All Aboard the Mexican Train

A popular pastime among émigrés and ex-pats along Lake Chapala is a domino game called Mexican Train. I’ve been told Mexicans call it Cuban Train. I suppose Kenyans call it Tanzanian Train, Uzbekistanis call it Tajikistani Train, and Neptunians call it Uranusian Train.

There are a variety of ways to play the game. But the way I play is the easiest. I know that is true because FOX News has reported that a two-year, 18 million dollar US government-funded study determined that the rules I follow are the simplest and least confusing. It is so easy, the study found, even Trump supporters can understand this version of the game.

Up to seven people can play Mexican Train. That is because at the center of the table—and you need a large table—is a plastic “train station” with eight slots from which the players form their domino train tracks. “Ah,” you are saying, “you just said up to seven people can play but there are eight slots for trains. You might be good at spelling and writing, but you don’t know shit when it comes to numbers.”

Well, you are correct. I am rithmatickally challenged. But I was correct regarding the slots at the train station. The eighth one is for the “public train.”

In addition to the 12,682 dominos, the game set comes with an assortment of tiny colored plastic train engines. The red one is placed at the head of the public train slot. Each player selects a plastic train; this step serves as a revealing psychological test. Some people pick the black one because they identify with its darkness. Many men pick the blue one because it is perceived as a masculine color. Some players favor the pink because it reflects their own beauty. The yellow has appeal to some, I suppose, because it radiates happiness and optimism. People who opt for the clear one, that 18 million dollar government study suggested, are empty-headed and vacuous. I always select the tartan plaid one because I think I am Scottish.

But unlike the public train’s red engine, players do not, and I repeat, do not place their train at the head of their track at this time. If they do, the player to her/his left must chop off the violating player’s right hand with a dull, rusty kitchen knife. See printed instruction sheet enclosed in the game box. Refer to Section 9G, “Dull, Rusty Kitchen Knives.”

To begin the game, each of the players picks 10 dominoes, which are laying face-down on the table. Once selected, players study their tiles. In the first game, they are seeking dominoes with a 12 on it as one will start their train track. But more important, players also are looking for the double-twelve tile. The one who has it will announce in Laotian “I have the double-twelve,” serve the others saltines and liverwurst, and frolic naked around the table. OK. I lied. That person does not have to be naked. But (s)he does place the double-twelve in the center of the train station and plays first. Meanwhile, players are forming their train, matching like-numbers end-to-end as in traditional dominoes.

But, oh Lord, what happens if no one has that all-important 12-12 domino? Well, it may seem dramatic and a bit over the top, but war is then declared on Nicaragua. And all players cower under the table whispering and holding their bladder until a peace treaty is signed. Oh, caught me again. I josh. Let me correct my misleading, FOX News-worthy statement. In the event no one has the double twelve, players take turns drawing added tiles until someone finds it and this can go on for several cycles. Yes, one can end up with more tiles than are in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom. Once found, however, the finder begins the game.

The lead-off player places a 12 in her/his slot; if (s)he has a second 12, (s)he may place it in the public train slot. (I am using the “(s)he” and “her/him” constructs to describe players to avoid being charged with sexism by feminist Mexican Train players. Oh, don’t get me started on feminist Mexican Train players; they are the most annoying, insisting other players refer to the dominos as “she” and “her” and constantly humming Helen Reddy’s I am Woman as they play. But I digress.) Then, going to the left, the players place a 12 in their slot. If a player has no 12, (s)he draws for one. If that is unsuccessful, that player places her/his wee tiny plastic engine at the head of her/his track, announcing (s)he doesn’t have a 12and making that track available. Subsequent players, if they have an extra 12, must give it to said 12-challenged player. I repeat must. If the player fails to do that and is male, his penis will be cut off with the aforementioned rusty dull knife; if female, her pussy hat will be cut up with pinking shears. Oh, this would be a good time to point out that the host or hostess must own pinking shears.

If no one has a spare 12 for the player in need, that player continues drawing dominoes until (s)he has picked a 12. Meanwhile, each player is building her/his train track, adding tiles with matching numbers to it. “But,” one may ask, “what do you do if you can’t add to your train?” That is where the public train comes in. And any train track with a cutesy itty-bitty plastic engine at its head. Players can place dominoes there that don’t fit into their track. Placing a domino on the available track of another player, may make it possible for that player to reclaim her/his track because its new end number may be on one of said player’s tiles. A player who adds to her/his own train when it has her/his plastic train at the head of her/his track can remove that train, thus making it unavailable to other players.

In the event a player plays a double tile, i.e. a double-six or double-ten, (s)he—oh, to Hell with this damn gender fairness crap. It is making it impossible to understand these cockamamie instructions. So, feminist Train players, here’s what I suggest. We, and I said “we,” march on Washington and demand equal pay for professional female Mexican Train players. They are, after all, athletes, too. Yes, I say, let’s stand as one and support the Women’s International Professional Mexican Train Player’s Association (the WIP-Empty-PA) and roar—now, where was I? Oh, yes. Double tiles. When one plays a double-domino, he places the tile across the end of the track, perpendicular to it. But he had better have a match to go with it, to satisfy it. If he does not, that player will be forced to eat the double tile. And I do not mean swallow it whole; I mean chew it until either the domino or the player’s teeth have been ground into a fine powder. Oh. Busted again. You caught me. Making up shit. Actually, if a player cannot match a tile to a double, he draws a new tile, hoping it will be a match. If not a match, the player places his plastic engine at the head of his track. But the game has now hit a major derailment for the next player must match that double, foregoing any plans for building on his own track. If that player cannot match, he draws and if that is unsuccessful places his plastic train at the head of his track. This continues until a player can satisfy that double. This derailing step can create several available temporary tracks on which to play. But remember, once a player plays on his own track, that player removes the plastic train and that track is no longer available to others.

When a player has placed all but one domino on a track, he takes that final tile and taps it twice on the table announcing his possible impending victory. The taps should be loud enough for all to hear, but not so strong as to break the table or startle actress Marlee Matlin, wherever she may be. Victory occurs when a player has placed his final tile.

The next game is played with the double-eleven and people base their train track on 11. The game after that, 10, then 9, and so on. Players work their way down to the double-zero or blank domino. A complete game can last more than two hours or until Trump’s next rude, imbecilic tweet.

So, now, let’s play a full game. Oh, you know what? All that explaining has exhausted me. I need a nap. We’ll play the full game in my next blog post, provided Trump has not triggered a nuclear war between the US and North Korea, China, Russia, or Nicaragua.

Oh, Happy Day!

When were you happiest?

What moments in your life filled you with total joy?

You’ve had enough time to think about it.

Now, in ascending order tell me, what’s your Top 10?

Go on. I’m waiting!

What? You don’t have a Top 10? Well, I do.

With all the negativity and anger dominating the news, conversations, and social media, I recently found myself thinking about happier times. When, I thought, was I my happiest? What events, which days filled me with total glee? I began making a mental list. It didn’t take me long to realize it probably was not like other people’s lists; I never married, had children, became a grandparent, or bought a house, all milestone moments in people’s lives. Other events many people might include that I did experience, like graduation from high school and college or retirement, were met by me with mixed emotions, not pure happiness, and, therefore, were not considered.

What, then, were my happiest experiences, moments, and days? Like I said, in true Tom fashion, I made a Top 10 List. But, alas, there is a problem; WordPress, apparently, does not allow numbering in reverse order. When I assign the first moment “10,” the system automatically assumes the remainder of the list is 11-20. Therefore, the list is not numbered. Remember, the first moment is #10 and the final one, the last one at the bottom, is #1.

Tom’s Top 10 Happiest Moments

*OK. I’m going to start by cheating. In 10th place are three related events, three sports championships. One probably was the first time I experienced post-childhood total happiness. I was 17 and my high school’s football team won the city championship. I played no role in their achievement other than holding a megaphone, donning saddle shoes, and jumping around a lot. But in the small world of a 1960s teenager, that championship was a big fucking deal! That level of joy was repeated years later when, in 1978, the Seattle Sonics won the NBA title, and, more recently, when the Sea Hawks won the Super Bowl. I celebrated those professional sports titles in the streets with the masses, acting as if championships create world peace, cure the common cold, or end world hunger.

*My first novel, Completing The Course, was published in October 1997. My heart raced and soared when I, for the first time, held a copy of the book in my hands. I remember swallowing hard, fighting back tears, and thinking, “I’ve waited 25 years for this moment.” It was the closest I have come to experiencing fatherhood.

*The day I was hired by the Seattle School District was a happy one. My joy was blended with excitement as I sensed this was a life-changing moment, which it turned out to be. I had innumerable positive experiences and developed countless memorable relationships during my 22 year career, but, in hindsight, I believe the happiest moment occurred when a well-liked special needs high school student with severe cerebral palsy was elected Nathan Hale High student body vice-president. It had been a five-person race with several popular, qualified, experienced candidates running, and I worried Sean would be painfully disappointed and hurt by the outcome. But he won in a landslide.  When he was named victor—it was done in an assembly—his uncontrolled joy, the prolonged roar of the students, and my happiness surged to 11 on a scale of 10, as did my pride in those Hale students.

*AIDS brought enough sorrow to my life to drown the Pacific Ocean in broken-hearted tears. The 1980s and 1990s were a sad, difficult time. Friend after friend disappeared from sight, then the world, but not the memory. One friend from the 1970s moved to Chicago for work. I saw him once shortly after that. Then, as AIDS spread, our communication ended. I asked others if they had been in contact with him or knew if he was still in Chicago. No one had heard from him. No one could verify his existence. I eventually obtained a computer and searched for him, countless times, countless unsuccessful times. Greg had disappeared, perhaps died. Years went by, 10-15, and it dawned on me I had always searched for “Greg,” never “Gregory.” I typed his full name into the computer and, voila, there was the public record of his recently purchased condo. In Chicago! The address and his phone number were listed. I dialed his number faster than Usain Bolt runs to the 7-Eleven for cigarettes. Hearing Greg’s voice, knowing he was alive, and finding a friend from the past brought more joy to my heart than I had felt since the first reports of a mystery illness plaguing the gay community, my community, began.

*November 4, 2008. The night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. I never had thought I would see an African-American, a Jew, a woman, or a gay American achieve that office in my lifetime. I watched in ecstatic disbelief. Even though I had long before decided I, because of anger and frustration with US politics, would leave the US upon retirement in 2014, a flicker of hope was kindled.

*I met David Voyles in September 1993, my first day of a five-year stay at Ballard High where he was the student body president. A friendship was born that has lasted to the present. I’ve followed his life through his college years, his time as an officer in the Marine Corps, his wedding, the birth of his son, and into his career as a lawyer; he is now my Seattle lawyer. But the single happiest moment in my relationship with David occurred when he called me upon his return from Kuwait on the eve of the Second Gulf War. My months of worrying about his safety were over; he was home safe. Hearing his voice on the phone turned my legs into limp overcooked asparagus spears. My knees quivered like aspens in a winter wind and I fell into a chair mumbling, “Oh, my God, you’re home. Thank God you’re OK.” And then I couldn’t speak anymore. My Adam’s Apple was drowning. “Give me a second, David,” I managed to gulp out. Happiness is knowing a loved one is home safe from a war zone.

*We learned a bit about Mexican history in the fifth grade. Our book included pictures of ancient Aztec pyramids. I studied them in awe, but never imagined seeing them in person. Fifty plus years later, I found myself north of Mexico City dashing helter-skelter around the ancient city of Teotihuacan. I was like a toddler in a toy store. It was my first time at a world famous archaeological site and I was stoked. But my excitement and happiness did not reach its zenith until I stood atop the Pyramid of the Sun. It was an arduous climb in a single-file line forming a human millipede. And when each person reached the summit, he or she had but moments to remain and take pictures. But that moment, oh that moment for which I had waited more than five decades, was thrilling. The picture of me atop the Pyramid of the Sun captures my happiness better than any words.

*It was the 1970s. Numerous cities and counties, through legislation enacted by city councils or other governing boards, enacted laws protecting gays, lesbians, and bisexuals from discrimination. The opposition, led by the Religious Right, immediately went to work to have the laws repealed by placing them on the ballot; they knew that at that point in time they could win a public vote on the controversial issue. First Dade County Florida fell. Then Mid-Western metropolises Wichita and St. Paul voters repealed their Gay Rights laws. Next was Eugene, Oregon. Each defeat was decisive. Then came Seattle. Initiative 13 was intended to repeal Gay Rights protections enacted by the city council. But the tide had turned; No on 13, rejecting the initiative instead of civil rights, was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin. That election became the first public-vote victory in the Gay Rights Movement. With the first results announced on television, Seattle’s gays and lesbians and their allies sensed unexpected victory. I was at the campaign’s election night party. I felt the excitement, the disbelief. As up-dated results were announced, the happiness swelled like a Jiffy-Pop dome.  The moment our victory became official was ear-splitting and redefined joy. But the single moment I remember from that night occurred as I was heading to the bathroom. I spotted two older men probably in their 60s or 70s, veterans of, survivors of pre-Stonewall, pre-liberation life. They were hugging and crying. Their faces mirrored each other’s disbelief, reflecting the ecstatic joy of the moment, of that historic, surprising moment. Those two men encapsulated the feelings everyone there was feeling. They captured the total happiness I felt. I continued to the bathroom and when I returned they were gone; I looked for them but could not find them in the crowd. I do not know who they were; I do not remember their faces. But I will never forget them. I will never forget their joy. Or my happiness.

*The War in Vietnam raged while I was in college. A draft lottery based on birthdays had been established to feed the killing machine. My number was—OK, here come the jokes—69. As a result, even though I was safe from the draft as an undergraduate, come June 1970 I was an extremely likely draftee. I, however, did not feel overwhelmingly threatened; about six months prior to graduation, I suffered a serious herniated disc in my back, an event that has continued to impact my life to this day. That legitimate, fateful injury, I believed would be my ticket to safety. One would think that being unable to bend over or run would free one from service. But, initially it did not. Medical exams failed to prove anything; the technology of the time couldn’t verify my claims. I was perceived as a lying leftist peace-nik, which I was sans the “lying.” Therefore, to avoid being drafted, I took control of the situation as best I could, hoping to buy time. I signed up for the Army Reserves and spent one weekend a month between June and October 1970 in pre-Boot Camp service. Eventually I learned I was to report to Fort Ord, California for Boot Camp on October 13. Meanwhile, I, my father, and a diligent lawyer worked desperately to get me discharged before Boot Camp began. If, I was told, I wasn’t discharged before arriving at Ord, it would be too late. Once there, the investigation and process would take longer than Boot Camp itself. I was working against a clock, ticking like a time bomb. On October 10, three days before I was to report, I met a military doctor at Fort Lewis’ Madigan Army Hospital. Upon examining me, he looked my directly in the eyes and said, “Son, you have no business being in the Army.” Contained, restrained happiness surged through my innards. But I had to wait for forms to be completed and my return to my car before I could release my pent up joy. Once in my car, I fell apart. I cried uncontrollably. When I finally got my shit together and drove off, I had to fight off frequent bouts of vision-blurring tears while driving on I-5. I knew it wasn’t wise driving under those conditions, but 1970 mid-day traffic was thinner than Donaldt Rump’s orange hair. Besides, I didn’t care about my blurry vision or the number of cars around me. I was free of the fear of dying in a pointless war. And I was HAPPY!

*January 29, 2012. Vancouver, B.C. I sat in the 20th row at a concert. I had waited since I was 14-years-old for that moment. As a Jomo, a Jewish homo, I was in music-pop culture-show biz heaven with my goddess. Barbra. I was seeing her. In person. I was hearing her voice. LIVE. Barbra Streisand. For two hours, nothing else mattered. Everything in life, in the world, was perfect. Can anything top that level of extreme rapture? I doubt it. That was my happiest moment.

Who Are You People, Anyway?

The first three times I saw her were at the Ajijic Writers Group. We sat at opposite ends of the patio. Fifty or so attendees separated us. But I noticed her. That woman has style, class, and dignity, I thought. It was reflected in her clothes, posture, and gait. I wonder who she is. She could have been a model.

Several meetings passed. She was not there. I didn’t see her again until PBS aired a report on Lake Chapala and how it had become a magnet to retirees from the US, Canada, and Great Britain. A number of émigrés were interviewed. She was one of them. That’s that classy lady. I know her, I thought, although the second part of the thought was an exaggeration. With a British accent, she made comments praising Ajijic and Lakeside life. Then the reporter, in a voice-over, explained that the woman had an unusual claim to fame; she had been, in 1964, Playboy Magazine’s first international centerfold. My jaw dropped. The photograph was shown. I recognized it immediately. I was familiar with it, not because I had obsessed on Playboy as a teen, but because it had been included in numerous documentaries about the publication and its founder Hugh Hefner. The reporter continued telling the woman’s story, her history and accomplishments. Rose Grayson, despite her appearance in Playboy, went on to become a presenter on British television, the equivalent of TV news reporter and interviewer in the US. After that, she became a judge.

Can you imagine that happening in the United States, a 1964 Playboy centerfold achieving those lofty, respected positions in the  conservative, narrow-minded, wholesome US of the pre-women’s, sexual, and gay liberation movements? In fact, nearly two decades later, in 1981, the US was still struggling with its priggish mindset when we saw Vanessa Williams stripped, no pun intended, of her Miss America title because nude photos from her college years had surfaced.

More recently, I befriended another woman through the Writers Group. We had talked on several occasions, even sitting next to each other at the gatherings. It wasn’t, however, until she read an autobiographical piece that I learned, as a younger woman, Lynne had been a California social worker working at San Quentin Prison and had in her caseload Charles Manson. She had interviewed, counseled, and probed the mind of one of America’s most evil criminals. Again I was slack-jaw stunned.

That revelation triggered several questions as I looked at the other attendees. Those questions followed me as I walked home through Ajijic’s streets. They echoed in my head days later as I studied other émigrés and ex-pats around me while I sipped coffee at the plaza, ate in restaurants, and sat in audiences at musical and theatrical performances.

Who are you people, anyway? Who were you before you came here? What are your secrets?

Most of the Americans, Canadians, Brits, and other foreigners residing here are older, most likely retired. We see one another as we look now, in our later years. We generally have no clue what the people around us looked like as young people. We generally have no idea what their lives were like then or what facts about them are yet to be uncovered.

I find myself wondering, as I look at friends, acquaintances, and merely familiar faces around town, which women were high school or college cheerleaders, which men were star athletes, and which, as students, held leadership roles in student government. And which were school bullies. I think which women, as young girls, shrieked for Elvis or The Beatles, and which of the men had posters in their bedroom of Raquel or Farrah. I am curious which of the people around me were elected to public office in their previous lives, or ran unsuccessfully. Is it possible, I wonder, if among the people I have met or see are children of celebrities whose names I would know? Or could any of these people be celebrities themselves—television, radio, sports, film, politics, or theater stars—and I am plain clueless.

I worry that some of these neighbors have had to bury children. Or have become estranged from their families. I think about who has siblings or children with special needs. Have any of the people around me been big lottery winners or filed bankruptcy? I wonder which of the people nearby have been incarcerated. Or should have been. And, on the flip side, I realize some may have been the victim of a crime, perhaps violent. I speculate which of my neighbors are gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender, either openly or secretly. Or which ones have children or grandchildren that live under the LGBTQ umbrella.

I reflect on which of my older fellow transplants served in Vietnam and which, as a result, suffer PTSD, which survived horrible automobile accidents or bounced back from near-fatal illness. I wonder which of the people I see in Ajijic have PhD’s or STDs. And I wonder which ones are members of the GOP.

Oftentimes, we discover long after meeting someone a surprising tidbit about their past or identity. It may be trivial, but it also may be germane to their personality or their private pains. It may be something about which they are proud, embarrassed, or ashamed. It may be something that is purposely kept secret. Or it may be something they no longer consider important or interesting.

We all have friends and acquaintances here in our retirement haven. But we all divulge our histories to them at our chosen pace for our own reasons. And often, so often, discovering those morsels of insignificant information, important facts, or long-held secrets about them shed surprising new light on the individuals or the relationships.

For example, did I ever tell you about the time I got caught naked at a political fund-raiser for…oh, I’m not ready to share that yet.

 

Trivial Pursuits

“I’ll buy a vowel, Pat.”

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”

“Good answer! Good answer!”

“Let’s make it a true daily double, Alex.”

Recognizable phrases from television game shows. We all watch or have watched them. But how many people can say they were on a game show? I can. “Which one?” you might ask. “Did you win?” you could add as an immediate afterthought. “Or did you embarrass yourself?” You decide.

I had moved to Portland in May 1985 perhaps two weeks prior to seeing the announcement on the Rose City’s NBC affiliate KGW. The station was launching the nation’s first locally produced big budget game show and was seeking contestants. Auditions would begin at 9 a.m. Saturday morning at the studio, the announcer said. The game, On the Spot, he added, would be trivia-based. Well, I, too, am trivia-based. Thus, it took me a nanosecond to decide what I would wear to the audition. It would be my pink polo shirt. It was, I assumed, bright enough to make me stand out, to be a memorable contestant hopeful. Well, at least among the men.

I underestimated how many Oregonians and southwest Washingtonians would be lured by this opportunity, so I arrived at KGW several minutes before 9. The line already seemed to stretch miles into the Columbia River Gorge. I hiked to the line’s end and crouched in the shade provided by Milepost 42. OK. OK! I exaggerated. It was 32. On the Spot producers also underestimated interest in this project and were somewhat rattled by the hundreds of applicants who showed up.

I looked around and realized that many of the people in line were wearing attention-grabbing bright colors, crazy hats, unusual jewelry, and bold humorous tee-shirts. I peeked down my chest at my pink polo as its brightness seemed to fade to pastel. An hour later, a team of befuddled producers inched its way along the queue handing out hurriedly marked pieces of paper with try-out times. “Rather than have all of you wait for hours in the hot sun,” a young man roared to the 50 or so hopefuls around me, “we are scheduling auditions.” He handed us scraps of paper with “3:45” on it and moved down the line.

I raced home. I don’t recall if I boned up on trivia. I don’t recall if I paced the floor in anticipation. I do recall, however, staring at myself in the mirror, second-guessing my pink choice, and then changing my clothes more times than a female host of a televised award show. I eventually decided on a simple but striking black and white combination. My slacks and dress shirt were black. But my tie…ah, my narrow leather piano keyboard tie, bold in its white and blackness, stylish by 1985 standards, jumped off that dark canvas. It stood out like Sammy Davis, Jr. and his pale, blonde, Swedish wife Mai Britt had when they attended Yom Kippur services at Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch-Sinai in the 1960s.

The audition, logically, was a trivia test which I found easy. I felt I had done well and that was confirmed several days later when a producer contacted me. “You,” he announced, “Piano Man, have been selected one of nine people to tape test shows to be shown to potential advertisers.”  The tapes, he said, would also be used by producers to evaluate what works and what is problematic in the structure of the game. I was thrilled and returned to the station for the taping. When I arrived, producers greeted me with, “Hey, it’s Piano Man.” My audition outfit had worked; my ebony and ivory tie had made me memorable.

I expected, however, to hear from producers again with a taping date for the On the Spot episode on which I would compete. I did not receive that call and games began airing in September.  I became concerned, disappointed, and angry. How could they use me for the tests, I thought, and not schedule me during the first weeks of the show’s airing?

I was called, however, many weeks later. It was mid-November. Taping would be the next night. Thanks for the warning, I grumbled to myself. I need a haircut, electric tan, and a mani-pedi. And I have to lose five pounds! I asked my roommate, who was a hospital employee, and my neighbors to come with me for support, but the former had to work and the neighbors had another commitment. Therefore, I went alone.  It was after a hellacious workday and I was frazzled and exhausted. I was not in a frame of mind to make my television debut. Nevertheless, I psyched myself up and entered the station lobby with a cocky attitude and met my two competitors. One was a four-time champ. I felt my confidence drain like sweat in a sauna shared with male supermodels.

We were marched onto the set for camera tests. I had dressed in a conservative, long-sleeved, button-down collar dress shirt and color-coordinated tie because, I thought, I no longer needed to stand out since I had already gotten the gig. My shirt, however, did not photograph well; its stripe apparently wasn’t as subtle as I thought and created a shimmering effect known as interline twitter, a phrase I stored away in the pocket of my brain marked “Trivial Technological Television Terms.” I probably had been instructed by a producer to avoid stripes, but as I was trying to retain the names of every US vice-president, Hollywood character actor, and left-handed, albino, Sagittarius pro-athlete, I apparently forgot the no-stripe request. Therefore, a producer brought me a sports jacket to minimize the shirt’s dancing lines. The coat, however, clashed with my shirt-tie combo. But worse, it was several sizes too large for me. I put it on and looked like Mickey Rooney wearing William Howard Taft’s inauguration suit.  Crap, I thought, I should have worn the pink polo.

I tried to think taller and broader than I actually am in an effort to fill out the jacket, but before I could grow four inches and gain 35 pounds, the program began. Theme music played. Introductions were made. I recall Larry Blackmar, the affable host, asking about my aloha shirt collection which I had mentioned on my application. “One of them,” I said, “is a Mexican Hawaiian shirt.” The smiley emcee’s eyebrows formed question marks and he asked why. Instead of describing the pattern of palm trees, Tequila bottles, and siesta-ing Mexican men in sombreros, I answered with impulsive sass, “Because it speaks Spanish?” The tone of my response implied “Duh!” If you look up the word “regret” in the dictionary, you will see my picture.

I defeated the four-time champ and won a trip for two to San Francisco, $200 worth of Nike clothes, $750 cash, and an On the Spot logo-emblazoned umbrella so large it could have covered the entire Amazon Rain Forest. But my win did not come without a potentially embarrassing moment that would have dwarfed the Mexican Hawaiian shirt gaffe.

The category was “Nicknames.” Emcee Blackmar began reading the clue. “Marlene Dietrich…” and I buzzed in. I was ready to answer “The World’s Most Beautiful Grandmother” because that was a nickname she had been given decades earlier. Blackmar should have stopped reading the clue when I buzzed in, but he didn’t. “…gave this nickname to Ernest Hemingway.” he continued. Hemingway’s nickname was “Papa.” I didn’t know Ms. Dietrich was responsible for that, but switched my response to the correct one. Imagine the audience reaction had I said Ernest Hemingway’s nickname was “The World’s Most Beautiful Grandmother.” Imagine my picture in the dictionary next to the definition of “televidiot.”

That episode of On the Spot did not air until New Year’s Eve. I watched myself with pride as I won and then went off to a private New Year’s Eve party. I knew some of the guests, but many were strangers. I didn’t mention my TV appearance earlier that evening, nor did any of the guests. But when a late arrival, a stranger, arrived, my secret was exposed. He looked at me and shrieked, “Oh, my God! I just saw you on TV!”

I became the talk of the party. Everyone had questions. “What is Larry Blackmar like?” “Were the lights hot?” “Were you nervous?” and “How do you remember so much useless shit?” The stranger who had seen me on television asked, “Why the hell did you pick that god-awful sports coat? It made you look like Kate Smith.” That triggered the trivia-challenged guests to ask, in unison, “Who?” But the most awkward question asked was, “How many games did you win?”

I could not bring myself to tell them what happened in the next game. While I did lead at halftime, I could feel my adrenaline flow drop from surge to trickle during the commercial break. When the game resumed, I could not, regardless how hard I tried, buzz in first. But worse than that, I couldn’t remember basic trivial information. All the names, dates, titles, and facts in my head became a tossed green salad tumbling in a rickety clothes dryer. I thought the ‘80s pop singer Tiffany was named Tabitha. Or Thorazine. Or triskaidekaphobia. I confused the Kenyan city Mombasa with former Congressman Mo Udall. I couldn’t recall the difference between Yogi Berra and Yogi Bear. I mixed up yogurt and yurt. And I had no idea what a yurt even was! It is no surprise, then, that I lost the next game. My reign as a game show champ ended with a thud.

So, we return to the earlier question: Did I win or did I embarrass myself? Isn’t it obvious? The answer is clearly “Marlene Dietrich.”

Nissim Nachtgeist is My Father

I recently received an email from a woman I do not know. But her out-of-the-blue communication connected me to the past and my family history with a jolt. A positive jolt. But a jolt nonetheless.

Christiana’s introductory words included two names, Lotte Schwarz and Hotel Comi in Zurich, Switzerland. I recognized both immediately. I thought, “OMG!” so loud I probably roused my father from his 19 year permanent nap and my mother from her four year one. Hotel Comi was where my father lived after he escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. Lotte Schwarz, a friend of my father, also resided there.

Lotte, according to Christiana, had begun writing a novel based on those times. She, however, hadn’t completed the book before her death decades ago, so Christiana, a historian, did what research she could and recently finished and published it.  The book is Die Brille des Nissim Nachtgeist which means The Glasses of Nissim Nachtgeist. That oddly named character is my father. Nissim Nachtgeist was, I learned, a nickname, a pen name, and an alias of Dad’s during those years. “Nissim” is Hebrew for “miracle;” Dad may have known that and that may have played a part in the selection of that name. But I assume Dad picked it because it is a twisted version of Nussbaum. “Nachtgeist” roughly means night spirit, which could be a ghost or phantom. Christiana also informed me that my mother, too, is a character in the book.

Dad did not talk about his past a lot and I sensed as a young child not to ask more than he was willing to share; I understood, even then, there was pain and trauma involved in the life he left in Germany.  What I did know was that he was born a few years prior to World War I and grew up in a small mountain town, Ellrich, in which the Nussbaums were one of two Jewish families. My grandfather was a businessman with connections to local politicians and this had been advantageous as Dad, as a young man, had gotten in trouble with the law on several occasions. His crime?  Challenging the growing Nazi presence between the world wars. The local politicians interceded and dad got a pass.

I also knew Dad had attended several universities in Germany —that was the norm then, to attend more than one school to be exposed to different viewpoints and philosophies — on his way to acquiring a degree in German corporate law. But while a student, Dad wrote letters to cousins in Sweden condemning Hitler and the Nazis. The letters were confiscated at the border and Dad was arrested and jailed. This time the connections with Ellrich powerbrokers, it seemed, were of no use. He spent October through December 1933 in an early form of concentration camp. Surprisingly, he and many other political prisoners or dissidents—very few were Jews— were released in a Christmas Eve propaganda ploy. At first Dad thought all the prisoners had been released, but later learned only some had and wondered why he was one. Once home, Dad was informed he was to pack and leave town immediately. This caused him to suspect a deal had been made. Perhaps my grandfather had begged the local politicians to pay off the Nazis, buying Dad’s freedom, and they agreed provided he would leave the mountain village and cease his embarrassing, problematic activism. He fled to Hanover and relatives, and he never went back to Ellrich. He continued his studies, moving from college town to college town and in early 1937, as conditions in Nazi Germany worsened, Dad fled to allegedly neutral, safe, and welcoming Switzerland. He continued his education in Zurich where he studied Swiss corporate law and earned a PhD comparing it to the German system. My father technically then was Dr. Nussbaum.

I also knew that while in Zurich Dad was a man without a country; he could not return to Germany and he could not become a Swiss citizen. He lived a life in limbo, needing permission from the Swiss government for any work he did or pay he received. I also knew that Dad dabbled on the edges of show business as a film critic, comedy and political satire writer, and event emcee. He may have also performed on stage. Dad, I recall, often told tales of actors, artists, and writers with whom he shared life at the Hotel Comi and others with whom he socialized. Christiane has reminded of these names and taught me details I did not know. For example, I have learned the Swiss government did not regard my father fondly; because he was intelligent, articulate, and a law student and writer, they feared he would expose its questionable treatment of émigrés like himself. As a result, deportation back to Germany was a constant possibility. This may explain the creation of an alter-ego; as Nissim Nachtgeist Dad could hide in plain sight. Dad was, in fact, involved in a pending hearing as an opportunity for my parents to emigrate to America arose. It was resolved just before they left. Whether this was a legitimate resolution or “coincidence” will remain unanswered.

I look forward to learning more about my father as I read about Nissim Nachtgeist. The book is in German, which is problematic, and I will have to rely on my meager knowledge of the language, translation apps, and the kindness of German speaking friends and locals. But, bottom line, I will discover who Dad was before history, life, fate, and my complicated mother changed him.

Jocks, Jerks, and Jokes

It is probably illegal, but many Americans and Canadians living in Mexico utilize Canada’s Shaw Cable Service for their television viewing. This is achieved via satellites and dishes and, while its legality is questionable, it is done on a large scale with all parties looking the other way. As a result of Shaw’s Canadian origin, viewers receive both US and Canadian programming. That includes network sports coverage from ESPN and Canada’s TSN.

24/7

Watching a sports network at night during the week makes sense; that is when most sporting events take place. Weekend games or matches are more likely to be played in the daytime. But have you ever watched a sports network’s daytime weekday programming? I have. Well, I’ve tried.

In order to fill air time, the networks create fluff and filler and then repeat them ad nauseam. The most common example of this programming is Top 10, 50, 100 or 2,437 Lists of various sports related plays, people, or moments. Most last an hour, some days, and a few an entire football, baseball, rugby, or tiddly-winks season. Some lists make sense; they warrant attention. But others don’t. No sports-related topic is too mundane to merit a list. I have partially watched many. Here is my Top 10:

Worst Plays of the Year

Best Plays of the Year

Weirdest Names in Hockey

Wildest Temper Tantrums of Coaches and Managers

Best Beards

Hottest Cheerleaders Named Megan

Hottest Cheerleaders Named Matthew

Best Plays in Curling Championships Taking Place in a Canadian City With a Population Less Than 200,000

Worst Sportscaster Gaffs That Have to be F***** Censored

Most Likely Middle School Athletes to be Drafted by the Pros

Top 1000 Pro Athletes Who Have Been Arrested for Domestic Violence

You will note there are 11 entries in my Top 10. That is because we are talking sports and jocks here. Being able to count to 10 is not required.

Another common program-type used to fill airtime is unimportant games, matches, or tournaments of any sport with players so unknown their own families don’t recognize them and channel surf away when they stumble upon them. Examples are the Shell Oil Golf Tourney from Nome, Alaska…in January, Oral Roberts University vs. Trinity College Outdoor Ice Hockey from Dubai, Curling Live From Miss Sharyse’s African-Canadian Gaspé Bay Hair Salon, and The Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman Tennis Tournament from Ferndale, Ohio, in which all participants, male or female, must wear braided pigtails and gingham frocks with Peter Pan collars. I once stumbled upon a British Premier League soccer match between Tottenham and Bournemouth and wondered where the hell these two cities were and then retracted my thought with a quick channel-surfing snap and a booming, “Who the hell cares?” I suppose men named Nigel, Clive, Giles, Piers, Reginald, Rhys, and Percy do.

Of course these networks do air sporting events live. But then they replay them the following day for those viewers unable to watch the event live because their wives insisted they watch The Bachelor. Naturally, the results are available online for those weak, wife-obeying men who, in a hypnotized stupor, watch the event the next day although they know the outcome. Even I have spent much of an afternoon watching an entire tightly played, close-scored University of Southeast West Virginia vs East Dakota State Lacrosse match before I realized it had actually been played the day before and the outcome was known to the seven people who cared. As it turned out, I had wasted time I could have spent watching porn rooting for the wrong team. Apparently, the team with the cuter players is not necessarily the better squad.

While most of the on-air personalities on these networks are male, there are many female hosts and anchors. Some actually know sports. However, there are many who don’t. They look more like Ivanka Trump, Miss Universe, and Stormy Daniels than Martina Navratilova, Brittney Griner, and Abby Wambach, who look like and are actual athletes. This hiring practice puzzles me. I can’t for the life of me understand why network big-shots and producers select such sexy, long-haired, buxom beauties to host or participate in their programming. Why would a predominately male audience want that? It makes no sense to me. In fact, I’ve spent better than 200 hours in gay bars, alleged gay sports bars, asking patrons who were watching figure skating and critiquing outfits why the networks had hired these women. No one knew for certain. Two onlookers insisted the female sportscasters were drag queens. Eight others blamed Trump.

The men who host sports network programs are generally more qualified. They are, however, also opinionated, loud, testosterone-driven, and argumentative. And while physical attractiveness plays a definite role in the hiring of female sportscasters, it is not considered when hiring men. Neither is tact, civility, or reason.

Take the case of an unnamed network’s daily afternoon program that is typical of many. It is called Asses Talk Athletics and features a panel of sports aficionados who pontificate opinions and speculations as if they are fact. Asses Talk Athletics’ panel consists of Tex Wasserman, Kellieyee Lee Lindley, Ché Gomez-Schwartz, and Bailey Skipmore. I would describe the three men as blowhards; Kellieyee isn’t a blowhard. She’s too vacuous to form opinions. Even though she does participate in conversations and has some —OK, minimal—knowledge of sports, she serves more as window-dressing.  The male trio also makes The Three Stooges appear refined and classy.

Conversations go like this (Well, not exactly like this, but close. Close like a 275 – 273½ NBA score between the Boston Red Sox and Phil Mickelson.):

Stooge #1: “I’m sure Pruxyio Brexinskivo will go 7th in the NBA draft. No doubt about it.”

Stooge #2: “Seventh? You’re nuts. He’s not gonna go any higher than eighth. Eighth, you moron. He’s never made a free throw.”

Stooge #1: “Well, of course, he hasn’t. He played in Lithuanistan where they don’t realize free throws are part of the game. Besides he’s ¾ of an inch taller than anyone else expected to go in the first round. So he’ll go high.”

Stooge #3: “Are you both high? He’s going 17th. I’ve talked to two San Antonio Spurs ball boys and they say the NBA coaches all think he’s problematic because of his temper.”

Kellieyee starts giggling. “You said San Antonio Sperms!”

The Three Stooges look at her for a moment in disbelief.

Stooge #1: “His temper? Murder is not illegal in Lithuanistan. Especially when you kill both your dads.”

Stooge #3: “Seventeenth. He’s going 17th.” Stooge #3 stands, raises his voice, and points at Stooge #1: “You’re an idiot. He’s not going 7th. Everyone knows that. Even Kellieyee!”

Kellieyee: “What?” She tosses her tresses seductively and asks, “Does my hair look sexy this way?”

Stooge #2: “OK. Put your money where your mouth is. If Brexinskivo goes 7th, I’ll buy you dinner at Oscar Robertson’s Steak House. If he goes lower than that, you buy me Kellieyee.”

Kellieyee: “Kellieyee who?” She pouts her lips and then licks them. “Hey guys, do you think these cute dangly earrings make my butt look big?”

That brings us to the biggest ass in sportscasts, Canada’s own Don Cherry. Oh, I know he is a legend and he probably really does know ice hockey. But this politically conservative clown, who is in his 80s, is way past his expiration date.  It is time someone removes him from the sportscaster booth and throws him under a Zamboni. And then, for God sakes, burn his clothes.

Cherry’s colorful, flamboyant, garish suits and sports jackets are his trademark. They are a combination Phyllis Diller, Liberace, and Ronald McDonald. They are bright, brighter, in fact, than Kellieyee.  But he and his wardrobe have to go.

As for commercials on these sports networks, they are aimed at a predominately male audience and tout beer, trucks, and — oh, never mind. I have to leave. ESPNTSNCASTV is repeating the Hottest Cheerleaders Named Matthew List. I have to watch again. I really like the one who cheers for the San Antonio Sperms.

Getting Rear-Ended

I don’t have a car. I gave mine up when I moved to Mexico. I, in fact, have only driven once here at Lakeside, that being a two-mile jaunt helping a neighbor. There are several reasons why I don’t drive here. Mexican traffic laws are one of them. They are puzzling, contradictory, and quite different from those North of the Border (NOB).

To begin with, if one has an accident, it is possible that (s)he will be taken directly to jail until police determine who is at fault. If one doesn’t have insurance, and it is not mandatory in most of Mexico, (s)he will have to pay for the damages out of pocket at that time or remain in jail. That in itself would discourage me from driving here. But there are other reasons.

It is not uncommon for police to stop cars for minor or made-up infractions in order to finagle a mordida, or bribe, out of the driver. This occurs more regularly if one has US or Canadian license plates, is driving a rental car, or the driver appears to be non-Mexican. It isn’t the amount of the bribe that is the problem. It is, from what I hear, rarely more than $25 USD. For me, the stress and time wasted by the intimidation tactic is what is offensive.

But situations involving police are not the only issues one has to deal with while driving. Other drivers present problems, too. People frequently pass on the shoulder, often racing past numerous cars, and then crowd in to the stream of traffic. They also pass on the left, in the oncoming lane, in clearly risky situations. This is often unnecessary because many slow drivers, particularly big-rig truckers will signal with their left blinkers when it is safe to pass. They then will move slightly to the right to give the passing vehicle extra room.

It is also commonplace when you are waiting at an intersection with a left-turn blinker flashing and a chain of cars backed-up behind you, to have an on-coming driver stop and let you make a left turn  even though his lane is moving at a normal rate of speed. While the intent is kind, it can be a surprise, confusing, and unsafe because of the aforementioned passers. If you do not react quickly, the driver allowing the left turn will shrug and make a gesture as if he were saying, “What are you waiting for, Moron?!”

Another frequent situation drivers face here are traffic speed bumps, or topes (pronounced toe-pays). They are everywhere and are as common as stop signs or traffic lights NOB. Driving too fast over them certainly is hard on cars. And on human spines and stomachs, too. But they are an effective method of curtailing reckless speeding.

As a regular walker, I am aware how customary driving practices impact pedestrians, especially when walking on roadway shoulders or unfinished sidewalks. Cars speed by close enough to pedestrians for the walker to smell perfume or cigarette breath emanating from the passenger seat. Side-view mirrors have brushed pedestrians. Sleeves have been ripped. Forearm tattoos have been removed from arms. Wristwatches have been reset. Liposuction has been performed.

Mexican law in general, and that includes traffic laws, are based on the Napoleonic Code, meaning one is guilty until proven innocent. It also means one is not guaranteed a trial by any jury, let alone a jury of one’s peers. These conditions are contrary to laws in the US and lead me to be very cautious when dealing with legalities.

A prime example of a law contradicting what American and Canadian drivers expect involves rear-ending—ah, now you understand the title of this post. What? You thought it was about…Well, shame on you, you dirty-minded perv! Rear-end accidents are a common occurrence here. In the event a driver rear-ends another vehicle, it is not the fault of the driver following. It is the fault of the lead vehicle; apparently slamming on your brakes to avoid hitting another car, a human being, dog, or hallucination is not an excuse. The concept of safe following distances is not a part of traffic law in Mexico.

I also have observed that many laws or traffic rules— one-way streets or “No Left Turn” signs, for example—are not rigorously enforced. They seem to be mere suggestions. That, and the above-mentioned situations, makes driving in Mexico risky, dangerous, unpredictable, and more heart-stopping than a Disneyland E ticket ride. Therefore, I suggest if Americans or Canadians wish to drive in Mexico they become well-versed in local customs, expectations, and laws. And then, I suggest, they walk, take a bus, hire a cab or Uber, or never EVER leave the house.