December 31st. Malaga. Very tired after driving a thousand kilometers yesterday. It's been an adventure filled year and I feel extremely grateful to have had it so generously full of love and support from family and friends. We'll eat grapes tonight and make toasts, and then I'm going to bed. The girls can party on my behalf.
Yesterday I took the girls and Jake, Alma's boyfriend, to Bilbao. The focus of the visit, of course, was Frank Geahry's famous building that houses a Guggenheim museum. Always impressive. Additionally, there was a very interesting temporary exhibit of works from Viena's Kunsthistoriches Museum. Quite ecclectic, organized around the vague theme "All the Histories of Art". The exhibit included two portraits by Velazquez, one of which was of the Infanta Margarita, who I had mistakenly thought ended up in a convent in Madrid. No! I got my princesses confused. But her fate wasn't much better: she was married off to her uncle, the empreror Leopold, in 1666, gave birth to four children and died at the tender age of 22. Anyway, the portrait is wonderful, but it's very sad to think that it was painted for the express purpose of allowing the court in Viena to see what they were getting in this arranged marriage. Poor girl! There was also a big retrospective of works by Cy Twombley, but that was of no interest to me. After the Guggenheim we took some refreshment at a little bar, then had lunch at the Café Iruña, a Bilbao landmark. Good, but not great. After lunch we walked along the river and had coffee in the parte vieja. A beautiful day.
Random notes from Donosti: It's been a food feast since we got here on Sunday night. Yesterday we had some incredible stuffed squid in their ink for our midafternoon meal, than last night it was stuffed crab. And all kinds of other delicacies. A few minutes ago I put half a lamb in the oven. And Merry Christmas. It's a cold, cloudy day, but we are all together and it's grand fun. Waldo knocked over the little Christmas tree. In Madrid I flew a paper airplane onto an old lady's coffee saucer. An almost perfect flight: I missed landing the plane in her cup of hot chocolate by just a few inches. Why do my daughters get emabarrassed? Sometimes they just have no sense of humor. That was Sunday morning at San Ginés, the most famous chocolatería in the world. On the drive up to San Sebastián Daniela, Asun and I stopped in Lerma and had a nice coffee break in the Parador, which is located in the famous palace that for centuries was the property of the Duke of Lerma. Alma and Cristina took the train. On Tuesday we all went to the market and then had some pintxos in Gorriti, a classic next-to-the-market bar that is one of my traditional favorites. Time to check on the lamb. Merry Christmas!
We're in San Sebastián for Christmas. It's wonderful to finally all be together. Cristina is eating lots of ham! Actually we all are (thanks, Cristi!). It was an adventure getting here, but today is a beautiful day and Asun won 100 euros in the lottery. Time to eat. More another day.
No doubt one of the lasting images of the Bush years will be one of the last: the shoe assault. Within just a few hours of the incident it had become an internet sensation. I'm sure it's generated thousands of jokes already. Yesterday a guy on the radio here was joking that it was one of Bush's better moments, that he showed great agility in dodging the shoe missiles, and poise in his response. Think again. First responses are revealing, and immediately following the incident Bush compared the journalists' assault to having someone scream an insult at you or give you the finger. (He actually said it was like having someone wave at you but "not with all five fingers extended.") Throwing shoes at someone is a physical assault. There is a qualitative difference of the highest order between verbal abuse and a physical assault, and understanding that difference determines a great deal regarding one's ability to make ethically sound decisions when it comes to the use of violence. The journalist in Iraq clearly meant to harm Bush and the video shows that had he not ducked, he may well have been hit in the head. Bush clearly implied that in a free society, such as Iraq (!!!), assaulting someone with flying objects is ok, you just deal with it. Bush family values. Bush Jr. doesn't distinguish between verbal and physical abuse. And how the world has suffered that basic mental laziness. In short, Bush left us the impression that, hey, if he were offended he might just throw shoes too. Gosh darn it, he might just start invading sovereign countries. Some legacy. And then I see Cheney on the news last night, still defending torturing prisoners in Guantanamo. He's a real sicko. I really do hope he ends up in jail.
Bamba! That's the name of my slippers. This is very traditional at home footwear here and I really like them. And my feet love them. I'll bring a couple of new pair back to Carlisle with me., providing my feet stay loyal. These beauties are so soft and warm, I worry my feet are just going to detach themselves from my legs some night and run off with the Bamba. And sometimes I can feel my paws accelerating their pace as we approach home, in eager anticipation of Bamba's warm embrace. This morning I was thinking about what a wonderful, simple pleasure these slippers are. In addition to wearing them in the house, I put them on for the short last walk of the evening with Waldo. Now I'm considering just forgetting social norms altogether and using them as general footwear. Asun may have something to say about that. How many bad things happen because people feel generally shitty? Well, taking good care of them paws is an important first step.
Yesterday I added a few links to the right, one of them to the blog by Yoani Sánchez, the celebrated blogger from Cuba who has been threatened by Fidel and his thugs. It is highly recommended and you don't need to know Spanish. Yoani is a global phenomenon: her blog is translated not just to English, but also to Portuguese, Bulgarian, Dutch, German, Finnish, Polish, French, Italian, Lithuanian, and Japanese! (But I'm not sure about the Bulgarian–that link seems to have gone dead.) She is a brave young woman. I especially recommend it to my friends who still think Fidel is "not so bad" and that the revolution overall is really pretty good because Cubans enjoy wonderful education and health care. I guess I'd recommend it to Michael Moore and Oliver Stone, too. (Stone's documentary on Fidel is a work of hagiography I didn't think was possible today. Amazing.) For those of you who read Spanish, I suggest José Angel Cilleruelo's blog. Excellent! It's a cold, dark day in Malaga. Good for spending too much time on the computer. And for a movie on TV: over lunch I watched Pay it Forward with Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, and Angie Dickinson in a wonderful cameo. A pretty sappy Hollywood production, but a well done one, and it's rather hard not to enjoy the story. Who can resist good deed doing? Well, the poor little kid gets killed in the end, an unfortunate choice by the author and/or director. I don't know, the film is based on a novel I'm unfamiliar with. (In the photo, Yoani Sánchez, a Reyes Lázaro look-alike. Hey Reyes, check it out!)
The end of another semester. There are still some tasks left to be finished up, but the students are done with their work and several of them will be leaving Malaga early Sunday morning. So for them, yes, it is the end. We had our "good bye" get together last night at Tormes, a nice little event to which the host families and professors are invited. Seventy-five people, give or take a few. Towards the end of the evening Erik Strand mentioned to me that he had seen this blog. He suggested I write about them, the students. (OK, Erik, here's a blog entry for you. Let me know what you think. And Erik's blog can be visited at http://apfelturnovers.blogspot.com. Muy postmoderno, Eric.) Logically, I wouldn't mention students by name without their consent, so for the most part my comments would be generic. (Erik, you, for now, are the exception-you mentioned this blog, you're a friend of Alma's, your dad's a colleague, etc.) In any case, yes, the students are a very significant and positive part of my life here. I have contact with the majority of them on a daily basis and overall you get to know them much better than you do during a regular semester back on campus. On the one hand, you can't really generalize fairly about a large, heterogeneous group; on the other, as I said, I'd be very reluctant to write about individual students here. So that doesn't leave me with much to say. But a little yes: as always, I learn a lot from my students and this semester has been no exception. I'm always working with kids the same age, so there is a lot that doesn't change over time, but in some ways today's students are different than those of just ten years ago. One example is the relationship they have with computer screens. Whenever I walk into our little office, where there are three desktop computers, it seems the students working there will have multiple windows open simultaneously. Facebook is very popular. Lots of photos! Instant messaging, music, a Word document... lots going on at once and constant back and forth. I'm sure this trend has been evolving for several years, but I suspect it's accelerating and it is certainly having an impact on education. Today's Dickinson students are, overall, quite capable academically and are motivated to do challenging work. Most of them speak and write well. And I don't lose sight of the fact that for all of us, students and faculty, being at Dickinson is a comparative luxury. It's also true that sustaining focus over time is a bigger challenge for many of them than it was when I started teaching. Yes, it is a stereotype: the attention span of students today is not what it used to be... unfair in some ways, because reality is complex, but there is some truth to this change. I find myself wondering if there are effective ways to counter the trend. I think it matters because, ultimately, one of the most attractive benefits of education, at least as I see it, is intelligent self-reflection. And I fear that some students are being distracted away from the habit of self-reflection, an activity that requires sustained attention over time. Our information age promotes ephemerality and speed. Who knows, it will be interesting to see to what extent this combination impacted our current economic mess. (I suggest we go back and reread Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium.) But the students here have one advantage that is much more powerful than anything I can do in the classroom. They have moved out of their habitual environment, they have traveled extensively and seen that the world is bigger, more dynamic, more diverse, and more complex than they had realized. It's one thing to be told this, and quite another to live it. And of course there's a lot we could say about the wonderful impact of learning another language and living in another culture, which is what this program is all about. Another day. (In the photo, the Christmas lights on Calle Larios.)
Last night I read an article in The Atlantic by Andrew Sullivan about blogging. Apparently he's got a much read blog (The Daily Dish) and he describes a world I know nothing about and an activity that has nothing to do with "A Year in Malaga". And I've heard of The Drudge Report, but it's not a part of my routine. For Sullivan blogging is frantic and frenetic. It's all about speed and tons of hyperlinks and getting lots and lots of readers. More information overload. I prefer taking a walk along the beach with Waldo. Dear old Waldo continues to be a great companion. In fact, it's time for his walk now. Another beautiful morning, but pretty cold. A busy day coming up... But finally, and most importantly ¡FELIZ CUMPLEANOS, DANIEL! ¡Eres el mejor! Today Daniel Arnedo turns 80. Wish I could be there with him, but we'll celebrate again very soon.
My principle difficulty with our age is just that: too much, too fast. Too much information coming at us from too many sources. Perhaps it's not really like that, but it is certainly the sensation I have sometimes. Email, in spite of facilitating so much needed communication, often seems like a burden, a sisyphean task that knows no end. Passwords and pins. How to keep track? Bills, bills, bills. Cell phone, voice mail. Do this, be here, don't forget... Of course it's no wonder people are stressed. I was thinking about this last night while I was watching the film El disputado voto del señor Cayo, based on the novel by Miguel Delibes. The film sets a democratic future against a vanishing rural present, a little corner of simple independence in an urban world. Sr. Cayo has almost nothing, but he doesn't consider himself poor. Víctor, the candidate who wants Cayo's vote, yearns for a life of communion with nature and he envies Cayo's simple ways and ancestral knowledge of the secrets of the land. Delibes wrote the novel in 1978 and could not have imagined how the pace of urban life, already hectic back then, would quickly accelerate in ways barely imaginable. Rural life in Spain, and I imagine in many, many places around the world, certainly in Europe, has been radically transformed. Almost no one lives 'off the land' anymore. Isolation is gone and the nature of rural poverty is quite different. I don't know if life in the country would really simplify things or even if I could tolerate it for long, but I think I could. On a day like today, radical simplification and life away from the city seems like a good idea. I just read in The Atlantic that maybe we're all made of many selves with competing desires. Nothing new there, but still, more complication. Of course, the "me" that's telling the procrastinating me to get to work interrupted the reading of the article so I don't know how it ends, if in the end I'm me or we. We (meaning all of us) need repose and tranquility from the excessive pace. Such as the most pleasant meal we enjoyed on Sunday with Daniela's friend Elisa Herrero and her parents, Mamen and Pedro, in the photo above. Elisa was a classmate of Daniela's in preescolar at El Colegio Limonar and they have reconnected this year. We watched some old videos from ten years ago and it was great fun. Elisa and Daniela were inseparable. And the amazing thing is that Elisa is a very serious ballet student also. They started their dance careers together, literally, taking cues from one another on the stage at Tivoli World as four year olds. Very funny. And strange!
As I wrote in my last post, I still actually buy a printed newspaper sometimes, and yesterday was one of those days. I was downtown, having just made a few visits to internship sites and felt in need of a coffee break. It had been a very busy morning and I hadn't had any breakfast beyond the initial early am coffee. So I got El País and went into a little bar for breakfast. Like the bar of the title of the famous Hemingway story: a clean well-lighted place. But when I sat down it was late morning, not late at night. And no coñac for me. (How many years has it been?) There's a man around my age at the bar having a beer. He looks depressed, worried. It's quiet. The young man who serves me is pleasant enough. A woman is going back and forth bringing trays of tapas out to the counter, getting ready for the midday rush. Unlike in the US, you don't have to be a drinker to enjoy bars here. I still love them. Then again, a bar in Spain often has little relation to those dark places you go to for drinks in the US. When I put down the booze I wasn't much of a bar frequenter in the US, but they immediately became of zero interest to me. Anyway, I was brought some fresh squeezed orange juice, toast and olive oil, and another cup of coffee. Wonderful! And I got to read the amazing story of Víctor Hugo Rodríguez. Víctor is a soldier, finishing up a tour of duty in Irak for the US Army. But he's not an American citizen. Víctor is Bolivian. Here's a short version of his story: in 1997, at age 19 and in desperate poverty in La Paz, Víctor decided he had to make a change. So he left for the US with $20 in his pocket and a dream in his head. He crossed Peru and Ecuador by helping truck drivers load and unload in exchange for rides. He told border guards in Colombia he was going to be a university student. He made it to Cali and hoped to get a bus from there to Panama. No buses from Cali. Only five dollars left. So he walked through the jungle with a Colombian and a Brazilian he had just met. Seven days of walking, no trail after four. They made it to a river. Shots fired. The other two disappeared. He received assistance from indigenous people on the Colombia/Panama border. Eventually he made it across Central America and into Mexico. Got across the border and into Texas on his second try. Five months. From Texas he made it to New York and got work in construction. In 2000 he married a fellow Bolivian and now he and his wife have two daughters. In 2006 he joined the army. When he gets out of the army he wants to go to university and become a journalist. He is due back in the US in February, and shortly thereafter he will become a US citizen. I wish him great luck. For the full story go to http://www.elpais.com. You can find the story in the archive: December 5th, International, the article titled "De La Paz a la guerra en Irak". And some people complain. This young man has many lives worth of adventures already. He had a dream and he went after it. How much easier it would have been to give up. I'd love to meet Víctor and his family someday. I'd like to thank him, to hear more of his story, and to learn how his dreams are progressing. When I finished reading about Víctor it was time to get back to work. Too bad, I could have happily spent an hour or two in that simple little bar. Dreams today in Malaga look promising: Daniela is here, the sunrise was spectacular, and the coffee is ready. It's a holiday: Constitution Day and this year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1978 carta magna. (In the photo above, Calle Granada, which continues to the left, just before it ends in the Plaza de la Constitución.)
On Tuesday we received very sad news at the Cursos: the death of a beloved colleague. I didn't know Emilio well at all, as he never taught for us, but he was a familiar face from years ago who always had a quick smile and a warm greeting. His death, premature after a brief fight with cancer, is especially difficult, as he leaves behind his family, wife and three young children. As an old friend just reminded me via email: life is too short. It's been a terribly difficult year for everyone at the Cursos, as another young colleague also passed away in October. I don't know if not existing was really ever an option, and as I showered a few minutes ago I concluded that I really can't know the answers to any of the big questions. That's o.k, for now. Regardless, I do have the firm sensation that I do exist in reality and that I really like existing and wish it could go on and on and on. So, I feel grateful. I'm not sure how best to go forward, but try to do so with all the help I can get. Yesterday I glanced at some ballet photos in a big program brochure for the New York City Ballet that came in the mail for Daniela. The photos are spectacular and I thought, now there's a good way to move forward: express these emotions in a beautifully choreographed dance. Dance, and the arts in general, help me. Now, do they help me put it off or is there, through art, some real reconciliation with our fate? I have the feeling it's both. Tragically, yesterday the danse macabre surprised Ignacio Uría on his way into a bar to have a game of cards with friends. ETA. The cowardly, perverse bastards sink ever deeper into the sick criminality of terror by murder. Yesterday it was Uría, a businessman who's company is working on the high speed train into the Basque Country, a project ETA is trying to undermine through terrorist blackmail. He didn't get much of a dance: gunned down with two bullets to the head on a sidewalk in Loyola, just yards from where Asun and I were married. ETA must be defeated definitively, but it won't happen until the Nationalists of PNV and EA recognize the perversity of their calls for negotiation. Can you really negotiate with a gun to your head? Are Basques opposed to the nationalist project in a position to express their ideas freely? Only if they are willing to risk their lives. Literally, that's not a figure of speech. In Loyola and other places around Euskadi we see what the risks entail. In Azpeitia, the municipality which includes Loyola, the town council refused to condemn the assassination. It's barbaric and shameful. And it must change. Above, La danza de la vida y la muerte by "Bigmom".
Some habits are very hard to break. (Tell me about it!) Reading newspapers, for example. I started reading the papers as a little kid. (New York Times sports section in the morning with breakfast, then the New York Post sports section in the evening–got to memorize batting averages (summer; 1968: Horace Clarke, .230; Yaz, .301; I followed both the Yankees and Red Sox–and you wonder why I'm not well?) and read about all the marvelous performances of the college and NBA stars (winter). It didn't take long for the Post's outrageous headlines to tempt me into other parts of the paper. I have vivid memories of dad getting home from work and leaving the afternoon edition of the Post and the Wall Street Journal on the front hall table. This of course, was decades before the internet, so an afternoon paper was not just another paper: it had the important advantage of including West coast sports results. (Yes, there was a time not long ago when you had to consciously wait for the news.) When we moved to Weston the routine changed to the Boston Globe and even, for a time, the Boston Herald. The surprise appearance of the Herald at the breakfast table produced some minor father-son friction (and maybe even a touch of spousal irritation?): how could dad do this? What was he thinking? But it did have the advantage of introducing me to the wild, xenophobic, hypernationalistic rants of Patrick Buchanan. He was even too much for CD. When I went to California for the first time I became familiar with the San Francisco Chronicle. When I got to Madrid in 1979 the first thing I did was buy El País, even though it took me hours to plod through the op-ed pieces, dictionary at my side. I've been excessive: a little free time somewhere? Maybe there's a Christian Science Reading room nearby. Yes, it's over the top, but that was a good paper. Does it still exist? (I fear those Christian Scientists are in danger of just disappearing. Their church in Carlisle is now the home of one of Daniela's classmates; Asun and I even played with the idea of buying that building. The family that did buy it did a wonderful job of converting it into a lovely home.) Now happily adapted to our information age, the morning coffee can easily accomodate a quick perusal of several papers: Times, Globe, El País, Diario Sur, Washington Post, etc. I still buy the paper paper, but not on a daily basis. Anyway, recently I've been thinking this dear habit needs some serious reform. Too much time and too much depressing news. I often hear how the news, the state of the world, can lead us to feelings of helplessness, of just giving up completely and withdrawing into narcissism. And this, I believe, we must combat at all costs. Willful ignorance is not a good thing. And something can be done, however minor it may seem. It's not insignificant. (In the photo, a downtown scene.)
What is a blog anyway? An online diary? That seems almost like an oxymoron. Nothing is more private than a diary and few things more (potentially) public than a blog. If I recall correctly (no certainty there), I started this blog after talking with friend José Angel Cilleruelo and then starting to read his "El visir de Abisinia" blog. (José Angel, by the way, was just awarded the Premio Málaga de Novela). I figured I'd put up some occasional thoughts and news about life here for family and friends. And that's been more or less the idea. I've never been able to keep a diary, partially due to lack of discipline but mainly because the idea of writing exclusively "for myself" has always struck me as rather absurd. There has to be an audience. At least a potential audience. Whether or not anyone actually reads these entries is close to irrelevant, but knowing that someone could read this is essential. Also, that others might read my verbal meanderings helps keep my writing a little less lazy, as writing strictly for myself (not something I could do for long, as I just mentioned), would allow me abbreviations, ellipses, and other shorthands that, apart from contributing to unintelligibility, would eventually undermine one of the central purposes of the activity–the creation of memory. Diaries do that, yes, but I've discovered that I'm mainly interested in shared memories. And the ability to so easily create a visual component in these blogs is an important benefit. Somewhat like an instant scrapbook. And there is a very curious, additional advantage to blogs: the occasional comment from someone I don't know. There have only been a handful of these, but it suggests a new form of communication that is quite interesting. As far as I'm concerned when it comes to communicating, more is always better. Communis. Common. Shared. If I can share a little bit of me there's less of me for me, and that's a good thing. (And for every anonymous comment, maybe there is another handful of readers out there I'm unaware of...) In any case, the blog plods on. That is wonderfully cacophonic: plodding blogging. And cross-linguistically onomatopoeic? Es cacafónico! Speaking of cacas, last night we had our monthly book group meeting. That didn't come out right–the book group is by no means a caca, to the contrary, it's a wonderful group of friends and the get togethers are great fun. But last night we were discussing Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and one of the enduring images from that novel is poor Alfred and his dementia-induced hallucinations featuring the talking, threatening turd. (Franzen's turd is an obvious nod to South Park's Mr. Hankey.) And so it goes on a dark, Monday morning in Malaga.
In the photo above, the Mumbai skyline. Terror! More education, more modernity, more communication. And no concessions to the extremists. The civilized world does not need to, no, must not concede anything to the hate mongers. Revenge, of course, only perpetuates the violence. More Bombay, more New York, more London, more Madrid.
Last night we drove out to Frigiliana to see an exhibition opening of paintings by our friend Rosalind Burns. Apart from the fun of sharing in a friend's success, this show is of particular interest to us because in it Rosalind exhibits new works that represent a project initiated a little over a year ago, the origin of which is very familiar to us. The works are landscapes of the port of Malaga and it all began when Murphy was here in the same apartment down the street he had almost ten years ago. The apartment's little balcony has the same wonderful view of the entrance to the port that our balcony has. I remember Rosalind doing her first drawing's from that balcony and also recall her joy when she found some wonderful aerial photos of the port. The show's centerpiece is a large painting titled "El balcón de Murphy". I couldn't resist and purchased a beautiful oil painting of the port at night which offers the very view we have from our apartment's balcony. We can't wait to have it on display at home. I wish I could afford to buy the whole series, which totals around twenty works, if I recall correctly, as it constitutes a beautiful meditation on a unique and dynamic landscape. We met Rosalind and her husband Chris Lach when we were graduate students at UMass. Chris was also doing graduate studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and Rosalind, who is from Chile, was a recent graduate of Smith College. By unlikely coincidence, Rosalind also has a drawing in the most recent issue of Sirena. It's funny how things go: although they spent many years in Washington, we had been basically out of touch, but thanks to Asun we hadn't lost touch completely. Then they decided to relocate to Frigiliana two years ago and now it's like they were neighbors. Frigiliana is a beautiful village about forty-five minutes East of Malaga. (In the photo, a night view of the port from the perspective of Gibralfaro. We live in the second tall building on the left, from the top, looking out to the bay at the left, so we see the entrance to the port, but not the inner part you see in this photo.)
A cold, cloudy day in Malaga, perhaps appropriate weather for our Thanksgiving celebration. There are so many thanks to give I feel compelled (and incapable of anything more–a little under the weather with sore throat) to just say THANK YOU everyone and everything. It seems to me that my good fortune is so beyond what any organic being in this universe could possibly hope for that a minimal sense of cosmic justice suggests I be giving back a whole lot more than I am. We'll just have to keep trying. This afternoon we will walk over to Pepe's Restaurante Tormes for a big turkey dinner. Students, friends, and family. It will be fun. Daniela is here, which is wonderful. Too bad she has to go back tonight.
It's 8 am, but it was early rising today and I've gotten some good reading in: Fernando Savater's autobiography, Mira por donde, and the short stories we'll be discussing in class today: "Volver" by Carme Riera, and Garcia Marquez's "La luz es como el agua". In this latter story there is a great line describing some floating objects (floating in light!) as being in la plenitud de su poesía. I sure didn't wake up this morning feeling in the plenitude of anything, but good reading is a wonderful tonic. Savater writes at length about reading in his memoirs. So now I've got to get on with the day and do work. I'll try to get excited about it, but it's not always easy. If I work hard and efficiently, then I'll have more time to read at the end of the day. If I keep that in mind I'll have a better day. And it will be a little easier having that wonderful image in my head: the possibility of something finding the plenitude of its poetry. Speaking of efficiency, I was just reading Bob Herbert's op-ed piece in today's Times about Obama's job creation plan and the importance of infrastructure investment. He points out that many countries invest 7 to 9 percent of GNP in infrastructure, but that for the US in recent years it's been much closer to zero. I don't know how accurate that is, but I was thinking along those lines Sunday on the train. Here the investment in high speed rail has been and continues to be huge. It takes more political will now because the EU subsidies are gone, Spain having recently become a net contributor to the EU budget. But there seems to be little debate regarding the intelligence of spending generously on big infrastructure projects. It's not brain sugery–you invest to create future wealth. Nonetheless, Spain is on the cusp of a big unemployment problem too. Over the weekend Zapatero announced a huge spending program to try to stimulate the economy, putting more people to work on more infrastructure projects. My fear is that education will get left behind in this mess, and that's the most critical infrastructure of all–our brains! I don't feel too optimistic about the present and future of education here in Spain. More on that another day.
This weekend instead of Daniela coming down to Malaga, it was up to Madrid. Unfortunately Asun was really knocked out with the flu so I had to go by myself. The AVE still impresses me. What a pleasure to not have to deal with either airports or the car. Just relax and all of a sudden I'm in Madrid and just a short subway ride from the hotel and Daniela. Business first: we went to the market and got Daniela well stocked with food for the next several days. That was such a demanding task that after twenty minutes we felt rather fatigued and decided that some chocolate y churros would prove to be a good restorative. Indeed. (And such a delight to be in a noisy, crowded, unpretentious market bar on a Saturday morning. Life!) Leaving the bar Daniela commented that she really liked life in Spain because here she has almost all the things she likes from the States, plus lots of Spanish things that aren't available back in the US. I know exactly what she means.) After getting back from the market and an hour of studying for Daniela, we took the subway downtown and after meandering for a bit decided to go the Thyssen-Bornemiza museum. What a collection! It's hard to fathom two people accumulating such a treasure of European and North American painting, but there it is. Daniela made some wonderful observations on the differences between medieval and renaissance painting. It was a great lesson for her. (Today she has a test on the Middle Ages in her social studies class.) After an hour and a half we still had yet to venture towards the temporary exhibit (the vanguards during World War I), so we took a break and went to the museum restaurant for some food. Excellent! The good food (cous cous salad, cream of squash soup, and squid in its ink with noodles for both of us, then for the main course big shrimp "oriental style" for Daniela and cod for me) dulled our brains some so our tour through the ravages of Europe circa 1915 was brief. Well, the rest of the weekend was quite nice and included a visit to the Prado yesterday with Jenn and Jill, the latter a friend of Asun's, and former CPYB employee, and the former Jill's sister. (Jill was on her way to Geneva to visit her sister, who works for the WHO.) A very nice visit. Beautiful weather, too. On the train coming home last night: I'm in business class, relaxing in an oversized seat that is very comfortable and finishing Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. The train is speeding towards Malaga at 270 km. per hour. It's quiet. The attendants come around with drinks and snacks. It's all very professional, high tech, an environment in which it's hard to not find yourself thinking "this is what it's like to live in a prosperous, advanced society." And for those of us who knew train travel in Spain thirty years ago, you might find yourself thinking "wow!" Then the attendant (stewardess?) came around with a glossy cardboard menu, printed up to suggest that we were about to enjoy a luxurious, elegant meal. There were no choices to be made so it's not clear why they bother with the menu. In any case, the main dish was cazón, a so so fish that is a standard in the markets but which you rarely find on restaurant menus. A member of the shark family, and actually rather common along the North Atlantic coast. It doesn't enjoy a great reputation in Spain. And the translation: "spiny dogfish"! Talking about breaking a spell. Imagine being a tourist on that train. We're going to be served Dogfish? And spiny, to boot. But not to worry, it was dogfish fillet. In England they call it rock salmon. So I tip my hat to the translator, either in empathy for the awkward choice, lapse that none of us are immune to, or in admiration for having a wonderful sense of humor. And a nod to the AVE chef: the darn thing was actually pretty good. (In the photo, one of Zurbaran's Inmaculada's, in the Prado. Doesn't charm quite like Murillo's, but I find myself becoming ever more endeared to Zurbaran generally and I'd never be able to thank him enough for that Virgin Child Sleeping masterpiece!)
It's one of those weeks when I have the sensation of days slipping by too fast. It's Thursday morning and I'm wondering what happened to Monday. It was here just a moment ago. When I temporarily misplace my keys I don't worry because I know they'll turn up. But Monday? I can't find it. I sip coffee. Here it comes: Monday afternoon Asun got back to Malaga. (When we left Madrid with the students back on November 3rd she stayed behind with Daniela, spent that week with her, then went up to San Sebastian. Then Sunday night back in Madrid with Daniela before coming back to Malaga, where she arrived just in time to come down with the flu.) On Tuesday Aurora Luque visited my literature class (in a combined session with Antonio Hierro's class) and she gave a great reading. It was a very successful event. And it's been a busy past few days with just routine work. This morning on the front page of the web version of El País, Spain's most important daily, photos and news of a good friend (Pablo García Baena getting his big prize from the Queen) and someone we know and who plays a very important role right now in our lives (Víctor Ullate, Daniela's ballet teacher). That doesn't happen every day! Yesterday the Ministry of Culture announced that Víctor will direct a new National Ballet Company, with inaugural performances scheduled for September, 2009. The company will have sixty dancers. Well, if Daniela continues on her path, this could, perhaps, constitute a very interesting possibility a few years down the line. But that's in the future. The article in El País refers to the well known irony of Víctor training future international ballet stars who make their fame in places like New York and London because there are no important ballet companies in Spain. This project hopes to address that situation. The article also refers to the talent in Víctor's school as a feeder for the new company. Right now that would be Daniela and a handful of others–it's not a big school. I wish I could have been in Madrid last night with Pablo, but that was not to be. (In the photo, Víctor Ullate.)
Walking around Malaga is always pleasant and interesting. How nice it is at around 8 pm these days. The evenings are cool and at this hour change is in the air. People are coming and going and the city seems to be in the midst of a big healthy exhale just before it slides into a slumberous state. Heading towards the center from the Cursos last night, it occurred to me that our urban landscape is also in a gradual but constant state of flux. A minor but perhaps quite telling detail: in recent weeks one sees flyers taped to utility poles and just about any available surface advertising homes for sale. Price reduced! Must sell! The desperation is palpable. Last week our corner of the Malagueta was inundated with flyers, put under the windshield wiper of all the cars on the street, announcing the availability of two apartments at scandalous prices. Some of these ads do the financing calculations for the potential buyer, demonstrating how low the monthly payments will be. But as we all know, credit is not easy these days. They say it's a buyer's market, but it must be a pretty lonely place. No one seems to be buying. But other, more regularly seasonal changes are also on display in the streets. The roasted chestnut sellers continue to fill the air with their wonderful aroma. Workers are busy getting Christmas lights up, and the distinction between locals (winter coats) and tourists (light sweaters, if that) is different but still stark. Calle Larios looks as busy as ever at just about all hours, with hordes of people walking up and down the long promenade, but I imagine there's more window shopping and less getting out the plastic. Another sign of a slowing economy: on Monday evening Asun and I went to the movies and there was only one other person in the sala. (Sólo quiero caminar, with Victoria Abril and Ariadna Gil. A curious film, centered on the conceit of turning a macho, shoot em up action romp on its head by making it a chic flick. Not quite convincing, but Ariadna Gil is, as usual, marvelous. There is something about her that's just magnetic. In any case, going to the movies with Asun on a Monday evening-totally decadent and wonderful.) It's obvious that the pubs in the Malagueta are not making any money during the week, but that's a change that has been evolving for some years now, as Spaniards in general have been somewhat domesticated by Europe. When I took Waldo down last night at around 11:30, it was almost silent and the Paseo was completely deserted. It seemed like there were just a handful of people in Malacca, the pub right below us. (In the photo, a chestnut vender.)
I've been around for close to half a century now and ever since I can remember I've been asking the same dumb questions: What is nothing? What is infinity? I still remember lying awake in the quiet of that big old house on Elmwood Road wondering what nothing might look like. The frustration! Everything was always something. No fair! Or sitting under that blue spruce trying to figure out how in hell I was going to count to infinity. And I'd conclude that it couldn't be done; it doesn't exist; infinity is a lie, so what's this all-powerful God stuff? At age four I was no doubt unaware that my metaphysical underpinnings (if you can't visualize something it doesn't exist) were perhaps somewhat dubious. But then again maybe I was on to something: everything that can possibly be can be imagined; I could imagine nothing, thus nothing was something and not nuttin'.) You might think that one would go crazy insisting on the same two questions over the course of several decades and never finding an answer. Alas, life intervened. Life and all its quotidian distractions. Maybe there hasn't been enough life the past several days: Emilio Lledó's essay and other readings derived from it have been threatening to drive me to philosophical despair. (Nothing matters! It's all pointless!, etc.) But, I'm easy to convince and this morning I think I've found an out thanks to zooming in on the word tendency as it appears in some definitions I've read of the second law of thermodynamics. Closed systems tend towards entropy. So movement towards entropy is 99.999999999999999almost adinfinitum percent likely to continue. I'm holding out! Hey, it's just a tendency. Don't count out that odd exception. Order may yet be restored. Shit happens. And besides, I'm not so certain the universe is a closed system. Imagine the Creator as an alcoholic: he's got a glass of wine and Mrs. Creator says just one dear, just one glass. Big Daddy nods. So she's relieved, it's a closed system and thus Mr. Creator can't mess things up more than he already has. But, in fact, Mr. Creator keeps adding wine to his glass on the sly. Mrs. Creator thinks he's just drinking really slowly, but in fact he's getting wasted. Because it's an open system! (This is one of those rare instances where skepticism can be an inducement to faith. I'm a skeptic; I've seen lots of lying about how many. So maybe what applies to booze holds also for the universe: God's got one hand on a big, big bottle we haven't seen yet. Maybe.) Double besides: in other writings, Lledó shows great interest in friendship, a direction that really interests me. Friendship is, well, it's not everything, but it is HUGE. I think I had at least some intuition in that regard all the way back when I started to discover the world of books in the Fells Library, shown in the photo. So many stories involved great friends and I wanted to be a part of that. (And why, oh why, do I so badly want to recover a book I read when I was four years old? All I remember is that is was the story of a frog and it had simple illustrations in green ink on a white background. Not remembering the title has been a big frustration. And I have no idea why. Who knows, maybe that frog had some answers.) Now, can we get Big Daddy off the sauce and somehow have him keep us in an open system?
Bedtime reading has been maybe a little too heavy the past week or so. I've been working my way through Emilio Lledó's El silencio de la escritura (The Silence of Writing), a 160 page meditation on engagement with the Western philosophical tradition, originally published in 1992. Last night it got to me. After just two hours sleep I was wide awake, wondering about my identity, the possibility of faith as a mere survival posture, and the bounds of the universe. So I just kept plowing through Lledo's essay until sleep finally overcame me and I got three more hours in. In spite of sleeping just five hours, I feel well rested, and very happy that Daniela is here for the weekend. I've also been thinking about a Spanish Jesuit I was reading about the other day in the Sunday supplement of El País, but now I can't find the magazine and can't remember the Jesuit's name. Anyway, what impressed me about the article was the nature of this man's faith, seemingly just rock solid. He describes it as a gift he received as a young man. Perhaps the antithesis of Unamuno's anguished agnosticism. Whereas Unamuno had a crisis of faith as a young man (simply put, he lost it), this Jesuit had the opposite- the gift of certain belief, accompanied by an intense desire to orient his life towards ever closer communion with God. But, as seems to be the case with Jesuits, this communion has little to do with prayer. It's all about good deeds. This guy has been in Cambodia for many years, helping the poorest of the poor. I think he's got the right idea. Theology? There's work to be done! Human suffering should shame us all. Lledó writes about the inability of human reason to successfully overcome our problem, our awareness of our finitude. No kidding! No, I certainly don't have the answer, but I think I've been fortunate to learn a little bit from others regarding the benefits of getting out of self. A basic paradox: self-interest suggests we be less self-centered. So, maybe it's in my best interest to have some kind of faith, something to hold onto as I approach my fin. Can you just pretend? Because, as one can comprehend, there are hard to resolve conflicts between a rational education and a received faith centered on irrationality. For now, my faith is oriented towards imagination and the magic of human creativity. (In the photo, Emilio Lledó.)
Yesterday Juvenal visited my literature class. The students had read two very challenging poems ("Dickinson College" and "El bosque de Homero") in addition to the long essay/note that accompanies the latter poem, published earlier this year in the collection Cielo de septiembre, which I probably wrote of briefly in one of the early blog entries. In any case, the class was excellent and the students had some interesting questions. Juvenal spoke at length about the passage of time, about memory, and the ways in which time affects our sense of self. This morning, another crisp, beautiful day in Malaga, I'm feeling o.k. with time. No anguish. Today's the deal. In some respects I suspect the ways in which humans think about time are quite constant over time, no pun intended, but I also believe technological progress impacts our ability to consider time in new ways, or, at the least, with new metaphors. We talked about this some yesterday in discussing travel. Ulysses had quite an adventure there, getting back to Ithaca. Twenty years! Today I could be at the airport in less than twenty minutes and then hop on a plane and be in New York this afternoon! And it keeps evolving: last night we had another odd, multiple party video/text chat. Some family reunion: Cristina on screen from Ithaca, Asun and Daniel on screen from San Sebastian, Alma texting from work in Ithaca, Daniela on the cell phone from Madrid, and me on screen from Malaga. I had Daniela on the speaker phone so she could talk to everyone except Alma, who could at least participate with text messages. Crazy! The time needed to overcome physical separation is greatly reduced and even when we are physically separated, we can still communicate in real time. But it's not all good: sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the speed of contemporary life. So when I'm waiting in line for something here (post office, supermarket...) and start to get impatient, I should immediately slow down and enjoy the opportunity to just wait. Usually I do, but sometimes I fear I let my blood pressure rise a point or two before I stop myself. I'm working on it. (See April 28th entry for more on time.) And now it's Time to go: the clock doesn't stop. Got to meet Julio Neira for coffee.
This morning's paper brings some curious news. The poet and university professor Luis García Montero has just been found guilty of having insulted his departmental colleague, José Antonio Fortes. Wow, if what goes on at American universities ended up in courts of law then we would have true judicial gridlock! Just a little context: García Montero is a very well known, politically left, contemporary poet. He's also published several books of criticism and essays. He teaches in the department of Spanish Literature at the University of Granada. His colleague Fortes has argued in published articles that the writings of famous poet Federico García Lorca were fascist. Remember, we're talking about Lorca, the major saint of the romantic left and the most famous of all modern Spanish poets, assassinated in Granada by the Falange at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The notion that Lorca in any way had fascist leanings is patently ridiculous. (From the little I've read, Fortes writes with an anachronistic Marxist mumbo jumbo that could get a laugh out of your coffee table.) Well, apparently a couple of years ago García Montero lost his cool and let go with some standard insults after a department meeting. Ouch! He then followed that up with an article published in El País in which he questioned Fortes' mental stability and level of intelligence. Now, could someone sue me in the US just for hurling horrible insults? I suppose so. But what if your insults have a real basis in reality? Could calling someone a stupid ass, for example, lead you to a court date? My mother taught me about "sticks and stones" at a very young age. Good lesson, mom! The judge's sentence was quite interesting. He wrote that although García Montero pidió disculpas (basically, that he recognized he had been wrong), both orally and in writing, that was insufficient, and he would have had to have begged forgiveness for his insults. Strange. Also strange: the sentence suggests that, as a highly regarded poet and university professor, García Montero should have known better. Does this imply that the same insults from an uneducated low life would receive a more indulgent treatment? And if so, is that a bad thing? In any case, the poet was fined ten euros a day for six months plus three thousand additional euros for "moral injury", daños morales. Oh well, meanwhile, Fortes is free to continue lecturing and writing his nonsensical hogwash. No wonder Luis wants a break from the university. (In the photo, García Montero.)
Strange. I woke up this morning thinking about Spud Webb. Remember him? He played in the NBA for the Atlanta Hawks back in the eighties and I think into the early nineties. Spud was the first of the modern day really small guys to make it in the NBA. He was usually listed as 5' 6'', but he looked closer to 5' 8'' to me. Still, not exactly a tall guy. (Well, there was Calvin Murphy, going back to the seventies, but he was just short, not super short like Spud and a few others later, Muggsy Bogues being perhaps the most memorable among them.) And Spud won the slam-dunk contest one year! I read somewhere that he was just 5' 5'' when he dunked for the first time in H.S. Imagine that! Anyway, I'd like to meet Spud, hear what he has to say about his playing days. As I write this it occurs to me that I've been tremendously fortunate in that I have, in fact, met so many really interesting people, some well known and others just as anonymous as the rest of us. If I could get together with Spud, it might be fun if Manute Bol could join us. Remember him? He was the super tall guy who played at the same time as Webb. Spud once dunked over him. Forget basketball for a moment. I'd also like to meet Ildefonso de Matías Jiménez. He's the guy he runs Madrid's subway system. Stephen Hawking, I'd like to have some time with him, too. None of this, of course, has anything to do with Malaga. But when I wake up in the morning and I'm preparing the coffee I'm definitely not ready to start focusing on work. And I can't exactly turn my brain off completely. I'm working on it, but I'm not quite there yet. About as close as I am to my first dunk. (But the jump shot is still there!)
It's Obamamania big time in Malaga. On election day I brought two of my students to a radio program to talk about what was going on and to offer an American perspective. I didn't want them to feel nervous so didn't tell them that we were going to be on the largest audience program in the local market, with a listenership of over 50,000, or so I was told, anyway. They did real well and spoke articulately about issues and the candidates. We were on the air for about 45 minutes. Last night I participated in a tertulia on the Málaga A Debate program on a local TV channel. Over ninety minutes! Lots of time to talk. It was fun and the other participants were extremely knowledgeable. This morning in the op-ed page of Sur, Teodoro León Gross expresses pretty much what I was trying to say at the end of last night's program: European attitudes towards the US are sometimes rather condescending. OK, Spain, are you ready to elect a gypsy president? How about even someone with an immigrant background? Not a chance, not now anyway. True, immigration is a recent phenomenon in Spain, and eventually the children of today's immigrants will find themselves involved in the political process, but the gypsies have been here for hundreds and hundreds of years and they are still completely segregated from mainstream society. Many Spaniards will tell you that they exclude themselves, that they don't want to integrate. As they say here, y un pepino! So thanks, Teo, you expressed my thoughts much better than I could. (In the photo, Moncloa Palace, site of the presidency of the Spanish governmnet.)
With the excitement of our historic election still fresh, it's easy to get confused. It took me a few seconds this morning to become oriented, having woken up unclear about my location (Malaga) and time (Thursday). It's nice to get the basics taken care of before getting out of bed. After our trip to Madrid with the students this past weekend, Asun stayed behind with Daniela, so it's just Waldo and me this week in Malaga. (Poor Waldo had to be left at a kennel, albeit a very nice one, and when I went to pick him up they told me he's a big crybaby. I knew that! Apparently he just cried and cried the whole time. He's happy now, but man, does he need a bath!) We actually began the trip early Thursday morning and went first to El Escorial, where Philip II built his imperial palace. It's known as a Monastery (Monasterio de San Lorenzo el Real de El Escorial), and there is indeed a monastery within the palace, but its principle purpose was to serve the dual function of royal residence and administrative headquarters for the empire. It's a sober, impressive edifice, with a grill-like design that alludes to the martyrdom of its namesake, St. Lawrence, who was roasted on a grill. And the Monastery was given that name in honor of the Spanish victory over the French in the Battle of San Quintín in 1557, which took place on August 10th, the Feast of St. Lawrence. It's a very interesting visit and the students enjoyed it. On the way to Madrid we made a brief stop at Franco's monstrous Valley of the Fallen, a lugubrious place if ever there was one. On Saturday we took the students to Segovia and the nearby palace at La Granja. (See entry for August 18th). Then back to Madrid, more visits, and a morning in Toledo on our way back to Malaga on Monday. The Prado, as always, a joyous visit. Las Meninas never fails to move me. I can't help it, it's so beautiful, so stunning, it just leaves me speechless and all tingly. It was great fun to get to spend some time with Daniela. She has settled in nicely. She was the one leading me around on the metro. Oh, to have a country hick for a father! On Sunday evening we went to the theatre and saw a great comedy with two amazing film actresses who rarely appear on stage: Aitana Sánchez-Gijón and Maribel Verdú (That's them in the photos above.) They were both fantastic and didn't disappoint. To the contrary, I hadn't enjoyed a theatrical production so much in years. Today is one of those days when the tired expression "bathed in light" can be appropriately applied– a crystal clear morning in Malaga.
No big surprises in this election, at least with regard to what the polls were suggesting. To me Obama's victory feels like waking up from a long nightmare. Oh, if only Bush's rotten destruction were just a dream, how nice it would be to wake up! Obama's got quite a mess to deal with, so I wish him great luck. Listening to the speech he just gave a couple of hours ago in the park in Chicago, I was struck by his eloquence. A president who can speak the English language! Bush will leave office (eight interminable years!) without having given a single memorable speech, not one paragraph to inspire future generations. It's night and day between him and Obama. Congratulations to all the youngsters who got involved! They really did make a big, big difference. Here in Malaga the mood is euphoric. The phone calls began at 5 am (Alma!) then after a pause and two hours' sleep, lots of calls and text messages from friends in Malaga. People are really excited. And relieved. Good luck to the Republican party: Sarah Palin? I don't think that's the direction they want to take. If the news reports I just heard are accurate, the Republicans now have a New England congressional delegation of zero. Zilch! And they sure aren't going to fix that with Sarah Palin. And how about Elizabeth Dole pandering to the cultural neanderthals with last minute ads showing her opponent with a voice-over crying "there is no God". She's being sued for that one, given the ad's blatant lies and defamation. It's 2008 for God's sake! Someone who campaigns like that is not just shameless, she is truly despicable. Good riddance Elizabeth Dole-what a creep! She should go to Alaska and take a long, long hike with Sarah Palin. Maybe they'll find their real America up there in the tundra. Dole was another of these "values" Republicans. Yah, great values, Lizzie. (P.s.--In Minnesota a Charles Aldrich is on the ballot, running as a Libertarian. He's racked up 0.5% of the vote.)
This week the students in my literary criticism class are reading El sueño de la razón, a play by noted dramatist Antonio Buero Vallejo. The work is a historical drama based on the last days of Goya in Madrid, when he was finishing his famous Black Paintings. The play is set in December, 1823, a time of horrible political repression set loose by the worst monarch in the history of Spain, Ferdinand VII. Goya had been deaf for some years by that point. In one scene Goya witnesses an argument between his servant/lover and his daughter- in-law and has auditory hallucinations, imagining his lover's voice as that of an ass and his daughter-in- law's as that of a rooster. Something similar happens to me with McCain and Palin. Palin is the rooster and McCain the ass. Today's word from yourdictionary.com: apothegm: "a terse saying that sums up a philosophical insight or conclusion; a maxim, an aphorism." In pondering our recent history, no appropriate apothegm comes immediately to mind. Any suggestions? Months ago I made a half-assed attempt to add one of those 'hit counters' or whatever you call it to this page, so that I'd know if anyone was reading, but I couldn't figure it out. So, in the spirit of polling, which so dominates the news these days, a little poll of my own: if you read this (I think there are two or three of you), send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, saying, cockadoodledooi'mneitheraroosternoranassandireadayearinmalaga. Comprendes? In the photo, Goya's Saturn Devouring his Son, from the Black Paintings series.
This morning's press here brings news from the small town of Castellar, in the province of Jaen. That's about two hours north of Malaga. Unfortunately, it's a very predictable story. It seems as if the only thing that changes are the names: it begins with an insult or a fight and escalates to a full blown witch hunt against the gypsy minority, obligated to flee. Often it involves enraged parents demanding that the gypsy children be kept out of their school. And of course, the mob is always quick to insist that this has nothing to do with race. We're not racists! It's about security. In Castellar it started with a fight among some teenagers on Saturday night. Over seventy of the small town's ninety something Romani fled in fear for their safety. And some of the few who stayed behind required police protection. When I came to Spain for the first time in 1979 I was struck by the incongruence of Spaniards often asking me why Americans were so racist while I looked in vain to find a single gypsy outside the world of flamenco who had managed to find a comfort zone in the dominant society. (Or for that matter, a single minority group member of any kind.) The small Romani minority was completely segregated and Madrid seemed like an unimaginably homogeneous place for a capital of four million people. (Today it looks just like any other big multicultural metropolis.) At the time I shared an apartment with a black man who was from the Carribean, Barbados if I recall correctly. An invaluable experience for me: we'd be walking down the street and people would stop and blatantly stare. (Alito was an actor, stayed in Spain for some years and worked in theatre, tv, and the movies. He had a very small role in Almodovar's Tie Me Up, Time me Down!) Spain has changed dramatically in the past thirty years. But romaniphobia is still tremendously deep-seated. It plays out differently in rural America, where there seems to be more reason to feel optimistic regarding the eventual triumph of reason and tolerance. I try to be optimistic, though sometimes it's hard. (In the photo above, a street in Castellar.)
It sure looks like Obama is going to win next week. And it will be historic (a greatly devalued adjective that in this case might actually come close to understatement). It will be huge. If they were voting in Malaga Obama would get over 90% of the vote. Last night our book group came here to the apartment for our monthly discussion (this month Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach) and afterwards we ended up talking about politics, a very broad discussion of our current global mess. Asun was with Daniela in Madrid for the weekend, but got back just as our book conversation was getting underway. (Everyone liked this brief novel and we had a good conversation; the consensus was that it's an interesting, minor work.) Anyway, one of the issues that came up briefly was health care, and it's just inconceivable to our friends how it is that the US doesn't have guaranteed universal coverage for all its citizens. I suspect the US may finally get there as a consequence of our current crisis. Obama's current plan, as best I can tell, pretends to sustain our current system of employer-based insurance, but in the long run I don't think it's sustainable. (The annual increase in insurance premiums cannot outpace the rate of inflation indefinitely.) Economics aside, it's simply unethical. Quality medical care should be available to all regardless of your ability to pay. Above, the most famous etching in Goya's Caprichos series: "The sleep of reason produces monsters". That's exactly what happened to the Bush administration on September 12, 2001. And the world has been suffering the consequences ever since. It also describes the condition of the Republican party. A very, very busy week coming up. Here goes...
I don't know if things really surprise me or if I just like to act surprised. After a fun dinner with a bunch of students last night here at the apartment, I sat down with Asun in front of the TV to unwind for a few minutes. Antonio Banderas was on some interview program. Off screen the most I'd ever heard him speak was probably ten or fifteen minutes of chitchat at a 'meet and greet' session after one of his performances in the Broadway production "Nine". That was five or six years ago, I think. Anyway, listening to him speak last night, in Spanish of course, talking about Malaga, about politics, Spanish and international, about the US presidential campaign... I thought, man, this guy is sharp. Really sharp and extremely articulate. I knew that he's an intelligent guy, and from conversations with others who are close to him I had some sense of what he must be like, but his appearance last night was fascinating. Such was his sophistication that after about five minutes talking about politics, one of the journalists said, "well, Antonio, I'm not going to ask you about politics because I don't want you to take our jobs away..." Surprise? The Hollywood image of the 'guapo', the latin lover, is just that, an image. He had some pretty insightful comments on a range of different topics. Speaking of TV, it's funny how things work out. In the US about the only TV I watch is baseball, and the occasional movie. It would never occur to me to put on Fox News. But it turns out Fox is the one American news network we get on our lineup here, so I've put it on a few times. Wow! And they complain about the "liberal media"? These guys are completely over the top. Surprise? What's even more irritating are the the constant advertisements framed as news. I don't know if they are so blatant about it on the domestic feed; maybe it's because here they don't cut to the "normal" US product advertising. In any case, a few samples of that were enough for me. A, yes, surprising news source here is the French TV English language channel. I find it better and more sophisticated than the BBC. Who would have guessed that France, source of hysterical complaining about cultural imperialism, the corroding effect of English, etc., would come up with this fanastic news channel. In English! And one more thing: it looks like we're going to have rain for a second day in a row. That's a surprise!
Daniela was here this weekend and on Saturday we took a walk downtown, ending up at a curious little exhibition of some of the master- works of Banco Santander's collection. (Remember, that's the bank that just bought up Sovereign. Santander was much less invested in subprimes than most commercial banks and is in growth mode; they bought an English bank a couple of weeks ago.) The highlight of this exhibit for me, without any doubt, was a large portrait by Zurbaran, Virgin Child Sleeping (Niña Virgen dormida). In commenting on my visit to Seville's fine arts museum a few weeks ago, I wrote that Zurbaran's Virgins were not as natural as Murillo's. Well, here's the exception. I don't recall having ever seen this particular painting before. What a treat! I can't imagine a better capturing of that ineffable moment when we doze off! The little girl's right eye is completely shut, but her left eye shows just the slightest slit of openness, suggesting a minimal connection to the world of consciousness inhabited by the viewer. The reproduction here is a pale shadow of the original, which has been wonderfully restored. The colors are vibrant, the detail of the flowers in the vase startling (the rose, love; the lilly, purity; the carnation, fidelity). All the light emanates from the girl's forehead, to me suggesting the power and attraction of her sweet dreams. Her own future? I think she's dreaming of rocketing skywards, of joining those silly angel faces that hover above her. Good books do that! Above all, the painting captures a really cute face. A neighborhood girl, someone you'd be happy to have your daughters play with. This kid's life is placid, she's got a good book to read, and no worries. She's a dreamer with a rich imagination. (Could that explain something...?) Anyway, it was a fun little visit. Later, Asun prepared us a nice roast chicken for lunch and afterwards Daniela got to spend some time with a classmate from years ago who she's stayed in touch with.
Last week a lot of news was focused on a baby born in Seville. In vitro fertilization has been around for decades now, so that's not the news. In this case the parents let it be known publicly that their baby boy had begun his existence as a conscious decision made in the laboratory, the embryo chosen for its particular genetic characteristics. It turns out the parents have an older son who suffers a rare form of fatal anemia which now can be treated with "mother cells" in the blood of the new born's umbilical cord. This was the news-another medical breakthrough. It seems like a great story–baby brother saves big brother's life. But not everyone sees it that way. The head of the Spanish Episcopal Conference published a very harsh note condemning this case. The position of the catholic church is well known: discarding unused embryos that result from in vitro fertilization is unacceptable, immoral. It's discarding life. On the surface, in this case that position seems absurd. Do the unused embryos really merit the same consideration as the new born baby? Most people approve of the procedure and do not seem overly concerned about the disposal of unused embryos; after all, they are at the earliest possible stage of cell division and only exist in a test tube. And in this case, the process results in two lives- a new life that saves the life of another. How could anyone in their right mind be against that? Yet, I do believe there is a very tough ethical issue here. The most lamentable observation made last week was by the head of some self-proclaimed bioethical panel. He said the only ethical position to take on this case was not to consider it an ethical issue. Huh? Of course it's about ethics. Is it really so unreasonable to consider that life begins at conception? If you start with that premise, then of course you do have a real ethical dilemma in a case like this. There is no solving this debate for now. But even more worrisome in my view is the lurking danger that in our eagerness to solve horrible medical conditions we end up sliding down a slope of increasingly fascistic consequences (for lack of a better expression at the moment) regarding human reproduction. What happens as the human genome becomes more and more understood, as a series of scientific advances bring having a baby closer to the realm of choosing a meal from a menu? And if it turns out there is a gene for homosexuality, for example? And couples start testing for that, and aborting because of the gene... Is that really so far-fetched? And imagine totalitarian states taking over control of reproduction. It seems like the stuff of wild science fiction. Yet, many see horrible realities already, even without the use of new technologies: China's efforts at demographic control, for example, or the obsession of having male descendants in some societies and the lengths some couples will go to make sure that happens. The church's position can seem cruel, but I think rather than dismiss it so automatically, we would do well to keep alive the debate. (The problem with the church, of course, is that for many of us it has little credibility when it comes to defending human rights.) Regardless, you don't have to identify with the church in order to be a skeptic regarding the direction we're headed in. Maybe, just maybe, some of these bioethical challenges will turn out to be just temporary; that is, maybe someday intelligent decisions regarding reproduction will be made before conception. We might make a modest start by getting serious about having systematic, high quality sex education. No kid moves beyond 7th grade, for example, without a solid understanding of basic reproductive biology and methods of birth control. Reading, writing, and arithmetic. And sex ed. And not of the abstinence only kind. Just a thought.
One of the more predictable, sadly, genres of social commentary in our contemporary culture is the survey or study that proves yet again how illiterate Americans are. In fact, the results are so predictable and so of the can-you-believe-that nature that I usually receive them with more than a little salt. This morning's news brings another example, this one a just-taken survey by the Pew Foundation on Americans' familiarity with current politics. Couldn't be more simple: three straight forward questions. Only 18% scored a perfect three for three. When I saw the headline, then read that only 44% of NPR listeners scored a perfect 3, I thought, geeze, must be interesting or tricky questions. Ok, so here's the quiz: 1) which political party has the majority in the House of Representatives? 2) Who is the Secretary of State? 3) Who is the Primer Minister of Britain? I thought, you've got to be kidding! Not even half of Harper's readers (or of the New Yorker, for that matter!) got all three right! (And it's not as if Gordon Brown had just taken over last week, and in recent days he's been in the headlines a lot with his yearning for a leadership role in redefining the parameters of international finance.) How have we reached this condition? Should I be surprised? Is there a silver lining? Does it matter? Regarding the last question, I do believe it matters very much indeed. Dictators have a much easier time of it when those they hope to dictate to are ignorant. Dictation is a one way street, without dialogue. One way to look at it is this: are there any world leaders whose name could be substituted for that of Gordon Brown that would improve the quiz results? Do you know who the Canadian Prime Minister is? How about the President of Mexico? (Canada, Stephen Harper; Mexio, Felipe Calderon, in the photo above.)
Wow! When it got to 7-0 I admit I pretty much gave it up for lost. Who wouldn't? Indeed it was magical. So many incredible moments. David found his wood. They all did. Coco's at bat to end the eighth was truly memorable. When Drew came up in the ninth I confess it's not what I was really hoping for–I'm always rooting for extra innings, endless extra innings. So we got the next best thing, simply one of the most incredible games in the history of baseball! Thank you, mlb.com! More drama to come. No use being a pessimist with these Sox. As the kids might say: that is so last millennium. Speaking of pessimism, on the 'rest' night, Asun and I went to a very interesting book presentation, this one a gathering to celebrate a collection of interviews with people who were close to the Rumanian writer Cioran, the radical pessimist. Antonio presented the editors, his friends Carlos Cañeque and Maite Grau. There was a nice dinner after the event, and it turned out to be a good opportunity to share a lot of laughs with some novelists. A lot of Cioran's writing was aphoristic in nature. Here are a few examples, translations from the original French (yes, Cioran wrote in French after settling in exile in Paris in 1937), taken from the web: "Consciousness is nature's nightmare." "Existing is plagiarism." Here's an uplifting one: "By all evidence we are in the universe to do nothing." And says I: so what's wrong with doing nothing? But last night, even before the game got started, was for optimists: Asun and I went to an event with another exiled writer, this time a reading by Uruguayan novelist and poet Cristina Peri Rossi. She settled in Barcelona in the early 1970s. I wasn't real familiar with her work. I had kind of a mixed reaction, but it was an enjoyable event, as Peri Rossi turns out to be a very funny woman. If Cioran had gone to NY instead of to Paris, if Peris Rossi had gone anywhere but Barcelona, the resulting cosmic chaos would have been unbearable, and no doubt the Sox would have lost last night. But they didn't. Let's play two (more)!
Yesterday after finishing with work I went to a book presen- tation at the new FNAC store. Juvenal was presenting Manuel Alcántara's most recent anthology. I got there late, but in time to listen to Alcántara reflect on his life (he's 80) then read some poems. Nothing really special about the event itself, which was very well attended, but it was nice to be able to say hello to Manolo. (Speaking of older-young-at-heart poets, Pablo was in town last week and we were able to have lunch together; as always, a wonderful gathering.) Last night I also had the opportunity to meet Manuel Pimentel, a former government minister who decided to engage his interest in poetry a few years ago, after he left the government; he was there as the publisher of the anthology. Last year I translated twelve of Alcantara's sonnets. Here's one of my favorites, which the poet recited last night:
I search for myself in time badly spent
and in calendars whose pages are old,
but the scent of my soul has gone cold,
and the old man I knew he up and went.
The one I was just a one time event?
I want news of myself, news to unfold
the layers of myself, these words of gold
to relieve oblivion, my one lament.
The small adventure of this boat that sails
blue seas and feels the force of big strong gales:
yet no mermaid with any answer sings.
My wine and questions are in the same cup.
Pains and doubts. Everything piles up.
And God's answer is to not say a thing.
We're all searching. The Red Sox too. They just got beat badly again. The lost autumn of Big Papi? He's got one more chance to find it. They all do. I hope today isn't my last chance. I don't think it will be. (First I've got to figure out the 'it' I'm supposed to be looking for; actually this life as search idea isn't really my cup of tea. I just keep rooting for extra innings, endless, infinite extra innings. And it's softball, none of this three strikes and you're out nonsense. Damn, with those rules I'd have been gone long, long ago.) We had a funny family meeting last night: Asun and I here in Malaga video talking to Alma and Cristina, who were rather comically seated in one of the little campus information booths where Alma sometimes works, and Daniela in Madrid participating via speaker phone. A couple of times we had to stop so Alma could give directions to campus visitors. And at times there were several conversations going on at once: travel plans, help with homework, just catching up, boyfriends, etc. Today's word is: Discombobulated. (In the photo, Manuel Alcántara.)