about any other winged thing, not to mention ants representing every mound on earth. Aspirin. Penicillin. Shellfish.  Eggs. Milk. Grains. Peanuts.  Other nuts, you choose. Berries.  Dogs.  Cats.  Hamsters. Oh, my!

The human body is home to several parts that once served a purpose and are now considered vestigial or mostly useless, like an anatomical lava lamp or selfie stick. Best known among those genetic garage sale hand-me-downs is, of course, the appendix (removed when I was seven) and the coccyx or tailbone (sitting on it now). I think the generous release of histamines by the body’s immune system in reaction to what it perceives as a lethal invasion – but is not – might qualify as something left over from those wild pathogen keggers held during the Paleolithic Age.  A key difference is that while an allergic reaction can kill you, mostly what happens when you sit in front of a computer for long periods of time is gain weight. Now that I think about it, sitting too long in the long run in front of a computer can kill you as well. So there we are: we’re screwed either way.

If you have not already guessed, I am not a doctor and this is not a how-to essay on dealing with allergies or about the ontological proof of IgE.  In my experience, allergies are like distant cousins. They can appear in your life at any time and surprise you by going away on their own.  Here today, gone tomorrow. Or maybe not.

I wanted to discuss the allergy scene in San Miguel, however. But first, I’m going to digress further and present my credentials as someone who has always had to deal with an over-active immune system.

When I was a child with asthma, one of the preferred oral medications for treating an asthma attack was Tedral, a theophylline-based drug.  It was so powerful that I could only take one half of a tablet and had to sit or try to lie down while my legs would shake in reaction. Today, if experiencing a flare up of my asthma I might take a corticosteroid, such as Prednisone, for about a week or until my chest returns to normal. Life’s full of tradeoffs, so when I take Prednisone my breathing eases but my cheeks puff up like Rocky the Squirrel and my mood swings back and forth more times than a ping pong ball in Bejing.  I’ve had every major treatment for asthma known to allergists and pulmonologists alike, from desensitization shots to steam tents, and occasionally still a tightness reigns in my chest.  For reasons unknown to me, my asthma became dormant from about age 20 until I was in my late-30s, when it came back with a vengeance and an I.O.U. It has since shown no signs of leaving anytime soon.

Along with the big wheeze, I suffer from an allergy-induced dry skin condition known as eczema. It’s not quite the heartbreak of psoriasis of Madison Avenue fame but it has its own challenges.  As a kid, I had to take sponge baths or, worse still, bathe in starch or oatmeal. Now you might think a starch bath for a kid would be pretty cool and leave him with arms stuck out like Frankenstein groping his way down the hall. But the sad truth is I couldn’t stay in the tub long enough to get a good starch going and it wouldn’t matter anyway because I had to cover my skin in some kind of lubricant (not that kind) once I exited the tub.  I could rarely relax because I was constantly scratching. When I lived in Reno, Nevada, my skin, at times, became so parched and caked I could barely move my neck from one side to the other. On the other hand, when I lived in Portland, Oregon, my skin was always moist and darn-near perfect, but the cold, moist weather of the Willamette Valley triggered many an asthma attack. What’s a mere mortal to do?

Besides my weak lungs and sensitive skin, I have hay fever, and a host of irritants. Anything from pet dander to seasonal pollen to a sudden drop in barometric pressure can be enough to launch a sneezing fit.  I could go on but we all have our tales of biological woe.  Besides, I wanted to tell you about how my histamines are enjoying life in the sunny colonial highlands of Mexico.

The short answer is they’re doing fine, which surprises me because according to an ancient skin-scratch test I took as a kid, a test considered a Rorschach for Allergists,  I am especially allergic to dust and dust is San Miguel’s unofficial nickname. Yet even with all the dust, smoke, and unidentified particulate matter floating around here at the six-thousand-foot level, my breathing is the best it has been in years. My skin, too, has improved and only erupts during the very dry months of April and May. Sneezing still happens but infrequently.

In conclusion, your Honor, I submit of all the places I’ve lived, from northern California to northern Oregon, from Nevada to Puerto Rico, the semi-arid mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has shown  to offer the most beneficial climate for the various histamines that haunt me. I rest my case and my inhaler.

Still Spanglish After All These Years or Buenos Días

My friend Larry, a long-time expat resident of San Miguel, has a theory about personal safety.  According to Larry, if you see a tough-looking adult male on the street walking toward you and you’re not sure if he’s dangerous, relax.  All you need do is smile and say, “Buenos días.”  Larry is convinced that the man would smile back and warmly reply, “Buenos días” and go on his way. That’s because, according to Larry’s theory, there isn’t a man in the entire country that would accost you after such a greeting. The people in this gracious country are raised to be polite, to return a courtesy with a courtesy.

Which pleases me because I’m still unable to master Spanish, other than deliver clipped greetings, pose simple questions, and tell people my name—all in present tense, like a three-year-old. This is a sad and unfortunate admission. I was taught Spanish by Latin American nuns in the lower grades and have the report card to prove it. I took one year of high school Spanish. And I spent nine months while serving in the military on the island of Puerto Rico.  Still … “Yo no hablo mucho español.”

It’s not as if I didn’t try to learn Spanish. I did.  I came. I studied. But I didn’t conquer.  English is the common language of the modern world, which is a huge comfort for me, since I was fortunate to have been born in America and, after six decades of trying, it is obvious that English remains the only language I will ever fully know. It’s a good thing I wasn’t born in Denmark, because I’d never be able to speak Danish.

I attended a book reading by an author who wrote of his long-time experiences living in Mexico, especially his years in San Miguel. During the question and answer period that followed, one woman said she thought the biggest problem in San Miguel today was English-speaking expats who don’t take the time to study and become fluent in Spanish.

Mexico is a gorgeous country, full of wonderful people, enormous resources, and great promise.  But I believe it has bigger problems than Americans not conversing with their neighbors in Spanish. There’s the poverty rate, the huge gap between the haves and have nots, the lack of economic opportunity, insufficient education, systemic graft and corruption, and, of course, the very serious matter of drug cartels and violence. One’s inability to exchange pleasantries in Spanish pales by comparison.

San Miguel de Allende, like it or not, for good or bad, is a sophisticated international destination, where it helps to know Spanish but it is hardly the main requirement for residency. Would my life here be enhanced if I were proficient in the local jargon? Yes, no question about it. Is my experience of living here diminished by mostly speaking English and only occasionally taking a stab at Spanish? Perhaps.

Instead of taking a class in conversational Spanish, I suppose if I really wanted to break down the language barrier, I would volunteer to teach English. Because this is a bilingual town, a Mexican who speaks both Spanish and English has a better chance of finding a job, especially in the service industry. On the other hand, when the aging American who studies Spanish dies, his Spanish dies with him, along with his AARP card.

All this is moot, of course, because I’m afraid the only way I will become fluent in Spanish at this point in my life is if I’m found guilty of a crime and sent to a Mexican prison. Necessity, after all, is the mother of language acquisition. In fact, I’m already planning to memorize a few key prison survival phrases in Spanish, just in case my next career stop is a turn in the slammer:

En los últimos tiempo, no quiero ducha con usted. (For the last time, I do not want to shower with you.)

Por favor, salga lo que ondean en mi cara. (Please quit waving that thing in my face.)

And my personal favorite:

Estoy demasiado viejo para ser tu perra. Voy a tener que ser tu madre. (I’m too old to be your bitch. I’ll have to be your mother.)