27. January 2020 · Comments Off on Why cultural appropriation is here to stay · Categories: Olio

When I was in high school I lobbied to have Muddy Waters play at a school music night. He and his band came for a mere $1500. He wasn’t pleased about doing a high school gig, but clearly he needed the money.

I was ecstatic. It would be the only musical event I ever attended at my school. Muddy Waters was the real deal to me. Bands like The Rolling Stones were pale (haha) imitations of real bluesmen like Waters. But I was the only one in the crowd who looked happy listening to Muddy and his band. Everyone else would have been far happier if we had a cover band playing the ersatz blues of The Stones.

After that concert, I tried to understand why my fellow students disliked what was raw and real, Muddy, and loved what was fake, derivative bands like The Stones. I decided that the appeal of The Stones was really about their whiteness. My fellow students couldn’t connect directly to a black musical art form. They needed a smoother, anodyne and whiter version of the real thing. Just like Elvis Presley took Sam Cooke’s music and put a less musical and whiter face on it, The Stones were putting a white face on the blues.

It irked me that playing white versions of black music made millions while playing the real deal got you a gig at a Milwaukee high school. Life wasn’t fair. But as I grew older, I mellowed a bit. The Stones and Elvis could be thought of as cultural appropriators, sure. But there was another way to look at them that was perhaps less negative. They were translators. They translated black music into something accessible to white people. Was it as good as the real thing? No. But it was as close as mainstream audiences wanted to get to the real thing.

In literature, I’ve run into the equivalent of Elvis and The Stones frequently. It hasn’t just been in novels like The Help, where a white person writes a cartoon version of black culture that sells millions of copies. I’ve read novels about Holocaust survivors and Eastern European immigrant families written by people who are clueless about this culture. I’ve thrown books against the wall again and again that have been on bestseller lists. I know that if white Christian readers encountered an authentic book about Holocaust survivors and their families, they’d read a few pages, close up the book and never open it again. Mainstream readers prefer anodyne versions written by Americans appropriating/translating outside cultures.

Given the reality that the mainstream reading public strongly prefers the inauthentic to the authentic, publishers, of course, prefer to publish works by cultural translators/appropriators. They’ve been doing so for as long as I can remember. They’ve been making big bucks doing this as well. What has changed recently is not the demand for tone deaf books by white Christian cultural translators. Instead what has changed is the rightful public resentment by people from outside cultures, especially from writers of those outside cultures whose work has been ignored by big publishers and mainstream readers.

Five years ago, a cultural translator book like American Dirt, which came out last week and is about a Mexican woman trying to come to America, would have sold millions to white Americans without much of a peep from the Latinx community. Now Latinx and even Asian writers are angry. I don’t expect cultural translators/appropriators to go away. The market demand for their work is too great. They will continue to be published and sell millions. Latinx writers will continue to throw books against the wall they read that are written by appropriators. Asian writers will continue to throw books against the wall. I’ll continue to throw books against the wall. But these books are here to stay just like rock and roll.

I note that the Rolling Stones have made billions playing the blues badly and are still filling stadiums. In contrast, Muddy Waters died long ago and while he was alive bought used cars from my wife’s uncle. The marketplace decides what sells and what sells is frequently not very good and in bad taste. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I love to listen to recordings of Susannah McCorkle, an American, singing Brazilian tunes and Theodore Bikel, an Austrian Jew, singing Russian folk tunes. I’m certain people in the know about Brazilian and Russian music howl at these efforts. I don’t care. The desire for the inauthentic but comfortable and non-threatening will always be strong.



16. January 2020 · Comments Off on Acts of kindness · Categories: Olio

I was in New York at a theater last week and just two days before developed a shoulder condition that inflamed my right rotator cuff and restricted the movement of my arm to zero. Broadway theater seats have never been known for their comfort and as I sat down, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit in my seat next to my wife and daughter without occasionally yelping in pain. I got up and explained my problem to the house manager. She expressed sympathy. They didn’t have seating for disabled people, but she could bring a dining room chair out and put it next to one of the seating rows “as long as you don’t call the fire marshal because what I’m offering you is illegal.” I told her I wouldn’t call the fire marshal. I sat in a comfy seat that gave me enough room to put my dead arm in a position that kept me pain free and enjoyed the show.

The house manager did not have to do this for me. It was extra work. It was a violation of fire laws. But she decided to be kind. It was a small favor that she gave to a stranger, albeit a paying customer. During intermission I thought of acts of human kindness big and small that have impacted me and my family.

My mother was a great believer in human kindness. She was, given her past as a child who lived through WWII, also alert to any potential danger. Somehow her view that people will often go out of their way to help others mixed happily with her belief that a new Stalin or Hitler could come back any day and ruin her life and the world again. She never would have survived the war without acts of kindness. After the war, that was true as well.

In 1946, my mother, 17 and on her own, left the safety of the American Zone of Germany to go back to Poland and search for her father. She wandered from town to town. It was dangerous to do this. Poland was, at the time, lawless and rubble-filled.

My mother searched for her father for thirty days, when she ran out of money. She had failed and it was time for her to return to Germany. She waited at a train station for the train that would take her back. A Soviet soldier at the train station was ogling her. Finally he shouted, “Come here, girl.”

My mother was scared. She’d heard the stories of young women being raped and murdered by Soviet soldiers. She knew she was trapped and approached the soldier. He asked for her name and she didn’t lie. The soldier heard my mother’s Russian accent, the result of being in a Soviet gulag with her family during the war, and was surprised. “What’s a Russian girl doing here?” he asked.

My mother told the soldier her story of being in a Soviet gulag town during the war, of being separated from her father when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and her father was conscripted into the Soviet Army, and of her failed effort to find her father in Poland. The soldier said, “You don’t have to stop looking for your father. Take this.” He handed her a suitcase. “I’m going home today. I don’t really need it.”

The suitcase was full of Polish zloty, nearly worthless as a currency. But given the large quantity of bills it contained, the suitcase would allow my mother to continue her search. She found her father two weeks later and with false papers reunited him with his wife and my mother’s kid brother.

Why did the Soviet soldier decide to help my mother? Humans have an innate capacity for kindness. We respond with empathy to other’s hardship. In difficult situations  big – my mother in search of her father – and small – me in search of a seat at a Broadway show – we can find it.

We live in a time when we’ve elected a president who doesn’t believe that kindness is possible, that everyone is on the make. Our news is full of tales of cruelty, selfishness, and greed. But we can be better than our president, better than what we read in the newspapers. In fact, many respond to their better angels every day.

05. January 2020 · Comments Off on Jewish and proud · Categories: Olio

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25. December 2019 · Comments Off on Why I owe my life to borscht · Categories: Olio

Here’s a lunchtime bowl of my favorite food, borscht.

My wife made it with latkes for Chanukah last night. My mother used to make it, too, of course. According to my mother, my wife makes a good bowl of borscht and she should know. She was born in Poland. She lived through the war because her mother, my grandmother, made a good bowl of borscht. I owe my life to borscht. Here’s why.

When World War II began in September 1939, the Germans pounded Poland. They took Poland with ease, but the overmatched Polish Army did fight and there were some major battles. One was in my mother’s hometown, Tomaszow-Lubelski. My grandfather was worried about Hitler before the war began, so worried that he rented a farm house for his family to live east of town. During the summer before the war, my mother, her kid brother and my grandmother lived on the farm while my grandfather lived in the city. His logic was that his family would be safer in the country should Hitler attack. On paper, this sounded like a wise idea, but in fact when the Germans attacked, they quickly took over the rural lands east of Tomaszow-Lubelski. The Polish Army fought to keep the town. The battle is famous enough to be featured on a Polish stamp.

My grandfather, separated from his family,  was, no doubt, worried. During the battle, my grandmother heard a knock on the farm house door. A Polish translator was with a German lieutenant. Had that translator figured out that my grandmother and her family were Jewish, they’d likely have been shot. But context is everything. Jews didn’t live on farms. They lived in the city. Ergo the translator probably assumed my family was Polish. Looks are important, too. My grandmother looked like she was Roma. My mother, then nine years old, didn’t look Jewish either. With pale skin and Asiatic cheekbones, she didn’t look anything like her parents or brother (as a little kid, I assumed my mom had been adopted and that my grandparents were Polish and Yiddish speaking Native Americans; DNA says otherwise). Language is also important. My grandmother spoke a perfect Polish free of any Jewish accent. My mother didn’t even know Yiddish and spoke the Polish of an ethnic Pole. The translator probably thought, OK we’re at the home of a Pole who married a Roma. No one was going to get shot as a result.

The translator said, “The lieutenant is hungry. He wants a good bowl of soup. Make him some. Now.” My grandmother started to make some borscht immediately. The lieutenant stayed for two hours and waited. My grandmother talked with the translator and the lieutenant while the soup was cooking. My mother held her baby brother and prayed silently over and over that the translator and the German officer would not figure out that they were Jewish. Finally, my grandmother served the borscht to the German lieutenant and the translator. “Poles know how to make good soup. I’m going to like it here,” the lieutenant said. He left a happy man.

If my grandmother hadn’t made a good bowl of borscht, who knows what would have happened to her and her children? Nothing good, no doubt. I owe my life to a bowl of borscht.

Happy Chanukah

22. December 2019 · Comments Off on Title-ville · Categories: Olio

Lately I’ve noticed that movie titles have been loaded with misdirection. A Star is Born is not an astronomy documentary (I wish it was!), Joker is not a comedy (ditto for wishing). A Marriage Story is really a divorce story (well done, but watching two people scream at each other off and on for two hours is no fun). Uncut Gems is not gay porn (which is probably a good thing). OK, I’m joking more than a bit, but titles are important.

I self-titled one of my books, Gone for Good. Oxford Press didn’t object, but in hindsight it sounds bleak and dour. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking that if only I had given that book the title The Fault in Our Stars and Universities it would have sold a million copies easily. But like I say, I’m being delusional… and silly. Lofty sounding titles do sell, though. If Hemingway had tried to sell The Sun Also Rises as Jake and Brett it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. Intriguing titles sell, too. The Great Gatsby, yes. West Egg Tales would have bombed.

I know the person who came up with the novel title Primary Colors. It’s simple and clever. I also know the person who came up with The Lovely Bones, also simple and clever. Titles with exotic or romantic cities in them work well, too. Death in Venice, for instance, is a classic just for the title alone.

I didn’t title The Mathematician’s Shiva. I bit my lip when I first heard that title so the person on the phone wouldn’t hear me groan. The worst thing you can do to a book is give it a The Noun’s Noun title, but that’s what I got stuck with. Despite that crummy title, TMS managed to sell well and continues to sell. Titles aren’t everything. The Dean’s December was a snooze of a title and yet the novel did well back in the day. But just think if TMS had been titled I Know Why the Russian Mathematician Sings or A Gentle Lady from Moscow. It would have been on bestseller lists for years. I’m being silly again, sorry. On a serious note, I tried to get TMS titled The Millennium Prize and as time passes that proposed title looks better and better to me.

I never thought I was particularly good at titling books, just didn’t believe I had the knack for it. I decided it was OK, actually preferable, to let the pros at selling do their thing and come up with titles on their own. But nowadays, I think differently. If I’m not good at titles, I better get good at them. It’s a simple skill. I should be able to learn it. If I publish any new books, I’m going to try my damnedest to make sure that the title on the cover is as much my work as what is inside.

14. December 2019 · Comments Off on The last light bulb joke you may ever see · Categories: Olio

Here’s a light bulb joke for you. How many geophysicist/novelists with the name Rojstaczer does it take to change a light bulb? It better be no more than one because finding two geophyscist/novelists with the name Rojstaczer is, in fact, impossible. Hahaha.

I’ve been changing out light bulbs in my house because my eyesight is iffy and is especially bad under low light. Out with the curly fluorescent 23 watt and less light bulbs. In with 23 watt LEDs. The difference has been amazing. Our house is no longer a fuzzy cave for me in the evenings.

Changing them out has taken me about one minute per bulb. That’s no joke! But I’m not going to be able to tell another light bulb joke for a long time, maybe never again. The boxes that housed the new bulbs say they’ll last 22 years. 22 years! I may well be six feet under the next time a light bulb goes out in my house. How can you tell a light bulb joke when you never have to change a light bulb?

My plight is not personal. Over the next few years just about every fluorescent and incandescent bulb in the world will burn out. What will they be replaced with? LED bulbs, of course. When that happens, light bulb changing worldwide just might stop for 20 or so years. How many people worldwide will be needed to change a light bulb? Zero. How about the year following? Zero again. The light bulb joke will have to go on a two decade hiatus. It will be, temporarily, the dodo bird of jokes. It may well become the 22 year cicada of jokes. Ten years from now when you try to tell a light bulb joke to your kid/grandkid, you may get the same stare you receive when you mention Blockbuster or telephone booths.

We’ll need other jokes about incompetence to replace them. Here’s one. How many doctors would it take for Americans to obtain decent health insurance? One, a surgeon capable of implanting backbones into 218 slimy, slithery congressmen. Hahaha! I’m sure you can think of a bunch of “how many“ jokes on your own.


09. December 2019 · Comments Off on The Golden Stueys in books and movies · Categories: Olio

I read a fair number of books and watch a lot of movies. Here are my “award winners” for 2019. The awards used to be called The Stueys. But I’ve decided to add some glitter by renaming them The Golden Stueys. All results tabulated by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Golden Stueys for books:
Homeland, Fernando
The Capital, Menasse
A Girl Returned, Di Pietrantonio
Growth, Smil
Gods of the Upper Air, King
Facing the Abyss, Hutchinson

The Golden Stueys for movies:
Picture: Parasite
Foreign: Becoming Astrid
Documentary: Apollo 11
Actor: Willem DaFoe
Actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Supporting Female: Jeong-eun Lee
Supporting Male: Joe Pesci
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Score: Dark Waters

02. December 2019 · Comments Off on They like me, they really like me · Categories: Olio

I’d never been someone who got asked for directions. Hardly anyone ever smiled at me as they passed me on a street. If I sat on a bus or a train, the seats next to mine would stay empty unless the bus or train filled up. Even then, some people seemed to prefer to stand. There was something on my face that said “not friendly” or “stranger danger.” I didn’t know what it was, but I could guess. I possessed a full head of crazy curly hair and my father’s intensity. Strangers stayed away from my father, too. They were scared he might slug them back in the day. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

I was used to this treatment by strangers. It didn’t bother me that much, although I did like all the oohs, ahs and friendly treatment I received whenever I had a pet, usually a cat, with me on a plane or at an airport. Pets apparently made me look approachable and turned me into just another human being. I often joked that if I were single, I’d get a dog, that it was the only way a woman might think I was relationship material.

But then I turned 60. My hair started thinning and then about half of it disappeared. My face wrinkled up. The intensity that defined me softened a bit. Somehow all of that aging caused a profound change in how strangers viewed me. Suddenly, people chose me as the first person to sit next to on a bus or train. They’d smile almost reflexively if they’d pass me on the street. Strangers asked me for directions in places everywhere, even in foreign countries. It was like I was a different person. Betore I evoked a stranger-danger response. Overnight people thought I was as cute as a 12 week old puppy. Does this look like a 12 week old puppy to you?

I’m happy that total strangers love me nowadays, but I don’t get why. I have a theory, though. It’s based on the fact that the friendliest of strangers are twenty to thirty year old women. They open doors for me. In Poland when I visited, they came out of nowhere to help carry my luggage and would laugh when I said I was fit enough to carry it myself. I’m grandpa material nowadays. I look as harmless and in need of attention as a 12 year old beagle. When I hiked in England this year, normally taciturn and stiff upper lip people somehow transformed into oversharing Californians in my presence. In Newcastle when this happened, I’d just nod and smile and pretend to understand their Jordy accent, which is impenetrable. In Belgium, it was the same, but I could understand them just fine.

Every time I take a walk in San Francisco and Palo Alto nowadays, people smile at me as they pass by. Next year, though, I’m going to put my newly found likability up to the most difficult and rigorous tests imaginable. I’ll be in New York City in January and Israel in September. These two places are chock full of the hardest of the hard edged people on this planet. I do note that as a kid I’d visit Jewish New York Queens, walk into stores, speak Yiddish and get all kinds of smiles (and sometimes free candy). But that was a long time ago and those store owners are long gone. It’ll be a different story now. Wish me luck!


29. November 2019 · Comments Off on Internal (and hateful) distinctions · Categories: Olio

I was interviewing someone about life in Jewish refugee camps after WWII and he mentioned something that floored me: refugees who survived concentration camps were looked down upon by those who survived by hiding, being partisans, or fleeing to the Soviet Union (and usually ending up in gulags). That bit of cultural info gave me context as to why my parents, who had close friends who survived concentration camps, would sometimes throw around the WWII-created Yiddish word kahtsetniker (concentration camp internee) like black Americans use the n-word. It was an insider insult.

Everybody in those DP camps had suffered through horrors during WWII. Why would a community develop an ad-hoc pecking order that put those who suffered the most at the bottom?

As a child, I remember my parents experiencing a similar kind of cruelty in America. Many American-born Jews, geller (yellow ones, like ripe bananas) in Yiddish, wanted nothing to do with greener (green ones), Holocaust survivors. It was a strange psychology at work. Some viewed people like my parents, with their heavy accents and Old World ways, a threat to their hard won acceptance in American society. Others believed that survivors lived through the war only because they must have made contemptible compromises and sacrificed others (someone actually told me this when I was a kid and they were driving me and their son to the movies; I couldn’t wait to get out of the car). At least a few geller viewed my parents and their survivor friends like they were something out of a horror movie; they had the stain of death on them and these geller acted like it was contagious.

The pecking order Jews in Milwaukee created wasn’t universally accepted, but my parents were very aware of its existence. The lack of acceptance they experienced from geller when they arrived in America influenced who they chose for friends for the rest of their lives. They developed an outright antagonism toward American-born Jews, so much so that the worst insult they could throw my way was to say, in Yiddish, that I was acting like someone American born. It meant I was being lazy/phony/soft/insecure/dishonest/snobbish, take your pick.

Black Americans exhibit similar internal cruelty by discriminating against those with the darkest skin. Ashkenazi Israelis, generally of light skin, discriminate against Sephardic Israelis. But visual cues aren’t necessary for humans to invent internal hierarchies.

For me, insecurity partly explains why Poland was and continues to be pervasively anti-Semitic. Poland lost its nationhood for over a century and then, after a brief time of independence, was abandoned by the West and put under the thumb of the Soviet Union for fifty years. During WWII, millions of non-Jewish Poles were murdered. Poland, with a history of humiliation and worse, needed to lash out to feel better about itself over those years. It chose an internal group for the focus of its enmity, its own Jews.

It’s, no doubt, infuriating to some Poles that Polish suffering during WWII and the Soviet era has never received attention on the world stage. Instead, it’s Polish Jews who survived the war that are subjects of sympathy in movies and books. The world’s indifference to Poland’s long history of pain likely fuels more anti-Semitism (and has fueled the rise of Poland’s dreadful Law and Justice Party). Humans have the capacity for kindness, certainly, but they are also innately cruel.

I’ll stop my tendency to dwell on the dark side of humanity and end on a positive note. Anecdotally, younger Poles seem relatively free of anti-Semitism. Younger Ashkenazi Israelis seem relatively free of hatred toward Sephardic Jews. Perhaps young adults have invented new ugly and arbitrary internal distinctions. But maybe humanity is ever so gradually becoming less inclined to act upon its insecurity in pervasively awful ways. Maybe.

22. November 2019 · Comments Off on My (maybe) final third · Categories: Olio

I grew up around men who drank and smoked heavily, never exercised, whored around a bit and more or less contentedly dropped dead at around sixty five. As a kid, I figured that was my future. Plus I was a high anxiety brooder, which I thought somehow would translate into knocking my lifespan down to maybe sixty. My expected brief time on earth was one of the reasons I was always in a rush. I got out of college young, married young, got a house and a mortgage young, and had a kid fairly young. If you only have sixty five or fewer years on this planet, you need to get out of the gate early.

My parents didn’t live long. My father suffered through a long illness before he died. My brother didn’t make it to sixty. All these deaths happened in my forties and fifties and reinforced my sense that my life would be short. I made a major life decision in my forties based on that expectation: I didn’t want to spend the final twenty years, maybe fewer, of my life in the relentless backbiting pettiness of academia and the relentless summer heat of North Carolina. I left my professor job and the South in a happy hurry.

But here I am at an age when I fully expected to be six feet under and I’m not merely standing and breathing. I’m taking fifteen mile hikes. It could all end tomorrow, of course, but it isn’t likely. I went onto an actuarial web site a few months ago and filled out a detailed questionnaire. It predicted I’d live to eighty six. Two months ago, I went to visit my uncle, who is eighty two and shows no signs of slowing down. I spent a couple of obsessive weeks this month putting together an extensive family tree and one piece of data struck me: if Hitler or Stalin didn’t manage to kill them off, men in my family tended to live ridiculously long, into their nineties. My mother’s father lived to be ninety three and was rock solid healthy until he was ninety one. His brother and half brother lived into their nineties. I can well remember having a delightful conversation with one of them when he was ninety five. I’ve been emailing back and forth with a cousin of my father who is a robust ninety five. I just might get another thirty good years out of the piss and vinegar filled body that houses my brain.

The possibility that I may only be at the two thirds mark of my life is a new idea for me to consider. What am I going to do with that possible remaining third? I have no interest in more travel or leisure time. Like my uncle and grandfather, I’m a workhorse. I need to do real, productive stuff at least five days a week. I could pursue art for my final third, but that isn’t likely. For me, making meaningful art requires a significantly sized audience. Few people want to engage with the work of seventy, eighty or ninety year old writers and artists unless those writers and artists achieved fame when they were young. New audiences want fresh unwrinkled faces who look at the world in a fresh way. That isn’t me. The possibility of my relevance in the world of writing diminishes with every year. I once had a conversation with a movie director who was hot for a decade when he was in his forties and was angry that he couldn’t even get arrested in Hollywood once he turned sixty. I’m not going to be angry. I fully expect that I will be fully artistically irrelevant by the time I turn seventy and am OK with that arc.

I need to start something new, something where age isn’t a liability and ageism isn’t something to fight against every day. I know of someone who retired from a steady Fortune 500 corporation job at my age, started up a new company and made a ridiculously large fortune. That’s not for me. I don’t need or want more money. I need to do something where I work hard to give back to some aspect of society that has nurtured or benefitted me in my fortunate life. What should it be? I don’t know, but apparently I have plenty of time to figure this out.