Just yesterday, I handed the keys of my aging silver car to its new owner. I watched him open the door and then drive away. Well, that’s a relief, I thought. The car is sold. The transaction went smoothly. I received a decent price. Then I headed for my husband’s car.
Let me tell you something about Husband's car. Its custom license plate makes reference to having fun, something which turned ironic when a policeman stopped him for speeding and said, “You having fun?” Anyway, he had waited for me in his dark green convertible with the top down while I watched the new owner drive away. After our years together, my husband recognized that I needed my sentimental moment of saying good-bye to my faithful companion of many years. I then opened the door of my husband's car, sat down, and noticed absently that music was playing.
Then I realized what the music was, and my eyes teared. He had chosen a CD which, when the album first came out, was a favorite for us while on trips in my old car. All the songs of that Buena Vista Social Club album are still loved, but Chan Chan remains a first among equals. Hearing it was a reminder that the transaction which had just occurred was not a simple head decision. It also involved the heart.
We then went on a drive while Chan Chan played. The wind lifted my hair. The sun warmed my face. I listened to those Cuban old-timers weave their magic whileI reminisced about the wonderful moments my old car and I had shared. So here again is my fond farewell to my silver companion, my good friend of many years.
For the impact of music on the brain, you might also want to check out my earlier post:
All the way home from school, I wondered if my mother’s morning promise would actually happen. Would she or would she not prepare mofongo as she had said that morning? I could barely contain my excitement as I opened our door. An aroma of garlic wafted toward me, but was it from the mofongo? The moment I walked into our kitchen and saw the pilón wood mortar, I knew I had gotten my wish. I didn’t need milk and cookies as an after-school treat. Mami had prepared the mashed plaintain dish for me. I could sit and eat mofongo directly from the pilón. If my nonPuerto Rican classmates only knew what they were missing!
Though mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish, its origins may have been the fufu dish of Africa. It is also now popular in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Indeed, today, I will travel an hour and a half to reach a Cuban restaurant that serves the best authentic mofongo around.
There are probably as many mofongo recipes as there are cooks, but here is a basic one, courtesy of ElBoricua.com:
(Makes about 3 medium size balls)
Monfongo is made by mashing tostones (twice fried plantains) with garlic, olive oil, and chicharrón or bacon.
3 green plantains
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ lb. chicharrón or cooked bacon (crumbled)
Vegetable oil for frying
First make tostones as follows:
oil for frying
Slice the peeled plantains diagonally into 1" slices. Fry the slices over medium heat until they soften. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Using a tostonera (a press), slightly mash each piece to about half an inch in thickness. If a tostonera is not available insert the pieces between a folded piece of brown-paper sack and press down using a saucer. It is best to press all the pieces first before going on the next step. Dip each piece in warm salted water and fry again until crispy. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels.
Next, mix together the garlic olive oil and chicharrón or bacon.
Mash the tostones, a few at a time in the pilón (never use a food processor), adding a little bit of the garlic mixture. You will have to work a few slices at a time. When all done mix all the batches together for even distribution of seasoning. Add salt if needed. This is a side dish that needs to be served warm. Keep forming balls until mixture is all used up.
Serve with fried pork meat and fried onions, or with soup, or as a side dish….. yummy!
Even The New York Times has recognized the humble mofongo, though their version looks a little too gentrified for my tastes. You can also have the relleno versions, where the mofongo is stuffed with additional ingredients. Pork, shrimp, and chicken are among the favorites, but stewed beef and other seafood can also be used. All delicious. And, seriously, almost the best part of eating mofongo is eating it right out of the pilón.
Now let me see if I can convince my husband to hop in our car and head for La Carreta Restaurant.
“Slide In, My Dark One, Between the Crosstie and the Whistle”
In a shift from this series’ earlier focus on public figures, this time I highlight a hero from what Mexico’s Elena Poniatowski calls the silent voices of society. I do so by reviewing her above-mentioned short story, in which Pancho, a steam train engineer, copes with being displaced by the innovation of the diesel engine.
Poniatowski’s portrayal of this ordinary train engineer is elevated, first, by her sensuously written analogy of the love Pancho has for his wife Teresa and the love he also holds for his train engine La Prieta. “… when Teresa sat on top of him while they made love, … Pancho felt as satisfied then as he did before his engine’s control panel. A dense happiness slid through him.”
The story is also elevated by Poniatowski’s exquisite sensitivity to the psychology of loss. Pancho’s heartbreak is expressed with the resignation of the powerless and dispossessed, “Anyway, he’s used to it by now; he can put up with that and a lot more; he can put up with a helluva lot.”
Both of Pancho’s loves end up betraying him: Teresa, by leaving him for another man; and La Prieta, by being displaced by a diesel engine. Though the doubly heartbroken Pancho tries valiantly to fit into the new modern order, his now obsolete skills offer him no place there. He is further destabilized because Teresa’s absence left him bereft of a soft landing in the face of jarring professional loss.
For a while, Pancho runs the impersonal new diesels while continuing as a union leader. “…the older guys respect Pancho and the younger ones want to be noticed by him. The superintendent feels the same way.” In the end, though, Pancho acknowledges the permanency and enormity of his losses: his Teresa, his beloved Prieta, and his full value as a steam rail engineer.
Pancho then steals with impunity his old engine La Prieta and disappears into the countryside. After a while, “… a rumor is spreading of a runaway engine that makes ghost runs, and at night you can hear how the engineer opens the steam valve and then the mountain echoes with a long lament, like the cry of a wounded animal, a deep pained cry that cuts the mountains of Puebla in two.”
Elena Poniatowski was born in Paris to a Polish father and Mexican mother and has worked as a journalist. She published a novel, Hasta No Verte, Jesús Mío, about Mexican history from pre-Revolutionary days to more recent times. She has also written a testimonial narrative of the 1968 Tlatelco massacre, Massacre in Mexico. Again, melding history with social commentary, she has written a number of other short stories.
Fundamentally, this particular story, “Slide In, My Dark One …,” depicts how an individual, faced with deep loss and armed with limited resources, strives to maintain intact his personal dignity. Pancho’s is a quiet heroism, as is true of so many of the silent voices of society who live challenging lives without acclaim. Pancho made his final heroic stand by disappearing, perhaps in recognition of being powerless to change the new order; in the process, becoming a mythic figure. Dramatic technological, political, and socio-economic shifts are today an increasing reality for many. Let us hope they too can find their voices.
My father wrote me a poem for my second birthday. He was living in the U.S., far from our sleepy Puerto Rican village, and he mailed the poem to my mother so she could read it to me. The poem exceeded the comprehension of a two-year-old, but the tattered letter became something I resurrected over the years on my birthday.
Originally, I had no intention of posting that poem. After three attempts at writing a post for today, though, nothing seemed particularly appropriate or ready or something. I was about to forgo posting anything new on the 8th when I recalled my father’s poem. Since today is my birthday, I decided to post the poem.
So here it is; first, in the original Spanish; and, second, as translated by me. Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate and furthermore I am not a professional translator so the English product is a mere glimmer of the Spanish original. If anyone has suggestions for improved translation, please leave them in the comments section. I thank you in advance.
You may scroll down for the English translation.
En el día de tu cumpleaños
En el límpido cielo de tu día un reflejo auroral te está besando. ¡La natura se viste de alegría! ¡Todo parece estar en armonía! al saludar tu alegre cumpleaños.
Todo ante ti es piélago de ensueños donde te irradia el sol de Puerto Rico. ¡Todo recibe inspiración del cielo! Mi lira de cantor en raudo vuelo llega hasta ti para cantarte un himno.
Hoy, cumples dos abriles ¡qué dichosa! Dos años que se van … nunca ellos vuelven, pero dejan en mí la bella historia de los primeros lampos de tu gloria, que al celebrar tu día resplandecen.
¡Oh mi Judith! ¡mi cariñosa hijita! remanso en que se borra mi amargura; ese aliento, que en Lares tú respiras, de allá viene a confrontar mi vida, pues yo siento al respirarlo tu frescura.
Ya que en mi suerte deparó el destino que en tu día besarte yo no pueda, oraré con fervor al Dios divino, que las rosas alfombren tu camino y de Cristo conserves la nobleza.
On Your Birthday
In the limpid sky of your day an auroral reflection is kissing you. Nature is dressed in joy! All seems to be in harmony! to greet your joyous birthday.
Everything before you is a sea of dreams where the sun of Puerto Rico irradiates you. Everything receives inspiration from heaven! My lyre of singer in swift flight reaches you to sing a hymn.
Today, you reach two years. How blessed you are! Two years that leave ... never to return, but they leave in me the lovely history of the first lampos [?] of your glory, which glow while celebrating your day.
Oh, my Judith, my loving daughter! haven which erases my bitterness; this encouragement, which in Lares you breathe, reaches here to confront my life because I feel your freshness as I breathe.
Since fate would have my destiny be that on your day I could not kiss you, I will pray fervently to divine God that roses carpet your path and that you retain Christ’s nobility.
“Unlike the novel, a short story may be, for all purposes, essential.” — Jorge Luís Borges
Recently, I reread the masterful short story "Tell Me a Riddle" by Tillie Olsen, which won the 1961 O. Henry Award. The story’s emotional impact was so powerful that I asked myself how it was possible that a 30-page story could do that. It might seem as if writing a novel is more difficult than writing a short story, but the technical skill employed in Olsen’s story demolishes that argument.
I might be alone in having written novels before I ever got around to writing short stories. In that, perhaps I had fallen prey to the attitude that only novels could be important. I began writing short stories only to satisfy the requirements of a writing class. I complied, but still clung to my first love, writing novels. Over thirty stories later, though, I looked up and said, wow, I really like the short story form.
As I began writing this post about the differences between novels and short stories, I quickly found myself speaking in similes. That bothered me until I realized that perhaps no definition, other than word count, evokes the telling distinction between a novel and a short story. So bear with me as I indulge in simile.
A novelist has to be like a symphony composer as well as an orchestra conductor. In those capacities, the writer is in charge of lots of moving parts, in harmony or disharmony, threatening at any point to run away from the group or remaining happily seamless.
A short story is like a single drop of water which freefalls to a new destination; clear, whole, its parts conjoined in compact form, having a subversive power. Over time, like its relative—the torrent—a drop of water will etch through rock. Carrying the water simile further, the torrent is of course the novel, except that sometimes novels are more like eddies.
A short story, like an exposed nerve, can only be borne for a short period of time. A novel is more like a recent bruise, whose healing allows time to reflect on its cause and also to watch its slow healing.
They are both powerful forms. Indeed, two of my favorite movies of the previous decade bring home this point for me. Both Oscar-winning movies were developed from previously published print material. The Hours was adapted from the novel by Michael Cunningham; Brokeback Mountain, from the short story by Annie Proulx. In both cases, I believe the movie caught the essential power of the source material. Did Cunningham then waste his readers’ time since Annie Proulx packed an equally powerful emotional punch in a tenth the length of the novel? I suspect the answer to this will be as individual as the person who opines. Let us just perhaps agree that both source materials were excellent.
By the way, writing short stories did improve my writing craft. I am a much better novelist for it. I would like to think that even though only a few of my stories have been published, I have also turned into a decent short story writer. I suspect that, once I have done some ruthless editing, more of my stories will be published. I have just sent out for consideration a story which is now half of its former size. Let’s see what happens.
I would love to hear your thoughts about the short story form versus the novel form.
The defining image of this blog is a waterfall. Its inspiration comes from a scene in one of my novels in which the infant protagonist escapes her mother’s attention and wanders off to a nearby waterfall. While there, she experiences a mysterious sense of wellbeing, which she yearns to replicate for the rest of her life.
"I have made love to my writing and am now in the afterglow."
"Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
About his fictional town Macondo, widely acknowledged to be inspired by his real home town of Aracataca, Colombia. “Macondo is not so much a place as it is a state of mind.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear."
"The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing."
Blaise Pascal, Pensées
"There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and, because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly... to keep the channel open."