Which way from here?

What about 2011?

We're feelin' pretty good.

A Good Year?

Definitely YES.


This year's CPYB production of The Nutcracker was unbelievable. Too wonderful to describe.


This blog has been temporarily abandoned. In my last post I proposed finishing up with 365 posts.
It's December 31st...


Gooder and Gooder...

Recently I have failed to keep up the typical rate of posts for this blog. This suggests to me that it's about run it's course. I just noticed that this is the 359th post. So maybe I'll get up to 365 and call it a day. I mean a year. That strikes me as appropriate. The daily routine in Carlisle moves along... our lives move along. As no doubt I have written more than once in the past, I'm reluctant to write about family members here, about the adventures, accomplishments, successes of daughters, for example... all the things that make a parent proud. Or about the qualities in a spouse that enables one to live a life of "dicha total," of complete good fortune. So, just trust me, that's what it is. Sometimes, often, actually, I wake up thinking, ok. day, top yesterday. Good luck! And yet, it happens. (It's still true, Mac: it keeps getting gooder and gooder!)

It's a slendid morning in Carlisle, and there's lots of fun work to do.


The Bright Lights of Kelly Khuri

Here's a great quote from today's New York Times: “This so-called climate science is just ridiculous. I think it’s all cyclical. Carbon regulation, cap and trade, it’s all just a money-control avenue. Some people say I’m extreme, but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.” That's Kelly Khuri, a Tea Party activist. I love the "but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too." Hmm, I wonder what Kelly considers extreme? One of the founding members of the John Birch society was Revilo P. Oliver, who went on to become associated with white supremacist and holocaust denial groups. John Birch founder Robert Welch famously denounced Eisenhower as "a dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy." Kelly, you are brilliant! (That's Robert Welch in the photo.)


Yasir Afifi

The case of Yasir Afifi should alarm us all: the FBI secretly attached a GPS device to this young man's car so they could track his movements. Afifi is a 20 year old computer salesman and college student. (There are many news articles about this story, just google it.) A Federal court had already ruled that the use of GPS tracking devices (without the suspect's consent) does not require a court order as long as the tracking (for now, it seems these cases involve automobiles) is happening on public property. It seems to me, however, that the physical act of placing the tracking device on one's private property is, in itself, a gross violation of privacy. How is it that the police can go messing around with one's car without a court's permission?

In this case Afifi found out he was being surveillanced when the guy changing his oil noticed an odd wire, which led to the gps device. They posted images online asking for help in identifying the strange object. Then the FBI shows up at Afifi's door two days later asking for their spying equipment back. And you're going to give it back? No way! If something is attached to your car, it's now yours!


Columbus Day

The blog has been dormant for a while and during this time I have wondered about its continuity. I have decided to continue because I enjoy writing, but I am still pondering some changes in format and focus. In any case, the frequent review of my most recent past is a useful exercise for me. October is perhaps an especially busy month. We have Semana Poética coming up, the new issue of SiRENa coming out, Alma getting ready to leave for Niger, a new ballet... And speaking of new, today I am scheduled to go pick up our new kitten. This should be fun! Fun was the party we had Saturday night for Alma. The weather was perfect, the food was good and plentiful, and the presence of family and friends like a warm, live giving embrace.

Today is Columbus Day, although the holiday was celebrated yesterday. But it sure is an odd holiday. Nothing to mark the event in Carlisle. Nothing at Dickinson. Strange. In Venezuela the holiday's orientation has been flipped: it's now the Day of Indigenous Resistance. Interesting.


How Much Health Care?

The most recent New York Review of Books includes a long, interesting reveiw/article on US health care. I've yet to finish reading it, but the central argument is that oversupply of services is a major contributor to our spiraling, out of control costs. Doctors have many incentives to order tests and procedures. Financial compensation and fear of liability are major factors in this dynamic. I had my own experience with the system just last week when, quite unexpectedly, I suffered a major reactivation of a long dormant companion: ulcerative colitis. Very mild symptoms, which had been lingering for a few weeks, and which in the past have disappeared on their own, typically in a matter of a few days, suddenly worsened dramatically and I ended up in the E.R., overcome by pain and dehydration. I'm a lucky beneficiary of modern medicine: a simple I.V. feed, spiced with some good narcotic, had me somewhat hydrated and almost pain free in fairly short order. Appropriately, the first call I got that morning, lying in triage, was from my doctor's office, to remind me that I had an 8:30 am appointment. I explained that I was tied to an I.V. at the hospital just up the street and wouldn't be able to make it. Not a problem: Dr. So and So is at the hospital making his rounds and he'll stop by to check on you. But the E.R. doctor got to me first and he ordered a CAT scan. When I got back from that my doctor found me and we were going over my situation. I asked him about the CAT scan, and he confirmed my doubts when he admitted he wouldn't have ordered it since what we really needed done was a colonoscopy, which was performed a short time later at the doctor's office. Waste? Who knows? I can't blame the E.R. doctor, but maybe if someone had told him my doctor was in the hospital they could have consulted briefly. But the hospital has it's routnes. I'm sure this happens everyday all over the country: hey, we've got this really expensive machine, so keep it in use, keep that billing office busy! (At least my doctor got me discharged and could perform this second procedure at significantly less cost than the hospital.) I'm getting great care and I'm extremely grateful: I kind of tail spun into very poor condition and, thankfully, got the help I needed very fast and with fantastic results: those evil pharmaceutical giants do have some good products! But how expensive is too expensive? How are we going to pay for it?

I question myself about posting comments related to private aspects of my life, but in this case I decided to go ahead. It's interesting to see the health care in action, and I'm fascinated by the speedy coming and going of symptoms and pain management. And the same old thing: someday in the future when I'm wondering when it was I had that really bad week I can look it up and I'll find it here.


Falling Acorns

On Friday after- noon Asun and I were walking to the car when Asun got hit by a hard falling acorn. Ouch. It's that time of year. Yesterday we were hiking along the Appalachian Trail and I was feeling deeply affected by the season's warnings: life ends. warm to cold, green to brown, moist to dry. What to do? How to respond? Acorns were falling to my left, to my right. Then, kaplut, one fell right in front of me. Damn, am I being spoken to? And then, right on cue, Waldo stumbled badly. As he regained his balance he looked up at me, as if acknowledging, yes, I'm getting old, I'm reading your mind. But it was a sunny morning, too, and we just kept on hiking. The darkness wasn't real. I'd like to be ready for that darkness. Maybe it will help if I think of myself as an acorn. I'll get recycled.

And apropos my thoughts, here is the beginning of today's poem from VerseDaily, "Teleology," by Rebecca Foust:

In the seed lies all that it can ever be,
shoot, plant, flower, fruit and

in the end again, the seed.
In the acorn, the entire tree.



Yesterday in my poetry seminar we were discussing how poems communicate tone. Initially I noted that there was some confusion about what tone is, so I asked them to forget about poetry and just think about language and communication in general. That helped recenter the discussion. Perceiving tone in non-vocal contexts can be tricky. (After all, tone is a musical term and its etymology is related to the stretching of a string.) In any case, I suggested they consider email and text messaging, modes of communication which are notoriously bad for clarity of tone. (Was that message supposed to be ironic? What does that mean?, etc.) Later yesterday I received an email from a student that conveyed, I trust unintentionally, the wrong tone. And this morning I read an article in the Times about a major mess up at the Met that very probably could have been avoided had it not been for a very poor use of email. Instead of getting on the telephone, Met director Peter Gelb sent German director Peter Stein, an email that made a sensitive situation much, much worse. (Gelb certainly had a right to be irritated, but by exposing his impatience and irritation in an email he forced an outcome that he wanted to avoid.) Read the article here.

So watch your tone. Sing. (I may yet get my nerve up and take some voice lessons--wouldn't it be great to be able to sing?)


Philip Roth's Focus

Right now I'm listening to Tina Brown interview Philip Roth (at the Open Culture website) and Roth just made an interesting comment that I've heard very similar variations of from a number of novelists: "I write my way into knowledge of the story." I find that to be a fascinating notion. He starts with a line, that's it. He's not recording a preexisting story; the story develops as it is created. It seems that life is like that. What knowledge do I have of my story? Is it mine? Sometimes the finiteness of the narrative proves unsettling, but a part of my brain tells me it really shouldn't: an infinite narrative would be terrifying. But what I really want is to be properly focused on the right now. Properly? What does that mean? I feel that I have, sometimes, an intuitive sense of what it means to be properly focused, but at this present moment articulateness is escaping me. (And I fear that sometimes the nature of our present age, so given to divide our attention, has sucked me in in ways that I do not like at all. Certain kinds of reading and work are the best antidote.


The Bat in the Kitchen

Yes, this morning, very early, I was greeted by a bat when I got to the kitchen. No, not a baseball bat, the flying kind. Kind of startled me. But what really pissed me off was that the little bugger had the temerity to make its presence known before I had even had a chance to make coffee. That's not cricket! I was made to feel rather anxious by this state of affairs, and then Waldo complicated matters by coming downstairs and plopping down in the middle of the dining room and acting thoroughly unperturbed at being buzzed by the bat. So I'm trying to get Waldo to move, but he just doesn't see what the fuss is about, and at the same time I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to make coffee while not turning my back on our uninvited guest. Perhaps stupidly, I did pay attention to it, and as a consequence I paid a price: standing at the entrance to the dining room, the thing came right at me, really right towards my face. I backed up and, having yet to receive an injection of caffeine, stumbled and... well, nothing really happened, but this was not a bright moment for my dignity, so it's a good thing it was just me and Waldo. I opened the door to the garden and after a couple of minutes the bat got itself out. I think. Unfortunately, after I opened the door I went looking for a tennis racket. When I got back the pest was gone, so can I be sure it left? Maybe it's hiding inside a ceramic vase or in some other small, dark corner. (Asun did discover the vase trick some years ago while doing some cleaning: a mummified bat!)

Well, now I've had some coffee and feel much, much better. Bat: now there's a Germanic etymology for you. I don't understand how you got from this idea of "to strike" to this flying rat. Because people tend to strike at them? (I don't think so.) In any case, it's nothing like the latinate murciélago that you have in Spanish: "blind rat." Now that's a descriptive word!


Where Is the Noise Coming From?

It's a good news bad news kind of morning. The bad news is I did not sleep well, probably attributable to excessive caffeine consumption yesterday. The good news is I get to really enjoy the early morning quiet that is especially attractive in the hour just before dawn. It's a calm, starry night in Carlisle. But what's with the annoying humming sound? Something, somewhere is causing this humming. It's coming from the exterior but I can't identify the source. I'm pretty sure I've heard this humming in the past. Once the daytime noise starts you can't detect it, so who knows if it's always there or not. Background noise. And rather annoying. Get me back to the woods... In fact, I was thinking on my last hike: wouldn't it be nice to just walk, walk, walk... I've never been on a real long distance walk and it's something I'd very much like to experience.
Sunday was the Feast of the Assumption! Without a doubt one of the most beautiful days of the year!!!

So now it's on to day two of the Willoughby Fellows technology workshop. It will be a busy day.

Finally: your homework is to go see the film City Island. Very funny. Don't miss it.


Deep In the Woods

For the second Saturday in a row Waldo and I had a splendid hike. We never really achieved a Zen state, but our time on the trail was much enjoyed. It was a cool, overcast morning, great for hiking. We did the Scenic Vista trail out at King's Gap and I had a few curious moments in which memories of previous hikes on this same trail were brought to the forefront of my mind with tremendous vividness. It was a good feeling. About half way through the hike I had a brief moment when it seemed that we were far, far away from any kind of distraction. Beautiful! We were there, deep in the woods, wrapped in a deep green silence. It is a wonderful place to be and I'm sure this is the central treasure that leads me back to the woods again and again. It is very quiet, the light is soft. Many shades of green. It is a gentle, inviting environment, but quite alive. There is nothing spectacular for the senses to behold, there is nothing to do, no call to action. Just being, perhaps in a moment of deistic acceptance.


The Friendly Skies

There is a funny headline in the New York Post this morning about a JetBlue flight attendant who flipped out at the very end of a flight to JFK. Trying to keep order, he was told to 'f-- off' by a boorish passenger who was doing that annoying act of jumping up and getting the overhead luggage down before the plane has stopped at the gate. And to make it worse the flight attendant gets bonked on the head by the guy's luggage. So our poor employee grabbed the microphone and launched in an f this f that tirade, opened the emergency chute, and, adios, I'm outta here! Maybe he had read David Sedaris' funny essay on modern air travel in this week's New Yorker. And for that he gets arrested. Hell, he should be told to watch his language, then given a promotion! Just the other day it occurred to me how fortunate I am this year: I haven't been on an airplane, that I can remember, in a whole year. That may be the longest I've gone without getting on a plane in my adult life. Bravo!

Signs of decadence are all around us. Has it ever been otherwise? But, in reality, civil behavior here in Carlisle is very often quite admirable. People say hello on the street, are very patient driving, etc.

Oh, I forgot: that JetBlue guy: just before jumping onto the chute he grabbed a beer. Cool under pressure?


Zen Dog

Yesterday morning Waldo and I had a magnificent hike out at King's Gap. We hadn't done this in a long time. Usually it's too buggy in the summer to be out in the woods around here, but yesterday I woke up early to cool, crisp air. Let's go! About half way into our hike we came to a point where a one mile loop, the Locust Point Trail, heads off to the right. It's a nice hike but I wasn't planning on going that way, thinking that Waldo was going to be tired enough as it was and that any extra distance was asking for trouble. But my little four-legged hiker insisted on going to the right, so off we went. And in very short time we found ourselves in a wonderful state: no distractions, no thoughts, just moving along, following the path, which must be very much like a tunnel to Waldo. No stopping to mark territory, to sniff; just becoming part of the trail, hiking in unison at a perfect, steady pace. No distracting noises, lots of shade. A minimal touch of breeze. Lots of moss on the trail bed. Our breathing even seemed synchronized. Zen. This lasted all the way around the loop. When we reconnected with the Boundary Trail we seemed to get thrown back into a more normal state of awareness. (And, curious detail, we walked by some scat that I believe was bear; I've been comparing images of bear and deer scat on google, and I'm confident it was bear. If there had been a bear on the Locust Point Trail we may well not even have been aware of it, we were that gone. Or that there?) In any case, the return to normal time was fine, and when we came to the stream on the King's Gap Hollow trail, Waldo had a grand time sloshing around in the shallow water. It was about a 3.5-4 mile hike all together. A hike I won't soon forget: that time on the Locust Point trail was magical.



I found myself thinking about weeds this morning. I imagine the concept doesn't have much meaning outside the context of gardening. I'm curious about the word's etymology. It's clearly of Anglo Saxon origin, but what else...Let's do a quick search. The online etymology dictionary helps some: "O.E. weod, uueod "grass, herb, weed," from P.Gmc. *weud- (cf. O.S. wiod, E.Fris. wiud), of unknown origin. Meaning "tobacco" is from c.1600; that of "marijuana" is from 1920s. The verb meaning "to clear the ground of weeds" is late O.E. weodian. Related: Weeded; weeding." Interesting enough. And a good example of how meaning tends to be so heavily dependent on context. In this case, the concept of undesirabiity is at the core of "weed", but that makes no sense until we can grasp the notion of cultivation, be it a garden, a "native" space", etc. Think about it: who can actually identify, in a botanical sense, what plants we refer to when talking of weeds? It's not about botany, of course.

Anyway, weeds got me thinking about negativity in language, which got me thinking about insults, which got me thinking about the thoroughly miserable state of our political discourse, which seems to sink ever lower.

And that was my walk, observing how some neighbors are very attentive to weed control and others not. And that got me thinking about the difference between wanting and fantasizing. In a gardening context. I keep going back to the garden not because I want anything in particular, but because I fantasize about an aesthetic ideal. I'll never get there, but the process is fun and sometimes quite gratifying. After Eden? Perhaps. And I suspect it was the very same "after Eden" fantasy that got me going with weed. Chasing fantasies can blind. And can enlighten. I hope I'm learning something about the distinction. And that's what I'm on guard against, I think: the dangerous illusion of convergence.


In the Neighborhood-2

Some years ago a the owners of a house a few blocks down the street from us moved out. The house did not go up for sale. No one moved in. A mystery. Before long the property's condition began to deteriorate noticeably. First the yard. Then windows started to break. Shingles fell off the roof, gutters sagged and broke, etc. It became a real mess and an eyesore for the neighborhood. And the sense of decay was made more stark because it seemed so incongruent given the home's coquettish style and the lot's inherent grace. And then the rumors: all of this because of a particularly nasty and bitter divorce. It was said that if you went up to a window and looked in you could see that the place had been purposely trashed by one of the feuding spouses. Eventually someone got the placed boarded up. And there it stood for a long time. We actually joked about buying the place, but even had we been serious we had no one to contact. As it turned out, an older couple did find out who to contact. They bought the place and fixed it up beautifully.

This little bit of neighborhood history is brought to mind because this morning I was walking by this house with Waldo and was impacted by a detail that I'm sure I've observed many times. But today it kind of hit me on the head like a brick. Near the top of the walkway leading up to the front door, perched atop an elegant iron stand about seven fee high is a very large clock. (And I noticed it's a functioning piece of equipment set to the correct hour.) "Welcome. And by the way, the clock is ticking!" I've walked by thousands upon thousands of homes, and this in the only one Ive seen with a huge clock out front, like a sentry offering a gesture of... welcome? Warning? Irony? Unique, in any case. And I found myself thinking about The Clock, the one you can never rewind. Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but I think I'm making some progress in terms on accepting this universal fate. (The photo above is not from our neighborhood, but rather from Detroit.)


Language Minutiae

I don't recall the exact context, but last week in one of my readings there was a reference to AAA bonds. The author, using the singular, wrote "an AAA bond". I was slightly irritated, because one rarely hears "an AAA bond". Rather, we say "a triple A bond". Of course, we learn that in writing, the indefinite article changes to "an" before words beginning with a vowel sound. (Not always a vowel: "an honest mistake," etc. Other exceptions would be the 'u' sound [as in "you"]: "a united front," etc., and the 'w' sound in some words beginning with 'o': "a one-run inning.") If we write "an AAA bond" we are conforming to the usage norms regarding the indefinite article, but at the same time we create a little static for the reader, who typically converts written signs to vocal expression. In fact, the norm itself arises from that (higher?) principle: writing reflects the spoken language: we write "an apple a day..." because the consecutive 'a' sounds, when pronounced, like to have that 'n' sound added.

Of course, I don't really care much how writers resolve the AAA bond bind, but I find it interesting and am now reminded of a truly fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal that was sent to me the other day: "Lost in Translation". The article reports on recent research that demonstrates how language actually determines culture, perhaps to an extent we could not have imagined. I learned that many languages do not have the concept of "left and right". Rather, they use the cardinal points for this kind of lateral orientation, even for the body. And, experiments have shown that people in cultures whose languages do this tend to have better spatial orientation. That is, they have "a great sense of direction." Learning another language can expand our horizons. The metaphor is perhaps more appropriate than we had imagined.


Identity Theft

Yesterday a federal judge sided with the Obama administration in its challenge to the Arizona immigration legislation that was to become effective tomorrow. The legal argument in the challenge is centered not on human rights but rather on administrative prerogatives: the federal government claims constitutionally mandated exclusivity in matters of immigration, border control, etc. Regardless, my own interest is oriented towards the lives of real people: the difficult choices impoverished families face and the extreme hardships they undergo. Maybe, if more people gain an understanding of the realities of poverty and injustice then meaningful immigration reform will be achieved. To anyone who reads this, please read the linked articles. The first is rather lengthy, but is outstanding. It is more than outstanding, it is courageous. It is an essay by a court interpreter involved in the infamous 2008 raid on a meat processing plant in Iowa. (Here.) This link begins with brief testimony by the author, Eric Camayd-Freixas (in the photo, above), before a congressional subcommitee; the essay follows the prepared testimony. Camayd-Freixas meticulously exposes the gross injustice perpetrated on hundreds of Guatemalans and Mexicans by a government agency (the little known Immigration and Customs Enforcement) gone rogue. The second article is from today's New York Times and describes the situation of a county morgue in Arizona. (NYT: here.) Together, these articles offer glimpses into the extreme drama faced by some of the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere. My real hope is that the realities described in these articles will become familiar to people who a) can't get past referring to immigrants with a generic, vaguely derogatory "they", or b) who really think that immigrants are "stealing jobs from Americans" (as if these immigrants weren't just as American, and more, than those who would like to believe otherwise), or c) who simply feel threatened by non-English speaking, darker skinned people. Unfortunately, I don't think I've got my intended audience, but I'll keep trying...


A Good Deed

On Monday afternoon I called our youngest daughter, who is spending some time in Manhattan. A man answers the phone. For a split second a dark cloud takes over my brain. What the...? But in a moment I understand: our little knucklehead had left her phone in a taxi. The driver was very kind and helpful. He explained that our 15 year old had been his last fare of the day and that he had just dropped the car at the garage and was now headed home on the subway. He offered to return the phone the next day and would call when he ended up near Lincoln Center. And it worked: he met Daniela down on the street and returned the phone. It would have been so easy for this guy to just blow it off, but he didn't. He was polite and accommodating. So, three cheers for New York cab drivers! It reminds me of a driver from West Africa we had on a recent trip. Very nice. And this guy, a good man! I trust our daughter gave him a very sincere thank you. And hopefully a good tip.
Speaking of tips, at the time I was trying to call Daniela on Monday, Asun and I had just checked in to a very nice Bed and Breakfast in Oxford, Maryland. Beautiful! Right on the water. An extremely relaxing setting. Anyway, one little detail I couldn't help noticing was the envelope/note suggesting we leave a tip for the cleaning lady. I suppose there are two ways to look at this: one is, if you can afford to stay here you can certainly afford to tip the help. True enough. On the other hand, and I subscribe to this latter mentality: hey Mr. Innkeeper, if you can charge really luxury rates, you should be paying your help a living wage. Or just charge even a little more if the balance sheets are really so tight, but tipping is, in most instances, an undignified custom that we should be working to end. Our "housekeeper"? We were at this inn for one night. Why would you tip someone just for doing their job? In any case, we did have a most enjoyable stay and had fun discovering an area that was completely new to us. Outstanding.


In the Neighborhood

Not much news in our neighborhood. Now and then I've considered doing a blog in Spanish, mainly for friends in Spain, on the premise that I could make observations about daily life here that some may find curious. Bur what can one say about sleepy Carlisle? No doubt there are lots of interesting goings on to ponder, but it requires some imaginative thinking and perhaps some distance. At the moment I have neither. I do appreciate the sense of place I get here, a pleasure I experience frequently, especially on walks with Waldo. Some parts of our lives need familiarity, and the local landscape, so little changing here in the historic district, certainly offers that. My eight minute walk to work, for example. In the nineteen years we've been here, nothing has changed on that walk: no new houses, no buildings torn down, it's just as it was in 1991. Yesterday we were thinking about that as we passed through the fields behind Mooreland Elementary School: first Alma there as a kindergartner, then Cristina, then Daniela... now Waldo.
Dialogue. Me: Our big problem is there are too many humans.
She: Well, there are a lot more insects than humans. That's a problem.


People en Español

Yesterday I was waiting in line at Wal-Mart (Ben & Jerry's attack) when I noticed a new addition to the magazine rack: People en Español. Yet another sign of our changing demographic. There have been lots of Hispanic migrant workers just south of here, in Adams County, for many years. (Asun helps out in some clinics they have for the workers, and will soon be bringing her students along, continuing an initiative started by a colleague who is on sabbatical this year.) But there was not a noticeable Hispanic presence in Carlisle until much more recently. The change was subtle and I first noticed it about three years ago in... Wal-Mart. Clearly the local management has noticed the change too. I'm curious about the degree of overlap between the migrant worker community in Adams county and the more recent immigrants who came to provide cheap labor for the construction and service industries. This latter group is much more visible to the general population, at least in this area. Not many people make it out to the orchards and actually witness the hard labor that very few are willing to perform. And who among us witnesses the work in the slaughterhouses? And of course, we don't see the conditions of extreme poverty in Mexico or Guatemala these workers are fleeing in the first place.
I was thinking about that earlier this morning: Carlisle is our little bubble, for the most part, a very pleasant environment. I always get that notion, for example, when I'm in the Dickinson library. Wow! It's a little piece of heaven.


Poetry and Science

For the past several days I've been dedicating a good amount of time to the work of Manuel Alcántara, a poet and essayist from Málaga. His work will be featured in the upcoming issue of Sirena. Last night I was translating one of his newspaper columns in which he makes a remarkably simple yet astute and eloquently expressed observation regarding our world. He says, "the whole world is home (patria), beyond the flags that mark dominions and the boundaries that stitch together territories." Alcántara's context is a brief reflection on the occasion of Earth Day, 1990. His concerns are most familiar: parochial and selfish interests threaten our future; our survival as a species (as well as that of all other species!) depends on cooperation. His use of the word patria is most significant: it's a term associated with national identification, but is also frequently used in the expression patria chica to indicate the importance of local identities. Alcántara is reminding his readers that we've got it all wrong, of course: the only true home, in a geological sense, the one that counts, is Earth.
This morning I was reading in the New York Review of Books a review of Rewilding the World by Caroline Fraser. Contemporary conservation science makes the same point as Alcántara: creating islands doesn't work. We need connectivity. (Do we ever!) The reviewer, John Terborgh, offers this quote from the book: "We are realizing that conservation is not about managing wildlife as much as it is about managing ourselves–our appetites, expectations, fears, our fundamental avariciousness." Well, the same can no doubt be said of art: it's about managing ourselves, although most would say art is about understanding ourselves. And I'd say that to understand, to truly understand, is to manage. Donne's Meditation XVII, where you will find his famously quoted lines "No man is an island..." makes a similar point within a Christian context.


Back at City Island

Last night I got to my first Senators game of the year. It was a nice evening and the ball park looked great. And I had the good fortune to be seated next to a very kind gentleman who enjoyed discussing baseball. Our conversation began with him asking me if I were a season ticket holder. He explained that he he had tried to get the seat I was in but that it was already taken. I guess he asks everyone the same question, trying to figure out why he got stiffed. (I had the aisle seat, and that's no doubt why this guy wanted it.) It was, in fact, a wonderful seat, fifth and final row of the field boxes, just behind first base. And at City Island, where there is minimal foul territory behind the plate and along the base paths, you are really close to the players.) In any case, the game started off horribly for the Senators (down two zip before they had recorded a single out, shoddy fielding in the top of the first, poor base running in the bottom half...), slowly settled down (good pitching), then turned fun with a five run seventh. The highlight was watching shortstop Danny Espinosa go 5 for 5, including two homers. (Bristol right fielder Mark Dolenc absolutely crushed one way over the left field everything in the fifth inning.) Even the most routine games involve something memorable. In this case, in addition to seeing Espinosa go 5 for 5, I had the opportunity to see pitcher Loek Van Mil, who just happens to be 7 ft. 1. But that's not all. He's originally from the Netherlands and he pitched quite well for the Dutch team in the World Baseball Classic. He's moving up in the twins organization. But he had a bad outing last night. Speaking of relief pitchers, it's time to check in on the progress of Atahualpa Severino. He's still in Syracuse, apparently having a good but not great year. His ERA is 3.65 (44.1 innings pitched), but his walk to strikeout ratio is not good. I'm rooting for him! (In the photo, Danny Espinosa, playing for the US in the Pan American Games.)


The Bird Feeder

When I bought a bird feeder a while back I also purchased a two or three pound bag of seed. It lasted a few days. I went back to Wal Mart and came home with a ten pound bag. It didn't last long either. So the other day I came home with a forty pound bag. I'm not certain what amazes me more, the astounding ability of these little creatures to consume one hundred percent of their body weight in very short order, or the impressive economies of scale involved in buying bird food. I don't remember the exact prices of the varying bags of bird food, but the differences are wildly out of proportion to the sizes. $5.99 for 10 pounds and $7.99 for forty pounds (!), something along those lines.

We have been getting great enjoyment from observing these birds just outside the window. And also receiving the occasional fright when one turns from the feeder and flies right into the window. Bang! It's happening with some regularity, but they don't seem to be hurt by it. We've all seen photos of summer tourists feeding the bears in parks, that's a standard image of our popular culture. And for a long time now we've been thinking, oh how stupid we were, how ignorantly intrusive on the ways of nature! So why is it ok to feed the birds? Is it ok? In any case, I have very quickly incorporated the newly enlarged bird population into my sense of "garden aesthetics." They help define the spaces at and above eye level in ways I would not have imagined just a short time ago. Their colorings, mainly grays and browns, are subtly pleasant. The occasional cardinal adds a welcome touch of airborne red, which is otherwise only to be observed in the geraniums. And their songs! Most are, in fact, uninteresting musically (chirp, chirp, chirp...), but now and then you catch a gem. At his very moment I'm seeing a little bird perched right at the pinnacle of a little tree (oh, to not even know the names of the plants in my garden!) and, oh, a squirrel just leaped from the Japanese maple onto the roof, oh my, it's a ballet!


Creative Genius

Just a few minutes ago I was walking down the street with Waldo. I was in poor condition, feeling both physically and mentally down. Rafael Pérez Estrada saved me. Really, that's the power of poetry. I started bringing to mind some of his verses, but, what a luxury!, also recollections of his presence. Now I'm back home, and a jewel of a poem appeared at just the right moment. The poem is "Demasiadas cosas para un solo poema" ("Too many things for a single poem") and it's classic Rafael: our reality is overpopulated with wonder. In this poem the poetic voice is observing nuns and seagulls at the beach. He posits that they'll have to post a sign prohibiting so many nuns and gulls from flying around at the same time! The poem's central metaphor is compelling: "It's as if all the stars in the sky insisted on coming out on the same night." Saved again!

Joy amid the Tragedy

Good for Spain. I'm not much of a soccer fan, but we did watch the World Cup final with much interest. The Dutch were intimidated by Spain's superior talent and tried to level the field with hard fouls to disrupt Spain's game of precision passing and ball control. It almost worked. This was a final between two countries with magnificent painting traditions, but in this game only the Spain was Picassian.

I was a little surprised that the tv commentators made no references to the colonial history of the countries involved: Spain's occupation of the Netherlands in the 16th century and the violent legacy of the Dutch in South Africa.

Tragically, terrorism is alive and well: the horrible attacks in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, are unspeakable crimes committed almost certainly by enfeebled minds deeply poisoned with fanatical hatred. Discouraging is way too understated. How does one respond to such madness?


How To Make A Fool of Yourself (Exhibit A)

Go Dan! An open letter to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert:

Dear Dan, thanks for making the rest of us look good!

OK, that's my letter. If you are a sports fan, you may well have read the impressively stupid (and poorly written) rant that Gilbert made available for our collective entertainment. The open letter to Cavaliers fans is an excellent example of an immature adult channelling the inner child.
(Spurned? I'll get you, you stinking dope!) When I read the text at Yahoo Sports I could hardly believe it. This guy tops George Steinbrenner. You can read the letter here.

Sometimes I feel a little guilty for reading the sports pages of the New York Times and The Boston Globe, but I justify my behavior with the argument that the sports pages offer frequent life lessons. Today's lesson for anyone who may have missed it earlier in life: strong emotional responses to life's ups and downs (anger, joy, envy, depression...) create momentary obstacles to rational, reflective thinking. So, as one of my colleagues succinctly suggested many, many years ago in a pre-internet age: "file that note and sleep on it".


Plan B: First Position

"Not many had a plan B." This line got my attention a few minutes ago. It's a comment from a real estate broker and refers to high income people defaulting on their mortgages. The article in this morning's New York Times is about the high default rate on mortgages of over a million dollars. It turns out the rich are defaulting much more readily than the working poor. Yes, it's good to have a plan B. This idea was on my mind recently when I became familiar with the circumstances of a young dancer who has been in Carlisle for the past few years, training at CPYB. This young person seems to have had very weak adult guidance and education does not seem to have been a priority. (This may be quite an understatement, but I don't want to get specific...) In any case, I did find myself thinking, what's the plan B? Ballet as a profession is a very tenuous proposition: only the most elite dancers are going to earn a living wage exercising their passion. And even for those select few, dancing for income is often a matter of relatively few years. Fortunately, our thoroughly unprepared dancer is extremely atypical at CPYB. It seems to me that for the great majority of the kids doing this intense training, the endless hours of dedication have provided a very solid Plan B. And that's my point: education in general is Plan B. Classical ballet training affords its students skills and knowledge that certainly do transfer to just about any sphere of life. Adults who question the value of classical ballet training by pointing out that it's just so much snake oil, a cruel taking advantage of childhood dreams, are sadly missing the point. Can you listen? Can you follow instructions? Do you understand that mastery requires seemingly endless practice? That's just the beginning. These kids also learn great lessons about language, communication, and, ultimately, creativity and beauty.

I'll write more on creativity and beauty later, but for now, just a thought on one of the central benefits derived from serious ballet training: the ability to focus. Small children at CPYB are engaged from an early age in 90 minute classes. That's a long time for a kid, but they learn quickly to stay focused on the teacher's instructions. They also come to understand that the big deal is in the small detail. Those amazing things that professional ballerinas do? They learn that it's not magic and that you don't start at the end, you start at the beginning. There are a million pieces to the puzzle. And, here's a key: the pieces must be mastered in a specific, sequential order. You can't go to step two until you have perfect mastery of step one, and when you get to step two you stay there until it too is perfectly mastered.* And on and on and on... (To this day, I feel quite moved when I see the level one students perform their simple dances on stage: yes, so simple. And so flawless!)

There are skeptics, of course. One argument goes something like this: but there's no creativity, you're turning the kids into little machines. It's stultifying! Let them have fun! Let's start at the end and work back: oh, they do have fun! Simple observation makes this quite obvious. The kids love it. Performing a seemingly simple dance in a group gives these children a very well earned sense of accomplishment. Many hours of practice have been necessary to achieve the desired effect of synchronization, harmony, and, ultimately, beauty. The small children may still be too young to know the word "dignity", but they get the idea. There is something noble about being on stage, participating in a well rehearsed, polished work. (And I very strongly suspect there is a much deeper lesson which they may not become fully aware of until many years later: a satisfying sense of high purpose may result from participating in something bigger than yourself.) Finally, the children learn that creativity is not about "self-expression"; it is not instinctual or even autonomous. Creativity finds expression in language, be it verbal, musical, visual, or kinetic. So, first master the language. That's a life-long lesson that many of us never quite get, but these kids at least are on the path.

*In her citation on the occasion of the honorary degree awarded this year by Dickinson to CPYB founding artistic director Marcia Dale Weary, my colleague Sarah Skaggs alluded to this phenomenon most articulately: "With a Zen-like approach, she breaks down each step into its infinitesimal components. Marcia is a sculptor of the ballet student body. She shapes the body through precise articulations. Her students repeat and repeat and repeat the constituent components of a steppiece by pieceuntil each part of the whole is perfected. Only then does a student advance to the next level. Similarly, Marcia’s system includes 10, not three levels of competence. Each student moves through a finely graded series toward perfection. No one is “passed through” her system."


Popular Media (Lindsay dunks over LeBron!)

Over the past couple of weeks I have watched a non-story grow into a full blown international media production: "Where will LeBron James play basketball next year?" Or, perhaps the title should be "Where
goes the King?" This basketball player's designation as "King James" is one of the stupidest and most witless examples yet of contemporary sports hype/marketing. But I suppose also fabulously profitable. Only hardcore NBA fans (and that's a pretty small demographic) really care about James' contract status, but if you expose yourself to popular media you cannot escape the constant attention given to the question of where this guy will end up playing basketball next year. Such is the degree of overblown hype that James is teaming up with ESPN to present his very own prime time program tonight, sixty minutes of air time dedicated to revealing the answer to this fabulous mystery. Insufferable.

I confess I find of greater interest the latest woes of Lindsey Lohan. Off to jail! (And everyone cheers.) It's hard to imagine this impetuous little brat ever growing up. And that's the sad part. Clearly no one ever gave her an education.

Back to sports: in this morning's EL PAIS José Samaño refers to Carles Puyol's winning header yesterday against Germany as a "gol racial". You've got to be kidding me! José, what the hell is a "racial goal"? Is this related to the "furia española"? Such nonsense. (And yesterday the ESPN announcers made some stupid comment about the Spanish players not singing the national anthem and suggesting it might have something to do with nationalist politics, you know, many of the national team's players are on the Barcelona club team... hey idiots: Spain's anthem has no lyrics!! That's why they don't sing.) The notion that there is something essentialist going on here is truly repugnant. EL PAIS used to be a serious newspaper and it played a magnificent role in Spain's transition to democracy in the late seventies. Don't they have any editors? (Doesn't Puyol look a little like Jim Morrison?)

Catching Up

This post is just notes to help my memory: following the conclusion of the June Series, after Alma and Cristina went back to Ithaca and Daniela was installed at SAB, we had a short week in Carlisle. Friday morning it was off to Little Compton for the 4th of July weekend. Beautiful! We had a big, wonderful gathering on the 4th. And we got to meet our 'new' cousin, Janet Barako. She drove down from Westfield, MA with her husband Joe. That was really nice. On Monday we drove back to Carlisle and left Daniela back at SAB on the way. It was HOT, the traffic getting into the Lincoln tunnel was infernal and I lost my temper in very stupid fashion. It's still very hot, with temperatures near or at 100F. Spain beat Germany to reach the World Cup final for the first time. Last night we had a nice dinner with Mickey, who today is off to California.


Here and gone

This past weekend we had everyone under one roof. Cristina arrived Thursday evening on a train, having just returned from her trip to France, with a quick visit to San Sebastian included. Unfortunately, an intense thunder storm left trees fallen on the tracks west of Philadelphia, delaying things a few hours and so she missed that evening's ballet. Alma drove down Friday. We had about thirty-six hours together. What a wonderful feeling! And so fleeting. It's all so fleeting. But we have these cyclical tendencies that keep us going, and thankfully we get to gather again this weekend in Rhode Island. Well, we're not sure yet about Daniela, but I'm hopeful. Very early Sunday morning we drove her up to NY for her summer program at School of American Ballet. This just hours after a very intense two performance day of dancing to finish the June Series. Spectacular! And about the same time we were leaving, Alma and Cristina were heading back to Ithaca. So the house is feeling pretty empty this week.

It was interesting to see how they are set up at School of American Ballet. It's all under one roof on W. 65th St., right next to Alice Tully Hall, where Daniela had her great Swan experience as a nine-year old. Now she is in a double room on the 17th floor, with views of Lincoln Center below and the Hudson River just a few blocks to the west. Her suite mates have come from all over the country– California, Ohio, Florida... and two of her friends from Víctor Ullate's ballet in Madrid are also there. At the same time we were getting Daniela settled in, a ballet legend, Darci Kistler, was giving her farewell performance to bring to a close a long, long career (30 years!) with New York City Ballet. (Walking across Lincoln Center Plaza we ran into one of Daniela's CPYB mates, now an apprentice with the company; she was getting ready to perform as part of the corps de ballet.) In any case, here's part of what Times critic Alastair Macaulay had to say in his summary of Ms Kistler's career: "Since then (1992) her career has been a long, slow fade... Her pale autumn has lasted far longer than her bright spring and summer combined, and I cannot see that since 1992 she has been a good role model for the young. Often her mane of hair has been a mere shtick. Her solo dancing in the Stravinsky ballets was wretched, flicking lightly at steps that require a rigor she lost long ago." Ouch!! Makes you think that maybe fleeting is not so bad! (In the wonderful photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Daniela with her partner, Antonio Anacan, in Raymonda Variations.)



A couple of weeks ago I put a bird feeder in our garden, not far from a dining room window. It quickly became quite pop-ular and I have learned that the little flyers can go through a lot of bird feed in a short time. Just a few minutes ago I was watching a few of them. (I have not yet made a serious attempt at identifying the different species. Most are grey and brown hued and smallish: sparrows, thrushes, an perhaps the red-winged blackbird...) Just as I was thinking to myself, my, these birds are getting bigger and fatter, boom, one of the recently porked up gluttons flew right into the window. Drunk on the seed! Is this a case of too much of a good thing? I was wondering that myself the other day as I spooned up on one of Leo's almond-coconut-chocolate chip ice creams. What happened to those new year's vows to slim down and get in shape? The year had started off so well in that regard... Will I ever get it right?

Is greed universal? Surely we can overcome it to some degree. Maybe the question is, can we overcome it to a sufficient degree? (In the photo, a song sparrow.)



I've been watching a little of the World Cup and have noticed that flopping is still a big embarrassment to the sport. I can imagine it's very difficult for the referee to make these calls. We television viewers have the advantage of instant replay and slow motion. Still, the FIFA people should really tackle this problem. (Like the pun? Yellow card!) I was very pleased to see New Zealand tie Italy, as it's always seemed to me that the Italians are the master floppers. (No flopping in baseball, by the way, which is another reason it is a superior sport.) One thing I have enjoyed greatly is the British commentator on ESPN. I don't recall his name, but his understated humor is wonderful.

And now I just read about the chaos undoing the French team. Oulala! The Spanish translation of the insult apparently hurled by Anelka at his coach was quite graphic. (I did not see a quote of this insult anywhere in the US papers. Ah, the poverty of monolingualism strikes again.) So Anelka suggested his coach shove something into a particular body orifice while commenting on his hygiene and his mother's professional status. Strong stuff, but not very imaginative. The coach could have responded with some comments of his own. It can get tricky. One imagines that no apology was forthcoming from Anelka, and thus his expulsion. If that's the case, good for the coach.

And speaking of the professions exercised by some women, how about that Lady Gaga. If the news reports are accurate, she's got one lame act: acting like a slut (and certainly looking like one) while visibly drunk is pretty pathetic. More pathetic the people who buy into it.


Summer Approaches

It's a beautiful morning in Carlisle. Summer is here, even if the calendar would have us wait a few more days. The bright light and green grass made me think of a favorite poem of mine, just three beautiful lines from Walt Whitman. It was first published in 1865 in Drum Taps, but, I just learned, as a mere two line poem. The third, crucial line was added in 1870:

A Farm-Picture

Through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn,
A sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding;
And haze, and vista, and the far horizon, fading away.

Just listen to the wonderful rhythms of the first line, so nicely divided into two symmetrical halves of trochaic tetrameter. And he keeps changing it up. So the attractive sound qualities really contribute to the pastoral tranquility. It's summer, it's good, and we see an attractive, productive landscape. But the fading horizon is a touch ambiguous. A receding picture. Infinite? In any case, consider the perspective: this picture is described from inside the barn. We see out through the open barn door, which suggests a very "pictorial" frame. To me, that's one half of what the title is about. Our frame of reference is a peaceful country barn, and we are in it. Not a bad place to be on a hot summer day!

Sometimes these peaceful places may lead us to excessive pondering. I think I'd like my horizon to always be fading, but I fear it's coming closer. And sometimes the best I can manage is "it's o.k." Walt makes it easier.



This morning I was at the supermarket and during my stroll I was assisted by a curious individual. This man seemed angry and had a noticeably brusque manner. At first he struck me as quite rude. But I was wrong: he was actually quite nice, pointed out a couple of helpful details and wished me a nice day. Rarely do I come across such extreme disjunction. People are interesting that way.

More disjunction: last night I watched the film A Beautiful Mind, about mathematician John Nash. Asun insisted that I had seen the film with her years ago. I was certain I hadn't. And as the film went on nothing seemed familiar, zero recollection. And yet, Asun is pretty good about these things and I suspect she's right. If that's the case, it's not good for me. How could I forget something so completely? In any case, it was an ok film. The story is certainly interesting.

Lots to think about, much to do. Here's a question: is it important to remember? (I just can't get excited about World Cup Soccer.)



Last week there was an interesting article in the New York Times about some kids from the US who have gone to Moscow to study ballet at the school of the famed Bolshoi ballet. (Read the article here.) How times have changed! But in fact, these kids are not the first to do this. Way back in 1996 CPYB student Vanessa Zahorian left Carlisle to go study at the Kirov. She has gone on to have a stellar career at San Francisco ballet. I am always intrigued by people with particularly strong passions. One kid, Joy, put it quite plainly, "I want to be Russian." I can't identify with that one, but I definitely could identify when I read that she burst into tears the first time she saw Natalia Osipova on video. Sometimes beauty is just that powerful. (Osipova is currently in New York for a stint with American Ballet Theatre. Read Alistair MacCaulay's rave review of her performance Tuesday night here.) In any case, regarding Daniela's passion, it seems like really good luck that we are in Carlisle, where the passion is so conveniently engaged. Nonetheless, it can get complicated. I just read a marvelous essay by yet another CPYB dancer from Carlisle, Abi Stafford, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. She writes in Pointe Magazine about competitiveness, professional anxieties, and how she's learned to manage it all. And I feel confirmed: from the very beginning I've tried to impress upon Daniela that it's about having fun. (She's also taught me the very same lesson.) Fun can be very serious business, can involve hardship, sacrifice, and a lot of pain, but we need to keep coming back to that joy and, I think, to the sharing.

(Luck is tricky to define. Well, perhaps not, but it is complicated when we try to determine how it applies in our lives. Sometimes just about everything can seem like chance. At the other extreme, I often hear said "there are absolutely no coincidences." It's usually affirmed by people who believe in an all-powerful, participatory God. God as Director. I don't believe in that one.)

I don't know if this constitutes a passion, but it sure could be fun: we make an obscenely huge paella, then get a crowd, all nicely equipped with thick oven mitts, and we hoist the paella/throne and procession it to... to some huge cathedral? We've had the bread and the fish, now it's time for a paella miracle. (In the image, above, the making of the world's largest paella, near Madrid. Paella for 110,000! Check out the big equipment!) If I could manage to make a very large paella, maybe not for hundreds of thousands, but, let's say, maybe for a thousand (I've reached 100), and got several people to help parade it in a sacred culinary procession, would that be luck? I don't know, but it would certainly be lucky.


Blessed Imperfection

What a memorable baseball season! Last night more exceptionality: Detroit Tigers' pitcher Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game when the first base umpire made what will surely go down as one of the most infamous bad calls in baseball history. Poor Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew the call. It will be with him for the rest of his life: he cost the kid a joyous moment! And changed his place in history. Regardless of what happens from here on out, Galarraga will forever be associated with Jim Joyce. In this story there are lots of bad guys and at least one good guy. Let's start with the good guy: Armando Galarraga. He didn't scream at Joyce, didn't berate him, and accepted the ump's post-game apology with grace. He's got some perspective. And I just read that in a short time, Galarraga will walk out of the dugout before today's game and present the lineup card to Joyce, who declined to take the day off, and will be working behind the plate. That's courage! Folks, it's just a game. Everyone needs to lighten up! The bad guys: everyone who's been giving Joyce such a hard time, including Jim Sutton, the stupid ESPN announcer who called Joyce's missed call "unforgivable". No Don, it's not unforgivable at all. Well, that's what everyone's talking about today.



Graduations are for the most part joyous events, but typically involve conflicting emotions, especially for the protagonists, the graduates. For Asun and I the emotions (joy, pride, etc.) were fairly uncomplicated. It was also, for us, another first: attending a college graduation as parents. Not surprisingly, the weekend offered a rich supply of clichés, and it requires effort to stay free of them in reflecting back on the festivities and ceremonies. It was certainly a lot of fun celebrating one of these big milestones with the family all together, including brother Stephen (!), accompanied by beautiful weather and lots of happy young people. The Ohlstens were again our superhosts and that really made it possible for us to enjoy everything in a relaxed and stress-free fashion. Thank you Jay and Karen! And kudos again to Jay, my culinary assistant extraordinaire!

More than once over the course of the weekend I found myself comparing what I was observing and experiencing to my own college graduation. The differences are stark on every level. At my own graduation, I had not a single event to attend that involved me being recognized in any way for any kind of achievement. Alma had several. Looking back now, I can only conclude that what was most characteristic of my college experience was its perfect combination of mediocrity and disengagement. I did learn a lot and made significant progress in terms of understanding some of the basic goals of a liberal arts education, advances that I believe have served me well in the long run. But my experiences then were perhaps inwardly directed in excessive fashion. I imagine that someone tried to communicate the same lesson Cornell's president, David Skorton, insisted on in his commencement address to the graduates: stay connected! I may have been listening, but not closely. While listening to Skorton (I am now, thirty years down the line, a better listener), I found myself nodding in agreement, but also thinking, surely you get more than this for $200,000! Of course! (Of course? The cost of higher education and its relative worth will be endlessly debated, but I'm not going to return to that one today. Suffice to say, I'm confident that the resources we dedicate to private higher education are a good investment.) As for the particular case of our oldest daughter, I'm most confident. As we like to say here at Dickinson, this student is "fully engaged." And very accomplished, if I do say so myself.

In her marvelous address to her classmates, Alma alluded to the irony of calling graduation "commencement": there is no question that students are celebrating the end of something. But maybe that's how we justify such a heavy investment in education: feeling like maybe you haven't learned so much? Hey, not to worry, it's just the beginning. You'll see the benefits later. Without this education you may be at greater risk of false starts. Maybe, maybe not. I really don't know; I, too, feel like I'm just getting started.

Well, who knows what is about to commence. It looks like West Africa for the graduate. Another story for another day. In the photo: why I get up every morning.


Sister Margaret McBride and Solidarity (or its absence)

This morning Nicholas Kristof writes about the recent and sudden excommuni- cation of a catholic nun in the diocese of Arizona. Why would a nun devoted to caring for others and described by many as "saintly" be excommunicated? It must have been something truly horrid, for, as we know, wayward priests rarely receive this, the ultimate punishment within the church. Priests who fail to keep their vows: not so bad. Priests who question church doctrine: disciplined, but not excommunicated. Pedophile priests: it seems they typically get a job transfer. Those higher ups who tolerate pedophile priests: retirement in Rome. What did the devout nun do? She, as part of a group decision, gave the ok to an abortion that was deemed necessary to save the life of an 11 week-pregnant woman. (The woman is the mother of four children.) Sister Margaret served on the bioethics committee of St. Joseph's hospital in Phoenix and, according to Kristof, the committee's "decision was made after consultation with the patient, her family, her physicians, and in consultation with the Ethics Committee." An abortion is a tragic event, and many believe there are circumstances when it can plainly be viewed as killing an innocent life. But imagine the circumstances faced by the young woman in Phoenix. She is suffering from pulmonary hypertension and her pregnancy may kill her. She can have an abortion and live. Or she can move forward with the pregnancy and risk death, and by extension the death of the fetus her own life is suppossed to be sacrificed for, or, if ( a very big if) the pregnancy is sufficiently advanced and there is lots of luck, perhaps save the life of the fetus, who would then be born orphaned. One can easily see the terrible nature of this ethical dilemma.

If the reporting about this story is accurate, one can safely assume that had St. Joseph's hospital denied the patient abortion services, she would have been quickly transferred to another hospital for the procedure. That's important: once the patient and her physicians had agreed on a course of action, the abortion was going to take place. But in the event, Sister McBride, according to the Arizona Republic, was the Ethics Committee member on call at the time a "last minute, life and death" decision had to be made. She gave the ok to a decision already made by the mother, in consultation with family and physicians. Can anyone possibly blame a woman for wanting to live? A mother of four? Sister Margaret must have understood, must have been thinking about that mother and those children, about life.

When Bishop Thomas Olmsted learned of the case, he immediately excommunicated the nun, "automatically." The automatic nature of this spiritual death is fascinating. (Remember, an excommunicated catholic cannot receive communion and is, thus, to a great degree cut off from God. So, I don't believe calling this a "spiritual death" is overstating the gravity of the punishment.) Most significantly, it suggests that the particular circumstances are irrelevant. That is, even had the doctors been certain that failure to abort would result in the imminent death of mother and fetus, it would still have been cause for excommunication. No discussion, no need for an Ethics Committee. The lack of any openness to nuance, to the particular tragedies of real life are of no interest to the men in black when it comes to core doctrine. And so the church moves boldly backwards, in this case, cutting off a, by all accounts, faithful and "humble servant". Margaret McBride has dedicated her life to serving the sick and poor as a nun of the Sisters of Mercy order. (This is a nineteenth century order founded in Ireland, not to be confused with the Religious Sisters of Mercy, a Vatican II order founded in Alma, Michigan.)

It is astounding. The church hems and haws for years about what to do with the pedophiles among them, knowing that in the meantime these perverts are traumatizing the lives of their victims. Consider the treatment accorded Bernie Law. Awful men getting privilegd treatment by other seemingly awful men. In steps a woman, who, however you feel about abortion, owned up to the circumstances. She acted, according to her own statement to the Bishop, in a good faith effort to follow Catholic doctrine. But no, no discussion: out, out, out. Strange. Where's the solidarity? Why hasn't some priest offered communion to Sister Margaret in defiance of his bishop? Would he too be excommunicated? How many priests would the church be willing to lose over this case? Do they care? Are they willing to put it on the line? That's the question that really interests me: when are the rank and file priests going to put it on the line? They hold the power.



"To free from a controlling force or influence." That sounds to me like something we should all want. It's a definition of the verb "disen- thrall" and I take note of it having just listened to a short talk by Sir Ken Robinson. One of the TED talks. I came across it thanks to the Open Culture website, which I find so enjoyable. In his talk Robinson quotes Abraham Lincoln's second annual message to Congress, in which the sixteenth president (and don't forget, poet!), concludes one of the final paragraphs of the long document in this manner: "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." To me it's fascinating that Lincoln uses the verb reflexively, without stating from what we must disenthrall. But it is clear that he is referring, generally, to the present circumstances, the usual way of thinking. And the usual thinking in 1862 accepted slavery, and this is what Lincoln is really arguing for, an end to slavery, and he makes this explicit in the next paragraph.

Robinson quotes Lincoln admiringly, and his context is education, and his belief in the need for a revolution in how we educate people. He argues for "personalized learning". The talk is short on details. That's too generous: there are absolutely no details at all; it's a concept, an idea... But in spite of its generalities and clichés it's a very good talk, and exemplifies (I'm thinking of my students) quoting to good effect. Robinson ends by reciting Yeat's famous "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven", which ends, "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams". (That's W.B. Yeats in the image, above.) Robinson urges us to tread softly with our children, who everyday put their dreams at our feet. Yes, we should tread softly, but not just any old way. Let's tread imaginatively. The talk can he heard here.

So, let's disenthrall. Assume nothing, restart, recreate. Or, as ol' Abe had it, "The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just..."


Rafael Pérez Estrada

Rafael. I remember as if it were yesterday: the phone call from Ballesteros, near midnight. That's it. He's gone. We knew it was coming, but it still seemed impossible. Mari Carmen Troyano came over so the girls wouldn't be alone. Asun on the trek to Santiago. The walk over to City Hall where the majestic Salón de los Espejos opened its doors one last time for Málaga's favorite son. But Rafael was now horizontal, in a closed casket. I remember the faces, the profound sense of loss. Pablo, Juvenal, José Ignacio, Berjillos, Ballesteros, Paco, Rafael's brothers... Antonio was here in the US. Ironies. Ten years have passed, and the anniversary was celebrated with the birth of the Rafael Pérez Estrada Foundation. Esteban Pérez Estrada has seen it through.

I find trying to describe Rafael a most difficult challenge. He was quite formal in manner, but at the same time gregarious. His personality was magnetic and listening to him always a privileged lesson. Cosmology. A poetics of life. Humor and an unparalleled imagination central tools of his pedagogy. Wednesdays were sacred. Bilmore our temple. To walk in, see Rafael at the bar and be greeted with an "ah, mi príncipe". From anyonone else it would have been simply ridiculous. From Rafael, very funny. And very special. I'll be a student forever. This morning in Diario Sur, Soler expresses it best: "Bilmore was the name we had for friendship and a weekly miracle, but also, although it wasn't written in any of our irreverent statutes –words to the wind– a way of understanding literature and society, and a way of recovering that atmosphere of vanguard that once identified Malaga." Indeed. In those last months Rafael let it be known, subtly and emphatically, that Bilmore had to continue. We tried. They tried. And it did go on, has gone on, but it's not the same. It can't be. When the center is lost, the periphery doesn't hold.

Ten years. Seems like yesterday. Here is a link to the first texts of his I had published in English.



The other day there were two interesting news stories about lying. First, the young man who forged documents and lied about his credentials to get himself into Harvard, then get financial aid and who knows what other benefits. I've always been fascinated by the psychology of pathological lying. I met a pathological lier many, many years ago and it was very strange. Then there was the story about Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General who lied about being a Viet Nam vet. I saw a few minutes of his remarks and it seemed rather pathetic: "I misspoke on a few occasions... I take full responsibility..." Blah, blah, blah. And now we have the cyclist's confession. What's his name, Landis? It gets interesting when we own up, or don't, to our deceptions.
At a different point on this spectrum: why in the world do people engage publicly in what until most recently were very clearly private conversations? I refer, of course, to Facebook. Every time I visit this strange website I am confronted with the private dialogues of others. For the most part completely innocuous stuff, but still, why do they share it?


The Mirror and the Dog

Some days you get a lot of work done and other days you don't. Nothing new there. This morning as I walked Waldo I was thinking about staying motivated, and about religions, in a comparative sense. And about baseball, caffeine, some poets, parenting, and what it might be like to be a dog. A little scatterbrained. Some days are just like that. Later today I had the very infrequent, and in this case unexpected, opportunity to sit in on one of Daniela's private ballet classes. One on one. Some of the positions she puts her body in just don't seem healthy to me! I worry about her hip socket. After lots of warming up and technical work at the barre, she worked on two solos. Waldo could inspire a ballet. Two recent observations have me convinced this dog is somewhat unusual. Not long ago I spied him in the guest room upstairs, where he usually sleeps on a futon mattress. He was staring at himself in the mirror! This dog is self-conscious! Typically, you put a dog in front of a mirror and they don't get it. Indeed, the famous "mirror test" research performed by Gordon Gallup in 1970 suggests dogs are not self-aware. I beg to differ. Then, the other day Waldo is by the back door. I toss him a treasured treat: a scrap of chicken. He jogs over and is about to grab it, but he stops to look up and listen to a bird that is breaking into song. And he really stops and listens. So not only is this canine self-aware, he's a poet on top of that. I envy Waldo: I doubt very much he ever worries about wasting time.



"A poetic image of eternity, of order, symmetry, harmony..." I read these words this morning with great interest. Eternity, order, symmetry, and harmony: hey, it's what I'm after! The image referred to is the opening sequence of the famous "Shades" scene from the ballet La Bayadere. I became familiar with this ballet in 2007, when Daniela performed it with CPYB. (In 2008 we saw the complete ballet performed by Angel Corrella's company in their debut at the Royal Theatre in Madrid. The ballet was created by the great choreographer Marius Petipa, based on a score by Ludwig Minkus.) This morning it is the subject of Roslyn Sulcas' reflection in the New York Times. The first time I saw it I was completely enchanted and so now, having seen the ballet twice, I understand Sulcas' affirmation. You can watch the scene here, performed at the Paris Opera Ballet. The movement is slow and repetitive, and may strike some as simplistic, but it is no easy feat and for the dancers it requires tremendous strength, discipline, and pain-staking coordination. I guess what interests me is the group dynamic. Thirty-two dancers! (CPYB and other companies do this scene with twenty-four dancers.) That's harmony. Perfection! (I get a similar feeling with some of Jorge Guillén's poems, especially his décimas.) There is something somewhat otherworldly about this dance. And dreamlike.

Well, that's what I read this morning. Now it's time to get to work. Must prepare an exam. Yesterday too much time was spent cleaning up from Friday's damaging hail storm. Asun worked on the damage done to her vegetable garden, and I tried to repair some of the damage done here at home. This morning we just noticed the broken window panes in one of the carriage house windows. Ugghhh, more chores, more lack of perfection and harmony. The hail storm certainly did not suggest symmetry, but it sure was a poetic image. Perhaps of chaos, of cosmic anger. My head got clobbered! Some of the hailstones were pretty large and there sure were a lot of them! Incredibly, even though it was warm after the storm passed, there was still ice in the garden yesterday afternoon, twenty-four hours after the storm had passed.


¿En español?

A small village in upstate New York is making headlines thanks to a councilman's fears. It's English Only all over again. How else to explain why in a rural setting with a very small immigrant presence, where English is already the norm, a town council would see fit to proclaim that all official business will be conducted in English? They might as well proclaim that all official business will be conducted by the living. You know, just in case any of the dead start getting ideas. (This morning's coffee conversation: Daniela's health teacher talks in class about his belief in ghosts. And you wonder about our kids' education!) The man behind this local legislation, Roger Meyer, has bigger goals in mind: he wants this to be the start of a grass roots movement to proclaim English the official language all over the country. One can make reasonable arguments for such a policy. (And if the US were to designate English as the official language it would hardly be exceptional; most countries, in fact, do designate a language, and often multiple languages, as "official".) But there should be honesty in the debate regarding motives. The idea that immigrants don't want to learn English or can't learn English is simply false. And in fact, for the most part they do learn English. Language discrimination is rampant and is often linked to xenophobia and racism. No, we are not a country of ignorant bigots. (It just seems that way on occasion.) Most Americans are basically tolerant. Yet, it is also true that many Americans still harbor some fears about change and these fears are often linked to historical and deep-seated prejudices. A rather benign but nonetheless unsettling example: at our local GIANT grocery store they now have hand-held scanners so that you can tally up your bill as you shop. When you are done you simply scan your card and the bill is ready. It's an honor system. Kind of: I have never been audited. Asun is audited every time. Coincidence? Absolutely not. What's up? Asun presses "Spanish" so the machine talks her through the steps en español. The kid at the stand hears this and... audit! (Spanish, ergo, immigrant, ergo, less trustworthy.) A colleague has corroborated this -the same thing happens to him. But Asun doesn't mind, nor does my colleague, because you agree to the quick check, your honesty is confirmed, and you get rewarded with a two dollar coupon.
Language "wars" are fascinating. No one knows for sure what the future holds, but in this country the future for Spanish looks very strong. So strong, in fact, some genius saw fit to proclaim, en español, "Spanish Spoken in Several Languages". (Photo, above.) A flexible language! ¡Qué interesante!