Tuesday, March 27, 2012


This past weekend I attended the Latin American Jewish Studies Association's Second Regional Conference in New York.  I didn't travel to NYC for that purpose but to celebrate my birthday.  But since we were there, David and I decided to see if we could sit in some of the lectures or panels.  Indeed we had no problem getting in.  First we had to go through the metal detectors and screenings typical of these times whenever going to a Jewish institution.  But once in, we sat in the room and listened to some fantastic presentations on Latin America's Jewish past and present.  Some of my favorites papers were about Buenos Aires (are you surprised?) and its quintessential Jewish neighborhood - Once.  I remember going to shop in Once with my mother in the late 50s and 60s.    Listening to the presentations and, later, the discussions about the neighborhood, reminded me of those long ago days when we'd take two buses - an over an hour ride - from our neighborhood - Villa Urquiza - to Once and the huge stores where hundreds and hundreds of socks or pants or underwear were displayed in wooden bins.  Each shop carried one thing only and therefore offered great bargains.  Mom and I would buy what we needed and then have a snack at one of the kosher cafes before returning home.  

Another presenter spoke about Miramar, the Summer town in the province of Buenos Aires, which was apparently a Jewish destination.  I never knew that when I was living there.  I do remember going there and to other such towns, all up and down the Atlantic coast south of the capital.  What a surprise to hear about Miramar and its people and places!  That talk reminded me of our holiday in another location that I recently saw mentioned in the New York Times Travel Section in an article about Evita and Buenos Aires.  One year in the mid-60s my parents and I were fortunate to spend two weeks in a resort called Colonia Chapadmalal, not far from Miramar.  I say fortunate because we had to apply and go through an interview process before being accepted to spend two weeks vacationing, all expenses paid.  You see - this is one of those Social Tourism kind of deals. Evita and her husband liked to do things like that for the working class.  Everyone deserves a two-week rest, doesn't everyone?  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Register for Crafting Stories from Real Life: Creative Nonfiction at Loyola's Water Tower Campus and c
reate stories that read like fiction but are based on real life. Write a gripping opening sentence, use dialogue to bring characters to life, and incorporate research to add depth to your writing. We will read examples of this genre and workshop students' works.

Class will be held in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (Lewis Towers 401) on May 7.

Go to Loyola's website and register - easily and quickly.

For more information: feel free to contact me via this blog or Facebook.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"You see a shooting star"

     It is dark outside.  Night has come early today.  Clouds all day and the daylight seems to be gone too soon. You are walking down to the corner store to buy a gallon of milk.  You wish you could run away, right now, run far away.  Who needs all those kids and that nagging wife!  But you are a good man, a responsible man.  You'd never do that.   And here you are: walking in the middle of the street because it's lighter here, the tall trees obscuring the street lights on the sidewalk.  A car might run you over but who cares...here you are: walking to the corner store for a gallon of milk because your wife had no time to do that all day.  You work and work and then you come home and you have to work some more.

     Suddenly you look up and the shooting star catches you unaware.  Make a wish you say to yourself out loud.  Make a wish and it will come true.  And then you say: who told you that?  Such bullshit!  But you make a wish anyway.  Very quietly.  Very much to yourself lest a neighbor hear you and report you to your wife.

     The shooting star has shot by already.  The dark envelops you once more.  The light of the store on the corner is your beacon.  You walk like a zombie.  Milk, a gallon of milk, you repeat to yourself like a mantra when you see the car.  The lights blind you.  Where is this guy going the wrong way you ask yourself and the next instant your wish comes true.

(From the series of short-shorts "Desperate Husbands".)

Thursday, March 15, 2012


The Blind Method

I am going to Academias Pitman to learn how to type.  It is December 1968, summer in Buenos Aires, Argentina and I have just graduated from high school.  At this point, mother doesn’t have a lot of faith in my secondary education and believes it will be useful to know typing.  You can always be a secretary if you can’t get into college, she says and enrolls me in a three-month class to learn “the blind method.”
            Academias Pitman is a secretarial school where young women learn shorthand, bookkeeping, typing, and other useful skills.  My class meets every weekday morning, from 9 to 12.  On the first day of class we are given a handbook with instructions and told to take our seats at a long wooden table where manual typewriters are placed every few feet.  The high ceilings and white walls of the room remind me of the hospital where I spent several years during my childhood.  Despite the unpleasant memories I eventually come to enjoy being in this big room where, surrounded by other young women, we learn how to type on big, bulky machines, black and silver, with keys that stand high.  I type each letter for several pages before going on to the next one.  The “a”s and “z”s and “q”s make the little finger on my left hand hurt.  But I persevere. 
            After a few weeks father brings home a used typewriter for me to practice.  And when 1969 rolls around I write my first poem on the typewriter: “Poema No. 1.”
            I am sitting at the kitchen table, next to a long wall of windows, typing.  It is very hot in that room because the sun shines in all day and air conditioners are a foreign luxury.  I am so focused on what I’m doing however, that I barely feel the heat.  In this way I spend my summer afternoons practicing typing and writing poems.  After “Poema No. 1” comes “Poema No. 2”, then “Poema No. 3”, and so on.  I keep the poems in a manila folder, certain that no one will ever read them.  They are one page in length, as long as the sheets of paper I have: my self-imposed limit.  They describe the world around me, my house, my neighbors, but mostly, how I feel and what I want out of life.  At age 18 everything should be possible yet my poems speak of loneliness, alienation, an existential sadness difficult to explain.  They also speak about flowers and trees, the stars and the moon, music, love, and about other poems. 
            For the last five years I have been keeping a journal with poems I like.  Since I cannot afford to buy all the books I would like to own, I borrow them from friends and libraries and copy down my favorite poems in the notebook.  Then I illustrate its margins with drawings of peace signs, flowers, and photographs from newspapers and magazines depicting hippies, anti-war demonstrations, race riots, rock concerts.  When I am lonely or bored I read these poems out loud in my room in front of the mirror.  Such a simple pleasure!  And when I write my own poems, these other verses flood my mind and spill themselves in bits and pieces on the paper.  In the warm kitchen my fingers press down hard on the typewriter keys while mother sits outside, on the stoop, with the neighbors, trying to catch a cool breeze.  Father is not at home.  Most days he comes late in the evening and leaves early in the morning.  On the rare occasions when he is home, he sits in the bedroom watching television, the oscillating fan murmuring noisily.  He doesn’t like to mingle with our neighbors and their chatty gossip.  My poems include everybody: father’s moods, mother’s complaints, the neighbors’ funny ways.  I fancy myself a chronicler of this place and this time:  the end of 1968, the beginning of 1969, Buenos Aires, the world. 
It is March, 1969.  Typing class has ended.  It is time to find a job.  College can wait , mother says.  In the mornings I fill out applications, take typing tests, and go on interviews.  In the afternoons I come home, to the kitchen no longer unbearably warm, and write poems until suppertime. 
Thirty years later I am still writing poems.  Some are longer than one page, some shorter, most of them in English now, poems that speak of this new world I live in: Chicago, the United States, the end of the century.  And, although they sound and look different, a certain melancholia still envelops them, a sadness understandable to those familiar with the nostalgia of the home left behind.  I realize that writing poems is like having a friend who never leaves you, a friend who is always there when you need her.  And that is how I started to write and why. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012



            On the second day of sailing in the big blue Pacific Ocean, passengers line up to descend into the whaleboats by rope ladder.  If I had known I would’ve stayed home in Chicago.  Most are older than I am; some are frail and sick.  But no one complains.  I step down gingerly.  The ladder bobs and sways, and I shriek as I jump into the boat hoping not to miss it.  It’s hot and humid.  My left ankle is swollen and the migraines have returned.  My stomach somersaults.  I’m a wreck.  Can it get any worse? 
            We are on the merchant ship The Aranui “cruising” the Marquesas Islands.  The Marquesas - a remote archipelago two day-sail from its closest neighbor: Tahiti.  We’ve come here because David – my husband - read a book when he was a young man.  Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu Hiva to be exact.  Heyerdahl was born in a coastal village of Norway in 1914.  In 1936 he traveled with his new wife to the remote island of Fatu Hiva, one of the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific, and spent a year there.  Ever since David read this book he’s longed to see these islands.  And the Aranui is the only way one can travel to them.  It carries automobiles, horses, television sets, barrels of oil, foodstuffs, mail, and us: 87 human beings from, mostly, France and the United States, with a sprinkling of Australians and British.    
            The heat/humidity combo coupled with the ordeal of disembarking and embarking makes life very uncomfortable for fourteen days.  Most islands have small harbors, not large enough to accommodate huge ships like the Aranui, hence, the whaleboats.  Once in a while a large Marquesan ship worker picks me up with his muscular tattooed arms and deposits me into the boat.  It’s embarrassing but I don’t care.  Better safe than drowned.
            Earlier today we had a long orientation on what we're going to do on each island.  By the time Vai – one of the Marquesan tour guides - finished explaining everything, I was already exhausted.  If only I didn't have to get out of the ship I would be happy.   Besides Vai, there is Sylvie and Pascal – both French.  After dinner we watch The Mutiny on the Bounty.  Not what you want to watch aboard a ship.     
            The sun is out after a morning of rain.  The French are the quintessential sun-worshippers.  There is a French couple who sells ice cream half a year and the other half they travel.  They are brown and shiny.  Another Frenchman - a dermatologist -  claims there is no such thing as skin cancer.  We engage in a long discussion but he’s not swayed.  The French also smoke a lot.  Of course, it’s ok because they claim there is no such thing as lung cancer from smoking.  They are rude, self-involved and very, very tanned.  They act as if they owned the ship and the crew is there to serve them.  One evening, right before dinner, one of them comes over our table and takes our wine bottle.  Just like that.  David flies into a rage but peace is soon restored when the server brings us another bottle. 
            At our table we have Willy, from Germany who had an aneurysm a few months ago and walks hesitantly; his tongue wags when he talks but he travels all over the world by himself.  Some days he’s too sick to come out and stays in his cabin but when he’s out, he keeps up with the climbing and hiking better than I, which isn’t saying much since everyone can keep up better than I can.  Ruth and Cecile – 80 year old women from Milwaukee – are more intrepid than people half their age.  David spends a great deal of time talking to them about his hometown.  And there is Bill from Carmel who walks with a cane.  His girlfriend Marisa - from Italy – delights in stories of their adventures around the world.  After this cruise they’re flying to China to teach English for six months.  One evening they invite us to a cocktail party.  We squeeze in their hot cabin and drink wine and eat peanuts along with Duke and Jeannie from Washington.  Cabins are small.  There is a double bed, a small desk with a chair, a tiny closet, a miniature refrigerator, and a microscopic bathroom.  With hardly any room to walk around we have to jump over suitcases, shoes, the chair.  This is not a luxury cruiser.   
            Of all the meals breakfast is the best.  Watermelon, papaya, mango, orange, pamplemousse, banana.  Great pancakes!  French croissants, breads, ham, cheese. You can have eggs too, any way you want them.  Lunch is not bad.  We delight in avocado stuffed with seafood, duck with peas and carrots and onions, mangoes for dessert, or palm hearts with salami, fish with rice, pineapple.  But sometimes even lunch tries our palate.  On one of the island tours we go to Tahuata and endure the omnipresent welcome by dancing children and lunch.  David doesn't like the food because his fish is raw.  I try to enjoy mine despite the flies.  Another day we ride up to a mountain spot for a picnic where it’s cool and even sprinkles some rain.  As I sit on a rock to eat, a rooster hops over and eats my muffin.
            My left ankle continues to be swollen.  I see the doctor on board who only speaks French.  With my limited knowledge of the language I explain that the foot hurts when I step on it, that the ankle is obviously swollen.  He bandages it really tight and gives me pilulles, then asks Sylvie – one of the guides – to take me to the hospital the next day when we land at Ua Po for x-rays and blood tests.   The next morning I tell Sylvie I don’t want to have x-rays and blood tests.  The doctor makes me sign a form, absolving him of any wrongdoing in case my foot falls off or worse. 

Dinners are the biggest problem.  We have fish often, which is understandable.  But I don’t like how they cook fish.  It might be pae-pae:  raw fish with breadfruit, coconut milk and something like mayonnaise. Or it might be poisson cru: the Tahitian version of ceviche.  But unlike ceviche, which marinates long enough for the lime juice to permeate the fish and “cook” it through, poisson cru is prepared and eaten quickly.  The lime juice only turns the surface of the fish opaque, but the inside stays raw.   Sometimes we have goat in coconut milk or breadfruit or smoked chicken and rice.  One evening they serve us canned fruit cocktail.  Everyone is appalled!  With all the wonderful fruits around…We even get canned peas and corn.  The dining room is small and hot: as I sit trying to eat, I grow drowsy, then lethargic.  After a while I can’t even talk. 
       When we go to the island stores, the shelves are full of canned goods, packaged,
frozen: chips, cookies, salty foods, high-fat content foods - American or French.
The Marquesans’ favorite snack is cheese curls.  In the last hundred years they
have become addicted to fast and processed foods and their health suffers.  They eat
a lot of pork, goat, and sweets.  One of the guides said that there is a 50% incidence
of diabetes. People are generally overweight.  They don’t move much because they
don’t have to work.  The French government subsidizes everything: housing, food,
            Fatu Hiva has jagged peaks that sink straight down into the ocean.  It is the greenest, most traditional island.  The hottest.  The most isolated.  The most rainfall.  And the reason we are on this cruise: the book by Thor Heyerdahl that D. read a long time ago and set his imagination on fire about coming to the Marquesas.  Oh well…could be worse.  But of course, could be better.  Could be the Paul Gauguin cruise in style.  Not a freighter with 500 barrels of oil, a fork lift, two cars, two boats, a horse, and who knows what else that we carry back and forth.  The swimming pool leaves a lot to be desired.  The bar and lounge are simple and not too clean.  There isn't a lot of space to move around.  No big salons nor pools nor courts nor restaurants.  Everything is small and practical. 
            In the distance I can see tiny figures with hats walking down the dock to jump into the whaleboats.  I better get going. 

Monday, March 12, 2012


I've been away for a few days - in Madison, Wisconsin, spending time with our grandchildren.  No time to write here. I did come back with a cold though.  And I don't like it.

 I was able to finish the novel I was reading: By Blood.  I recommend it.  A multilayered look at eavesdropping, psychotherapy, lesbianism, adoption, and the Holocaust.  Really.  A very intriguing premise.  Now I'm back to doing something about winds but I'm not having much luck.  Or inspiration.  Perhaps I should go to the library and look at books on winds.  The internet offerings are paltry and repetitive.  Anyone have any suggestions?

Next time I'll let you know about my upcoming Summer workshops in Wisconsin.  You wouldn't want to miss them.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Soon a new session of the Gartler Writing Studio classes will begin.  We meet every other week at 7 p.m. at my house and work on our writing.  Most students are writing varieties of nonfiction prose but, once in a while, one will bring a short fiction story for us to look at and offer an insightful critique.

Usually the two hours are spent like this: updates, freewriting to loosen up the hand and the mind, discussion of published pieces, writing exercises, writing workshop of students' work.  Time flies and we have fun while learning something new.

The price is right: $150 for 6 sessions.  If you are interested, contact me as soon as possible.  The spaces fill out quickly.

Don't miss this opportunity!

Monday, March 5, 2012


And the winner is:  Winds!  That's the first pick of the week.  There were over ten choices of topics or subjects to research and/or write.  Winds won Friday.  And so I began researching the names of winds.  I have been fascinated by the names of winds: Mistral, Sirocco, Pampero, Santa Ana, Zonda, to name a few.  There are about fifty different winds around the world.  Some have different names in different countries or areas.  Some winds may curl your hair.  Others may set your nerves on edge.  Yet others will soothe your soul with cooling breezes.  Then there is the whole mythology aspect of winds.  Greek mythology is filled with descriptions and tales of "the winds."  My research has just began and I'm already excited about where it may lead me.  If you have any good sources to read on winds or know about a particular wind's characteristics or just have a personal anecdote involving a wind, please leave your comment below.  I appreciate all the help I can get.

May the winds of peace and prosperity blow your way.  Til tomorrow.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Curiosity cures boredom.  Those are my three words of the day.  Or the month.  Or, if I'm lucky, the year.  Research inspires curiosity wrote Phillip Lopate.  So I embark on research to acquire curiosity to cure boredom.  And, maybe in the process, write something worth reading.  And publishing.

I have so many ideas that I had to write them on small pieces of paper, fold them, and now I will pick one and go with it.  What will it be?  Birds?  Food ethnology?  The Ottoman Empire?  Or simply my autobiographical fiction project started in San Miguel?  There are other choices too.  Tomorrow I'll let you know which one won.  

For now I need to be disciplined and stick with the selection.  At least for a while.  Right?

Thursday, March 1, 2012



2012 Writers Conference and Literary Festival
            On the first day of the conference I take my books to the libreria.  Volunteer fills out the form, gives me a piece of yellow paper as proof, then I stand in line to register.  It takes a while because there are – it seems – more people with last names that begin with A to L.  The volunteer who hands me the folder says “I’m Armenian too,” seeing my last name on my badge.  I walk over to one of the big round tables covered with green tablecloths and sit, ask for coffee, open my folder.  A man with a Steppenwolf cap sits across from me.  I, of course, talk to him.  His name is John, lives in San Miguel for two months and the rest on Kingsbury Street, in Chicago.  He’s hard-of-hearing.  I tell him about my classes and he gives me his card to keep him informed.  After he leaves, women come to sit and talk.  Soon there are six women chatting around me and soon Renny comes with her friends.  I am asked questions about procedures, rooms, rules, regulations.  I hear my name called simultaneously.  Once again I am the information provider.  I have toast with my coffee.  One woman asks me if Mexican Spanish is different from Argentine Spanish after I tell her where I am originally from.  If I had a penny for every time a North American asks me that question…
            In the afternoon I am walking to the Salon for a lecture and I hear my name.  Sandra is here too!  Who knew!  She’s here to introduce Elena Poniatowska.  It turns out, she’s thinking of moving here.  Tired of Texas and San Antonio.  Later I attend my first workshop: how to use a blog for your writing.  Hence this blog is born. 
            In the evening, while Margaret Atwood is giving her talk we hear thunder.  It rains and rains.  When the lecture is over, the rain stops and we go to dinner to an out-of-the-way restaurant.  You can tell it used to be a house converted into a restaurant: El Rinconcito.  There are six of us.  All women.  The food takes a long time to arrive.  I have tacos de fajita and a beer. 
            On the second day I attend two workshops with Susan Brown.  I enjoy them, feel like I learn something.  When to use fiction and when to write memoir.  How to write a genre fiction novel.  In the evening Joy Harjo performs her poetry, her saxophone, plays to the crowd.  Afterwards, we go to the Fiesta on the rooftop of Instituto Allende.  Music, food, dancers, fireworks to end the night.
            On the third day we are waiting for Naomi Wolf’s lecture when SC reads a very long poem about her lovers.  People are streaming in to hear Wolf but she continues to read over the noise of scraping chairs, whispers of people who don’t know who she is.  She goes overtime.  Today’s workshops were not as good as yesterday’s.  In the morning Eva Hunter’s Writing Scenes left a lot to be desired.  Plus the room was stifling.  I felt ill.  I left.  Now I sit and breathe fresh air. 
            On the fourth day I walk to the dining-room in the morning and sit with Irma, Renny and her friends.  I am tired.  I stare at my coffee cup when someone comes from behind and kisses me.  It’s Sandra.  And now here comes Elena with her entourage.  More kisses and hugs.  I walk over to the buffet and Amelia asks me if I want to go to lunch later.  So many nice people!  Last night’s lecture by Elena was stirring.   
            The conference is over Sunday.  I stay on until Tuesday.  I am so glad I came.