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!