Basque Terrorism and Poor Journalism

 Yesterday El País, the Madrid daily that during the 80s and 90s was one of the world's truly great newspapers, published an interview with Martín Garitano, the newly elected leader ("diputado general") of the legislative body of the province of Gipuzkoa in the Basque Country.  Garitano represents a newly formed nationalist coalition ("Bildu") that favors complete independence for the Basque Country. (Bildu did not win a majority of votes, but the opposition parties were unable to reach an agreement, and so Garitano ended up as the "diputado general"). Javier Rivas, the interviewer, says to Garitano that his coalition has spoken more clearly about the needs of ETA prisoners than they have about the needs of victims of ETA terrorism. Garitano denies this and then goes on to affirm that in the Basque Country there are currently over 700 political prisoners. This is false and the journalist didn't call him on it. Maybe it's because everyone knows it's a lie, but I don't think you can let these things go. Sometimes people keep repeating lies and eventually people believe them. Good journalists should help prevent that.

Let's be clear: jailed ETA terrorists are not political prisoners; they are not prisoners of conscience. Many of them are in jail for murder or attempted murder. Others are imprisoned for belonging to an organized armed group that in a 40+ year campaign has killed over 800 people, extorted thousands and forced many to leave their homes with threats of violence.

There is a lot of hope in the Basque Country these days and the absence of violence is to be celebrated. But unless people get honest about the nature of ETA there is little hope for true reconciliation.


Blessed Litter!

You know what they say about one man's garbage... Let me tell you a story.

A couple of years ago I had an intensely strong gastronomical flashback to a candy bar I enjoyed as a very small child. It was a chocolate bar that was divided into four sections, each one filled with a different flavor (caramel, nougat, and ???)  I really wanted to try one of those sweets again, but there was a basic problem: for the life of me I couldn't remember the name of the thing. Every time I passed by the candy section in a store I'd look for it, but it hasn't appeared. I've asked several people, but no one seemed to know what I was talking about. I've dreamed about this chocolate bar, and it's as if I could taste it, but still no name. And thus, no easy way to even know if it still exists.

So this morning I'm on the return half of my walk with Waldo and I see some litter in the curb. A glimmer of familiarity. I lean over. And there it is: Sky Bar! By Necco. Oh JOY!!! Now it makes sense: Necco (New England Confectionary Company) is a Massachusetts based business. (I remember their factory near MIT!)  They don't seem to have good distribution in Pennsylvania.  It's been about forty-five years since I had one of these babies, and I'm actually pretty excited to know they're still making them. So, any friends or family in the Boston area who come upon this blog post: bring a Sky Bar to Carlisle (or to Little Compton next weekend) and make Mark a very happy man!

The Majesty of Balanchine's "Serenade"

George Balanchine's "Serenade," set to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings in C," is one amazing work of art. Last night I saw it for the second time and it took my breath away. Everyone at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and especially the dancers who performed "Serenade," should feel very proud. After the performance I was feeling perplexed. I was quite certain that what I had just experienced was a gift of beauty of the highest order. At the same time, I had absolutely no sense of what it meant. So there's a question: does beauty need to mean something or can it just "be"? Balanchine offers just a bare tease of a story in this ballet. It's a tease I rejected: the only interpretive sense I could imagine was oriented towards geometry as a metaphor for the richness of human experience. Our lives are like lines, waves, circles... growing complex, doing and undoing, knotting and unknotting.  We are bodily creatures and "our" bodies (Balanchine is almost exclusively concerned with the female form here) are beautiful and sacred. Unfortunately, and this ballet's narrative thread reminds us, it's all temporal. Death awaits.
Feeling tremendously intrigued by this masterpiece, I did a quick search this morning and came across this interesting essay
I can't wait to see it again tomorrow! And I just happened to get NYCB's 2011-12 season brochure and they will be performing Serenade next May. Hope I can go.


Self-Esteem and Dignity

Do American children suffer from an excess of self-
esteem? The answer, according to recent essays, is a definite yes. (See, for starters, the cover article in the current Atlantic Monthly, "How to Land Your Children in Therapy" and the November, 2010 National Review article "Self-Esteem and Character.")  My take on this is pretty simple: parents, coaches, etc. should forget about cultivating self-esteem and focus instead on helping children understand and develop a sense of dignity. (Many people like to talk about "character development," but character has always seemed to me a vague and dubious notion.)  I'm probably somewhat self-delusional, but I like to think that as a parent I had an instinctive sense from the beginning that self-esteem was a bogus concept. I'm sure that my ideas about dignity are heavily influenced by Spanish culture, which, I believe, has created complicated links between concrete, exterior signs and behaviors, on the one hand, and abstract ideas about self and worth on the other. In this view, a "proper" sense of self, of "being-in-the-world" renders low self-esteem irrelevant.  (Spaniards do coddle their children in some ways, and I have had numerous experiences where visitors have wondered if Spanish parents weren't spoiling their kids. On the other hand, many Spanish parents (and teachers!) feel quite a bit more free to tell kids what dumb asses they are! What Spanish kid hasn't been told a hundred times he's idiota, estúpido, tonto!  Kids do do stupid things and they should be called out on it. Euphemisms and lies just confuse. The "Mafalda" comic strip above shows Mafalda somewhat confused: the sign says "Keep Off the Grass," but for the joke to make sense we need to translate it more literally: "stepping on the lawn prohibited."  The girl's response: "And not dignity?" That is, so stepping on the grass is off-limits, but what about stepping on dignity?  ("Mafalda" is a famous creation of the great Argentine cartoonist Quino.) The vignette is very funny and it makes a serious point: you can mess with people's "self-esteem" and not worry about it, for surely life itself will put it in its proper place eventually. But don't mess with dignity.  In adulthood, a very well developed sense of dignity makes one almost impervious to the vicissitudes of life. But there's always self-immolation.  This month's example: Anthony Weiner.

One of the things I value most highly about Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is how it functions as a powerful antidote to the "touchy feely" qualities of contemporary culture: no trophies, no undeserved commendations, no lies about how wonderfully talented everyone is from the get go.  These kids know what it takes.

Finally, yesterday I came across a kid with dignity. This video may seem very strange to anyone unfamiliar with Spanish culture generally, and Andalusian culture specifically. This boy, Fernando Caballo, sings a saeta to an image of the Virgin Mary in a Holy Week procession in the town of Marchena, near Seville. (This was nine years ago; he's still at it today as a young man.)  It's interesting how he's surrounded mainly by men. Watch it here. Let me know what you think.


Don Quixote in the XXI Century (1)

I'm currently rereading Cervantes' masterpiece, but now for the first time in English. (Edith Grossman's translation deserves all the praise it has received.) And here's my thought for today: Cervantes is anything but a dogmatist. The novel values freedom. (Much has been written about that.) Don Quixote's madness produces much laughter in the first part of the novel, but our knight errant is not merely a buffoon, and the essential characteristic that elevates him from buffoonery to universality is his deep connectedness. He is connected not only to Sancho, but to many of those who surround him. One of the most poignant moments in Part I is when he meets fellow sufferer Cardenio in the Sierra Morena. (Image: Don Quijote lays eyes on Cardenio. G. Doré.)


Enough Already with the First Name Treatment!

I'm tired of it: at the doctor's office, dentist's office, bank, super-market, on the phone... it seems everywhere, everyone's my new friend and we're all on a first name basis from the get go! I'm thinking of getting a button or a name tag: "Mr. Aldrich," or "HELLO, my name is Dr. Aldrich". Something. Actually, this has been going on for many years, but it seems recently all is lost. Oddly, about the only people who don't address me as "Mark" are my children and my students. It's been an interesting challenge trying to pinpoint precisely why this social practice irks me, but I thinking I'm getting closer to the mark. (Pun intended.) Basically, it's the fake familiarity. And to a slightly lesser degree, the lack of respect. This morning at the bank when the very young teller said, "Ok, Mark, is there anything else we can do today?" I was quite tempted to say, "Yes, stop calling me Mark." But I didn't want to spoil my good mood on this lovely morning so I let it go. I hope it's not a lost cause entirely. In fact, there is much lost if we give up using surnames completely. There are some instances in which this treatment may be motivated by a wish to preserve some privacy by not using your last name in a situation where others may overhear. (I've heard this argument used in defense of first name treatment, for example, at doctors' offices.)  Those situations, however, are not typical, and in most cases there is an easy solution. At the doctor's office, for example, the receptionist should get up, approach the patient, and address him or her as "Madam" or "Sir".  
A few years ago author Ralph Keyes addressed this issue in the Christian Science Monitor. I agree with what he wrote and I encourage anyone reading this to link to Keyes' short commentary. I'd add the following: the notion that more extensive use of first names is somehow a practice that promotes equality and lessens class distinctions is a chimera.  To the contrary, individuals who do not have wealth or social rank stand to lose out because they are deprived of one of the few mechanisms available to them for having their dignity publicly recognized. Dignity is (or should be) important to all of us; it's especially important for those individuals who may lack other kinds of capital. I'm sure Amanda (the ubiquitous name tag) meant no disrespect when she addressed me by first name, but even if she had, I have "protection": age, being a white male, and the real currency Amanda just handed over to me. But when a recent immigrant needs some assistance at the customer service desk and the kid behind the counter (condescendingly?) refers to her as "María" as he explains that she's out of luck, she really is, because María is not yet confident enough in her English to respond, "Please, it's Ms García." To all of you, all of us, it's Ms García.


Big Dunce of 2011 #3: Barnes & Noble

A few weeks ago I received a Barnes & Noble gift card as a thank you from a student. It was a totally unexpected and unnecessary gesture, and much appreciated. The other day I was organizing my desk and came across the card, so I decided to use it before it got lost. I picked out a couple of books from the Barnes & Noble website, but as I was going through the "check out" process the computer told me that the card's balance had been exhausted. That wasn't possible so I called customer service. The woman who took my call checked the card number and informed me that the card had never been activated. I pointed out that was an oversight of the store clerk, that she could see very well on her computer the card had not been used, and that why didn't she just credit me the $25 and let me pay for my books. Impossible. The person who bought the card would have to go to the store where the card was purchased with her receipt to get the problem fixed. I explained that was ridiculous, that I wasn't going to bother the person who gave me the card, that it was highly unlikely the receipt had been saved, and that, in any case, that was putting an unfair and unreasonable burden on the customer for a mistake made by the store. Tough luck! So I asked to speak with a supervisor.  The next person gave me pretty much the same story. I explained that the situation was akin to thievery, but they weren't interested. I've tried email, but so far I've only gotten two machine generated responses that are really insulting. This is BAD customer service and creates the impression of a horribly run corporation.


Out at the Ball Park

The other day I was able to make my first trip of the season to City Island to see a Senator's game. It was very hot, but nonetheless very enjoyable. And it was an interesting game featuring the first place teams of the Eastern League's two divisions. The Senators had won eight in a row and the New Hampshire Fisher Cats were on a seven game win streak. I was impressed by both starting pitchers, but particularly so by the Senator's Brad Peacock. Look for him soon on a major league roster.  The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth when things went horribly wrong for the Fisher Cats, and for Callix Crabbe in particular. Crabbe is the Fisher Cats second baseman, but at the start of the bottom of the eighth he was moved over to third, as a pinch runner had come in during the top half of the inning and stayed in to play second, replacing regular third baseman Mark Sobolewski. Poor Crabbe bobbled a routine grounder with men on first and second and one out. Handled deftly it could have been an inning-ending double play. Now we've got the bases loaded and still only one out. The next batter hits a soft one hopper to Crabbe  and our man hesitates a moment then throws home. Wildly! Later in the inning a ball got by him that some third basemen definitely would have gotten. Three runs scored in the inning and the Senators went on to win, 4-2. It's kind of sad: Crabbe made it all the way to the big leagues with the San Diego Padres back in 2008, but his time with the big team was limited and unsuccessful. His chances of making it back (he's now in the Blue Jays organization) do not look good. And he didn't look good at the plate either, striking out badly twice. Crabbe's tough night is a good reminder of how unfamiliar environments can produce serious difficulties. I really hope it ends well for Crabbe and that better games are ahead for him.