Category Archives: Memories

Nelson Mandela Is Free

Nelson Mandela is dead. The world is full of TV documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles, and blog posts about his life. Most of these are reverent tributes to Mandela’s remarkable contributions to freedom and equal rights for the oppressed, while a few loud voices attempt to paint him as a villain. I haven’t been following the media coverage too closely; there is no need. The figure of Nelson Mandela has loomed large in my consciousness for most of my life. I will not attempt to retell his story here – there are far better sources you can find easily enough. Rather, I want to share with you how Nelson Mandela’s life has influenced mine.

I may be the only person in the world to become aware of apartheid because of a model airplane. I was thirteen years old, and building model airplanes was my main hobby. (For the benefit of my younger readers, “hobbies” were things people used to do before there were smartphones.) I had just finished assembling a Dassault Mirage jet fighter, and the only thing left to do was paint the camouflage and fasten the decals. There were two patterns diagrammed in the instructions: a rather boring French Air Force paint scheme, and a much more exciting one unlike any I had seen. It showed the whole airplane painted like a cheetah, snarling head and all, and it was South African Air Force. It looked fantastic, and I went to find my father and show him what I was going to do.

“Paint the French one,” he said, to my amazement. Then he explained how South Africa was a populous nation of black people ruled by a small white minority through the brutal enforcement of an evil policy called apartheid. I had never heard that word before – like most Norwegian kids in the early 80’s, I was as ignorant about South Africa as I was about Africa in general. The truth was an unpleasant shock. I painted French colors on my Mirage.

Over the next few years, apartheid and South Africa grew increasingly in the public consciousness. By the time I was in high school, everyone knew that Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over twenty years for opposing apartheid in his own country. We sang “Free Nelson Mandela” between classes and listened to United Artists Against Apartheid singing “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” on our boomboxes after school. Social pressure became political pressure; the rest is history. International boycotts and trade embargoes, added to the disapproval of the global public, took their toll. The face of the entire anti-apartheid effort across the world belonged to a black man serving his third decade on Robben Island. When F.W. de Klerk became President of South Africa in 1989, he immediately began the process of ending his own government. Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990. Blacks were allowed to vote for the first time in 1993, with the predictable result that Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

I don’t suppose anyone knew what to expect next. It would have been very easy for Mandela to rub salt into the deep and painful wounds left by racist-motivated atrocities, to inflame the long-suffering hearts of black South Africans against their white countrymen with words of anger and hate. Instead, he did the right thing – which, as usual, was the hard thing – and chose a path of truth and reconciliation.

And that is Nelson Mandela’s legacy to me, whatever anyone else makes of him: maybe the only public figure of my lifetime to play the roles of prisoner and president, of revolutionary and reconciler, of torture victim and healer of a nation. Now, after having done so much, he has sloughed off this mortal coil.

Nelson Mandela is free.

The Important Things

In a valley nestled between the mile-high peaks of the Mitras, the unmistakable Cerro de la Silla, and the Sierra Madre Oriental lies the city of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon. Founded in 1596, it is the third-largest metropolitan area in Mexico and a major industrial hub. But its people are the reason I will always love Monterrey.

CerroDeLaSilla

My wife grew up here; most of her large family lives here still. The old house resounds with the noise of children’s cries and laughter and running feet, of many voices talking. It smells of coffee and pastry and eggs and ham. These are more than in-laws; they are my own people.

This afternoon I am visiting Colegio Mirasierra. No school in the world has a more beautiful view: the twin peaks of La Silla – named for its resemblance to a medieval Spanish saddle – loom behind the campus. Opposite, the jagged ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madre rears against the turquoise sky. I used to teach seventh grade here. My sons once ran around this place in their green and white sport uniforms. Good memories are everywhere.

 

School is letting out, and students are everywhere. The halls and walkways are rivers of green and white. It is the busiest time of the day, but Lulu Valdes, the academic director of the school, greets me with the same warm smile and unshakable poise I remember from years ago. We talk of the last six years and the joys and troubles they have brought to both sides of the border. Lilia and I are both struck by the difference in the rhythm of life. Here, there always seems to be time for a visit and a good talk. Back in the USA, things are faster, as if people are caught in a perpetual cycle of production and consumption. We wonder what will become of the cycle when automation and artificial intelligence – already taking cashiers’ jobs, along with those of forklift drivers; soon to be followed by the rest of them – pushes the jobless rate to 90%. Life will doubtless become simpler for many of us, whether we wish it or not. Maybe we will use the time to sit and talk more, to eat slowly and enjoy our meals, to visit friends and turn our minds to other pursuits than production and consumption. That would, we agree, be not altogether bad.

It is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the wonderful people all over the world I have been privileged to call my friends and colleagues. I am thankful for the good will that works quietly and ceaselessly while corruption and evil strut and rage, in vain. I am thankful for places like this place, for times like this time. I am thankful for having the choice, in every moment, to stop and see the important things.

Is Fiction Important? (Or, a Fate Worse Than Death)

In a recent discussion of scary experiences (in which poisonous snakes, large spiders, and things that go bump in the night played a major part), I realized that one of the most horrifying moments of my life happened in a conference room in Tempe, AZ.

In jungles, deserts, and mountains all over the world, I have shared the trail with many creatures. A pair of coyotes on the Ozark Trail were beautiful and not scary at all. Rattlesnakes and a mountain lion in the Sonoran Desert were a little scarier. Neon-colored centipedes and giant woodlice fascinated my five-year-old mind in the highlands of Malaysia, along with forest sprites and machine gun-toting great apes (but that is another story). All these encounters were exciting at the time; long afterwards, they make pleasant memories. But the business meeting that day in Tempe was truly horrifying. (Describe the VP)

Back then, I was employed in a middle management position at a national corporation. Most of my colleagues were normal guys like myself. Maybe a little more normal. We were all nervous before this meeting; the corporate VP himself had called it. The VP was a man who, once a month, would fire whichever regional manager had the misfortune of generating the lowest sales numbers. This practice was supposed to motivate the rest of the regional managers to do their best in fear of losing their jobs; the real result was a corporate culture of dog-eat-dog, backstabbing struggle for survival.

The VP was tall and lean, around sixty, with graying black hair and a face deeply wrinkled and creased into a perpetual scowl, as if all the world had to offer him was disappointment and disgust. You couldn’t imagine him giving a lollipop to a child or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake. Tossing a lollipop down a storm drain, possibly. Extinguishing a birthday cake with a snow shovel, probably. He was the kind of boss whose idea of fun was watching the unlucky manager of the month try to walk away from his career with dignity. He would have made a good Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol, except that he would not have understood the joke.

I sat there like everyone else in the crowd, wondering if I would be the one fired for the edification and relief of my colleagues (and perhaps the entertainment of the VP). I watched him stalk to the front of the conference room and fix us all with his grim stare. Then it came, the moment of horror I will never forget as long as I live. The VP seemed to look straight at me as, in a voice like a glacier grinding the mountainside, he spoke the terrible words.

“I am proud to say that I have never, not once in my life, wasted my time reading a work of fiction.”

My brain recoiled from the dreadful cruelty of that sentence. Even today, twenty years later, I am struck by what C.S. Lewis would have called the banality of evil I saw in the VP.

Am I a better man than he? It is not for me to judge. But I tell you this: I love the smile on a little child’s face (whether from being given a lollipop or seeing something new and lovely). I like birthday cakes, even though they have stopped adding candles to mine, and I love reading – and writing – fiction. I cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss, who taught me the delight of words. Bradbury, Wells, and Verne taught me to dream; Lewis taught me to think. Logic, muttered the Professor; whatever do they teach children in these schools? I learned about chivalry from Howard Pyle (and from my own father, who would have been at home in Camelot or in Sherwood Forest). Grendel haunted my childhood nightmares, but Beowulf was there to wrestle him. Tolkien made me fall in love with beauty. Hemingway and Orwell showed me despair, and the courage to go down fighting, before I found them in my own life. Since then, Vinge and Tepper and Eco and Pears and Wolfe have challenged me to grow beyond myself.

If the greatest writer of all spoke true, and my life is but a stage, then fiction is the score. Without all those faithful companions, those wondrous stories, my walk would have been poorer, more lonely, and sadder by far. That is why the memory of that business meeting in Tempe bears such horror: the VP had lived his entire life without ever knowing the thrill, the joy, the agony and the ecstasy, the terror, the relief, the hopes and fears and defeats and triumphs, the good and the evil, the love and the hate, the life, the world reflected in the world that is fiction. He was hard, bitter, unimaginative, and aging. There, but for the grace of God – and the wisdom of good parents – go I. And that is the scariest thought I think I have ever had.

 

The Best Chocolate Story Ever

Everyone likes chocolate. Some people love it more than any other sweet food. Then there are the true chocolate lovers, whose appetite for chocolate goes far beyond what the rest of us can understand.

Chances are you know one of these “chocoholics”. You may be one yourself. But there was never a chocoholic like my grandpa.

Grandpa was what they call, in the part of the country where he lived, a Character. An avid outdoorsman, his hunting exploits were the stuff of legend; his fishing yarns were so extravagant he was disqualified from the annual Liars’ Contest – nobody else’s tales had a chance. Small business owner, city planner, backyard inventor of the only 100% effective  system for keeping neighborhood dogs from fouling a lawn…in other words, a Character.

And Grandpa loved chocolate. That’s an understatement. Grandma, who kept the books for their store, chided him for raiding the chocolate crates in the storeroom; he would eat up all their profit, she said, only half joking. Grandpa blamed mice. Grandma observed that the local mice were conscientious enough to throw the wrappers away when they ate chocolate from the storage crates.

One day Grandpa broke out in a rash. He wasn’t running a fever, so he didn’t worry too much; but the rash wouldn’t go away. His friend the town doctor was mystified. “It seems like some kind of allergic reaction,” he mused. “You’ve never been allergic to anything, have you?”

“No,” Grandpa answered. “No allergies.”

“Well, what are you eating?” asked the doctor.

“I don’t know!” replied Grandpa. “I eat all kinds of stuff – whatever’s for dinner!”

“We have to rule out some basic foods, then,” said the doctor. “Let’s isolate you for a week or so – take a vacation at your cabin. Make a list of all the things you take with you; jot down what you have for every meal. Hopefully when you come home the rash will be gone, and we can eliminate the items on your list.”

Grandpa didn’t hesitate. His cabin in the Rockies was his favorite place to get away and do what he loved most: hunt and fish. He loaded up the car with the bare necessities – including fishing tackle and his favorite rifle – and set off.

A week later he returned. The rash was worse than ever.

“Good Heavens!” said the doctor when he saw Grandpa. “You look worse than ever! It’s a safe bet that something you eat is making you sick. It must be something you took with you to the cabin. What did you eat up there?”

“Well,” said Grandpa, “I brought some flour, eggs, and cooking oil for pancakes. Had some bacon. Coffee, no milk. Trout from the lake – delicious!”

“None of those thing should have given you such a rash. Are you sure you didn’t eat anything else? Nothing at all?”

Grandpa paused. “I did have a little bit of chocolate.”

“Aha!” cried the doctor. “How much chocolate did you take up there?”

“A twenty-five pound bag of bridge mix…”

“What? No wonder you broke out in hives! How much of that bag did you eat?”

By now, Grandpa was getting defensive. “What do you mean, how much of it? I ate all of it!”

“Good Heavens, man!” roared the doctor. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive!”

Red-faced, Grandpa yelled back, “And that’s not all! I ate a ten-pound box of Hershey bars, too!”

The doctor threw his hands up in resignation. After Grandpa left, he made a phone call to Grandma; the result was a chocolate-free diet for Grandpa. The rash went away.

It’s all true, and it’s the best chocolate story ever. If you think you can beat it, you are welcome to try.

The Little-Known History Of Teddy Bears

Last time I went shopping for a child’s birthday gift, I was struck by how usual it seemed to be in a toy store the size of a big-box discount mart. When I was a child, the only real mega-size toy store in the world was Hamleys in London (still the world’s biggest!) For those of us not fortunate enough to live within pilgrimage range of Hamleys, the toy store was a small shop on the street, or a section in a department store. It has been many years now since I have seen a small toy store – I don’t even remember having seen a toy section in a department store recently. Come to think of it, since we have been back in the USA, I can’t remember having seen any toy stores at all except for the one big chain. I hope it’s my lack of attention and not an actual monopoly. The big retailer has a mind-boggling selection, more variety than I ever imagined as a child, but it just doesn’t feel like a toy store to me. Getting old, I guess.

I like the old toys, the ones I remember from childhood. The wooden train set, the LEGOs, the teddy bear. You know, the toys that have been around forever. Or have they? (Cue dramatic music.)

Of all the classic (or old-fashioned, depending on your point of view) pre-electronic toys, teddy bears are among the newest. They were first manufactured for sale in 1902 (LEGO goes back to 1934). There is no doubt that teddy bears had existed before 1902 – people have made stuffed toys for their own children for centuries, and dolls go back to the dawn of civilization – but nobody can verify dates for unique, home-made toys from hundreds of years ago, so toy history has to deal with factory-made toys available for sale to the public.

Of all toys, the teddy bear has the coolest legend behind its origin. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt is usually credited with being the inspiration for the creation of the teddy bear. Unfortunately, this turns out to be not quite true. I can already hear the angry howls of outrage from Teddy Roosevelt fans everywhere. Slow down and give me another minute. The legend is true; it’s the connection to teddy bears that doesn’t quite hold water.

For those readers who don’t know what the fuss is about, the legend – which, I repeat, is completely true – goes like this:

President Teddy Roosevelt was an avid outdoorsman – a genuine tough guy who loved big-game hunting. His physical fortitude was matched by his strength of character, which fact explains his continuing stature in American history as one of our great leaders. In November of 1902, President Roosevelt was invited on a bear hunt by the governor of Mississippi. After a long, exhausting day of hunting, Roosevelt still had not bagged a bear. He may have been in a bad mood at that point – hard work with no results will do that to most of us – and some of the staffers hunting with him thought it would be a good idea to make sure the President got a bear. In the end, hunting guide Holt Collier, aged 56, went out and brought a large black bear back alive – an incredible feat for a single hunter before tranquilizer darts. The bear was exhausted and hurt; the staffers tied it to a tree, brought the President, and told him he could shoot the bear. To his credit, Teddy Roosevelt was disgusted. No self-respecting hunter would shoot an animal that way. He refused, to the surprise of lesser men present. People talked; the word spread. The ground was laid for the legend of the Teddy Bear.

On November 16, 1902, the Washington Post published a drawing by political cartoonist Clifford Berryman. The cartoon showed President Roosevelt refusing to shoot a captive bear. Most readers paid more attention to the picture than to the caption: “Drawing the Line in Mississippi.” Berryman was using the hunting incident as a metaphor for President Roosevelt’s attitude towards racism in the South (and Mississippi in particular). The President had openly criticized the Mississippi state government for failing to stop lynchings of black citizens. He had also made a friend of his hunting guide Holt Collier, which was only an issue because Collier was black. The icing on the cake, though, came when President Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. Washington, the great black orator, activist, and political advisor, had been at the White House before, but always on business. This was different; this was a social occasion. Racists were furious at such a public statement of race equality. Berryman’s cartoon was an acknowledgement of Theodore Roosevelt’s contribution to civil rights in America. But it was 1902; sixty years too early for civil rights. The cartoon inspired a Brooklyn shopkeeping couple, Rose and Morris Michtom, to make and sell small stuffed bears – called “Teddy bears”, of course. The toys became immensely popular almost overnight. Teddy bears became the most popular toys in the world; they still are today, after an 111-year run.

So where is the legend wrong? The problem is that, although President Teddy Roosevelt did indeed inspire the Michtoms to make toy bears, and although Berryman’s cartoon was directly responsible for the popularity of the teddy bear, the first factory-made teddy bears were made in Germany by Richard Steiff. There are at least two important facts supporting Steiff as the creator of the modern teddy bear, rather than Michtom:

First, Michtom’s toy bear was directly inspired by the Nov. 16, 1902 cartoon referring to the Roosevelt hunting incident. Even if the Michtoms could have gone from the idea stage to production of the first prototype bears, and sold them before Christmas, this places the origin of the toy bear in America at the very end of 1902. The Michtoms’ son Benjamin remembered a letter from February 1903 from his mother to the President, requesting permission to use the name “Teddy” to market the bears. This letter has never been produced, but it is reasonable to date the beginning of teddy bear production in America to the beginning of 1903.

Second, the Steiff factory did begin production of toy bears in 1902, although they were not called “teddy bears” until after the Michtom bears became popular by that name.

Third, the likelihood of Steiff producing toy bears before Michtom is increased by the fact that Steiff was an established toy factory that had been making stuffed animals since 1880. The bear was a new addition to a number of stuffed animal toys, the first of which was an elephant. The Michtoms’ business was stationery, not toys; the bears were made by Rose Michtom as a personal response to the Roosevelt hunting story.

So, although the legend of the Teddy Bear remains intact, it was responsible for the name and the popularity of the toy, not for the stuffed bear itself. It will always be a good story, and even more so if we remember the character and the values of the man who gave his name to a stuffed bear.

 

Early Memories, pt.3

I am very small, and my father is very big. I sit on his shoulders with my fists clenched in his hair as he wades into the pool. The water is deep; I do not know how deep. As he walks farther out, the water rises over my feet. It is not cold, but I am afraid of going under. I hold on as tightly as I can; my chest is pressed against the back of his head as I pull the hair above his ears. He laughs. I know he wants me to feel safe, but I am still afraid. I cannot speak, but clutch my father’s head as it – and I – slip farther below the water’s surface. I am terrified that he will submerge completely. I do not want to be under the water. End of memory.

From pictures in the family album, I know this event took place before my first birthday. While I am not supposed to remember anything from that early stage in my life, before I had words to distinguish one thing from another, the memory is so clear, the emotion so powerful, that I cannot doubt its veracity.

Since that day, I have learned to walk by myself through deep water. I have sons of my own now, and know the joy and the burden of carrying them on my shoulders. In times of weariness and pain, my father’s strength within me – his gift, my birthright – keeps my back straight and my head high. I pass it on to my sons as best I can; as they ride on my shoulders, I am still somehow riding on his.

In all these years, through all the deep water, you never dropped me. Thank you, Dad.

Can We Trust Our Memories?

We all like to think that our memories are accurate. In other words, none of us likes to think that we don’t always remember things exactly the way they happened! How many times have you (or I) had a conversation that went something like this:

“That’s not what happened at all.”

“Of course it is! That’s exactly how it was!”

“Oh, you don’t remember! It was nothing like that!”

“You’re the one who doesn’t remember! I remember it like it was yesterday!”

It goes without saying that the other person was wrong. But imagine that both of you are reading this at the same time…

When I was in high school back in Norway, I had a teacher named Lasse who told us a story. If you will read it, I will tell it to you. Lasse once took a vacation and drove across the mountains from Oslo to Bergen. There are not many roads through the mountains; you can take the E16 all the way up Slidrefjorden and over to Lærdal, or leave the highway at Fagernes and go by Hallingskarvet and down through Vossevangen: a much shorter but smaller road, narrow but well-maintained. If you drive carefully, it is almost as safe as it is beautiful. That was Lasse’s choice, and it would have been mine too. He drove all through the morning, and by early afternoon he was climbing up to a high pass. Up ahead he saw an old VW Beetle laboring to crest the ridge; there was only about a half kilometer or so to the top. The Beetle was in the middle of the road, so Lasse could not pass. Just as he was thinking about pulling over and waiting for the little car to get over the ridge, another car came from the opposite direction – came popping up over the top of the pass like a jack-in-the-box – and smashed head-on into the Beetle. The speed limits on those mountain roads are 45 km/h (or about 28 mph for the few of us in the world who still doggedly refuse to accept the logic of the Metric System), so the cars were going fast enough to smash themselves up pretty well, but nobody was killed. Lasse stood on the brake pedal and was able to avoid joining the wreck. This was long before cellular phones; Lasse made sure the other drivers were all right, then continued on his way, stopping 40 kilometers down the road at Flåm to notify the police and dispatch a tow truck. Having performed his civic duty, he enjoyed four more days of his vacation before being summoned as a witness to the courthouse in Flåm. Each of the drivers had accused the other of being at fault, and Lasse’s testimony was needed to resolve the matter.

“I remember perfectly,” he told the judge after driving up the mountain again for three hours. “I was behind the Beetle and thought to myself that it was a bad idea to be driving right in the middle of the road.”

“How did you know it was right in the middle of the road?”

Lasse smiled confidently. “I knew it was in the middle of the road because I could see the yellow stripe exactly between the rear tires,” he said.

“That is strange,” said the judge, “seeing as how that section of road has no striping.”

“Of course it does,” Lasse replied, a bit annoyed. “I remember it very clearly.”

“I assure you it does not,” said the judge. And he ordered a policeman to drive over the pass with Lasse in a police car to inspect the road.

There was no striping on the road.

And that is the end of the story.

Another Early Memory

I am sitting in a dim hall with a window, reading a book. It is quiet. The room seems blue, but it might be the lighting. From the apparent size of everything – the ceiling seems impossibly high, the window is enormous – I must have been very small. I am pretty sure it is the third-floor apartment in Chittagong, so I would have to be two or three years old. The book is called We Feed a Deer; I have no memory of the story, which presumably concerns children feeding an even-toed ungulate. My mother enters the room. “Two-thirty,” she says. “Time for tea.” I think to myself that two-thirty is the best time of day. At present, it seems to me that two-thirty would be too early for tea, but the recollection is clear; such a peculiarity, I feel, is unlikely to derive from my imagination, and is probably a reliable memory.

I have a number of such fragmented memories from early childhood, even infancy. From five years on, my recall is very complete; if I take the time to concentrate, I can access memories from any part of my life, each of which sparks a cascade of related memories. I believe a major reason for this is that my mother taught me to read at such an early age. Words allow the mind to fix thoughts and perceptions in a stable form; this must be a necessary condition for memory.

My first teacher, first shaper of my emerging mind: thank you, Mom.

My Earliest Memory

Last Thanksgiving (no, that is not my earliest memory) we drove out to Mesa, AZ to spend the holiday with my side of the family: my parents, sister, and her three children. At some point my mother and I got to talking about childhood memories, and I told her the earliest memory I can recall.

I am in a dimly lit room, looking out a window. Outside is a hazy landscape – a valley and forested mountainsides. My mother’s voice is singing.

As I described my impressions, my mother’s face grew serious. “A valley?” she said. “Yes,” I replied. “That part is absolutely clear.”

“The only place we lived that looked like that was in the Philippines,” she said. “We moved away before you were a year old. I held you in my arms and sang to you as I looked out the window.”

I do not know how I can remember that scene. Clear memories are supposed to begin with the acquisition of vocabulary, since before there are labels, there can be no cognitive separation of objects.  I do know that the memory is real – the impression is very strong.

Mom, do you remember the song? I don’t remember any words, only the sound of your voice.