Saturday, November 8, 2014

Return to Germany

A new story of mine, published in Stanford magazine, can be found at the following link: No Simple Apology.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Honeymoon in Vietnam and other stories

In 1994, my wife and I traveled extensively in Vietnam while on our honeymoon. Some months later, Nina discovered Destination: Vietnam, a new magazine, and suggested I contact the owners. Lisa Spivey and Albert Wen subsequently published some of my first stories and even sent Nina and me back to Vietnam to do some additional writing in 1995. Those stories can be found by clicking on the links below.

    Changing Fortunes

    Escape to Cat Ba Island

    Golfing in Vietnam

    Honeymooning in Vietnam

    Motorcycling in Vietnam

    Tam Dao Hill Station

    360 Days a Year


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Casier Judiciare

I don’t know why I thought of it.  It was Sunday night, just before 11.  After days of packing, weighing, repacking and reweighing, Nina and I were finalizing the 19 suitcases we would take with us.  In the morning we would empty the house itself.  Everything had been sold; the beds, the desks, the car, the motorcycle, the bicycles, most of our clothes, our daughter’s horse Jolie, the art on the walls, everything in the kitchen except the fridge, toys Allegra had outgrown, rusted garden tools, the fans off the ceiling, half-melted candles and half-poured bottles of liquor.  Everything.  Monday morning at nine the people who had come to our house sale weeks earlier would come to take away the goods they’d bought and paid for.  We would spend Monday night in a hotel.  Late Tuesday, we would get the plane.

After ten years in Africa, first five in Cameroon and then five in Madagascar, we were leaving.  We would start from scratch, each of us taking just a couple bags of clothes and personal items.  The other 13 suitcases were filled with the collages and journals Nina had created over the last decade.  We would leave Madagascar with no work, no home and only the promise of a completely new start awaiting us.  In Spain.  In Barcelona.

Allegra, dead from an allergy pill and the emotional drain of having said a final good-bye to her friends, had gone to sleep.  Outside, the winter sky was clear, the Milky Way a swatch of cotton batting stretched across a star-filled sky.  This above the anemic lights of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar and a city of two million.  Or maybe four million.  Above the bright lights of Barcelona we knew we would see little other than the moon.

On a cheap bathroom scale with a dial that tended to stick before finding its balance, we weighed our bags once again; six of 32 kilos and 13 of 23.  Excess baggage would cost us at least $2,500, an insane amount but just a few hundred more than airfreight.  In any case, that was just part of what we had already spent.  There was the $3,000 it had cost to fly to Capetown where, at the Spanish consulate, we had applied for our residency visas five months earlier.  There was the $1,000 that applying had actually cost us.  Plus the deposit at the Lycée Français de Barcelone where Allegra would start the equivalent of tenth grade in just six weeks.  And the one-way tickets out of Madagascar.  There was also the $3,000 we had wired to secure a sight unseen flat for our first couple of months in Barcelona.  And then there was the looming cost of replacing everything we had sold for pennies on the dollar in Madagascar.

We had, however, done a remarkable job.  Reducing pretty much everything we owned to 19 suitcases.  After days of reconfiguring, all the bags weighed in just two or three hundred grams below their limit; additional excess baggage charges were not in our budget.  At “T”-minus forty-eight hours, it was time to prep the carry-on bags.

“Where’s the Barcelona folder?” I asked Nina.  Nina is a ruthless organizer, to the point of occasionally throwing out what to her appears as clutter but is really a key spare part, a critical document or a piece of nostalgia that means nothing to her but will be deeply missed forever by someone else.  In the Barcelona folder, Nina had gathered our plane tickets, print outs of emails with our soon-to-be landlady, maps highlighting the way from the Barcelona airport to the apartment, documents necessary for Allegra’s enrollment at the Lycée, lots of emails documenting Air France’s excess baggage policies, plus the originals of our casier judiciare, the all important document required by the Spanish immigration authorities that attested to our not having committed any crimes in Madagascar. 

In my own Barcelona folder, I had copies of everything related to our application for Spanish residency; letters documenting our good health, our financial wherewithal, our reasons for wanting to live in Spain, the legitimacy of Allegra’s birth and of our marriage, and our possession of world-wide health insurance.  Plus all the certified translations from French and English into Spanish that were required by the Spanish Foreign Ministry and that had cost us another $500 to obtain. 

There was no particular reason for me to think of Nina’s Barcelona folder.  It simply popped into my head after another long day of cleaning and packing.  Maybe I was thinking of Jorge, the very nice man at the Spanish consulate in Capetown who had spent three hours checking every page of our inch-thick dossier.  When he finally indicated that all was correct and ready to be sent to Madrid, he reminded us several times that safeguarding the casier judiciare was vitally important.  Assuming that Madrid granted our visas, it was the one document that the authorities in Spain would absolutely, positively want to see.  Without the originals, there was no possibility of completing the process.  When we returned to Madagascar from South Africa, I gave the casier judiciare to Nina for safe-keeping. I thought no more about them.

Until now.

“It’s on my desk,” Nina said about her Barcelona folder.  I opened it up.  There were the airline tickets, the receipts for the ten extra bags I had already paid for, and Allegra’s school records from the Lycée in Antananarivo.

But there was no casier judiciare.

“Where’s the casier judiciare?” I asked Nina. 

“Did you look?  It’s right there,” she said with a hint of annoyance that I might suggest her organizational skills were lacking.

“No, it’s not.” 

“Let me see.”

Several months earlier, we actually had gotten three casiers judiciares, one for each of us, each one a half sheet of letter size paper, each one barely legible having been printed on a barely functioning dot matrix printer and each one stamped NEANT with red ink, meaning that none of us, including Allegra, had a criminal record in Madagascar.  In addition to the NEANT stamp, there were several other stamps marked in bright red plus a couple of signatures in blue, all attesting to the documents most certainly conforming to an archaic French bureaucratic process.

Nina went through her Barcelona folder again.  This after I had been through it three times.  The casiers judiciares were not there.  We both agreed that I had indeed given them to Nina for safekeeping.  There was no place else they could be.  Jorge had told us, repeatedly, that for us to live in Spain, we would absolutely have to have them.  Our plane was scheduled to take off in 48 hours.  I felt faint.  I started to pant.  As the floor opened up beneath me I sat on a stool.  I put my head in my hands.

“Calm down,” Nina said.  You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.  It’s not a catastrophe.”

“What do you mean it’s not a catastrophe?  It is catastrophe,” I said.  “It’s a complete catastrophe.  We’ve got to find them.”

Over the next five minutes we confirmed and reconfirmed that I had given Nina the three small half sheets of paper.  I remembered it.  She remembered it.  Nina began rummaging through the first of our 19 bags.  I began pacing the floor.  My breath grew faster and shallower still.

“Stop it.  You’re going to pass out.”

I wasn’t about to have a heart attack or pass out.  I was about to have a nervous breakdown.

“Oh God.  What are we going to do?  What are we going to do?  You’ve got to find them.”

“I am going to find them.  And if I don’t, do you think we’re the first people to lose a piece of paper?”

“Jorge said it was the one thing they absolutely had to have.  Absolutely, he said, absolutely.”

Adding to my spiraling panic was Nina’s cold detachment.  How could she be taking this so lightly.  Everything was riding on those goddamn casiers judiciaries, the ones that attested to our not being criminals. We had no Plan B whatsoever.  Most everything we owned had been sold.  Our Madagascar visas would expire in a matter of weeks.  We had given notice on our house and the landlady was coming for the keys in 15 hours.  We had made a decision that would take Allegra away from her best friends forever and that had compelled her to sell her beloved horse, all to go to a place where she had no friends, where horse-riding would be an occasional luxury instead of a devotion made several times a week, where we knew next to nobody, where we would trade a house surrounded with a vast garden for a cramped inner-city apartment, where school would start in just six weeks and where there was no possibility to do anything other than get on the plane in less than 48 hours.  We had done all this in part because we thought it was time for Allegra to get used to the faster pace of life of the so-called developed world.  But we had mainly done it because after a decade in Africa I needed a break, a long break, from the dirt, the crime, the poverty and the overwhelming sense of being so far away from anywhere where anything of any importance was happening.

Now it was clear to me that it had been pointless, because if we didn’t find the casiers judiciaries it was game over, it would all fall apart.  We would become stateless, unable to settle in Spain and unable to stay in Madagascar where we had nothing.  The ten thousand, twenty thousand we’d already spent on the move – poof – gone. 

“Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God.”

The previous week had been one of constant snafus and last minutes fixes.  Nina’s phone had been stolen.  The telephone company had cut off my service one week ahead of schedule.  I’d locked Nina out of the house while very far away.  The money for the sale of Allegra’s horse hadn’t come through.  The people who had promised to purchase nearly all of our stuff hadn’t paid us and weren’t answering their phone.  Then I found, while several miles away from home, that the fuel line in the car that I had already sold and been paid for – but was still driving – had split and was spewing gas all over a very hot engine. 

“Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God.”

I wish I could say that I relaxed when I got home, with the car unburned and me alive, but I can’t.  Each of these events had added another straw to the pile of stress that had been accumulating since, a year earlier, we decided that remaining in Madagascar was no longer tenable.  All along my anxiety had been mounting in inverse relationship to the time that remained before takeoff.

Still, more trials were to come.

That very morning, as Allegra and I prepared to go out, she for a last ride with Jolie and me for a last round of golf, we heard what we took to be fireworks.  Despite the unpredictability of Malagasy celebrations, 7:30 on a Sunday morning still seemed like an odd time for Roman candles and M-80s. 

Months earlier, we had heard something similar.  Since the March 2009 coup d’etat in Madagascar, rumors had been circulating about the immanency of the next overthrow of the government.  I thought for sure that the pops, booms, and rat-a-tats I heard coming from the direction of the airport had to be the starting signals.  (In Africa, if the president can’t be assassinated outright, then seizing the airport – plus the television and radio networks – is de rigueur in any takeover attempt.) 

A good citizen, I called the US embassy to tell the security officer that I was hearing large, small, medium and every other kind of weapons being fired.  Something was going on at the airport.  He thanked me and said he’d look into it. 

Two minutes later a friend called to tell me about the fireworks going off at a nearby Chinese hotel.  He knew we, like everyone else, would be thinking coup d’etat; he didn’t want us to worry.

This time, with fireworks going off again from the direction of the airport, I decided not to call the Embassy.  It was, after all, early on a Sunday morning.  We would be gone from Madagascar in just a couple of days.  Let them figure it all out, I thought.

The phone rang.  It was my golf partner.  He’d be a little late coming round to pick me up, he said.  There was a lot of shooting going on at the airport, which was right between his place and ours. Goddamn it, I thought, thinking only of myself. A coup d’etat was the last thing I needed and this was still hours before we discovered that the casiers judiciares had gone missing.  “Why do they have to wait until now to have a coup d’etat?” I said to myself, realizing that if the airport closed, Madagascar’s few daily flights would back up and we might not get out as planned at all. 

I thought for a moment.  Less than a mile from our house, someone was shooting automatic weapons at someone else.  I called a few friends.  No one seemed to know who was shooting or why. Should I wake Nina and tell her?  Should I stay home and protect kin and kith from potential marauders?  Or should I take Allegra for a last ride on Jolie and play golf?

I played golf. 

The golf course in Tana sits directly below final approach for the airport.  All through the front nine, there was no air traffic, confirming that the airport was, indeed, closed.  As we started the back nine, a Kenya Airways plane, with its green, red and black livery, passed overhead.  This I took as a sure sign that whatever nonsense was going on at the airport had been wrapped up one way or another.

Apparently not because when Allegra and I got home around two, the gunfire and concussions of exploding tear gas canisters were still going on.  That was around the time my friend Ricardo was supposed to come in on the flight from Johannesburg, stop by the house and pick up my beloved 1964 Renault Caravelle, the car he paid for a month earlier and let me keep driving.  That morning he had called from the Jo’burg airport to confirm our plan.  I had hinted to him that given the gunfire I was hearing I didn’t think he’d be taking off anytime soon.  He, however, had already checked in and was scheduled for an on-time arrival.

His flight never left Jo’burg.

So now, in addition to all that remained to do on Monday, I would have to find time to deliver the car, a 48-year old, capricious convertible Ricardo had bought without once ever driving.  Of course, Ricardo’s house was absolutely as far away as possible from ours while still being in Tana itself.  The to and fro would take me at least three hours, three hours I didn’t have.

Throughout Sunday afternoon and into the evening, the shooting continued.  Just before dusk, unable to resist temptation, I got on the motorcycle – the one that I had sold, been paid for and was to deliver the following day except that I had improperly filled out the transfer forms and would now have to resubmit them – and rode toward the airport, toward the gunfire, to see what was going on. 

My neighbor Henri had told me there were roadblocks and not to leave the house.  During the last real skirmish at the airport, back in November 2010, some dispirited soldiers had set fire to the road right at the end of our driveway.  Although this was an isolated event, images of Antananarivo “on fire” wound up on front pages around the world.  With just a couple of days to go before we were to leave, I needed to know what was going on.  At the same time, I was not excited about involuntarily reenacting any stunts best performed by Evel Kneivel.

About 300 yards before the airport itself, five small stone blocks had been placed in the road.  No flames.  No armored troop carriers.  No nothing except hundreds of Malagasies who had gathered to listen to the exchange of fire, a very affordable but not too smart form of public entertainment.

“What’s going on?” I asked one fellow who was standing around looking a bit disappointed.

“The military is shooting,” he said.

“At who?” I asked.

“At the military,” he said.

I turned around.

Hours later and after an hour of searching, Nina had still not found the casiers judiciaries.  “What could I have done with them?  Where could I have put them? You know how organized I am,” she said. 

“I didn’t say you weren’t organized,” I said while trying to avoid any suggestion of blame even as I was blaming her over and over again in my mind for casting us afloat on a raft with not even a deserted island in sight.  “I just said that I gave them to you and told you not to lose them.”

“I didn’t lose them.  They’re here,” she said while sitting on the living room floor in the middle of a circle of heavy bags, every one filled completely to the limit.

In fact, two thirds of the bags were filled with folders of articles, recipes and materials cut out for collaging that Nina had been accumulating for years.  There were probably a hundred such folders.  Maybe more.  Among them, she was looking for three pieces of paper no larger than the daily Sudoku.

“You scanned them, didn’t you?” Nina asked.

“Yes, but Jorge said we have to have the originals.”

“So you go tomorrow and get new ones,” Nina said.

Even if I hadn’t been stressed to the point of shattering, even if I wasn’t already so physically and mentally exhausted that sleep was an impossibility, even if the already overcharged day awaiting me hadn’t suddenly had several new time-burning chores added to it, this is the kind of comment Nina will occasionally make that makes me wonder if she and I live on the same planet or know anything about each other after having been together for 20 years.  With my mouth open, with tears just barely not falling, I shook my head slowly back and forth.

“Are you serious?  Go get new ones?  How?  People are coming to pick up their stuff at nine.  I have to go to the Mayor’s office to get the stuff redone for the motorcycle.  I have to get the car to Ricardo’s place.  Patricia is coming for the keys at four.  The hotel van is coming for us at 4:30.  You heard there maybe was a coup d’etat today. You think people are going to work tomorrow?  There’s no time, Nina, there’s no time to get new papers.  Oh God, I’m going to pass out.  I can’t breathe.  I can’t breathe.”

“Relax already,” Nina said.  “What does your book say?”

Recently, I had been reading David Burn’s classic cognitive behavior therapy book Feeling Good and was now working my way through his three-inch thick Feeling Good Workbook. 

“You’re catastrophising,” Nina said, helping herself to Feeling Good’s lingo without ever having opened the book.

Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God.

My past life did not pass before my eyes at this moment, but my future life did.  We would arrive, with our 19 bags, in Barcelona only to be told that we could not stay in the country.  With days to go before tenth grade was to begin for Allegra, we would have no place to go and no place to return to.  I had ripped our sweet 15-year old daughter from everything she loved.  Not since Bull Meecham of The Great Santini had the world seen a worse father.

Again, I sat on a stool, put my head in my hands and wanted nothing more than to dissolve. 

I couldn’t even sob.

“Calm down.  Calm down,” Nina said.  “I can’t have you having a heart attack.  It’ll be fine.”

“Nina,” I said.  “How can you say it’s going to be fine?  It won’t be fine.  It won’t be fine.  This is a disaster.  Disasters are not fine.  No one says disasters are fine.”

“Just go to bed.”

One thing about Nina; aside from true disasters, like tsunamis and large volcanic eruptions, our family disasters are mere inconveniences to her.  Like cold sores.  She’s always sure that, with time, they will go away, if, of course, I do all the work needed to make them go away while she reads the latest issue of The New Yorker.

I looked at Nina.  I looked at the stuff.  She still had 14 or 15 bags to rifle through.  I went to our bedroom.  I lay down.  I tried to convince myself that it would all work out.  I couldn’t. 

At one in the morning, I called our neighbor Henri.  He’s a zanatany, a foreigner – in his case French – born and raised in Madagascar.  He speaks Malagasy fluently.  He was the one who gave me the number of Madame Emma at the Ministry of Justice the first time I needed to bribe her to get me the original, now missing-in-action casiers judiciares on a moment’s notice.  Henri would know what to do. 

I explained to him that I needed new casiers judiciares, immediately, or all that we had done would be for naught.  We would be homeless, adrift with no possessions – except 19 suitcases – with no place to live and no place for Allegra to go to school.

Henri said he was terribly sick and didn’t know if he could get up in the morning. A few days earlier he had decided to sleep in the unventilated shipping container he stores diesel fuel in because he had been worried that the new roof he had put on his house might collapse.  When he asked me what I thought about this, I told him I thought sleeping in a container filled with diesel fuel was not a good plan.  He did it anyway.  Now he couldn’t breathe.  But he would try to come by first thing in the morning.

Not feeling much better, I hung up.  I called my very close friend Louie, a Chinese neighbor who has been in Madagascar twice as long as we had been and who had already hung on through the minor civil war of 2001 that followed a disputed presidential election and the coup d’etat of 2009.  Even at 1 AM, I knew Louie, a CNN junkie, would be up.

“What you worrying about man?  You worry too much.  I’ll have my guy come by in the morning.  Don’t worry.  Go to sleep,” he said.  “You worry too much.”

At 1:30 in the morning, I went to the computer and printed out copies of the scans of the casiers judiciares.  I went to bed.  I fell asleep.

I felt Nina’s elbow in my side.  “I can see it,” she said. 

“What?”

“The folder.  There’s a second folder.  It’s blue.  It has ‘Spain’ written on it.”

It was three A.M.  I had been asleep, maybe, for 50 minutes.

Nina explained that she had opened all the bags, cut open all the heavily taped boxes that we had put inside the bags and gone through all her folders.  She hadn’t found the casiers judiciaries, but she now could see them. 

“Good,” I told her.  “That’s a relief.”

Why I said this was a relief, I don’t know because unless our immigration caseworker in Barcelona was Jeanne Dixon, Nina’s seeing the folders wouldn’t get us very far. 

I woke up at five.  The bags under my eyes were the color of dark shoe polish.

Henri came by at six.  He took copies of the casiers judiciares.  He told me not to worry.  He would send his man right away.  I told him about my having called Louie and Louie saying his man would take care of it.  Let him go too, Henri said.  Better to attack these things from multiple directions.

At eight, Mamy, Louie’s man, came by.  He told me not to worry.  I gave him Madame Emma’s number.  He called.  She said it would cost 50,000 ariary, around $25.  I gave him $100 – a hundred bucks being nearly double the minimum monthly wage in Madagascar – and told him to spend whatever he needed to spend; I had to have the casiers judiciares by Tuesday evening latest.  Had to.  So what if the price was now double what I slipped Madame Emma in January for expedited service.  Our lives were at stake.

At nine people started coming to pick up their stuff.  Some in big vans, some with small convoys of pick-up trucks.  I’d never seen Malagasies work so fast.  In 90 minutes the house was empty.  Except for our 19 suitcases.  I went to the Mayor’s office to get the motorcycle stuff done.  The office was open, but the man with signing authority was out.  When would he be back?  They didn’t know.  Try again at 2:30.  

Oh My God, Oh My God, Oh My God.

Thankfully, Ricardo, still in Johannesburg, sent Patrick, his stepson for the car, my adorable, Ferrari-red convertible, probably, certainly, the most identifiable car in all of Madagascar.  I’d spent four years driving it, restoring it, cajoling it, enjoying it.  As it rolled away, Patrick behind the wheel, I realized at last that, for better or worse, we were leaving Madagascar. 

Mamy called.  He said that the new casier judiciare wouldn’t cost 50,000 ariary per copy as he understood but 50,000 for all three, actually less than what I had paid Madame Emma the first time. (This I attribute to his being able to pay the local bribe price whereas I had had to pay the foreign bribe price.)  Mamy said he’d have the papers by 11.

Henri called.  He said his man would have the new casiers judiciaries at 2:30. 

At 11:30 Mamy, and the limping 40-year old Citroen Deux Chevaux taxi he had hired, arrived at the house with the new forms.  I wanted to kiss him – and the taxi.  Taking the forms, my entire body seemed to exhale and expand at the same time.  Though standing, I felt as though I were falling through a cloud. 

Henri came by with his set of papers in the afternoon, just as Ricardo, who had finally arrived from Jo’burg, stopped by the house to say good-bye.  Now we had two sets of new casiers judiciaries.  What the people at the Malagasy Ministry of Justice thought about two different people urgently approaching them on the same day for the same thing for the same people, I have no idea.  I’ve been to the Ministry of Justice.  Normally, before the doors open in the morning, there are hundreds of people waiting in line.  Sometimes they wait a day, sometimes a week.  Sometimes they never get seen and give up.  Certainly in the history of Madagascar nobody ever got served twice in the same morning for the same thing.  Say what you like about incompetent bureaucracy and rampant corruption in Africa, but just as often as corruption is corrupt it also shows how efficient people can be when properly motivated.  Never mind that no one at the Ministry ever checked to see if Nina, Allegra or I were criminals.  Or that a database attesting to our penal past actually exists.  Or that if it did that anyone could access it.  I had the forms and that was all that mattered.

“See, I told you it would be okay,” Nina said, despite the originals remaining as undiscovered as the Ark of the Covenant.

“Yes, but how did you know it would be okay?” I asked her. 

Nina didn’t answer, but I know what her answer would have been if she had; that I worry myself sick and then through connections, panic, frantic insistence or just plain luck a once insurmountable problem simply evaporates, melts away – confirming, once again, that in Africa, though nothing works, it all works out.

Documents in hand, bags weighed, reweighed and locked, we spent a calm Monday night at a friend’s rustic hotel.  Tuesday evening he gave us and our 19 bags a lift to the airport. 
It took the agent 90 minutes to check us in.

In Barcelona, Rosa, the Filipina landlady we met over the Internet, met us at the airport.  But only 16 of our bags did.  That turned out to be a good thing because the 16 bags completely filled the van Rosa had rented for us. 

The following morning, Rosa came to the “four bedroom” apartment she had rented us that was really a one-bedroom apartment with a living room and two walk-in closets. 

Two steps remained for us to finalize our legitimacy as Spanish residents.  With Rosa we had to go to the ayuntamiento, the neighborhood city hall, where Rosa would get an empadromento, a document stating that we were indeed living in her apartment.  With that in hand, with temporary visas already stamped in our passports and with the casiers judiciares, we could go to the office of the national police that deals with foreign residents and request the all important NIE – the “nee-yea” – the national identification number for foreigners that we needed to be legal residents and for Allegra to complete her enrollment at the Lycée.  Rosa got on her folding bicycle and rode off to an appointment at the beauty salon she owns.  But not before also trying to sell us some Mary Kay products – plus health, life and renter’s insurance.  We got on the Metro.

The national police office for foreigners fills a block tucked in behind some of Barcelona’s chicest streets.  It, however, is not chic and shares the characteristics of television show police stations; sloughing plaster, unevenly taped up posters warning about this or that potential violation, and dozens of people hurriedly marching off in all directions.  An officer in a smartly pressed uniform told us to follow the dusty red line painted on the floor.

At the waiting room, we took a ticket.  Number 248.  They were serving number 161.  Among a crowd that looked mainly like it had just arrived on a humanitarian flight from Kabul, we took our seats and waited.  When I came back from having called Air France to check on our three missing bags, Nina waved a new ticket at me. Number 216. Some good Samaritan had slipped it to her.

The numbers on the electronic display ticked along quickly.  Whether in Capetown, via the Internet, at the airport, at the ayuntamiento and now at the police, we had seen none of Spain’s notoriously phlegmatic bureaucracy.  We took bets on which window we would be directed to.  Laminated instructions on the wall in Spanish, Catalan and English told us to have our documents ready.  I had them all; passports, photos, a fax with instructions from the Foreign Ministry in Madrid, copies of our application forms, and, of course, the all-important casiers judiciares, the ones Henri’s man had gotten, the ones Louie’s man had gotten and scanned copies of the ones I had gotten. 

Our number came up.

In front of a middle-aged woman, we sat like dutiful school children.  She, at first, could not have seemed more bored or less interested in us.  She didn’t speak much English.  She leafed through our passports. 

“You travel mucho,” she said seeing our many many visa stamps.  “How is Kenya? For animales?” she wanted to know.  “Better South Africa?” she asked.  “Not peligroso?”

One by one, she reviewed our passports, glued passport-size photos onto forms, fingerprinted us and took our signatures.  Her computer printed out three slips with our NIEs.  In one month we were to report to another government office where our residency cards would be ready for pick-up.  She gave us moisturized tissues to clean our inky fingertips.  In 20 minutes everything was done.  We were, at last, out of Africa and legit in Spain.  She wished us a pleasant stay.

Oh, and the all important casiers judiciares?


She never asked for them.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Profiles

Here are links to various profiles I've written over the years.

On underwater photographer Norbert Wu - Photos to (Almost) Die For


On boutique hotelier Chip Conley - The Karmic Capitalism of Chip Conley


On improv professor Patricia Ryan - Making It Up as They Go Along

On international water and sewage expert Jenna Davis - 646 Very Personal Questions


On psychiatrist David D. Burns - Mind Over Misery


                  and also on Burns - Try, Try Again


On archaeologist Ian Hodder - What Happened Here?


             and also on Hodder - Why Dig?


                                    and - Archaeology's Bottom Line


On former U. S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul - A Chill in the Air

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My E*Book Didn't Click

I never intended to write a bestseller. During my wife's pregnancy, I kept a journal in which I recorded our fears, hopes and concerns -- all written to our unborn child. Several years later, I realized the thousands of words I had scribbled might make a fine gift. I would edit them down, bind them and present a book to Nina in time for our fifth anniversary. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that other readers, particularly first-time expectant parents, might find the account as compelling as I did. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions and the What to Expect series sold millions. Maybe my book could, too.

Nina was considerably less enthusiastic. She didn't want strangers reading about how she had been rolled off to the operating room for an abortion after we had been told our embryo was "nonviable" -- only to learn, moments before the procedure, that a critical lab test had been misinterpreted. But when I hinted that, if the book sold well, I might feel comfortable springing for the marquis-cut diamond engagement ring she's always wanted, she relented. I wrapped up copies of the manuscript and committed their fate to the postal service. Thus began my journey from cellulose and traditional publishing to the silicon frontier.

Within a few weeks, the rejection letters started to trickle in. One agent wrote, "You take the story beyond the merely personal," while another commented, "Its contents felt a bit too personal." And yet another said it was difficult to sell books by fathers. (No doubt what Bill Cosby was told.) About this time Salon, the online magazine, published an excerpt from the book. A few days later, I called my editor at Salon to find out how many people had "clicked through."

Forty thousand, I was told to my complete astonishment. My mental calculator began churning -- if 1 percent of those people were to buy my book, then tell 50 of their friends, and 1 percent of those friends bought it -- and pretty soon I was spending my afternoons chatting it up with Oprah.

It was while these sugarplums danced in my head that I first heard of eMatter.com and experienced a literary harmonic convergence. With eMatter, I could list my book on the web and buyers could download it electronically. I could set my own price, $6.95, and eMatter would pay me a handsome 50 percent royalty. I formatted my manuscript as instructed and uploaded it to eMatter.

Two weeks later, my book had sold exactly one copy.

Undeterred, I sent out an e-mail announcement to several hundred friends and former colleagues, plus several dozen people I hardly knew, and waited for word to reach Oprah.

She didn't get in touch, but lots of other people did. They had tried to buy my book but couldn't find it. Or found it but couldn't download it. Or downloaded it but couldn't open it. Some hadn't read the fine print that said eMatter's software did not yet work with Apple or UNIX systems. Soon I was in much closer touch with the technical staff at eMatter than with my nascent readership.

With new glitches turning up almost daily, I was completely surprised when I found How to Have a Baby at No. 8 on eMatter's bestseller list. I called a friend to tell him the good news.

"How do they calculate bestsellers?" he asked. "Hourly, daily, weekly?" I e-mailed eMatter. "Daily," the answer came back. In other words, my No. 8 bestseller was No. 8 for a day. That day.

Two months later, eMatter selected How to Have a Baby as its "editor's pick." My book then captured the top spot on eMatter's recommended list. Still, sales stagnated. A mention of eMatter in the New York Times didn't blip my book at all. Two five-star reviews did nothing. It dropped to No. 11.

Still, I had great hopes for the following month. EMatter, now called MightyWords, was running large ads in national newspapers and publications like the New Yorker. My book was featured on MightyWords' parenting page along with "an exclusive interview with author Robert L. Strauss." Also three feature stories of mine were to run in quick succession in the San Francisco Examiner Magazine, each with a blurb for the book. I expected to sell several hundred copies. Then Stephen King stole my thunder.

When King released Riding the Bullet over the web, he cause parts of the Internet to freeze as hundreds of thousands attempted to download his book. The same month, my book had been mentioned three times in one of the country's most widely read newspapers.

I sold one copy.

More than ever, I was determined to get How to Have a Baby to No. 1. I not only wanted to unseat Solo Explorations in Male Masturbation by Will Stark; I wanted to surpass Nine Things to Know About Permission Marketing on the Net by Seth Godin, the marketing guru and a graduate school classmate. Seth was a born go-getter who'd already sold his company to Yahoo! for $60 million. His wife, no doubt, already had her ring.

Frenzied by this rediscovered sense of competition, I sent a new e-mail to everyone whose address had ever slipped into my computer. All those endlessly forwarded Internet jokes? I'd been hoarding the recipients' e-mail addresses for weeks, including those of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm.

The responses came fast and furious. More than a few went something like, "I don't know who you are, but you're a jerk for invading my privacy and wasting my time." This is how I discovered an Internet rule of thumb. For every profane, irate message I received, I sold a book. The ratio was exactly one to one.

Still, seven days later, Seth's book was No. 3 and mine was No. 23. Soon, it sank beneath the horizon, never to reappear.

A year to the day after I gave Nina the original copy of How to Have a Baby, I received my first royalty check.

"How much is it for?" she asked.

"One hundred four dollars and 25 cents," I told her.

"Oh, that'll get me a ring," she said. "From a vending machine."

According to the anniversary list we use, our 75th will be "diamond." I have asked her to be patient.

The very next day I received an e-mail from my brother-in-law. Did I know about Xlibris.com? he asked. They publish real books, on paper, one at a time, on demand. They list their titles with Amazon. All I had to do was upload my manuscript. Within days I received galleys for proofing. Xlibris had prepared the layout and a very attractive four-color cover, and gotten me an ISBN number. For free. Incredible.

The timing couldn't have been better. I had another feature coming out in the Examiner Magazine. My editor again agreed to blurb my book. Certainly if people could buy How to Have a Baby in paperback, that would make all the difference. Sure. Maybe. Someday.

Until then, I'll have to live with what I've learned from my plunge into the world of digital self-publishing. That readers are not yet confusing me with Stephen King. That while people might love to read things on the net for free, they rarely "click through" when asked to pay. I've come to understand that maybe writing should be left to writers and publishing to publishers. And why publicists go to self-humiliating lengths to get a client on Oprah or Charlie Rose.

I originally called the book To My Child Unborn. When readers told me that was too serious, I changed titles. Now, having sold all of 43 copies, I think maybe that first title was right. As I said, I never intended to write a bestseller.

A version of this story first appeared in the September/October 2000 edition of Stanford magazine.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mis à jour

It was another one of those endless meetings. That it was in French only made it more insufferable. As my francophone colleagues blathered on, I made sure to make empathetic eye contact and nod my head appreciatively—even though at least half the conversation was as indecipherable to me as if it had been in a language spoken only by an undiscovered Amazonian tribe. Nevertheless, I was sure that my practiced bobble-heading would convince everyone that I was not only fully absorbed in the discussion but worth whatever outlandish consulting fee I was charging. That was until someone mentioned mis à jour.

Mis à jour, mis à jour what the hell does mis à jour mean? Soup du jour throws me for no loops, but about mis à jour—suddenly the main item on the menu of discussion—I had no idea.

"Don't you agree, RO-bear, that the mis à jour should be our top priority?" the boss asked.

"Oui, oui. Bien sûr," I said, while casually trying to look up mis à jour on my mobile phone French-English dictionary, which appeared to have been last updated shortly before Robespierre was led to the guillotine.

When I think of the attributes that have led to whatever success I may have had, pretending to know what I'm talking about figures very high on the list. The times I have only just escaped must number in the hundreds. I'm still astounded that no one has ever looked me dead in the eye and said, "You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"

Faking it was also a key ingredient in my premarital social life. Arriving at Stanford nearly 30 years ago, I quickly scoped out my grad school classmates and invited one of the cutest over for a home-cooked dinner. Not only was she just adorable, but she was witty and smart, having studied math before going to work on Wall Street where—she told me—she used to make models.

Despite having an undergraduate degree in economics, I had no idea why models were needed on Wall Street. As a child, I had been a complete flop at them, forever gumming up my fingers and the little plastic pieces of whatever tank or aircraft carrier I was trying to assemble. As for applying the cellophane-like decals—there I was completely hopeless.

She, however, had been building models to Wall Street's satisfaction and, though we had only just met, already I could see her assembling complicated plastic replicas of multi-engine World War II bombers with our enthralled son. Or, rather, our twin sons. It was love.

Months later, in an introductory finance class, I realized to my great disappointment that the models she knew how to build had as their ingredients dry facts and figures gleaned from SEC filings and not from the boxes of the Revell company.

Still, it was while at Stanford that I set my personal record—21 months—for pretending I knew what people were talking about when I had absolutely no idea. Much like mis à jour, the term that I didn't understand seemed to be fundamental to modern business practices and well established in everyone else's vocabulary.

It's been said there's nothing stupid about a question except not asking it. Experience has taught me otherwise. Indeed, asking about this particular mot inconnu seemed to me akin to asking where the sun rose—and would certainly have had the admissions office reassessing my status.

Whenever a professor or classmate mentioned it, my hand did not bolt up to ask what they were talking about. In those days before the Internet, my research led nowhere. Maps were as clueless as I was. Asking a librarian for help would have presented me with the same acute embarrassment I had felt as a teenager asking a pharmacist for condoms.

Of course, just as I eventually learned what mis à jour means, I now know where to find Silicon Valley. After all, it's right there on Google Earth.

A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2011 edition of Stanford magazine.