In I Don't Know What I'm Doing, he offers a look at his varied life experiences, including ruminations on his day-to-day, routine activities.
From the antics of his apartment tenants, to his travels with his wife, his adult children's excursions, to ordinary trips to the shopping mall, this memoir chronicles life from the eyes of a retired professional, husband, and father. Haim shares a world of observation about human beings, philosophy, science, music, travel, chess, and the creative act of writing.
Haim, who came to the United States from Bolivia more than forty-six years ago, reflects on a plethora of subjects and ideas that have formed the man he is today. He narrates his unending story in I Don't Know What I'm Doing.
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Scary Noises Upstairs
A few weeks ago, a message came to our phone answering machine.
This message is for Aaron and Anita Haas. I own the unit below yours, and your tenant is becoming a nuisance. I complained to the association.
She described her problem with all the details. Apparently, our tenant's heavy footsteps annoyed her. She said she would take legal action if necessary. She asked us if we could tell him to be aware somebody was living in the apartment below him.
The message concluded, "Thank you! I will be back to you if the situation doesn't change. Goodbye!"
In the following days, my wife got in touch with the manager of the association, the neighbor downstairs, and our tenant to solve or at least improve the situation.
I asked Anita to play back the three messages our tenant's neighbor had left on our answering machine and the one she had left on Anita's cell. It occurred to me that each one could go at the beginning of a chapter; I told Anita not to erase them. They were rich, spontaneous, original material and a source of inspiration. "I should be grateful to her. She's the reason I have something to write about," I said. Laughing, Anita agreed.
Meanwhile, we were busy planning some trips. I had always wanted to see the world, but I had only recently given myself permission to do that. "What if we go to Washington, DC, for a few days at the end of the month? We could see the city and attend this meeting that's supposed to take place there," I said.
"Let's do it," Anita wholeheartedly said.
As the first pages of my writing started to take shape, I gained confidence, and my enthusiasm increased. My wife and children provided help and encouragement.
My son said, "I think people would enjoy reading this." When I asked him if it was good, he answered, "More than good." My daughter was also enthusiastic. She sent a text message: "Excellent, Pop. Keep writing."
Of course I liked the praise, but I understood that because they loved me, they would not give me a negative review. I needed an objective opinion; only someone outside my little circle could provide me that. But who? I didn't know anyone in publishing.
At that time, I received an email from a folk-dancing friend. She said that I shouldn't miss the upcoming session, that I shouldn't find an excuse again. The week before, I had fallen asleep while flossing my teeth in bed watching TV. When I woke up, it was too late to go to the class.
Jeanne always wrote her emails in perfect English; I admired her precise, correct writing. I thought she would be ideal to read what I had written. Perhaps she could give me an honest opinion. I wrote to her during the last snowstorm.
Your English is excellent. Do you have an English major? I bet you would be a good editor. Have you done some editing before? I have a reason for asking.
Take care, Aaron
Her answer came back the next day.
I was never an English major. As an undergraduate, I was a math and computer science major. My master's degree is in computer science, but it's woefully out of date, since I never went back to it after having kids.
However, my father was a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher, and I learned from him that words are important. So, I haven't done any official editing, but I tend to notice mistakes people make sometimes even in published material. And it often takes me quite a while to compose an email, because I'm constantly editing it!
Most people treat emails very casually, like spoken language, but I can't seem to do that because they are written, and I was taught that written language is formal. So my emails tend to be a cross between casual spoken language and formal written language.
I hope this answers your question. Why do you ask?
I answered right away.
I have been writing something, and my family thinks it's good. However, I need somebody outside my little circle to give me an honest opinion and perhaps some encouragement.
Would you be willing to do it?
And how's the snow treating you?
Take care, Aaron
I didn't get an answer for a week. She usually answered promptly, so I figured she must have been busy or out of town. The next Tuesday was the folk-dance teacher's ninetieth birthday. She was a wonderful woman who was remarkably healthy and active for her age. She had a vast knowledge of and experience with folk dancing.
Elizabeth, a vegetarian, once told me she had never eaten meat or fish. I found that amazing. That was probably a result of her parents being vegetarian. They owned a hotel in Upstate New York, and that is where she grew up.
My children are vegetarian, but that came after a conversion later in life since Anita and I had no such restrictions. My daughter decided to stop eating meat because she considered killing animals to be cruel. Sometime later, my son became vegetarian. The day after he saw a movie that filmed a meat-processing plant where unusual things were happening, he announced, "I'm not eating meat anymore."
Many attended Elizabeth's birthday party from all over New Jersey, and some came from Pennsylvania. She had made many friends during her long career in folk dancing.
My interest for international folk dancing started about thirty-seven years previously. One day when Anita and I went to swim at a community center in West Orange, we heard music coming from one of the rooms. We approached the door and saw people dancing in a big circle to an Eastern European melody with carefully choreographed steps.
Anita said, "I'd like to do that."
We started going every Monday, and we became familiar with the melodies and the specific choreography for each dance until it became a habit.
My appreciation for the dancing increased over the months. My feet responded to the challenge, and it was excellent exercise. A few notes of melody corresponded to specific body movements in a carefully choreographed dance. The pleasure of listening to the music was augmented by the steps that put me in a sort of hypnotic trance. I fell into a level of awareness different from ordinary consciousness.
International folk dancing doesn't require a partner since it is usually done in a circle with many participants. After thirty-seven years at it, my mind and body have become adept at sometimes complicated choreographic movements. However, with the passing of time, doing vigorous turns has become challenging, and I prefer to skip them since they don't change the rhythm of the dance.
At the party, I saw Jeanne busy arranging the food, including vegetarian dishes. After she finished, she told me why she hadn't responded to my email.
"I've been very busy these days," she said. She told me her sick mother needed her attention. "I'm interested in your writing, but I just don't have time to devote to it. That's why I didn't answer you right away. I wanted to explain it to you personally."
"I'm sorry your mother is sick," I said. "Don't worry about it.
You don't have to do anything. Just read it if you can."
"What's it about?" she asked.
I hesitated and then replied, "Well, about real life."
"No, more like personal experiences."
Somebody else joined the conversation, and we changed topics.
We kept mingling with other people, dancing, and tasting the vegetarian dishes.
Later, I told Jeanne that I couldn't bring my papers the next day because I was going to Washington, DC. However, I told her that in two weeks, they would be ready for her to look at them.
The next morning as I was shaving, I remembered that Anita was acquainted with an editor who worked for a big publishing company.
"Hey," I said with my face full of shaving cream, "do you remember your friend who works for that publishing company in New York?"
She didn't know right away whom I was talking about, but after a while, she said, "Ah yes, Debbie. Why?"
"She's an editor."
"Oh, okay," she said cautiously. "And you'd pay her?" "Of course."
That evening at dinner, I said in jest, "I think I know how to bribe Debbie. If we tell her she'll be mentioned in the book, she'll be more amenable to taking a look at it."
"She's a Frisbee mom you know," my wife said in the same light tone.
"Ah! A Frisbee mom," I said with a genuinely interested tone.
Anita broke out laughing.
Our son, Benny, was a Frisbee coach and had worked closely with her son. But of course, we were not really thinking of using that route. Benjamin has been playing and coaching ultimate Frisbee for many years. He started when he was attending Columbia High School in Maplewood. He continued playing as well as coaching in college and to a lesser degree in law school.
The game of ultimate Frisbee was actually invented by a group of students from Columbia High. They used to play in a parking lot near the school. There is a bronze plaque over a large rock in the corner of the lot acknowledging this fact. They played pickup games every Friday night, and on Thanksgivings, students there played a team of alumni. Ben had been very active in organizing ultimate Frisbee at the school and was the coach for many years. He led the team to the New Jersey state championship several years in a row.CHAPTER 2
Anita Emails Our Tenant
Anita sent an email to our tenant.
I am sorry to bother you, however, the neighbor below you is upset. She cannot sleep because there is noise when you walk at night.
I cannot understand it since there is carpeting on the floor. However, could you possibly be more aware of this? Thank you.
I was less anxious about resolving this problem because I had time to think. It was then that I decided to write about it.
Anita said, "We've had him as a tenant for more than a year, and she hasn't complained before. Why's she upset now? It doesn't make sense!"
"Maybe something's wrong with her," I said. "Do you know if she has any family?"
"What about the other neighbors?"
"I have no idea. I could ask our previous tenant."
Later, she sent him a text message.
Hi, I am sorry to bother you. This is Anita. The neighbor who lives below the unit is complaining about my tenant. That he makes a lot of noise when he walks. She cannot stand it. She has become very belligerent and calls us to tell him to stop and is using foul language. Have you had any issues with her? I hope she doesn't become violent. Any ideas?
His answer came a few hours later.
Hi Anita. She lived below us the entire time and never complained once. Sorry to hear about the issue. Hopefully, there is a way to resolve. Maybe more carpeting/rugs.
That message left us more puzzled about her state of mind. What could possibly have triggered all that? Also, it was possible that our tenant really did tread heavily.
Meanwhile, we were planning our trip to Washington, DC. Anita wanted to drive there. "I've done it before when I went to protest against the Iran deal," she said.
"But it is hard on the bones, and we'll have to look for bathrooms on the road."
"No problem," she said. "We'll stop often and take as much time as necessary."
"I don't think I can take it. Let's go by train instead," I protested imploringly.
In the end, we decided to take the Acela Express. The trip was only two hours and fifteen minutes and promised to be comfortable. Moreover, I made the decision to go in the first-class wagon for additional comfort. The seats were wide and pleasant, and we would get a meal as well as good service.
"It will be nice," I'd told my wife. I hadn't planned to write all these details about our trip, but one night while turning in bed unable to sleep, I remembered something Philip Roth had said in an interview. He had retired and was explaining the difference between a novel and a short story. He said, "When you write a novel, you expand, expand, expand. When you write a short story, you contract, contract, contract."
I've read most of his novels starting with Goodbye, Columbus. The story takes place in Newark and Short Hills, which are near Maplewood, where we lived years earlier. Beside his amazing writing, what attracted me to Roth was his mentioning all the places where he had spent his youth and which also had a sentimental hold on me. Goodbye, Columbus became a movie, but the action takes place in Upstate New York. I'm not sure why the producers deemed it necessary to make that change; I felt disappointed that it didn't mention the towns with which I was familiar.
While enjoying the train ride, I noticed a familiar face across the aisle and not far behind me reading a newspaper. It was the TV journalist Ted Koppel. I fell to the temptation of approaching him and said, "You don't look familiar." Without giving him a chance to react, I went back to my seat so fast that I didn't have time to feel embarrassed.
Such daring is out of character for me. All my life I have been reserved, careful, and shy. In the last few months, I have been talking more to strangers and engaging in conversations that hadn't interested me before. I think that happened gradually after I learned that my prostate biopsy turned out to be negative. I was alive again and perhaps more than ever.
The next day while watching TV in the hotel room, I found out that Koppel had had a controversial interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News. My daughter would have called that synchronicity.
Before leaving for our trip to Washington, I told Anita that half the fun of traveling was planning the trip; that let your imagination ponder the future, and it tried to complete yourself. Once you arrive at that future, there's sort of a letdown. Perhaps it wasn't as perfect as you had imagined.
At the end of the trip, you're tired and looking forward to the familiarity of your home. You welcome your kitchen, your bedroom, and your routine. It takes a couple of days before you're settled enough to think about a future adventure.
I love travel companies' pamphlets and booklets; their colorful pictures and itineraries transport you to places and fire your imagination about them. I also like TV programs about traveling; my DVR is programmed to record them automatically. I have hours of Rick Steves's Europe that take me to all the corners of that continent.
Author Alain de Botton wrote about the fun of anticipating and planning a trip. Many years ago, when I was engrossed in existential literature and philosophy, I read Jean Paul Sartre, who mentioned the enthusiasm of anticipation and the slight disappointment of the achievement of that anticipation. That feeling applies to other areas of our lives.
On the other hand, there is also the consolation that situations will never be as bad as we anticipate. When I was told that I needed a biopsy because my PSA (prostate specific antigen) was elevated, I was shocked. In the following weeks, I kept thinking about it, but most of the time, I concentrated on other matters. I realized that as bad as the news might be, I would accept it easily because my mind would be busy. And when I thought about the biopsy, I knew that the thought wouldn't last long; most of the time, it would be replaced by something else. That made acceptance easier. Nevertheless, the negative biopsy was a relief.
In Washington, DC, we took the Hop On–Hop Off bus tour that stopped at the important places in the city. We'd decided to take it easy, so the only stop we made was the Museum of Natural History. We bought tickets to the IMAX theater for additional relaxation. The IMAX show I chose — about the national parks — was the best of the three on offer then, but didn't meet my expectations as I had hoped to see more about the Grand Canyon and its geological history. Nevertheless, the show was spectacular in 3-D.
The meeting in Washington was impressive with its good organization and big crowds. I told Anita that I would like to sit on the end of the long rows of seats to listen to the speeches and occasional interviews. That way, I could easily stand up and walk around without disturbing others. The speeches were interesting, but I would soon get impatient and want to move. I walked along the edges of the enormous hall counting the number of steps and my mileage on my Apple Watch.
I'd gotten an Apple Watch because I wanted an incentive to move around as much as possible. Before, I was using a simple step and mileage counter I'd hook on my shirt pocket. One day, I decided to get the more sophisticated Apple device. The first week I got it, I was telling everybody I knew that I loved it and that they should get one themselves. I would add that I was using only about 5 percent of its many apps.
In the afternoons were individual talks in smaller rooms on a variety of topics. I picked three that seemed promising, and my wife chose a topic that interested her. The first was Anita's choice, and I found it interesting. It was related to the Iran nuclear deal. The second talk was by an author of a book about Eisenhower and the Middle East. I learned many facts about that.
The next afternoon, we listened to Bernard Henry Levy, a French philosopher I had seen many times on the Charlie Rose show on PBS. He spoke about his recent book. I was fascinated by him and the subject. He explained everything with passionate gestures.
The next talk turned out to be a disappointment. It was about the Sykes-Picot agreement and the division of countries in the Middle East. I had read about that and thought it seemed promising. He started by reading from a book, and after making a comment, he simply continued reading. I was hoping he would stop reading and put more passion into his talk. The other people seemed to be paying attention or pretending to.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "I Don't Know What I'm Doing"
Copyright © 2018 Alain Haim.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Scary Noises Upstairs, 1,
Chapter 2 Anita Emails Our Tenant, 7,
Chapter 3 Our Tenant's Version, 14,
Chapter 4 Another Message, 23,
Chapter 5 A Short Message from Our Tenant's Neighbor, 33,
Chapter 6 A Complaint to the Association, 46,
Chapter 7 The Dispute Continues, 52,
Chapter 8 A Water Leak in the Neighbor's Apartment, 61,
Chapter 9 Our Tenant Is Aware of the Law, 73,
Chapter 10 More Complaints, 85,
Chapter 11 Our Tenant Goes to Florida, 95,
Chapter 12 Three Weeks of Tranquility, 106,
Chapter 13 The Dispute Goes to Court, 121,
Chapter 14 A Judge Will Decide, 132,
Chapter 15 New Carpeting, 143,
Chapter 16 No Complaints, 157,
Chapter 17 Plumbing Problems, 168,
Chapter 18 Water Keeps Leaking, 173,
Chapter 19 Plumbing Problems Continued, 178,
Chapter 20 Extensive Damage, 188,
Chapter 21 Several Months Later, 195,