Author: sterlingbennett

I write and live full-time in Guanajuato, Mexico, and I’d love to hear feedback on my pieces.

Japanese Class

I’m studying Japanese again. I tried it at 55, but was too old. Now I’m 82, and it feels just right. This is a little like saying I’ve started practicing standing on one finger again. Nevertheless, I’m trying to be a good student. My teacher is young and patient with me. We meet one hour a week, one on one. She’s a long-distance runner. There is a special word for it, unless I’ve misunderstood: Ha shi ru, to run through the mountains. Don’t hold me to it. I may have misunderstood. But it’s a word I could adopt to describe my task at being confronted by the Japanese language.

She introduces a concept: ga ski des (“e” as in nest). It means to like/love something or someone. She says, “Homework, five example sentences.”

I go home and set to work. I write my sentences vertically, top to bottom, starting on the right side of the page, one hiragana letter after another. Top to bottom, right to left. I’m a writer, so I’m not satisfied until I’m telling a story. I plunge in. A male figure tells a female voice that he loves her.

He: I love you very much.

She: You love the idea of love, not me. Men hit or pout.

My teacher protests, aside from making massive corrections in red ink.

“We don’t think that way. In marriage, the woman often walks behind her husband. Three to five paces.”

I say, in Spanish or English, “But you might not think that way” — walking behind a man.

She says, “We don’t write it that way.”

She continues reading my play. I’ve plucked words out of my electronic dictionary. It’s like reaching into a box blindfolded and pulling out a raffle ticket.

He: “That’s not true.”

She: “You fear women. You’re incapable of intimacy.”

He: “I like looking at you. I like looking at your smile. You are warm-hearted.”

She: “Incapable.”

He: “You are kind and funny.”

She: “Very strange. All of it.”

He: “I am happy when I see you.

She: “Really?”

My female character is coming around. It appears my man is something more than just hitting or pouting.

The verb to like someone turns out to be an adjective. (I may revise this opinion later when I find out more.) My assumptions about Japanese psychology and culture are also off the mark. I’m having trouble looking across into my teacher’s culture, not to mention her language.

We speak in English and Spanish. I am more advanced in those languages. I don’t correct her very often. I used to be a language teacher and know better. We are also separated by the pronunciation of all three languages. That places a burden on my understanding of things. She can’t say “r”. I can’t reproduce the sounds she makes in hiragana.

I write down corrections or examples in my notebook. I use a 5mm lead in my Parisian mechanical pencil made in China. The lead breaks just when I’m writing down a key point.

It’s hard for me to believe a woman still walks behind her husband. While running through the mountains of Mexico, does my teacher run behind her boyfriend?

I don’t know the answers to these things. If I did, I would write them in my notebook where my teacher could correct them with her red ink. And there might be a brief moment where I would enjoy the illusion of balancing on one finger, or at least on two — when it comes to understanding.

We move on. Last Tuesday, my teacher taught me a new concept.

“Do you like Coke?” she asks.

I say No, then Yes. “Well, yes, I like it but it’s poisonous.” I hold up my two index fingers, making a cross to block the power of the Devil.

“What about beer?” she asks.

“Not very much,” I say. My brother has just died of bladder cancer. I have decided alcohol is not good for my bladder.

My teacher, who is at least forty, if not fifty years younger than me, returns to Coke.

“Say you friend offers you Coke.”

I nod.

“Your friend asks, ‘Would you like a Coke?’ She has just taken two Cokes out of the refrigerator. Clearly, she likes Coke and is assuming you might like one, too.”

She explains the situation. “You don’t want to drink a Coke, but it would be insulting if you said, ‘I don’t like Coke.’”

She writes quickly in hiragana on the whiteboard. It’s a long string of words with no separations between the letters, written this time from left to right and horizontally. “You have to write it this way, say it this way. You have to say: ‘I don’t dislike Coke.’”

It’s a double negative, with a positive meaning, written with a felt black felt pen, and the letters pass through a reflection from an overhead spotlight, momentarily disappearing. I’m squinting on several levels. I don’t know how the verbs are conjugated, or even if they’re verbs.

“Wa ta shi wa coca-cola ga ki rai ja nai (like eye) des.”

Wa ta shi = “I”
The second Wa = signals that that Wa ta shi is the Subject of the sentence.
Ga = signals a second Subject, although she sometimes calls it an Object. The signal for one or the other is Ga.
Ki ra-eye means Dislike.
I don’t know what Ja is, nor whether it’s connected to what comes before it or after it.
N-eye means Does not.
And Des means something exists.

She asks whether I understand. From my frowning it might appear I don’t. Maybe it’s a more comprehensive squint. I say I don’t understand what the sentence is communicating.

“You’re being polite when you say it this way,” she says.

“So you’re choosing politeness over truthfulness and clarity and your own preferences,” I say.

“You don’t understand,” she says. “You have to be polite.”

I write down the sentence in my notebook. The 5mm lead breaks a few times. I squint the whole time at the hiragana sentence I don’t understand. The reflection from the overhead spot light adds to my need to squint.

“You understand?” she asks.

I’m locked into my frown. I’ve done that all my schoolboy life, especially in algebra classes. I get stuck in Don’t understand.

“You think too much,” she says, encouragingly. “You already know this.”

Actually, there are two elements that are new: “dislike” and “do not.”

“We need more time,” she says. “One hour a week is not enough.” She is sweet and very kind.

If I could have, I would have chosen that moment to say, “I don’t dislike more than one hour a week.” But the truth is, I need a whole week to think about and practice all the things I don’t dislike. Like the sentence on the board. Because the truth is I don’t dislike Japanese. I like it. I don’t dislike not understanding. I don’t dislike a challenge, or even when she says, “Don’t think so much — in Spanish or English. Or: that “dislike” and “do not” hover between adjectives or verbs. I don’t even dislike the reason for saying “I don’t dislike.” Because it seems to capture my New England upbringing, where indirectness was a virtue. One never came out with what or whom one liked. Or even loved.

Eight months before my father died, he had a heart attack. In the emergency room, leaning over his bed and the tubes entering and leaving him, I said, “For all the mistakes I’ve made, I want you to know I’ve always loved you.”

It was a momentary lapse in how we spoke. My father, near Death’s door, replied, “I want you to know I feel the same way.”

For many years, I criticized his inability to speak as directly as I had. But now, with the help of my wonderful young teacher and the Japanese language — and being much nearer to the point my father was at then — I have to admit that I don’t dislike the way he said it. I knew what he meant.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Kidneys

Let me imitate the New York Times’s propensity for little articles on how to, say, get the most out of your cats. In this case, I offer valuable advice on the best way to communicate with your kidneys. And I refer to them in the singular since I suspect they are working together in a, at first glance, female conspiracy.

She is not finished with me yet, my kidney. Only this morning I received a note from her, saying, “For all your ills, I counsel laughter. — Rabelais.”

She wrote this in Morse Code.

It is unlikely, I’m thinking, that she would be reading a 16th Century writer. Except that he was also a physician. One I suspect over-prescribed leeches and cupping. The latter sealed with fermented goat urine.

I had no way of replying, except by resorting to this same code, one I had fortunately learned while stationed off Bangladesh on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga during the Vietnam War. My bunk was in the bow near a porthole, so you always heard the bow wave thundering like Niagra Falls.

I suppose you’re wondering how it’s done, this encrypted kidney-talk? Well it’s done with densities, that is, by shades of Mexican herbs used to treat any number of illnesses. Tail of Horse (Cola de Caballo), Stick of Blue (Palo Azul) and, most recently, Tea of Sapo. The plant, not the toad himself.

Of these, Palo Azul, left in water long enough, assumes a gloomy orange. While Tea of Sapo soaks to a lighter hew only a little darker than the belly of the above-mentioned creature.

Rather than tap a telegraph key, you click teaspoons as you pick them up and set them down on your dyed cement counter or, as in this case, the rim of the bathtub.

It goes like this. Dip out a teaspoon of Cola de Caballo and pour it down your throat. That would be a “dah.” Then a teaspoon of Sapo. That would be a “dit.” The number of spoonfuls of each will depend on the code pattern. For example, S.O.S., the international distress call, would be dit, dit, dit. Dah, dah, dah. Dit, dit, dit. Or: Sapo, Sapo, Sapo, Co-la, Co-la, Co-la, Sapo, Sapo, Sapo.

Perhaps because of my sensitivity about my kidney’s intentions, whether kind or not – the bit about laughter – I began with a little innocent chatting.

“I read before sleep,” I wrote. “Usually about my dilemma.”

I pause while she filtered my message.

I spread my legs and backed up a little on the toilet seat. I know that’s graphic, but where else would you think I would be able to read her notes?

She replied in discreet spurts of turbid and less turbid, easily read.

“What dilemma?” she wrote.

I clicked back, “Whether to go allopathic or homeopathic. That is to say die by folk swindle or by the side effects of government-approved poisons. What do you counsel?”

My telegraph path hung silent, expectant. A little chilled by the proximity to whirlpools.

Sensing advantage, as an aspiring dominant male, with such a clever question, I continued.

“It appears that government-approved treacles turn resistant when they reach you. Suggesting – you know – the matter of loyalty. That is to say your willingness to apply them, hence undermining the host system. By which I mean me.

I flushed the toilet and waited, relishing the idea that I might have dealt a blow.

The squirts began again, and she wrote, “You understand the part about the host?
That I am one? In fact, to millions.”

“To hostiles,” I wrote back. “Aliens, who must be stopped. Bacteriae hostiles.”

My fingers were tired from clicking spoons.

I flushed, waiting for her reply, warmed above the waistline with male glee. My bit of Latin.

Finally – a wave of slow pulses through my urethra. “You must consult my cousin Señor Próstata.” A pause in the transmission. Then, “Do you have his address?”

It took my breath away, the cruelty of it. As you know, I cannot bring that name across my lips – even in a whisper.

I flushed again, assailed by porcelain drafts.

A series of slow, passive-aggressive turbidities followed.

They said, “I counsel selfies, perhaps a sonogram of Señor Próstata. Perhaps one of me and my friends. And one of where my messages are stored – a sort of womb. Then we can talk some more. To open the conversation, enter the code word – ‘Rebelais’. Followed by ‘Girls rule, boys drool.’ ”

Shooters and Tigers

In the book Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the author explains that young tigers in India and other places, whose mothers have been shot, have a much greater chance of becoming people-killers, because they don’t receive the socializing education their mothers could have given them.

I have been trying to understand how the U.S.’s young shooters arrive at their sad, empty places. It’s confusing because there are always at least two issues: one, our incipient fascism that does nothing to restrain the shooters through the responsible rule of law; the other is the state of mind of these young men and how they arrived at their numbed hostility toward others, especially toward young successful women such as the four young Congresswomen called the squad. Much of it coached by older misogynists.

We are already in a low intensity civil war where we have to make some decisions about how we will save the Constitution and how our children and grandchildren will be able to walk to school and sit at their little desks without fear of being murdered. What do we do? Shall we forgive our disaffected rebels with their 100-round AR-15s and invite them back into the family fold? Or shall we hunt them down and annihilate them with our own violence. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez advocates bringing them back into the family, and I am with her. Continue reading “Shooters and Tigers”

Tail of Horse

I follow my translator’s recommendations in all matters. He says drink teas of pelo de elote (hair of corn) and cola de caballo (tail of horse.) This is for my kidney infection, which, it appears has grown worse and invaded other areas. Possibly the hippocampus, where trauma is often recorded and rarely forgotten.

Translating what? you may ask. My first novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, from English to Spanish, now with the transfixing title: El Pianista de Pancho Villa.

I know. I have asked myself the same question. If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, why not leave the book alone? Continue reading “Tail of Horse”

Love Patch

If you look closely, you can see a patch of hair under my lower lip. I was going to glue some sort of fuzz there but decided it was just as easy to grow a little of the real thing for the purpose of tonight’s reading. You see, I find myself in the middle of a crisis. Not global climate disturbance. Not unaffordable housing, medical care, college tuition—our oceans choking on plastic. The spread of fascism. No, it has to do with the way I look. Specifically, my face. And whether to grow and keep a soul patch—also known as a jazz patch, mouche, jazz dot, and love patch. Continue reading “Love Patch”

Violation

As a man, and regarding rape and Dr Ford, I know one tiny fraction of what it’s like. I am 81 now. I was in my early forties or younger when it happened. I was a strong man and agile. I was canoeing down the Petaluma River in California with two or three of my students. They were older, thirties maybe. At least one was a woman. We had eaten a snack on shore. Out of the blue one or more held me down and the others tried to pull my swim shorts down and off. I fought back and threw them off. But the point is I felt the most horrified and panicked violation while it was happening, and I know it was a small event compared to what so many women have experienced. I have never spoken publicly about this. Why would I? There’s some sort of shame attached to it that I don’t understand. But this is a good occasion to bring it up. If I could sit in front of the old white (all) men senators, I would say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no idea what this is about and are unqualified to make any decision to seat this man for a lifetime appointment. You are criminally uninformed. And we will vote you out.”

Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory

“Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, and look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs.” But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dish washing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do. Continue reading “Anthony Bourdain’s “Fields Notes on Mexico,” 10 January, 2018. In His Memory”

Toledo and Faces of the Spanish Civil War

While in Toledo, Spain, I rushed to  the Museo del Ejercito, the Museum of the Army. I had barely a half hour. As I went, I asked attendants where I could find things having to do with the period 1936 – 1939. The Spanish Civil War. “There’s very little,” said one woman. I watched carefully to see whether she was also expressing an opinion one way or another as to whether that was a good or bad thing. Eight or ten years ago, I went through the Catalonia Museum in Barcelona., again looking for the civil war. There was one small room with a few photos on two walls. People in that museum’s book store told me they had very little written on the war; and that it depended on who was in power when it came to choosing a version of history. If any at all. Continue reading “Toledo and Faces of the Spanish Civil War”

A Letter from Mephistopheles to His Mother, the Snake

Last night, precisely at the hour that the cucarachas in my house rose from their daylong slumber, I wrote a poem for you, Mother, celebrating my origin, when I slipped past your scaly loins and gave my first half-throttled scream. In spite of what others say, my skin was tender and the edges of your eggs, ragged and unforgiving. I cannot tell you how long it took me to unwind and find my tail. To see it quivering with new strife. I, your young Fliegengott, God of Flies, charged by you to bring war and darkness to all of life. An honest offering, when compared to the promises of the Bearded Fellow in the sky, whose plans you say I am tasked to disrupt. I, Lord of Rats, patron saint of the Long Tails of New York, Southern District, who pressure me with their Rule of Raw and the Triumph of Tooth during this Age of Lies. To whom I respond, Wouldn’t it be too bad if I asked you, my Mother, to drop down into the electric soot beneath Time Square and make lumpy digestive juices of them all. I have tried to tell them they are mistaking me for someone else. That it is not I whose squinty sun rises puffed and orange over Manhattan each morning, breathing in its own self-delighting smells. That we and they and the Old Man in the Sky are the only ones who stand between this bloated Faust and the sweet fifteen-year-old’s of our democracy. And so, Mother, I ask you to hold your snout and approach this high-rise, stale, bedpan stink and enter that chamber where humans purport to think, and swallow his dark pulp, make it your own, so that the status antequam can return to when it was mainly you and I and the Man in the Sky who determined the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and not this amateur who would supplant us all. Therefore, let us ally ourselves with the Long Tails of the Southern District and, after you have supped, let them finish off what is left in the cup.

Much Love,

from Him who aims to please,

Your Devoted son,

Young Count Mephistopheles.

Where I Confess to Being Mephistopheles

(Take a meditation pose)

Excuse me,

You’ve caught me at the hour of my meditation,

the moment my mantra and I meet each other

halfway.

Diese schwankenden Gestalten

These swaying approaching forms.

Continue reading “Where I Confess to Being Mephistopheles”