My PEN International Talk- Part 1

I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at the PEN San Miguel Winter 2016 lecture series. I was asked to talk about writing humor. Instead of reading pages from my published book or my plays, I created a set of lecture notes about humor, including two short excerpts from the sequel to my humorous memoir “Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak.” I will be posting the notes in my blog, beginning with the below post. As background, PEN’s noble mission is to promote literature and defend freedom of expression worldwide. The association has autonomous International PEN centers in over 100 countries, one of which is in San Miguel. PEN is the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization.

I remain humbled and honored by their invitation.

Nearly 200 people attended my talk, a frightening situation for a shy person to face. My wife, Arlene Krasner, introduced me. Here is the first passage from my talk:

Thank you, Arlene. Truth be told, Arlene is much funnier than I am. To find out, buy her food memoir “Kosher Sutra.”

I’d also like to thank Pat, Sharon, Lee, Lucina and others at PEN San Miguel for inviting me to talk this evening about humor, as well as welcome and thank all of you for being here tonight.

Recently the New York Times ran an article about American policemen going to the U.K. to be trained in how to defuse a tense situation with humor and not with guns. In response, someone wrote a letter to the editor. In the letter, this person told how several years ago he had attended a bachelor’s party in England. The party was held at a pub and it got out of hand and turned very noisy. Those celebrating were dressed in brightly colored Hawaiian shirts. At one point, they all went outside, screaming and waving pints of beer and wearing those wild, crazy, loud shirts. The police pulled up in a van marked “Disturbance Unit”. Those celebrating stopped and the street suddenly became quiet. A policeman rolled down his window and shouted to the men: “Hey, Lads. Good thing we’re not the Fashion Police, eh?”

So what can you expect this evening? I’ll start by reading two short excerpts from my sequel to Nobody Knows. The working title for the sequel is “Dogs, Cats & Expats.” After that I’ll talk briefly about my background as a humorist. I’ll close by sharing a few thoughts about writing humor, including representative examples of humor writing, collected snippets from fiction, non-fiction, plays, comedians, and cartoonists—and all by humorists I admire. The keyword for tonight is “light-hearted.”

From the preface to “Dogs, Cats & Expats”:

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 closer to 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 destroy another fine city. 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.

Case in point, what I like to refer to as 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 conviction of reading the Bible, and resided in a quaint fairy tale 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 re-enforce 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, 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 and bloated 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.


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