Life is a Dream

Yesterday I was in New York with a group of Dickinson students to see Calderón de la Barca's La vida es sueño at Repertorio Español on 27th St. It was a fairly simple production, professionally performed. I don't mean that in a negative way, but the stage at Repertorio Español is very small and so the company has some imposing limitations on how the work can be imagined. One of the fascinating things about this production is the international character of the casting: lead roles were played by actors from Cuba, Venezuela, Spain, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. As a result, the varieties of Spanish heard created a sense of the grandness of the language. An enjoyment that has nothing to do with the work itself. Luis Carlos de la Lombana played Segismundo, the young prince has been cruelly imprisoned since early childhood by his cruel and superstitious father. I wasn't all together convinced by his performance. He gave a theatricality to Calderón's text that, for me, greatly diminished the baroque wonder of the verse. But it was an enjoyable afternoon. A lot of driving for one day, but worth it. In the photo, De la Lombana as Segismundo.


Rafael Argullol's Spiritual Vitality

Rafael Argullol is a philosopher, poet, and all around interesting writer. I've been enjoying very much his 2007 book, El cazador de instantes, (The Instants Hunter), a collection of short texts of an eclectic nature: philosophical, enigmatic, sententious, poetic, humoristic ... and almost always paradoxical. Here's a quick translation of one of my favorites:

A good sign of spiritual vitality is to have an appointment with God and forget to go because you are busy with more important affairs.

Spring Training

It's snowing (again!) in Carlisle this morning, but spring training is underway and that's what matters. It's going to be a great year for the Pirates. And for right fielders generally. As I have written before, as long as we can keep playing baseball... Of course, one could argue that it is ridiculous to think about baseball when there is so much suffering all around us. How can we be dedicated to fun when there is hunger, war, disease, and loneliness? Can we make attempts to address human suffering and have fun? I think we can. Combining fun and solidarity will be on the agenda tomorrow at Carlisle Theatre, where Dickinson College students are organizing a fund-raising event for victims of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Something along the lines of a variety show: singing, comedy, dancing... A handful of CPYB students will participate and Daniela will perform her Flames of Paris solo. It's easy to be skeptical towards these kinds of events and our modest do-goodism in general: is there real compassion or do we help just to ease a guilty conscience? I've reflected some on this and am trying to be less skeptical because, in fact, I do believe most of us are sincere in our efforts. In any case, it would be wrong for me to worry about others' motives. It's the same as always: less talk, more work. Yes, time to get to work...



Today is the 29th anniversary of the failed coup attempt in Spain. It's not news. Literally: I see no references to it in the Spanish papers this morning. It got plenty of attention back in 2006, at the time of the 25th anniversary, and it will get a little attention next year, but time goes by, and this too fades from public consciousness. Last year I read a truly wonderful book (Anatomía de un instante) on this event by novelist Javier Cercas. Cercas' book makes for fascinating reading and had, for me anyway, a wonderful pendular quality to it: a narration of expansive detail which in turn leads to reflections on big questions, such as the nature of history. For example, is history a question of huge, abstract forces beyond the grasp of individuals? I believe not! Decisions made by individuals at particular moments in particular circumstances make huge differences. Cercas certainly makes a good argument for that belief. His review of the behavior of the protagonists in the "23F" episode, as the coup attempt is known in Spain, makes a convincing case that things could have turned out very differently were it not for very small acts performed and decisions made by individuals at specific moments. His interpretation of Juan Carlos' role is especially interesting. In Cercas' reading, which I find quite convincing, the King is both villain and hero. How's that? Well, the King's statements (and silences!) in the months preceding the coup attempt contributed greatly to creating conditions that encouraged the golpistas. Then, on the night of February 23rd, the King "saved the day" for democracy by very explicitly not endorsing the coup. He found some redemption.
Do we learn from our mistakes? Maybe a little, but whose to say the pessimists are not largely justified by events all around us? And what will historians say about the unfolding of our presidential election in 2000? Were we, as we say in Spanish, "up to the circumstances"? (In the photo, an infamous image of an assault on democracy.)



I don’t have faith. I should modify that: I don’t have the faith, not the kind so admirably identified by Clara Beltrán, a young woman from Sevilla who has a big career ahead of her singing cante jondo, the “deep song”. Although I don’t share Clara’s faith, I am moved by it. Seems somewhat paradoxical. And her saeta can move one to tears. Feel that. As she herself says, when she sings to her Christ she tears up. She also says quite emphatically that it's all about feeling, feeling that comes from faith. And then with that single pronoun she identifies something essential about saetas and, I believe, about cante jondo generally: the heart of things, the esential questions, are made real when expresssed in personal, intimate terms. (On the other hand, it’s quite funny how she catches herself when she’s about to utter something about having to sing to Christ figures that don’t mean much to her. But she doesn’t quite say it. She was on the cusp of giving voice to an uncomfortable truth regarding holy week celebrations in Southern Spain: contrary to the logic of Christian dogma, there are intensely held personal preferences regarding the iconography. ¡No te metas con mi Virgen! Count me among the guilty!) Back to the saeta: the suffering is felt intimately. There is nothing superficial about it. The voice, the gestures, and above all, the centrality of the setting, propitiate the comunication of intensely felt emotions. Pain so horrible it threatens our very existence. Love so immense it can redeem all. Is any of this real? She can be seen and listened to on this youtube video. Anyway, I came across this video in the context of my composition course, in which we listened to a few of the songs from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. One of the songs is titled Saeta, and I wanted to give them some context, so that’s where Clara comes in. The point of listening to Miles was to talk about cultural borrowings. We didn’t get far in that conversation, but we’ll come back to it. (Above, "La chiquita piconera" by Julio Romero de Torres.)


Accessibility and Desire

Another new study on higher education, this one a survey of public attitudes towards colleges, done by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. I just read about it in the New York Times, and I'm sure all major papers are reporting its findings. A growing number of Americans (55%) view college as essential to future success, while a declining number (28%) view college as accessible to those who are qualified and want to attend. What concerns me is the second number, because I believe it reflects what used to be referred to as an "image problem". Are high school guidance counselors not doing their jobs? Yes, higher education can be very expensive. Tuition, room and board at Dickinson is now over $50,000 a year! Those are the kinds of numbers that get the headlines. We should keep in mind that the families who pay the full amount are in the top few percent of the population in terms of income. Yes, financing a higher education can be quite stressful, and some families do get squeezed, but the way financial aid works, higher education is available at reasonable cost to just about everyone. (Tuition at most colleges keeps going up, and up, and up, but mainly to keep abreast of the ever increasing need for financial aid. It's the rich subsidizing the not so rich. And let's not forget health care. At Dickinson, which is self-insured and makes big efforts to keep these costs in check, in spite of employees making bigger contributions, health insurance eats up a bigger and bigger percentage of the budget year after year. It's simply unsustainable.) Yet, I believe, the situation will get better. But it might get a lot worse before it gets better. I look at this mainly from a minority perspective, that of the liberal arts college, a kind of institution that makes up only 5-10% of higher education overall. Public higher education faces particular challenges. Look at the mess they're in in California.
I find myself becoming more interested in the world of free and open education. I have a folder in my bookmarks, "Mark's Learning Resources", and just a mouse click away are treasures of great worth. And I've only put in minimal effort so far in seeking out resources. Check out, for example, Academic Earth, the University Channel, or Open Culture. In the photo, the auditorium of the Rose Lehman Arts Center at Harrisburg Area Community College. Full-time tuition at HACC for area residents is $1400 a semester. That's a deal!


Fidel and Franco, two gallegos

Fidel will die and thousands of Cubans will pay homage. Fidel, the beloved! The leader! O, now we are orphaned. It won't be like the death of Franco, when, the legend goes, you could here the pops of the cava bottles being opened all over Barcelona. Newspapers around the world will print long obituaries. Novelists and experts on Cuba will weigh in. But before long things will change, and so too will opinions of Fidel. Soon, it will seem that almost no one had ever believed in him after all. Things will get better. There will be little nostalgia for the old days. But there will be some of a very predictable kind. People will say, "with Fidel this never happened". Crime, corruption, scandals of all kind. In fact, all those things did happen, but they weren't reported. Kind of like with Franco. The other day I was reading Granma, Cuba's official state newspaper, run by the Communist Party. I read an article about energy shortages and energy rationing. The double speak is fantastic. But not all the reporting is like that: some of the articles do seem to "play it straight" and now and then you can even find something that's critical. In any case, it can be interesting once in a while to get a glimpse into a rather different world. I guess I'm thinking about this because this past week I read two excellent autobiographies by Cuban writers who were imprisoned and tortured by Castro: Reinaldo Arenas (Before Night Falls, published in 1992) and Heberto Padilla (Self-Portrait of the Other, published in 1990). Both writers include detailed descriptions of their hellish experiences with Cuba's "State Security" apparatus. I can complain about the cold and snow, but I'm not really complaining. If I were really to whine about anything it would be worse than an embarrassment. I wouldn't be able to hold my head up.


The Big One, Part Two

Snowing again! Last night another eight or ten inches fell and this morning it's still coming down. It's quite pretty. The mess will come soon enough. One of the funny things about Carlisle is how people who live in the downtown area become extremely possessive of parking spaces after they have shoveled out their cars. The most common technique is to leave a plastic chair or two in the newly created space, but one finds all kinds of objects left as signs that are equally clear in meaning: "mine". The semiotics of winter parking is really quite simple. In an article in the local paper our borough manager pointed out that there are no municipal ordinances that deal specifically with this issue. It is assumed that neighbors will work it out. Good! Steve added that, legally speaking, any objects left on the street are considered abandoned property. Except cars! Well, there could be lots of room for interpretation here. Speaking of interpretation, I recommend Stanley Fish's most recent NY Times column on the supreme court's most recent ruling regarding campaign financing and the first amendment. The link is here. It's mainly Fish being Fish, but he does offer a wonderful example of what I think I'd call "antifoundationalist reasoning". To sum up briefly, Fish argues that first amendment law is oriented on a basic divide between speech and action, and that determining where that divide lies cannot, ultimately, be based on any objective principle. It's kind of like winter parking in Carlisle: what is the principle by which we determine when property in the street is really abandoned?


The Big One

It fell and fell. Then fell some more. We haven't seen this much snow here in many years. When we woke up Saturday morning there was twenty inches of the white stuff on the ground and it was still coming down. We ended up with 23 inches. Beautiful. And wonderfully silent. So our day involved lots of shoveling! I was already feeling lousy Friday with a cold and sore throat, and now I can add to that general soreness. Ugghh. Oh well, the snow is interesting. I just hope it doesn't wreak any havoc in the form of leaks, flooding, frozen gutters, etc. We cleared the flat roof over the dining room. That was many, many hundreds of pounds, maybe a thousand. When Waldo ventured out the first time he took two steps and disappeared, literally. I feared I might have to jump out there and rescue him before he suffocated, but me managed to extract himself fairly quickly.



This has been on my mind recently for a number of reasons. One is that I asked the students in one of my classes to write on the theme of "Identity and Language". I haven't finished reading their compositions, but from those I have read it's easy to see there are many different ways to interpret the connections between how or what we speak and our sense of self. Also, the other day I received a request to fill out a survey about identity and ethnicity. Our obsession with ethnicity is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, I believe few of us want to be defined by our ethnicity. Who wants to think that their self can be reduced to some kind of predetermined category? On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that our genes, some of which determine how we look, don't have some role in who we are. It's the grand question, and Cervantes had great fun with it at the beginning of his masterpiece when he has Don Quijote respond to Sancho's doubts about their adventure in playing at chivalry with a definitive: "I know who I am!" Hmm, do you think? When I was much younger I think my sense of self had more emphasis on a strong sense of independence. I was quite fond of the Emerson quote "nothing can bring you peace but yourself." I think today I see it a little differently. I'm quite happy to feel more connected to and more dependent on others. (Most everyone around me makes me "look better" than would otherwise be the case!) Funny thing: this morning I found myself wondering about this question and I was thinking "well, normally I think in English", but at that particular moment I was thinking (ok, maybe thinking is a stretch...) en español: normalmente pienso en inglés. Ironic. "Identity theft." Yes, I know what they mean when they talk about that and no doubt it can be a real headache. Yet, it doesn't fail to make me laugh: the thought of being robbed of something we ourselves cannot "fix" with any certainty. Maybe what we mean is theft of identity representation. How well does my name and photo represent me?


What's Happening There?

Last night, at the end of a very pleasant weekend (a wonderful dinner with friends on Saturday, a slow day, with a movie, yesterday), I found my mind wandering in a way that reminded me of my childhood. My thoughts would take me to a specific spot where I had been at some point in the past: a street corner in Madrid or New York, a turn on the appalachian trail, and I'd think: I wonder what's happening there at this very moment. Is anyone there? Who? Etc. I used to play that game a lot as little kid. Right now, for example, what's going on at the entrance to the Rua Nueva in Santiago de Compostela? Well, it's six hours later, so it's a little after 1 pm there. Probably plenty of people in the street. I imagine a typical day (raining?) in Santiago. What does it mean? Nothing. But that's what's going on right now in one part of my little mind. It's going to be busy day, so this nonsense will have to end in a moment. But I'm quite happy to have thoughts of Santiago in my head. A nice start to the week. (In the photo, looking up the Rua Nueva, from Plaza del Torcal. Oh, those times!)