far too much writing, far too many photos

runswithscissors


Tuesday, December 31, 2002

New Year's Eve 2002, Madrid

Similar to the way Christmas Eve Day slowly found its feet a week ago, New Year's Eve day began quietly, with few people on the street, few in the Metro. Today's classes were happily chaotic, most of the first two-hour session spent in comical, near-anarchic conversation, no one showing much desire to attempt anything resembling standard scholastic behavior. Post-break, we simply tossed in the towel and headed out to a neighborhood sidrería, where our small collection of souls (me; Patricia, our Madrileña Spanish instructor; Roger, from Holland; Wolfgang, from Germany; Concetta, from Italy; Eugenio, from Russia) worked its way through two bottles of mildly alcoholic sidra and an entire tortilla española, on our feet the whole time, the group shifting from one configuration to another as sidra and conversation flowed. (It's a fascinating phenomenon, getting people from all over the map together like this, everyone communicating via a language that's not their native tongue. After a few days in each other's company, what rises to the surface is our overwhelming commonality and our desire to enjoy our time together.)

Later in the day, after watching a film in the video centre at the language school (Torrente 2, a Spanish take-off on everything vaguely James-Bondish that revels in trashiness, tackiness and its own relentless brand of low humor), I found myself out on the street with Wolfgang, heading in the direction of la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, ground zero for Madrid's New Year's Eve doings. The sidewalks were crowded to the point where walking in the street was easier, facilitated by the fact that the police were gradually pinching off all traffic flowing through Sol, leaving few cars to contend with. By the time midnight slouches in, Sol and the surrounding streets and plazas will be crammed with many, many thousands and thousands of partying Spaniards -- eating, drinking, carrying loudly on. The carrying on has, in the past, included fighting and hurling empty bottles through the air. This year, 3,000 police are being posted around Sol, screening out any glass containers and, presumably, any people carrying on in ways that might hurt someone else.

When the big clock atop the Municipal building in the plaza tolls midnight, most everyone will begin the ritual that eases in the new year and, according to tradition, guarantees luck in the coming 365 days: eating a grape with every toll of the bell, 12 grapes in all. Not so easy if everyone around you is yelling, spewing chewed grapes as they laugh or trying to make you laugh. There is actually a Spanish company that sells small tins of one dozen peeled, pitted grapes, a product whose ads have been in heavy rotation on local TV during the last couple of weeks.

Some snapshots of the scene in and around Sol between 6 and 7 p.m. tonight:

-- The network of pedestrian avenues that criss-cross the real estate between Gran Vía and Sol were near capacity with human traffic, people of all ages out strolling together, heading home or in and out of shops/eating establishments. The red w/ white trim Santa stocking hats of a week ago have given way to a far more abundant new crop, identical except that the red has become green. Many folks carried shopping bags -- Zara, El Corte Inglés -- or toted handbags, shoulder bags, knapsacks. Elderly couples walked slowly together, often arm in arm. Groups of young folks threaded their way through the currents of people, moving quickly, with more nervous energy. Parents walked hand in hand with children. The air fairly crackled the sound of many people in motion, with many voices carrying on excited conversations. Smiles and sparkling eyes far outnumbered neutral or displeased expressions.

-- Lit sparklers could be seen scattered around, vendors selling them at "3 paquetes por un euro."

-- The ubiquitous black market venders were out in force, peddling everything from counterfeit CDs to scarves, watches, shawls, wallets, gloves, laying their goods out on sheets or small blankets, standing over them as strollers slowed or stopped to appraise. At the slightest hint of approaching police, the goods were instantly bundled up in one smooth movement, the venders moving quickly away in a spreading wave, immediately reappearing and spreading the stuff out when the patrol car or motorcycle had rollowed by. And I mean immediately, reappearing in a wave of unfolding sheets as if they'd literally materialized out of thin air in the wake of the vehicle's passing.

-- In Sol itself, several individuals wore costumes of Pokemon characters, waving to kids, posing for photos. The star-spangled Mickey Mouse continued his holiday residency, calling out "Feliz Año!" ("Happy New Year!") to startled passing folks.

-- Wigs were everywhere, being worn by all sorts of people, in bright colors -- silver, red, lavender, or a combination of hues -- the strands of "hair" made of something like acetate, appearing softly metallic.

-- At 6 o'clock, a long, slow process of shop-closings began. People continually filed in and out of the open shops, sometimes despite security shutters that had been pulled halfway down in a wishful effort to move everyone out and shut down for the night.

-- Between FNAC and el Corte Inglés, the two giant stores at the Callao end of the main pedestrian thoroughfare that stretches between Sol and Callao/Gran Vía, a line of eight South American musicians, all in their late teens to late 20s, played Peruvian music, collecting a large crowd, the musicians stepping back and forth together in time to the gentle, steady beat, like an uncomplicated southern-hemisphere Motown kind of thing. Music sounding both serious/sad and joyful, produced by a drum, two pipes, a guitar, a mandolin-style instrument, a double-bass, a violin. Two of the musicians wore green Santa-style hats. In the crowd watching, a 40ish guy with black pants and a nice leather coat sported a Shirley Temple/Goldilocks style blond wig.

-- Pedestrian traffic thinned out along Gran Vía, especially on the Chueca side, making for easier walking. After I crossed the avenue, headed toward home, a group of eight or so young women all dressed up for New Year's Eve swept by me, moving toward a crosswalk and the area I'd just come from, the scent of perfume lingering in the evening air after they'd passed.

-- A 60ish woman passed, wearing a shawl and thick-heeled black shoes, singing happily to herself, just loudly enough that anyone walking by could hear.

-- A minute later, an attractive lesbian couple moved by me, both with multiple piercings, walking arm in arm at a steady, focused clip, one with bottle-blond hair cut short, the other with longer brown hair dyed lavender in patches.

-- As I moved further into Chueca and the time approached 7 p.m., the closing of shops accelerated until virtually nothing was open except bars and cafeterías. Fireworks began going off up ahead, the heavy-duty variety that's become the normal course in this barrio since several days shy of Navidad. The first one: polite. The second: louder, sharper. The third: like a hand grenade had been tossed into the street a block ahead.

-- Two gay 20-somethings brushed by me, talking and laughing together, their arms touching as they walked, the tang of marijuana drifting in their wake. Someone's New Year Eve partying was well underway.

rws 5:53 PM [+]

Monday, December 30, 2002

This morning: rain, gray skies. And a Monday a.m. to boot. Forgot and left the heat on last night. I tend to sleep less well when the space is warm, which meant I slept less well ‘cause, er, the space was warm. Slept fitfully, finally dragged myself out of bed at some point during the early hours, turned the heat off, dragged myself back to bed. Slept fitfully, finally dragged myself out of bed to check e-mail sometime after 7 a.m. Bleary. The days begin especially slowly here during the winter, daylight seeping gradually in after 8 a.m. Normally something I enjoy ‘cause it means I sleep longer and deeper. On a morning like this morning, it means my bleariness feels a bit blearier. At least until I get the first espresso into my system. Then I at least have a semblance of an illusion of clearheadedness. That tends to get me through until the 11 o'clock break between Spanish classes when I have another espresso and a bocadillo (sandwich on a baguette) of tortilla española, providing a much more substantial illusion of clearheadness.

Classes: this morning we had the only male instructor at the school, a sharp, extremely entertaining 30ish guy named Andres. He and I tend to bring out the best in each other, or at least we think we do, meaning a great deal of loud humor and out of control cackling (Andres has a tendency to double over when he laughs, adding lots of visual entertainment to the mix), a fair amount of chaos compared to the normal kind of classroom atmosphere. The rest of the class either has to get into it or suffer through it. Thankfully, they tend to get into it, as they did this morning. Good clean fun. (Today, in addition to the usual flogging re: the infinite uses of the subjunctive verb form, we learned that the Spanish term for a brown-nose is ‘lameculos' (pronounced ‘lah-may-COO-lohs') – lame from the verb lamer (to suck), and culo, meaning, er, butt, keister, behind, rear-end, posterior). Not a very nice thing to call someone, lameculos.)

The laughter woke me up, for which I was grateful, and after classes I took myself to the gym, something I haven't been doing with the regularity I have in other times. The day remained gray, the falling moisture let up somewhere along the way. Post-gym, I got off the Metro at Alonso Martínez, one station from here, leaving me a nice walk down narrow streets to get home, something I often do post-gym. As I emerged from the station into the late-afternoon air, the clouds in the western sky gave way and the sun literally burst through, the day suddenly alight with brilliant sunshine, patches of blue sky and tattered, fast-moving clouds trading off overhead. Like the best of November in the northeastern U.S., the air cool and fresh, the sky dramatically beautiful.

You never know when life will take an abrupt turn. Gray days can suddenly shine in unpredictable ways.

Hope this finds you well, wherever you are.

rws 3:55 PM [+]

Sunday, December 29, 2002

After the lovely, quiet pause of Navidad, Madrid has reverted back to its busier, raunchier self, the streets of the city center packed with people, traffic back to its more normal, unruly incarnation.

Thursday morning, the number of people making the trip to work -- notably silent, I observed, perhaps not overjoyed with the sudden end to Christmas recess -- increased substantially from earlier in the week. By Friday, the volume of commuters had reached near-normal levels.

In school, with the decreased number of students, I found myself the only student in my class for the first couple of hours. Just me and the instructor, Montse. Which meant that on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday I had two intense hours of conversation/instruction, which seemed to kick-start my language skills in some way, so that by Thursday and Friday, when the school had me join another class for the post-break conversation class, I felt comfortable enough with the language that I was carrying on loudly, unstoppably, delivering whatever quips came to mind at any given moment. To the point where I might have become a living stereotype of the loudmouthed American, except that I was actually speaking the language well and getting laughs in the process from both students and la profesora. Which just made me all the more smug and insufferable, though that didn't seem to be bothering anyone. One of the many benefits of a sparkling personality. (Kaff, kaff.)

Christmas shopping continues here as many, if not most, Spaniards look to January 6 as the real gift-exchange day. Or so I'm told. Several of the instructors at the language school have sworn that up until the last few years, the 25th itself was not really an important day here, Christmas-wise, that the 24th and the 6th of January were the actual dates of import. They say the same -- sometimes less than happily -- about Santa Claus, that the man in red is a recent import who's suddenly gaining ground as Spain is more a country with strong, growing connections of all kinds with the rest of the world, post-Franco-era isolation.

So shopping is once more in high gear, most stores supplying the incentive of post-Navidad discounts, the city assisting by closing down city center streets for post-Christmas block parties, complete with music, food vendors, banners snapping cheerfully in the breeze, and people in various costumes (mostly big, cute, huggable animals). The activity will continue until the evening of Jan.5th, the city will shut down again for the 6th -- el día de los Reyes Magos, the three Kings who come bearing gifts. On Jan. 7, the month-long sales period -- las rebajas -- commences. Weeks and weeks of consumer partying, starting in mid-December and coasting all the way through January.

When I descended into the Metro Thursday morning here in Chueca, the first thing that caught my eye upon reaching the inbound platform was a brand new ad, a sizeable bugger, maybe 8' by 8', which consisted of four drawings of a girl and boy, as done by a kindergartener: (1) working together with toy tools on a little toy house; (2) one ironing, one with a mop; (3) riding a tandem bike together; and (4) with a baby in a carriage. Between those images, lines of text read, "Los Juguetes Son Para Quién Quiere Jugar Con Ellos -- Campaña De Promoción De Juegetes No Sexistas -- La Igualdad Tambien Se Aprende Jugando" (Games Are For Whoever Wants To Play Them -- Campaign to Promote Non-Sexist Games -- Equality Can Also Be Learned Playing." Around the edges of the ad run the two words "Compartir, Eligir" (Share, Choose). Sponsored by a department or division of the City of Madrid.

Hmmmm, thought I, staring bleary-eyed at this overwized, hard to ignore, consciousness-raising thingie. Mighty progressive, a kind of progressiveness the center-right national government would be unlikely to take on, though the local, more liberal city administration appears game.

Meanwhile, over at the Plaza de España station on the Metro Line 10 -- an expansive, modern-looking, sparklingly-clean counterpart to the older, more dog-eared line that runs through the station here at la Plaza de Chueca -- the large TV screens that have provided a visual focus for both passenger platforms have suddenly been augmented by a huge two-sided plasma screen video monitor placed between the tracks. All playing la Canal Metro Madrid -- Channel Metro Madrid. Weather, sports, news headlines, etc. The same channel that plays in the trains on that line -- Madrid presenting its modern, high-tech face to the human traffic flowing to and from the airport.

rws 2:55 PM [+]

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Excerpt #5 from a novel in progress (© 2002, 2006 by runswithscissors):


When we finally left the room, the clock radio read 1:46. I searched myself for the directions on the way out, found them in a pants pocket before pulling the door shut behind me. Colin walked toward the elevator, the light from the vending machines casting a television-like glow. As I followed, I searched further in pocket. My hand encountered the rabbit's foot and closed around it, fur soft against my skin, until the elevator arrived.

If anything, the day outside had become more raw, the November sky more solidly gray.

"I'm freezing," Colin said.

"We just got out here."

"It's windy."

I'd been thinking about walking the few blocks to Edith Ohls' place, but decided making Colin more miserable wouldn't be worth whatever small gain I'd get from a hike in bracing air. We were quickly into the car with the engine on, me fiddling with the heater controls.

About two minutes later, we turned from West College Street onto Cedar, heading toward Edith Ohls' residence. As we reached the intersection before her block, I slowed and surveyed the sitch. A few cars sat parked along that length of the avenue -- on impulse, I stopped and backed up to park by a long, car-free length of curb on the previous block. We got out and made our way ahead, following the house numbers until we found ourselves in front of 78, a neat, nicely-kept black and white affair near the end of the street. Less than half a block in from the terminating cross-street, which gave off onto green land -- grass, trees, and a stone tower of some sort, a big one. I checked it out, trying to figure what it was for, what it might be doing there. Connected with the town's water maybe, filtration or pumping? Or some eccentric, monied anglophile's medieval fantasy? Life is swimming with mysteries.

We made our way to the front stoop of no. 78 where I let Colin press the doorbell, resulting in a faint bing-bong. Fifteen or twenty seconds later, the door opened inward, revealing a slim elderly woman of medium height, in neat brown slacks, a tan blouse and bowling shoes. Faded blue eyes regarded us through wire-framed glasses.

"Mrs. Ohls?" I said, my breath turning to mist as I spoke.

"Yes," she said, opening the storm door. "Please call me Edith. You must be Dennis and...."

"Colin," I supplied.

"Colin." She studied him, smiling. "You look cold. Why don't you come in." We entered, Mrs. Ohls backing away to allow us passage.

We found ourselves in a narrow foyer, a small, nicely appointed dining room off to the left, what looked like a living room to our right, stairs ahead leading up to a second floor landing. Dark wood flooring showed around old oriental-type rugs. Food odors emanated from somewhere, along with a faint stink of long-dead cigars and unidentifiable aromas I associate with old age.

"Can I take your coat?" Mrs. Ohls said to Colin. He slipped it off, she hung it on a wall rack to the rear of the foyer where it joined a couple of larger coats.

As she did that, standing with one heel slightly raised from the rug, I noticed her bowling shoes were two-tones, the outside half of each one red, the inside green. The rear end of each bore a big white 6. Then I noticed a couple of group photos up on the wall, framed. Taken in a bowling alley, looked like. Hmm.

"So," I said, pulling my coat off, "you're sure we're not intruding?"

"Oh, not at all, no. It's nice to have company right now, especially younger folk."

"She means you," I said to Colin, hanging my coat up.

"I meant both of you," she said.

Colin looked from her to me to her. "Dad's not younger folk," he said. What a guy.

"It probably doesn't seem that way to you. He's still a young man, though." Colin glanced at me doubtfully. I tried to appear youthful and vigorous. Didn't look like he was buying it.

I stole a glance into the dining room where bay windows let in gray light. Three place settings had been laid out on a dark wood dining table. To the rear of the space a door led to another room, the kitchen apparently. I heard someone moving around back there, noises of food prep. My nostrils picked up the rich aroma of soup.

Mrs. Ohls noticed me noticing and addressed Colin, who looked a little lost and uncomfortable. "Are you hungry?" A tentative nod from him. "Why don't you make yourselves comfortable in here," she said, leading us into the living room. "I'll see if the food is ready."

I bleated a polite thank-you, she wafted off, leaving us to check the place out. And the living room itself was fine, nice, comfy. Kind of New-Englandy, with tall double-hung windows looking out on gray afternoon and bare trees, more hardwood floor peeking around an oriental-style rug that showed its age gracefully. And mementos. The space fairly frothed over with mementos, put just about everywhere a place could be found for them -- framed photos on the walls, on the many shelves, on side tables. Citations interspersed among the photos on the walls. And trophies. Bowling trophies, a bunch of them, some modest, some extravagant, some small, some tall, all topped by a little metal guy caught in mid-bowl. And a bowling clock, also featuring a man in mid-bowl, in plastic bas-reliefed full-body profile, his arm swinging back and forth as the pendulum.

Colin stood by a small table, looking through the various photos arranged there. I joined him. In each picture, a younger Edith Ohls smiled at the camera in the company of an older man -- pleasant-looking, an inch or two taller than her, torso not slim, not heavy, thinning white hair, bushy white eyebrows, the skin on his face beginning to sag and pouch -- and other supporting characters. One or two at weddings, one or two at bowling fiestas of some sort, always in the company of the older guy.

Colin looked around as if not understanding how this room had materialized around him. I rested a hand on one of his small shoulders, he glanced back at me before looking quickly away to stare at the environs.

As I stood there by my boy, my free hand delved into my pocket, finding the rabbit's foot. "Hey," I said, pulling it from my pocket, keys and all, "see this?" Colin looked around. "This is something else Edith sent me." I held it out to him, he looked at it.

"What is it?"

"It's a rabbit's foot."

He stared at it, then at me. "What's it for?"

"Some people think they bring good luck." A squint up at me from Himself at that, with no comment. He extended a finger to touch the charm, then stroked it a single cautious time.

"It's blue."

"They used to dye them colors like this, I think."

"How come?"

A shrug from me. "Good question. A silly marketing thing, probably. Maybe someone thought the natural color wouldn't be eye-catching enough."

"What are those keys for?"

"Another good question."

Edith Ohls appeared to our rear, opening a door that led to the kitchen, the glow of fluorescent lighting visible behind her.

"I recognize that rabbit's foot," she said.

"We were just wondering what the keys went to." She stepped closer, I handed her the ring.

"These," she said, indicating the two standard-shaped keys, "might have been the door keys to Philip's last apartment. This one," she continued, separating out the flat key, "well.... I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it went with a safe deposit box."

I stared at the flat, squared-off piece. "A safe deposit box?"

"Could be," she said, handing the ring back. "Looks like that kind of key."

"But where? L.A. somewhere?"

She appraised me with a small, kind smile. "It's possible. I couldn't say for sure."

"I know. Sorry, I'm just wondering aloud."

"I'd be doing the same if I were in your position." She noticed my boy looking adrift. "How are you doing?" she asked him. "Are you still hungry?" An affirmative nod in response. "Well then, we can eat if you'd like," she said, moving toward the door from which she'd come.

Colin immediately sailed off after her. I followed, ending up in a large, clean room several times the size of my kitchen, walls sporting numerous further photos from a long, happy marriage. A pretty blonde woman near my age put a cover into place on a tureen containing what I assumed to be our lunch.

"I hope you like split pea soup," she said to Colin. He looked at her, uncertain how to answer yet another stranger.

"This is my niece," Edith Ohls said to me, "Emily. She's been helping me out these last few weeks." We exchanged hellos. Nice smile. Nice wedding band. "This is Dennis," Edith continued, "and that's Colin."

"You've come a long way for lunch," Emily said. "From New York?"

"A long way," I agreed, skipping the details. Colin fidgeted. Edith moved into the dining room, turning on the overhead light and closing the curtains, sheer white jobbies that let in gray light while providing some privacy. Emily hefted the tureen and followed, going to the table to deposit her load where it looked like a white ceramic centerpiece. Colin and I trailed after.

"Are you sure you don't want to join us?" Edith asked her niece.

"Nope, thanks. I've got things to do. I'll stop by again this evening." She moved into the hallway to pull her coat from the rack. "Nice to meet you," she said to Colin, giving him a friendly smile. He said a quiet "'Bye" in response. "Nice to meet you, too," she said to me.

"Likewise," I said.

She zipped up, calling a last "'Bye," and exited via the front door. Edith moved to the side of the table opposite Colin and me, gesturing to the place settings in front of us. "Why don't you sit," she said. I put a hand on Colin's back, gently moving him toward the seat across from Edith. When he'd pulled the chair out and arranged himself in it, I sat next to him, picking up a napkin, spreading it over my lap. Colin saw that and picked up his, pushing one corner of it inside his collar.

Once we were settled, Edith asked for Colin's bowl, he picked it up and extended it toward her. She took it, and while she ladled soup I glanced around. A wicker basket next to the tureen held warm rolls, wrapped in a large white linen napkin. A butter dish waited nearby.

Three or four photos were arrayed around the room, nicely framed and hung, these featuring Edith and the now familiar male, along with two children. Dishes and crystal could be seen through the doors of a china cabinet, along with a scattering of ceramic figures. No trophies anywhere. An austere space compared to the other two rooms.

I realized Edith was waiting for me to hand over my bowl, which I did. When she'd filled it and then her own, she took a roll from the basket and broke it open. Its odor got my saliva oozing and I grabbed a roll of my own, making myself pull it open and spread butter on it slowly, like a sane, well-mannered human, before cramming it into my mouth. Colin followed my example.

"How is everything?" Edith asked. I made happy noises and gestures around a mouthful of split-pea bliss. She watched Colin for a moment, wearing a half-smile, her eyes soft, then dipped her spoon into the soup and brought it to her mouth. After a quiet moment, she said to the munchkin, "How do you like traveling with your father?"

Colin looked up at her, then cut a quick glance over at me before looking down at his soup. "Okay," he said.

"Must have been a long drive."

"Pretty long," he said, dipping his spoon in and out of his soup, one leg swinging nervously.

"Is this your first time in Ohio?"

"Uh-huh."

"It's his first time outside of Massachusetts," I added.

"Is that right?" she said. "And how do you like it so far?"

"I don't know."

I interceded, trying to take the onus for supplying information off Colin. "This trip was pretty much thrust upon him. He didn't come along because he wanted to."

Edith studied me for a moment. "I see," she said. Then, to Colin, "That's no fun, is it?"

"No."

Edith said a sympathetic, "Mm," then asked, "What would you rather be doing?"

Colin paused to look at his soup before answering, his spoon sliding back and forth along the rim of his bowl. "I'd rather be home."

Edith gazed at him for a moment. "It's nice to be able to go home, isn't it?" she said. Colin nodded, dipping his spoon into soup. "When you think of home, what do you think of?"

Colin looked down at his bowl for a moment, making a soft popping sound with his lips, finally saying, "Watching TV with Dad."

"Do you do that a lot?"

A shrug. "Sometimes."

"Does he let you use the remote?"

He looked up at her, surprised, then nodded. "Does your father ever read to you?" Another nod. "What books do you like?"

He pondered for a moment, moving his spoon around in the soup like a motorboat, then said, "I like the Zebra family. And I like 'Elmo Goes to France.'" Elmo, the Canadian moose.

"I like that one, too. Elmo finds Knobby and takes him home, right?"

"Uh-huh." He appraised her with more interest, starting to forget his shyness. Knobby: a long-lost nephew of Elmo's. Elmo discovers Knobby's being kept in a French zoo and springs him, they return to Elmo's home in the extreme northern suburbs of Montreal. Happiness reigns.

"I think my grandson has all the Elmo books. Maybe his family will stop by while you're in Oberlin and you can meet him."

Colin looked as if he'd like that and said, "Okay." He let his spoon fill with soup then lifted it to his mouth where it disappeared between his lips.

"I noticed," Edith said to Colin, "you were looking at some of the photographs in the living room."

"Uh-huh." His napkin had started to come out of his collar, I reached over as unobtrusively as I could manage and tucked it in. Colin leaned back and allowed me to fuss, his feet swinging in time to some rhythm he had going inside that little head.

"I have an awful lot of photos, don't I?" A big nod in the affirmative from Himself.

"I showed Colin the photo you sent me," I said.

"The shot of your father and mother?"

"That's the one."

"So you saw the photograph of your grandparents?" she said to Colin, more of a statement than a question. He nodded once more, putting a little bit of roll into his mouth. "You see the man with me in that picture?" She pointed to a photo hung on the wall to our left, by the door to the foyer. "That man and your grandfather were best friends." Colin studied the picture of Edith and Bernie Ohls intently. "Do you know any of your grandparents?" Edith asked. Colin shook his head no, his eyes moving to meet hers.

"They all died before he was born," I supplied. Not exactly true, but close enough.

"You know what it means that the man in the photo your father showed you was your grandfather, don't you?"

"Uh-huh," said Colin. "He was my dad's daddy."

"That's right. And my husband was best friends with your dad's father."

Colin was doing pretty well with all this, but I'm not sure he got the full import of the connection Edith was trying to get across.

"Bernie must have been a bit older than you," I said to Edith.

"Yes, he was. He was the same age as Philip." Far as I could tell, that meant he was around 87 when he checked out. "And 12 years older than me."

"How come he was so much older?" Colin asked. Going by his expression, a 12-year span like that might as well have been the gap between the Pleistocene Era and the Age of Enlightenment.

"Well, I don't know. I met him when I was 19. We liked each other." She shrugged. "It just happened that way." No comment from Colin.

"In the little I've seen of my father's memoirs," I said, "he and Bernie didn't come off as buddies."

"They weren't back then. It's something that developed as they got older."

"What was my father like?" I found myself feeling oddly nervous at what she might come out with in response to that question.

"Oh," she said softly, deliberating briefly, eyes staring down at her soup, "he was a very interesting person. Touching, exasperating. Sad. Such a sad, lost man."

"Lost?" I asked, startled.

"That's how he always seemed to me. I'm sorry, is hearing that unpleasant?"

"No," I said uncertainly, "just strange."

"Do you want me to go on?"

I found her steady gaze on me, the faded blue eyes slightly magnified by her glasses. "If you want to."

She slipped a spoonful of soup into her mouth and looked toward the room's side window for a moment before speaking. "I didn't meet your father," she said, "until he and Bernie had known each other for a number of years. They dealt with each other now and then in the course of their work, but tended not to travel in the same circles apart from that.

"Bernie and I were eating dinner in a restaurant the first time I met Philip. He'd had a meal by himself and stopped by our table on his way out. I didn't see him approach, so that he seemed to materialize next to us. He said something like, 'Hey, Bernie, how's life?' He had a nice voice. Resonant. I remember looking up at him and thinking What an attractive man, at the same time getting the distinct feeling that he could be trouble."

"Trouble?"

She smiled. "Not that he was looking for trouble or seemed threatening in any way. When Bernie introduced me, Philip removed his hat and took my hand to shake it. Very well-mannered, almost chivalrous. And yet...." A pause here as she gazed at a photo that hung on the wall behind Colin, her eyebrows knit with thought. "There was an air about him. You could sense that this was not a simple person. Quite the opposite. He had an active mind -- insistently active. Which was an asset for his work. But if he didn't have something to aim it at, to distract him -- a case, a book, a game of chess -- he'd start picking away at the state of his life."

She paused to smile at Colin, who was dipping part of a roll in his soup. When the talk stopped, he looked up guiltily, then back down at his food, uncertain whether he'd committed an offense or not. I put a hand on the back of his neck and squeezed gently. He looked over at me, I smiled at him.

"Do you see much of my father in him?" I asked Edith.

"There's a little of Philip in his eyes, I think. And maybe his mouth."

Colin returned her gaze, putting a bit of roll in that mouth and chewing. I studied his profile, not sure I saw any resemblance to the old man there. Looking back at Edith, I said, "How come he never communicated with me?" I tried to make it sound casual, not freighted with feeling. It came out flat, stiff.

"I don't know. I think he kept track of where you were, and there were times when he considered contacting you. He would agonize for a while, do nothing and stop talking about it." She paused and for a moment we were quiet. Sad, restless thoughts squirmed around in my head. "Do you like the soup?" Edith finally asked Colin, whose bowl lay nearly empty.

"Mm-hm," he replied, nodding, then remembered to tack on a "thank you."

"Would you like more?"

"Yes, please." No hesitation there. Edith took his bowl and ladled it two-thirds full with soup. Colin took it carefully back, set it down, picked up what was left of his roll and tore a tiny piece from it, put that in his mouth.

"You know," Edith said softly -- I glanced over and found her addressing me -- "your father took your mother's death very hard." I didn't know what to say to that and remained silent. Colin looked from her to me, then back again. "I believe he loved her very much." Her eyes remained on me.

"So why did he leave?"

She nodded. "That's the question, isn't it?" I said nothing. She seemed to deliberate before she spoke again. "I think I'm not going to apologize for your father. He was a good man." Her eyes looked into mine, their slight magnification making them appear owlishly penetrating. "Sometime after Philip returned from Europe, he ran into Bernie. They went out for a drink. Afterwards, Bernie realized with some surprise that he'd had a good time. He also seemed a little concerned about Philip. They got together another time, then another time after that. I think it was after that that Philip joined Bernie and me for dinner for the first time. Just him, no date."

With that I realized that Edith might have known my father with other women, a thought that I think I'd shied away from before then. At that moment, a little calico cat walked into the room from the kitchen, moving lightly past Colin to pause by the end of the table where she aimed a high, lilting meow at Edith.

"Hello there," Edith said, looking down at her. Colin had already slithered out of his seat and crouched by the intruder, patting its lower back, which elevated in response.

"Colin," I said, "don't overdo it. Go easy on the kitty." No sign that he'd heard me, though he did seem to be attempting contact with more finesse than his usual mauling. And the calico seemed to appreciate the attention.

"What's her name?" Colin asked, hand still patting away.

"That's Minka," Edith answered. "She's the queen of this chicken coop."

Colin peered up at her, trying to figure how literally she meant that, then returned his attention to the cat. "Hi, Minka," he said softly.

"I think she likes you," Edith observed. Colin stood up, wiping his hands together, which resulted in some cat hair flying. Minka aimed another meow at Edith, this one more plaintive. "I know," Edith said, "we're eating and you're not. It's not fair, is it?" Minka walked a few slow steps in a half-circle, tail up in the air, looking back at Edith, then around the room as if she'd heard something none of us humans had.

Colin slowly resumed his seat, Minka parked her rear on the rug and began licking the fur way up on her inner thighs. Way up there in the nether region. Just what I like to see when I'm trying to eat.

"How come cats wash themselves so much?" Colin asked.

"Well," said Edith, "imagine that you were covered with hair like she is. So much hair that you couldn't see your skin anywhere on your body. Do you think that might get uncomfortable?"

"I don't know," Colin answered, thinking hard.

"Do you have to wash your hair every day?"

"Uh-huh," Colin said. I thought I heard an editorial tone of complaint there at the unreasonable demands imposed by certain parental units.

"Think how often you'd have to wash if you had hair everywhere." No answer from Colin. He looked back at Minka, who remained intently focused on groinal hygiene.

"Do you have any pets?" Edith asked Colin.

"Uh-uh," he said, shaking his head.

"That's too bad."

"Yeah," said my boy, additional editorial tone in his voice. "Dad can't have any in his apartment."

"Building regulations," I assured Edith.

"You live there by yourself?" Edith asked.

"On the days Colin's not with me, yes."

"You're divorced?"

"Oh, yes."

"I see." Edith noticed Colin's bowl was empty. "Would you like more soup?" she asked him.

"Yes, please." A quick flicker of the eyes in my direction to see if that was okay.

"Have as much as you want, bub." You take advantage when your progeny actually wants to eat something healthy. Outside a car drifted by, slowing for the stop sign at the end of the block. It's been a while since I lived anywhere that looked out on passing traffic -- there was something nice about sitting at this table with my boy and this elderly woman who provided connection with a part of my life long unknown. The occasional vehicle moving past outside, the November afternoon drifting slowly by. Life going on all around.

Edith finished pouring more soup in Colin's bowl, he carefully took it from her and set it on his place mat. He picked up his spoon, then his attention returned to Minka, still deeply into a disturbing display of self-care. At that moment alternately licking and biting at one patch of groin fur. Very attractive.

I tried to get my attention off of unwholesome visuals, turning back to my meal. Another car drifted by, slowing down. This one stopped before moving completely out of view, began backing up. Through the sheer curtains I could make out two figures in the car, looking to be scrutinizing Edith's house, the one in the passenger's seat appearing large and male. My inner early warning system began sounding off. They backed up more, apparently trying to find a spot to park. I reached out and grabbed Colin by the arm.

"I think we have to go," I said.

"So soon?" said Edith, surprised.

"You're about to have visitors," I told her. She stared at me, not understanding, then turned to the window.

"That's no reason for you to leave," she said.

"In this case," I said, grabbing my coat and Colin's from their perch in the hallway, "it is." I hurried back into the room to herd Colin out to the kitchen. "Come on, buddy," I said, trying to make it sound more like a request than the urgent instruction it actually was.


[See entries of 5/24/02, 6/15/02, 8/13/02 and 8/22/02 for further excerpts, or use the links in this page's right-hand column.]

rws 1:23 PM [+]

Man, there's been a lot going on in recent days, with no time to plant my posterior in a chair and write any of it down to inflict on unsuspecting cybervisitors. ('Til now.)

Christmas day: left just before 1 p.m., took Line 10 of the Metro to Principe Pio. Line 10 -- clean, modern, looking practically brand-spanking new. Within the last few months, the city picked up a new fleet of spacious, streamlined, high-tech trains, complete with numerous plasma-screen television monitors in each car broadcasting weather, news headlines, scenes from Madrid, blahblahblah. Plus, each coach is open on both ends so that you can see all the way to either end of the train, which I find to be big fun for some reason. Simple thrills for simple minds.

Across from me sat three eastern European males, one slender 40-something guy in between two 20-somethings, all with a very particular eastern European kind of aspect. I sat down across from one of the 20-somethings, he gave me a look of some sort, studying me. Then the other 20-something did the same. The older one, also, but not as lingering or direct. Then the first 20-something made a show of doing something with a fist over his mouth -- yawning? clearing his throat? who knows -- which he used to make a comment of some sort, apparently about me. All I could do was smile and get out a book to read. (As an attorney I once knew used to say, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't talking about you.)

At Principe Pio, I caught a bus and made the 30-minute ride out to Villaviciosa, the reasonably well-heeled suburban enclave in which my landlords (John: American; Pat: English) have taken refuge for years and years and years in a lovely brick house they themselves built on a very green third of an acre lot. They're an extremely entertaining bunch, my landlords' clan -- generous, voluble, right out there with who they are. The kids -- Bobby and Anna, both 20-somethings -- are smart, bilingual, enjoyable to be around, with striking similiarities and differences. Anna, in particular, speaks Spanish that is fast, fluid and beautifully musical. Also present: Bobby's Spanish sweetheart, Sandra. A spicy blend of personalities, and a fine spread of food, from pre-meal nosh to a fine, classic turkey-and-stuffing main course with some less traditional side dishes, to a large, delicious English Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. Plus party favors and moments of hilarity. What a deal!

Brief aside: Between a slowly-sipped pre-dinner beer, a couple of glasses of mineral water (not to mention a glass or two of bubbly cider) with the meal, and a couple of cups of tea afterward, my bladder decided it had a bunch of work to do. Resulting in increasingly frequent trips to the loo as the afternoon wore on, to the point where it may have become worrisome to my hosts. NOTE TO MY HOSTS: I am not bulemic. I was not making room for successive courses of Christmas chow. I was simply obeying my increasingly-distressed plumbing and dumping the ballast. Honest. End of aside.

After dinner: a pause for chat/tea, then an hour-long walk. After which I made the bus trip back to the city, now busy with Christmas night revelry -- young folks everywhere, readying for some serious partying; the occasional explosion from heavy-duty fireworks ringing out -- stumbling in the door to my piso at 9 p.m. Not a bad day.

[continued in next entry]

rws 7:06 AM [+]

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Unsolicited Recommendations

Four blogs -- all interesting, all long on wit, all written by women (some updated more than others), all worth taking a look at:

Fussy
Mimi Smartypants
Que Sera Sera
Mighty Girl

Four CDs -- all seriously kickass in very different ways:

Bob Dylan Live 1975
Calle 54 (soundtrack to the film)
Monsoon Wedding (soundtrack to the film)
Concert By The Sea -- Errol Garner


Addendum: Re: Que Sera Sera (see the above blogs) -- the ongoing exchange of comments re: The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers/Orlando Bloom warrants wading through. Sample: "I've been assured it was an epic film, but all I really paid attention to was the hot archer of the dark, intense eyes. I want to have his little immortal elfin children."

rws 1:01 PM [+]

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Christmas morning 2002, Madrid -- some moments:

-- Fireworks went off sporadically during the night. Shortly after 7 a.m., some capullo set off a couple of loud buggers, the explosions clear and sharp in the morning silence. On impulse, I got up, opened a window, leaned out to see the state of the neighborhood this holiday a.m. Everything was closed/shuttered, though a few individuals walked the quiet streets, in particular one hefty woman sporting a sweater, jeans, flip-flops, no socks, no coat. Weaving a bit as she made her way along, as if she had passed a long night celebrating in heavy-duty fashion.

-- Around 10 a.m., I found myself beset by the desire for a decent cup of espresso and left to track one down. The local streets remained dead silent, the few other pedestrians quiet and keeping to themselves except for one lone street cleaner busy sweeping up trash from last night's revels. As I headed out to la Calle de Hortaleza, moving toward Gran Vía, activity began picking up. Ahead of me, on the opposite side of the narrow street, a guy in a Santa hat (bright red, white trim, pompom) walked along talking loudly into his cellphone.

-- Most of the folks strolling along Gran Vía were alone, some clearly out for a head-clearing paseo, others not looking terribly content or relaxed. Little automotive traffic passed by, though buses provided color and motion. To this point, no businesses of any kind were open, not even the newspaper stand across from the end of la Calle de Hortaleza, usually a bastion of activity.

-- An eccentric-looking 60-something gent jogged by in sweatshirt/shorts/Walkman headset, his gait bow-legged, his steps a bit exaggerated as if he were treading on hot cinders. Down the block, a diminutive older gentleman the jogger had passed turned to stare after the runner, mouth slightly agape in amazement at the vision that had just pranced by.

-- A few blocks down Gran Vía in the direction of Callao, the pink neon of the big sign for the Zahara Café (or is it the Café Zahara? it's impossible to tell from the sign's layout) shone brightly through the gray morning light. Across the street, the Cafetería Nebraska also appeared to be open, customers clustered around the counter inside. Neither of them places I'd ever set foot in. I chose the Zahara, which turned out to be a cavernous Planet-Hollywoodesque joint with many, many tables and a long U-shaped counter. Christmas morning supplicants lined the long U, sipping infusions of caffeine, some also working on buttered toast with knives and forks as is the local custom. Two women moved around behind the counter, clearly not happy to be where they were this Navidad a.m.

-- I found a stool, ordered a café cortado and churros. A 30-something guy sat to my left, smoking, appearing a bit bleary and unsettled. When my stuff arrived, I asked him to pass me a napkin dispenser. He did so, clearly startled at the smile on my face and by the fact that I seemed to be enjoying myself. At one point, as I slowly hoovered down the churros and café, he sneezed. I said the traditional Spanish "Jesús" (the locals' version of 'bless you,' pronounced Hay-SOOS), again startling him, though he produced a tentative smile and a "gracias" in response.

-- As I ate, a gent with a weathered late-50ish face appeared to the other side of the customer to my right. He mumbled something to one of the women behind the counter, she disappeared, reappearing with a snifter and a bottle of brandy, pouring him a healthy hit that he accepted a bit shakily.

-- More strollers were out during the walk home, the pace of the morning clearly picking up. As I mounted the stairs here in the building, I could hear sounds of conversation and activity in different pisos on the various floors, Christmas day in Madrid slowly finding its feet.

rws 3:13 PM [+]

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Woke up during the early morning hours, tossed and turned, gradually drifted back off to sleep. When my eyes finally re-opened, my teensy bedside travel clock read ten of nine. Classes start at nine. I managed to stumble in the door of the school around 9:15, setting a personal record. Showered, dressed, with all needed books/notebooks, though unshaven. Three out of four ain't bad.

As happened yesterday, I encountered few people on the Metro during the ride to school, further evidence that Madrid's rush hour evaporates during the days of Navidad. The atmosphere at school was one of chomping at the bit to get the partying underway. During the late morning break, the teaching staff played music, drank bubbly, scarfed down pastries. They are a cute, smart bunch with endearing tendencies toward rowdiness. The second session of class ended a bit early so that one of the three brothers that preside over the school, Ángel, could pop open two bottles of Spanish sparkling wine and lead a group toast which degenerated rapidly into random hilarity. Los profesores were carrying on, ready to bolt and continue the partying elsewhere. I went into the classroom to pull on my coat/pick up my stuff, when I returned to the common area, most everyone appeared to have flown the coop, as if they'd literally leaped out any available window or door while I had my back turned. José, another of the three brothers, seemed to be collecting the few remaining souls to head out for lunch, I attached myself to that, assuming a big gathering of students/teachers/etc. was in store.

A short walk took us to a restaurant a few blocks from the school, packed with Madrileños happily and loudly tossing down tapas, raising glasses of wine/champagne, chatting, laughing. Our group of six -- José, myself, Sergio (a French 20-something), Nikki (a 20-something New Yorker), Concetta (an Italian 30-something) and Wolfgang (a German 30-something) -- pushed through all that and were ushered to a rear dining room filled with tables prepared for dining. Many tables, no diners. Except us, cloistered away from all the noise and fun. And as we were seated at a table for six, it started to sink in that the big hooha I'd thought I'd attached myself to was off happening somewhere else.(!!) Our little group consisted mostly of people who had further classes to go to, so were being given a nice, fast lunch by the school, not the raucous blowout I was looking forward to being a part of. And I found myself in attendance at one of the more awkward, unrelaxed dinners I've attended here in Madrid -- not the shindig I was up for.

I mostly sat, ate, watched the people I was with, something I virtually always enjoy. Post-meal, back outside into the December air, I wished the rest of the group Feliz Navidad and took off, happy to be free and making my way through Christmastime Madrid -- people doing last minute shopping, bars and restaurants overflowing with folks spending Christmas Eve afternoon in traditional social fashion.

We'd been warned at school that stores would be closing as the afternoon progressed and that by 8 p.m. the entire city would be shut down, including public transit, movies, restaurants, you name it. Christmas Eve -- families congregate for the major Christmas dinner, everything else comes to a halt.

I figured some theaters would have to be open and, calculating correctly, managed to get myself to a late-afternoon movie. When I emerged back into the falling evening shortly before six and headed up Gran Vía, the city was literally in the process of closing up around me. Stores, restaurants, bars -- locking up, turning off their lights. Not all of them, but most, enough that it generated a strange sense of tranquil unreality. Automotive traffic was sparse and the sidewalks on either side of Gran Vía -- normally crowded to where simple walking at one's own pace can be difficult to manage -- were nearly deserted, making for a long relaxed saunter, watching the natives emerging from closing stores with bags of gifts or walking in groups talking animatedly.

All of this produces in me a strange sensation of contentedness, spiked with an occasional feeling of disconnection as I drift through this lovely city while it carries on in traditional Christmas fashion, me having no particular Christmas Eve destination other than home. Which is a fine destination, considering where that home is.

One strange note in Madrid's Christmas season -- fireworks. They began last Thursday or Friday, here in Chueca. I stood in my kitchen preparing something to eat -- out in the street something exploded, loud and intense enough that I literally jumped. A bomb, I thought at first, ETA having been active recently not far from Madrid. Until it occurred to me that no windows were broken, no sounds of shock/terror/fear came from the street, post-explosion. Christmastime fireworks, big ones -- not small inoffensive buggers. Ashcans or M-15's, something of that caliber.

Since then I've heard them around the city, huge explosions, usually producing a cloud of smoke, the perps managing to get some distance away before the explosion so that it's impossible to make out which individual just scared the bejesus out of the neighborhood. As I entered my barrio on the walk home tonight, making my way along la Calle de Hortaleza, someone set off a major explosion a block ahead, a thick cloud of smoke drifting through the air in its wake. People stop and look around, local life pauses for a moment. Then everyone carries on.

Strange.

My barrio, despite many businesses being closed/shuttered/dark, proved to be lots livelier than the other parts of the city I'd passed through. Some book stores had their doors open. Some taverns and restaurants were packed with people looking for food, company, noise, energy. A surprising number of places remained open for business as I neared my calle, the streets pleasantly alive with folks walking, Christmas lights radiated cheer from store windows or strung across la calle overhead. The three businesses on the corner nearest this building's front door -- two slick cafés and a small, funky neighborhood tavern -- bustled with sound/people. I went into one of the cafés -- dark, smokey, music playing (music with a good beat) -- and planted myself at a corner table where I worked my way through a couple of espressos and did, er, homework. Happy to be where I was, doing what I was doing.

Tomorrow I take a combo subway/bus ride out to one of Madrid's 'burbs for Christmas dinner with my landlords, an expansive, highly enjoyable British/American couple who have become friends. Just them, their two 20-something kids and their son's Spanish sweetheart. And me. I expect some serious entertainment.

Have a lovely holiday, wherever you are, however you spend it. Felizes fiestas to all, and to all a good night.

rws 4:01 PM [+]

Monday, December 23, 2002

A beautiful pre-Christmas day, wan sunlight shining through high clouds. When I dragged myself out to classes this morning, the usual morning rush hour Metro ride had given way to a sparsely-attended pre-holiday non-rush-hour kind of event, a handful of drowsy, half-smiling commuters sharing the car with me. Likewise, when I disembarked at la estación Opera for the short slog up la calle de Arenal to the language school, few people were about. Far more like a Sunday morning than a Monday. Two hours later, when I stepped outside during the morning break to grab a café and a bocadillo, the sidewalks were alive with crowds of Madrileños out doing last-minute Christmas shopping. Talk about a transformation. (This is something I used to love about living in Cambridge, MA during the holiday season -- the relative tranquility that reigned from Christmas Eve to just before New Year's Eve, the relaxing of the usual high-speed local lifestyle. Rush-hour became a drastically diminished version of its normally intense self, something I especially enjoyed. Christmas Eve in Cambridge/Boston is particularly low-key, the streets practically deserted, the usual bustle replaced by quiet, Christmas lights shining in the December night. Except down in Boston's Chinatown, where the restaurants are packed with those not keyed in to the more normal versions of Christmas Eve. In fact, tomorrow night will be my first Christmas Eve in the last five or six years not spent with a handful of friends around a Chinatown table piled high with plates of excellent chow, the room around us ringing with the din of conversation and dinner activity.)

I find myself walking through my days here smiling a great deal of the time, beset by almost inexplicable waves of contentment at being in this city. I say ‘almost' inexplicable because I can point to scores of things that provoke pleasure in me, many of them seemingly trivial -- passing moments of no great import that flit by as the day passes. The faces I see around me, radiating to greater or lesser degrees the life going on within those individuals. The sound of the language, and the snippets of conversation I hear washing by on the street. The architecture, the way the sunlight slants down the buildings to slice across part of a narrow calle, shifting slowly with the sun's movement as the minutes slip by. Young couples walking hand in hand or standing close together, talking, faces inches apart, moving closer to share a kiss. Families or groups of friends carrying gift-wrapped packages. Lots of talk and chatter, lots of motion, stores lit up, the air filled with a nice energy.

It's good, all of it. Call me Pollyanna, but there it is.

Went to the gym this afternoon. On the way back, stopped in for the first time at the new corner spot next door. Slick. Real slick. And pretty. The old joint was not pretty. Kind of dumpy, in fact, the walls crowded with anonymous, kitschy artwork or photos, the wall and shelves behind the counter crammed with food, supplies, bottles of liquids and tchotchkes. The windows – wide floor-to-ceiling jobs looking out on the street – were mostly covered with old, sheer curtains. A dive – cramped, crowded, dowdy, dog-eared. The new place's owners ripped out everything that had been in the space's previous incarnation, exposing the bricks, buffing up the floor (a nice wood floor I hadn't noticed in the old joint), leaving the windows uncovered. It's an austere spot now, tastefully done. Europop – decent Europop – played on the sound system, a wide flat-screen television hung at either end of the space playing what are probably by now clichéd rave-type images of concerts and crowds dancing, waving glowsticks. All in all, okay, with the picture-window views of the world outside a major plus. The downside: the café they served me? Not very good. Not very good and a third again as expensive as anywhere else in the neighborhood. Bugger.

An elderly woman from my building tottered slowly in with a friend, another woman around her age, both of them the local version of the classic little old blue-haired lady (minus the blue). The woman from my building has one of the world's most radiant smiles -- when she spotted me, she waved and unleashed it in my direction. She and her friend sat at a table by one of the windows, ordered cafés. When the espressos arrived, the two women sat and sipped, watching the neighborhood activity outside, Europop playing loudly around them. Content.

Me, too.

rws 12:56 PM [+]

Sunday, December 22, 2002

From Christopher Key's blog The Barbaric Yawp:

"Hey, writing is easy. You just open a vein and let it flow onto the page."

Hmmmm.

rws 1:13 PM [+]

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Let me see if I can get this straight:

Saw a great French film earlier ("L'Auberge Espagnole," called here "Una Casa de Locos") -- at a theater near la Plaza de España here in Madrid – about a French college student who spends a year in the beautiful Spanish city of Barcelona. He shares an apartment with a German guy, an Italian guy, a Danish guy, a British woman, a Belgian lesbian and a Spanish woman. Great soundtrack, with music from all over. Afterwards, I had a dynamite, cheap meal at a teeny Chinese joint next door to a used CD shop where I picked up CDs by two African Americans (Errol Garner, Charlie Parker) and an American band led by a Latino (Santana – "Borboletta"). (The restaurant/CD shop are located in the access hallway to the Plaza de España underground garage, an illogical, out-of-the-way location someone mentioned to me some time ago which turns out to also have a Chinese grocery and a Chinese travel agency.)

After all that, I wandered up Gran Vía as darkness fell and crowds of Spaniards walked together, moving in and out of tiendas, window shopping, sifting in and out of restaurants like the Cafetería Nebraska, theaters and snack joints vending Turkish food and fine, fine Italian ice cream. In the falling evening, the Christmas lights that span the avenue shone cheerfully along its length, honoring a Jewish carpenter born in Bethlehem, Palestine.

Madrid: a city that reminds me every day that we're all riding this planet of ours together. The city of my heart.

rws 4:40 PM [+]

A confession: I love the Christmas season. It's as simple as that. I'm especially enjoying it here, watching the Spaniards wade gracefully through their version of it. I hear a fair number of complaints re: stress/obligations/materialism run amok, just as I do in the States, but when it comes down to it, what I see around me is a great deal of happiness. That is, of course, only one aspect of each day's complete picture, but you know what? I don't care. The picture here is a good one, I'm enjoying taking it in as the days sweep by.

In some ways, the pace of life has picked up as the gift-buying season has progressed and folks devote more active attention to plans for Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), Navidad (Christmas day) and the season as a whole. On the other hand, over the last 2-3 days, college students have headed for home, followed by a more general exodus as people stream off to parts unknown to pass the coming days. Last night in particular seemed to signal the genuine onset of the two-week Christmas vacation. During the day, traffic out of Madrid maintained a steady pace as businesses closed, people took off and the city's rhythm gradually slowed with the outflow of people.

This means major partying for many of those who remain, and the last two nights in this barrio have featured dusk to dawn revels, groups of partyers drifting from one restaurant/bar/café to another -- talking loudly, laughing, singing, with outbursts of shouting, even howling. For some reason, 3-4 a.m. is an especially active time, maybe the hour when certain places close down and other late night spots just get going, triggering slow, jubilant waves of migration for the all-night crowd.

Chueca, my barrio, has always been a dynamic mixture of funky, commercial, touristy and extremely chic. This little corner of it -- mighty funky when I moved in, with outposts of high chic -- is undergoing a drastic gentrification, a process that has crept closer and closer to this building. La Calle de Pelayo, the street at right angles to this one, just 50 feet from our front door, was a mix of funky residential, neighborhood tiendas/bars and a scattering of more upscale shops (and, lately, art galleries). An epidemic of rehabbing older residential buildings got underway a year ago, gathering steam during my last few months back in the States. The cafetería on the corner of our street and Pelayo, a neighborhood joint that attracted an outrageously colorful, mixed clientele, cutting across the entire spectrum -- also featuring great coffee, good morning nosh food (churros, croissants, sweet rolls, breads) -- closed earlier this year, undergoing a months-long major transformation once the previous owner had been nudged out. Yesterday evening it opened its doors as an attractive, slick-looking bar/nightspot.

Across the street, the vacant lot's days are numbered. Last week -- 8, 9, 10 days ago -- the re-postering in the wake of the city crew's scouring the wall clean began sluggishly and never fully re-established itself, the first such occasion in my time here. That Friday, I arrived back home from the morning's Spanish classes to find someone had tossed up a six-foot tall wire enclosure along the curb, preventing access to both the sidewalk and wall. The new enclosure went around the corner to the wall's end, where someone was constructing a brick and plaster barrier across the sidewalk, from the wire enclosure to the wall itself, to prevent passage. I asked the lone worker what was up, he answered that construction would begin on a brand new building sometime between now and the beginning of January, a piece of news whose disclosure felt something like an arrow through my heart. The street between our building and the lot on which the new building will grow is narrow, the construction will be extremely close by. Months of that is not something I look forward to. But it's the on the way. I will miss that empty lot.

Change -- life's only constant. And in general, I like change. I'll have to sit tight and see how this new development unfolds.

********************

It's Saturday morning, the time when the local world gets its shopping done before the tiendas close at 2 p.m. A process that normally gets underway in leisurely fashion, picking up speed around 11 a.m., so that by 11:30, the shops, streets and pedestrian ways are crowded with people. This being the final weekend before Christmas, it was an accelerated version off its usual self. Both yesterday evening and this morning, I made trips to the local centro comercial to pick up most of what I'd need for the coming days. This morning, once done there with that, I headed off toward la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol and el Corte Inglés, the megastore that is Madrid's retail heavy hitter, stopping briefly at a neighborhood joint for a quick café cortado.

A gray morning, just damp enough to produce some mist in the air, just cool enough that my breath was visible. I stepped into el Cortes Inglés at 11 to find heavier crowds than normal for that hour. Heavy, yet not suffocating, not frenzied. Going about their business, getting done what needed to be done, seeming a bit relaxed about it all (except at the long, busy meats/chesses counter, where the line and the wait were considerable). The displays of Christmas sweets -- and the Spaniards enjoy their sweets -- were impressive, persuasive and ubiquitous, and I've shown genuine restraint in not picking up any. I'll be getting a cake for the staff at school Monday a.m. -- that'll be my main indulgence.

Outdoors afterwards, Madrid was out in force in all its variety, from elderly couples waking slowly arm in arm to families with young children -- one little one ahead of me, maybe four years old, digging in her feet against her parents' pulling her on, protesting something loudly, the parents trying to cajole her into forward movement -- to individual characters, talking to themselves, milling through the crowds, clothes in disarray, carrying multiple bags. And it almost goes without saying that with this swirling, eddying human traffic, cell phones were in abundant use, visible in all directions.

There is something about walking amid all this that brings me a pleasure I can barely express. I love people. I love people-watching. I love Madrid. Toss all that into the same mix, it's a combo that reminds how good this life of ours generally feels to me, in all its color and variation, in all its joys and dischords, its splendor and squalor.

It's about 1:30. Time to wind this up and head back out into the day.

rws 7:29 AM [+]

Someone at Salon.com, the other location at which this journal is published, pointed out that last night's post consists of material that's been around in various places for some time -- for instance, here.

This is why I rarely post or forward to friends e-mail/internet 'humor' claiming to be from a particular source or event -- it's most often not. The Darwin Awards are a major case in point, as this website about urban legends mulls over.

Me, I'm going to revert to my usual habit of sticking to the occasional posting of material from my e-mail archives which makes no claim to anything except a bit of entertainment.

rws 4:02 AM [+]

Friday, December 20, 2002

English Lit.

According to a reliable English source, the following excerpts are from England's General Certification for Secondary Education (GSCE) English papers of last summer:

Her eyes were like two brown circles with big black dots in the centre.

Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left York at 6:36 p.m. travelling at 55 mph, the other from Peterborough at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

The politician was gone but unnoticed, like the full stop after the Dr. on a Dr Pepper can.

John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

The thunder was ominous sounding, much like the sound of a thin sheet of metal being shaken backstage during the storm scene in a play.

The red brick wall was the colour of a brick-red crayon.

Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two other sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

McMurphy fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a paper bag filled with vegetable soup.

Her hair glistened in the rain like nose hair after a sneeze.

The door had been forced, as forced as the dialogue during the interview portion of Family Fortunes.

His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a tumble dryer.

She caught your eye like one of those pointy hook latches that used to dangle from doors and would fly up whenever you banged the door open again.

The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

Even in his last years, Grandpa had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long it had rusted shut.

Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

The plan was simple, like my brother Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

"Oh, Jason, take me!" she panted, her breasts heaving like a student on 31p-a-pint night.

He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

Her artistic sense was exquisitely refined, like someone who can tell butter from "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter."

She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

It came down the stairs looking very much like something no one had ever seen before.

The knife was as sharp as the tone used by Glenda Jackson MP in her first several points of parliamentary procedure made to Robin Cook MP, Leader of the House of Commons, in the House Judiciary Committee hearings on the suspension of Keith Vaz MP.

The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a lamppost.

The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free cashpoint.

The dandelion swayed in the gentle breeze like an oscillating electric fan set on medium.

It was a working class tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with their power tools.

He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a dustcart reversing.

She was as easy as the Daily Star crossword.

She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature British beef.

She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

Her voice had that tense, grating quality, like a first-generation thermal paper fax machine that needed a band tightened.

It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.

rws 1:35 PM [+]

Thursday, December 19, 2002

As you know, if you've read any of this journal's entries from last month, the arrival of deep winter to northern Vermont at the beginning of November drove me to lighting candles and playing far too much Christmas music. Since arriving in Madrid -- two weeks ago today -- with its gentler, friendlier weather, I haven't felt the need to crank up the holiday atmosphere. A few days back, on the 15th, the realization that el día de Navidad was only ten days off and steaming steadily in this direction jolted me back into tossing Christmas tunes onto my little boombox CD player. Not that I have many tunes to choose from -- only "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "A Star In The East" made the trip. Which, considering I tend not to go for traditional Christmas music, has been fine. I skip over the one or two authentic traditional tunes sung by authentic kids on "Charlie Brown" (that's right, I skip over the singing children - so sue me). And "A Star In The East," a haunting, extremely beautiful recording of medieval Hungarian Christmas music by the Anonymous Four, works just fine for a weirdo like myself.

Whatever other Christmas atmosphere I get comes by way of my normal travels around Christmastime Madrid. Or via field trips, like last Saturday evening's jaunt to the annual Christmas Fair at la Plaza Mayor. Normally one of the city's mostly intensely concentrated points of tourism, the plaza is taken over for the month of December by the Fair, changing the atmosphere in drastic fashion.

The city center is currently aglow with holiday lights and the energy of the crowds surging through the area -- shopping, eating, walking, in groups of family members, friends, couples. It's a joy to pass through it all, people-watching, smelling aromas of food from various tiendas, passing street musicians. At least until one gets into the very center of Sol, where the pedestrian traffic becomes intensely congested, a state worsened by the ubiquitous black market street vendors, who lay their wares out on either side of the thoroughfare, though not actually at its edges, so that the overabundant foot traffic is squeezed into a narrow channel running along the center of whatever pedestrian way one is passing through, making the trip slow and arduous. (The key is making one's way to the margins of the thoroughfare, to pass along the thin strip of space behind the vendors, which sounds easier than it is.)

Last Saturday night, the main streets, sidewalks and side streets between Sol and la Plaza Mayor were swamped with holiday revelers and vendors, much of the traffic swirling in the direction of la Plaza Mayor, so that all one had to do was, er, go with the flow, slow as that flow may be. The centuries-old warren of narrow cobblestone streets that surround the plaza leads toward the various entrance archways, at which point you suddenly find yourself in an enormous expanse of open space, bounded on four sides by stately, relatively austere Baroque architecture -- tiendas/restaurants on ground level, offices/pisos above. The contrast between the trip up the winding, constricted streets and the abrupt opening away of the Plaza is quite a sensation, heightened when the winding streets feeding into the plaza are packed with people. And at the same time dampened a bit right now because the Plaza is not the open space it is most of the year. Currently, several rows of booths fill the center of the plaza, while the periphery is lined with Christmas tree stalls and other rough-edged commercial concerns.

Despite the number of booths, they only consist of three of four types -- standard decorations, religious decorations, joke articles ("artículos de broma"-- masks, wigs, funny glasses, plastic vomit, etc.) and then there are stalls that combine those in different ways. Meaning there's a whole lot of duplication of wares, loads of stalls selling essentially the same stuff. Which doesn't seem to matter -– there appears to be plenty of business to go around.

And what, you might ask, is with all the gag items? December 28th is Spain's version of April Fools Day -- el Día de los Santos Inocentes. Originally a day designated in commemoration of the massacre of children ordered by King Herod, somewhere along the line it became a day to play practical jokes and carry on in hilarious ways. How? Why? Good questions. So far I haven't found any source of information that provides a link. Regardless, somewhere during the passing of the centuries, it became an occasion far more lighthearted than originally intended.

People of all ages clustered around the various stalls, checking out the available goods, groups of young folks and families moving slowly up and down the aisles. Wigs were a hot item on Saturday night, mostly wigs whose individual strands were made of acetate or something similar, colored metallic shades of blue, purple, lavender. Between the time I arrived and the time, the number of wigs Fair-goers sported increased drastically, along with big, floppy Santa hats -- red with white trim, decked with tiny blinking chaser lights, all playing a high-pitched, tinny-sounding, computer-music version of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Chinese folks stood around selling that kind of stuff -- hats, canes, little toys and stuffed animals, all pumping out the same tune. They were everywhere, doing an aggressive sales job, so that by the end of my trip to the plaza, the identical, increasingly annoying rendition of Beethoven's ditty was everywhere.

Another recurring element: a sign in the stalls selling joke stuff which read "HAY BOMBAS DE AGUA" (essentially, WE HAVE WATER BOMBS). None were flying around the plaza, but I get the growing impression that Dec. 28 may turn out be an interesting day.

*************************

A Bitter Christmas
by Jane Siberry

It was the night before Christmas
and all through the house
the children were excited, hoping for snow.
It looked like it might snow,
but no, no, no.

Good. I'm glad.

The next morning
father had set the alarm clock
but it didn't go off,
so the whole household
slept all the way through Christmas day.

Good, I'm glad.

And then they thought
We'll still open all
our presents the day after Christmas
,
so they raced down the stairs,
they flew down the stairs,
they streamed down the stairs into the living room,

and there...
there...

Oh!

Well.

Good, I'm glad.


(From Jane Siberry's excellent 1997 CD "Child")



rws 1:12 PM [+]

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Well, I hadn't planned any adventures when the day began, but this afternoon around a quarter to five I found myself suddenly smitten with the impulse to run out the door and down to the city center where I would try and weasel my way into the first Madrid-area showing of Lord of The Rings Round II. Got to the theater a few minutes after 5. Walked in, picked up a ticket -- no wait, price around $5.50. The theater was at 75% capacity when I sauntered in and picked up a second-row-center seat. (If I'd had my druthers I would have chosen the third or fourth rows, but they were jammed and I had the feeling I would have no success trying to persuade someone to vacate.)

Sat myself down, sharing the row with one other person -- a college guy (Tulane U., New Orleans) of Indian descent two seats to my right. We co-existed peacefully, watching LOTR fanatics drift in and fill the rest of the theater. Off toward the rear of the space, a group of knuckleheads in jury-rigged hooded capes, wielding aluminum-foil swords and hobby-horses (I am not making that last detail up), chased each other around the theater in loud, flailing bouts of pre-film human-versus-orc warfare.

A couple sat to my left, two American 30-somethings. Nice folks. Other people slowly dropped into nearby vacant seats until they were suddenly filled with humans, mostly college-age. In fact, far as I could tell I may have been the only 40-something in a theater weighted heavily toward the 20-something range. This happens a lot. I suspect my tastes are far younger than those of what some might call my, er, peers.

The lights dimmed, the pre-film publicidad commenced. Ten or so minutes of ads, a heavy percentage of them shilling perfumes/colognes, this being the season to be jolly and wave your credit card around. Man, there are some terrible ads being inflicted on the general public over here. A few entertaining ones and a whole poopload of awful ones.

And finally the film began.

The verdict: it beats the pants off Harry P. #2. (Or would that be considered some particularly perverse form of pederasty?) In my humble, ignorant opinion, anyway. For what it's worth, please keep in mind this judgment is coming from someone who loves the Harry P. books (and just a bought a copy of H.P. #4 in Spanish).

A genuinely Intense film. Epic in its sweep, in an immensely positive way -- you laugh, you cry, etc. -- building up to a long, astonishing rendering of the major battle scene that winds up book two of the trilogy. My only real reservation: I wish there were more women in the story, women in strong roles. LOTR Part I had enough major female characters to create more of what felt to me like a balance. I felt the lack in this one. I know this simply reflects the original text, which in turn reflects its time, so what are you gonna do? But there it is.

I like women. In fact, I love women. Life is much more fun, I think, much more satisfying, when they're a solid 50% of the mix.

Apart from that, this is my choice for the season's hot film ticket.

Major body count, by the way. The final standings: elves -- quite a few dead; humans -- many hundreds, maybe thousands dead; orcs and other nasty, misshapen nonhumans -- thousands and thousands and thousands dead.

After the film, as I sat and watched some of the longest credits in history, the male of the American couple next to me got up and took off, leaving the woman, who got a call on her cell phone and began speaking excellent Spanish. Reminded me all over again how sexy Spanish can sound when it's coming from a member of the female persuasion.

Once her call was done, she also took off, leaving me and the credits, which took their sweet time finishing up. When they did, I pulled my coat on and headed toward the little boys room, which is located at the back of this theater. Standing near the door stood the American couple who had been my neighbors for the last three hours, deep in conversation with my friend David, one of the only Americans I know here in Madrid.

Damn, it's a small world.

**************************

Christmas entertainment, unearthed from my e-mail archives:

'Twas the Night Before Christmas (Noo Yawk Style)

'Twas the night before Christmas,
Da whole house was mellow,
Not a creature was stirrin',
I had a gun under my pillow.

When up on da roof
I heard somethin' pound,
I sprung to da window
To scream, "YO! KEEP IT DOWN!"

When what to my
Wanderin' eyes should appear
But dat hairy elf Nickie
And eight friggin' reindeer.

Wit' a bad hackin' cough
An' da stencha burped beer,
I knew in a moment,
Yo, da Kringle wuz here!

Wit' a slap to dere snouts
An' a yank on dere manes,
He cursed and he shouted
An' he called dem by name:

"Yo, Tony! Yo, Frankie!
Yo, Sally! Yo, Vito!
Ay, Joey! Ay, Paulie!
Ay, Pepe! Ay, Guido!"

As I drew out my gun
An' hid by da bed,
Down came his friggin' boot
On da top of my head.

His eyes were all bloodshot,
His b.o. was scary,
His breath was like sewage,
He had a mole dat wuz hairy.

He spit in my eye
An' he twisted my head,
He soon let me know
I should consider myself dead.

Den pointin' a fat finga
Right under my nose,
He let out some gas
An' up da chimney he rose.

He sprang to his sleigh,
Obscenities screaming,
An' away dey all flew,
'Fore he troo dem a beatin'.

An' I heard him exclaim,
Or better yet grump,
"Merry Christmas to all,
An' bite me, ya hump!"

rws 4:45 PM [+]

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Two recently discovered out-of-context quotes:

"...the streets were full of helpless cars drifting atop the river of tiny pigs."

"tiny pigs! dozens and dozens of tiny pigs! but when I bent down to wash my toes, they were gone."


These bits of porcine musing can be perused at leisure -- in context -- at Wockerjabby.

Further out-of-context quotes can be found at, er, Out-of-Context Quotes.

rws 11:29 PM [+]

Ghosts of Christmases Past, II

In putting together this dip into Christmases long gone, I found myself thinking about one Christmas Eve in particular, that of my first year of college. The oddest Christmas Eve I've ever experienced.

During my years in high school, my parents had a house built on the family land north of Albany, N.Y. [see journal entry of 15 October, 2001], and pretty much the nanosecond I graduated 12th grade, they bolted from Long Island. I had the house on the Island to myself that summer -- yes, we are indeed talking large-scale partying -- after which I bumbled my way up to University in Binghamton, N.Y.

I met some interesting folks at school that autumn, including Tony and Jackie, a couple from Huntington on Long Island -- two lovely people. When classes broke for the holidays, I returned to the Island where I would pass a few days before driving upstate to inflict myself on my parents. On Christmas Eve, I was to pick up Tony, Jackie and Jackie's cousin, a nice woman whose name I can't seem to remember, then drive us all into Manhattan. Tony and Jackie would go uptown to a movie, a downtown concert awaited Jackie's cousin and I. Post-performance, she and I would collect T&J, we'd all head back out to the Island.

And that's what I did. I found my way out to Huntington, crammed them all into my VW bug, we sped west toward Manhattan. A nice drive -- Christmas Eve, the four of us in the bug, Jackie's cousin and I seeming to enjoy being with each other. Conversation flowed easily, the evening's beginning unfolded comfortably.

We were 15 minutes or so from crossing the East River, Christmas lights shining around us in the evening darkness. Out of nowhere -- literally, with no prior thought on my part -- the statement "My car's going to be broken into tonight" popped itself out of my mouth. Startling me every bit as much as it startled everyone else.

A moment of silence. Jackie gazed at me strangely, saying nothing. No one ventured to ask, tactfully or not, what I'd meant. We all just quietly sidled our way around the moment, conversation slowly resumed, the evening continued on. A short time later, we landed in Manhattan, I dropped T&J off, Jackie's cousin and I zipped downtown. I hadn't forgotten about the mystery statement, though. And though I managed to keep it from intruding in any visible way on my time with Jackie's cousin, I found myself in a growing state of worry and preoccupation. Everything I'd brought with me from college was in the car (me not being smart enough to leave it all in Huntington). A paltry collection of belongings, really -- some clothes, a box of records, Christmas gifts for my family -- packed tightly into the teensy trunk and the cramped space behind the rear seat. It was what I had, though, and it was out there, draped in the shadows of a minimally-traveled, poorly-lit East Village street.

Post-concert, back out in the night air, I found my pace slowly accelerating -- Jackie's cousin nicely indulgent, not complaining about our increasing speed -- until we reached the car, where I could see for myself that the vehicle had gone undisturbed.

Huge relief. Apprehension bled away, my heart slowed to its normal, happier state. We mounted up and returned uptown.

T&J were at a theater on Fifth Avenue, just a stone's throw from St. Patrick's Cathedral. Christmas Eve was in full swing, the Avenue packed with cars, the sidewalks dense with people. Amazingly, I found a parking space on the Avenue, about two blocks from the movie theater. We locked up the car, trotted to the theater, found T&J, headed back toward the bug. An excursion of five to ten minutes. As we neared the VW, I could see something was wrong and ran the remaining distance to discover that, with all the traffic going by, with the throngs of people out walking, someone had, in that five to ten minutes, forced their way into the vehicle and made off with my stuff. All of it.

I'd had the records stuffed into a packing box from a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which had been jammed behind the rear seat, apparently in clear enough view through the rear window to be inviting. Whoever spotted it had expected to find a piece of electronic equipment. They wound up with albums, luggage, Christmas presents.

It's an interesting life.

My parents' insurance company treated me kindly, covering enough of the losses that I could replace the gifts for my family, the part of the whole affair that had hit me the hardest. The rest was just stuff. So that, apart from some emotional tumult, everything more or less worked itself out. Kind of like life itself.

Be well, everyone. May you spend the holidays with folks you love, in ways that feel good to heart and soul.

rws 2:50 PM [+]

Monday, December 16, 2002

Last year at this time, I posted a lengthy -- some might say, er, long-winded -- reminiscence of Christmastimes from earlier in this little life of mine. In the weeks that followed that post, a surprising number of PEMs arrived saying surprisingly nice things about the piece. Because of that, I've decided to re-post it this year in reworked form and in two parts, beginning tonight.

**********************

Ghosts of Christmases Past

I grew up in a Roman Catholic family, a middle middle-class clan planted in the middle-middle-class community of North Merrick, near the south shore of Long Island, New York -- all of that being a set of conditions which set the tone for many things, including the way Christmas unfolded year after year. ('Planted' -- possibly not the most accurate word. Transplanted might be more like it, my parents having moved there from Jackson Heights, N.Y.C. with my two brothers and me when I reached the six-month-old mark. Oddly enough, the housing development the family bought into was called the flower homes, all the streets bearing names like Verbena Avenue, Larkspur Avenue, Crocus Avenue. Crocus Avenue, by the way: our street. So planted, transplanted -- whichever.)

Not a spacious home, our little house. Decidedly unspacious, in my memory -- cramped, even. The ground floor: a tiny kitchen into which my parents had rammed a small dinner table; a small dining room, which saw gustatory action only when holiday company happened by; a living room -- the largest space in the liveable parts of the house, but again, not what I would call, er, capacious; a teeny bathroom, two small bedrooms. The second floor: two more small bedrooms bookending a closet, along with a microscopic crawlspace. I mention all this to draw a picture of a home notably short on storage capacity, a serious limitation for a family mothered by a professional packrat. The basement, in theory, had a fair amount of cubic footage for storage. In practice, most of it consisted of the laundry area, my father's shop, and an unfinished play area, part of which had been cordoned off by a decrepit piano and a vaguely Japanese-style standing screen to be utilized for desperately-needed storage. That left the basement's built-in bar which, sadly, never experienced loud and/or happy people swilling liquids -- instead it found itself pressed into use as storage space.

Not an affluent bunch, my clan, during my younger years. On the contrary, obsessive austerity was the family m.o. Clothes were picked up at cut-rate stores and passed down the line once outgrown (eventually winding up on my pudgy bod), and a fair amount of the furniture seemed to have been built by my father, with the notable exception of the living room sofa and armchairs, whose lives my mother extended through repeated patching and re-covering.

Many of the nicest items in the house were given by or inherited from relatives, including a sizeable portion of the Christmas decorations, which I think came by way of my Uncle Sam, the family's only representative of the Jewish tradition, who married into our gene pool and lived in Brooklyn with my Aunt Florrie in a townhouse that, for many years, functioned as my only exposure to an affluent lifestyle.

Despite the general threadbare living mode, we had a startling abundance of Christmas paraphernalia, including boxes and boxes of old, interesting German ornaments -- again, as far as I know, courtesy of Uncle Sam -- which contrasted nicely with the mass-produced stuff the family picked up over time. The decorations spent most of the year in the second-floor crawlspace, surviving summers that essentially transformed the storage tunnel into a solar oven, miraculously making it from one Christmas to the next with most casualties occurring once they were actually out of the boxes and on the tree.

The holiday season began slowly in those years, not at the now customary mid-November creep/6 a.m. day-after-Thanksgiving gallop. Halloween passed by. A few leisurely weeks of candy-consumption later Thanksgiving showed up. From there, the procession of days constituted a slow gathering of steam until about two weeks before the 25th, when everyone abruptly seemed to wake up to the alarming fact that Christmas lay 14 short days off. Which unleased pure pandemonium. Enjoyable pandemonium, at least from my perspective. Darkness fell earlier and earlier, until one evening found my father outside stringing up lights in the cold December air. Somewhere around the middle of the month, someone picked up a tree and the living room became centered around something other than TV. The tree wound up in front of the living room window, the better to show off its soon-to-be-excessively-tinseled splendor to the neighborhood. Old, worn boxes materialized around it, producing far too many ornaments. Festive Christmas candles and other assorted tchochkies (or is it chotchkies?) appeared around the living and dining rooms, along with glass bowls of sour balls, ribbon candy and peanut brittle, pandering to the family's eternal sugar jones. The household record player alternated Christmas carols hooted by Bing Crosby with Christmas carols performed on bells, chimes and the occasional overly-fruity Hammond organ. And the teeny manger scene surfaced, materializing on the top tier of the thigh-high dad-made bookshelf by the front stairway. Minus the baby Jesus, of course. He snuck in during the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning.

The manger scene: another interesting element of our Christmas season. Foreign-made, I think, nicely crafted and painted, nothing cheesy about it, except arguably its music-box component, tucked away underneath which tinkled out "Away In A Manger" whenever someone cranked the bugger up. Which brings up the word 'manger.' When did everyone begin substituting the word 'cresh' for 'manger'? Sometime during the last 10 or 15 years a consensus was reached behind my back, manifesting suddenly enough that it felt like a kind of mysterious telepathic programming, as if it were the will of Landru, leaving me out of the loop. Not that it matters. Just seems strange.

As Christmas slouched closer and the air in the house grew tangy with the scent of sacrificial pine tree, homes all over town found themselves abruptly adorned with strings of lights and electric candelabras and glowing plastic figures of Santa and reindeer and candy canes and snowmen and solemn Jewish couples with babies named Jesus. Several blocks up Jerusalem Avenue (I am not making that name up) from our street, in the shadow of the Southern State Parkway overpass, the annual Christmas tree market got underway. I actually tried working there once, maybe during my 9th or 10th year. Man, I hated that. I remember standing out in a heavy snowfall one Saturday morning, dragging trees to buyers' cars in the hopes they'd tip me well enough to make the suffering worth it -- they didn't, it wasn't -- and I remember looking up into the sky, thick, white flakes swirling down around me, my hands aching with cold, ears hurting, snow collecting in my collar. I asked myself what I was doing there, couldn't come up with a good enough answer, came to my senses, went home to sit by our tree -- benignly lit up, massively overdecorated -- where I watched Saturday morning television dreck on our console TV and ate a bowl of sugar frosted chocolate bombs. Much better.

At some point, someone -- maybe the local weekly newspaper, Merrick Life -- began sponsoring a, er, front door contest, motivating homeowners to do up their front entrances as creatively -- elaborate wreaths and light arrangements; large, disturbingly happy Santa faces; outsized simulations of gift wrapping -- as they could, tossing a further point of concentrated color and light into the mix. I liked all this, actually. Still do.

And then, of course, the radio pumped an increasing amount of Christmas music into the house, advertising flyers featuring SALES, SALES, SALES slithered through the mail slot, and a growing avalanche of Christmas imagery/music poured into the living room via the idiot box. Until Christmas eve, when one of the local New York City stations -- channel 11, maybe -- broadcast a yule log burning in a fireplace all evening long, and things quieted down.

In my younger years, no one in the family attended midnight mass. My father was one of the ushers at the 8 a.m. service, we customarily ended up there by default. That meant I would get shunted off to bed sometime before midnight, when the parental work crew finished the last-minute wrapping and staging of gifts. Considering the heap of presents that awaited come Christmas morning, I can only assume they'd been stashed off-premises in the days beforehand. As I've already laid out, the house was modest in size, drastically lacking in storage space. There not only weren't many hidey-holes I didn't track down in the pre-Christmas days, there just weren't many effective spots of concealment, certainly none of any real cubic-footage. It was enough to make one believe in overweight pixies in garish outfits using animal slave labor to transport Christmas giftage.

Somewhere between my 10th and 12th years -- between the time my mother moved out of the conjugal bedroom into separate quarters and my eldest brother went into the Coast Guard -- tradition changed. Midnight mass became part of the mix. Prior to that, I would rise around 4 or 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, my pudgy body agitated from more anticipation than one little nervous system could keep anesthetized with sleep. I would stumble quietly downstairs, crank up the lights on the tree and sit scoping out the display of presents, the world outside and the house around me silent and still. Just me, a pile of gifts, and an overactive brain riffling through thousands of possibilities for what might be lurking under all that wrapping.

Actually unwrapping anything would result in me catching absolute hell when the parental units woke up. Likewise for anything like playing music or charging up the TV, the single difference being that hell would arrive sooner. My only option was the only option: me sitting alone, waiting until the day commenced and we went to church or ate breakfast or whatever the hell we did in any given year before the gift-opening ritual.

I suspect most families have their version of holiday rituals. I sure as hell hope they do. I'd hate to think mine was the only one -- trapped in slightly goofy behavior patterns, triggered when the daylight grew short and the yearly leftover-turkey assault started up. Some of the rituals were more general in form and timing, others more specific, more rigid. Case in point: the unwrapping of presents.

In the years when 8 a.m. mass was the rule, the present opening waited until later in the morning, until my parents had fortified themselves with a meal before stumbling, sleep-deprived, into the rest of the day. This, of course, was pure torture for me. In later years, as early mass blessedly became a distant memory, the unwrapping hour grew a bit more flexible, though still forbidden until after a round of morning chow and caffeine. It was during those mornings that I learned the delicate art of hovering -- never actually hanging over the person(s) to whom one is beaming psychic commands (UNWRAP PRESENTS! UNWRAP PRESENTS!), but never truly disappearing from sight. Never nagging, but always present. Always somewhere nearby. Waiting.

Inevitably, my relentless mental assault wore them down. Chairs got pushed back from the kitchen table, dishes went into the sink, people moved toward the living room. All members of the family materialized as if beamed in -- focused, intent, making little conversation.

The old man presided over the ceremony, taking a seat near ground zero. The rest of us found a chair or patch of rug. Homage was paid to the household's unofficial 11th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Throw Out Used Wrapping Paper) with a centrally-placed cardboard carton, The Patriarch then parceled out the first round of stuff. Everyone received a present, everyone opened their present, appropriate noises/comments/silences. Another round followed that. Then another. If, between any round, someone needed to get up -- telephone call, potty break, numb butt -- the proceedings were briefly put on hold. Briefly. With the person's return, action recommenced until every gift had been handed out. In my memory, I see the post-gift-ritual living room looking like a bomb had landed on it, like someone had broken open a monstrous piñata, leaving the area littered with debris. Not, I suspect, the actual scene. My mother may have been a packrat, the house may have been bulging with accumulated STUFF, but everything had its place, and that was the general state of things, even in the wake of a gift frenzy.

After that, everyone else in the family took off to whatever responsibilities awaited. For my parents, that usually meant Christmas dinner prep. For my brothers, well, who knows. My oldest brother had eight years on me, so he was out of the mix as soon as he could manage it. Terry, the middle brother, had six years on me -- he took the same path. They returned during the holidays from the Coast Guard/college, respectively, sometimes with company -- sweethearts or friends far from home. And when my father's mother was alive -- the only grandparent to make it to my epoch -- she usually took the train out from Brooklyn, often bringing a bakery cake to contribute to the dinner.

So for a while -- two, three hours -- I was left to entertain myself. Which generally meant remaining in the living room to survey the wreckage and wring some fun out of it. Which I sometimes found surprisingly hard to do. My parents, bless their hearts, usually managed to shower me with a fair amount of toys, though rarely toys I might have asked for, so I found myself in the odd position of abundance, but usually not the abundance I would have chosen had I been able to choose. Which created the classic picture of material plenty creating little joy. (D'OH!) And when I occasionally managed to entertain myself with something I'd been given, my parents often regretted it as the proceedings had a tendency to become disorderly and raucous. I'm remembering rubber tipped darts flying around the household, I'm remembering plastic balls hurled at stacked-up, soon-to-be-wildly-airborne plastic Yogi Bears -- all Christmas presents, all items I'm sure my parents quickly regretted. Interestingly, what seemed to work the best for all concerned were books -- fiction, nonfiction, comic books; didn't matter. I loved reading, my parents probably loved the silence.

I'm not sure why I wasn't consulted re: potential gifts. The one time I remember trying to ask for something, I did so via a letter to Santa Claus, probably around my seventh year. The family had had two kittens -- Puss and Boots -- both of whom checked out early, one from sickness, one under the wheels of the family car. I mourned their passings, dealing with it by writing Santa to ask for another kitten. My parents took the completed letter, assuring me they'd funnel it on the appropriate party. Come Christmas morning, I found a stuffed pussycat under the tree. A little pink stuffed kitty. A nice thought, but not what I was looking for, and the first step in my disillusionment re: The Fat Man.

So I killed time between the gift orgy and dinner. Once in a while I'd go bother a neighbor kid, but usually I kept to myself, and the times I wound up with something good to read were the best times.

The holiday dinners -- Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter -- were the high points of the family year, I think. My mother -- not normally an inspiring cook, I suspect because she loathed being trapped in the housewife thing, with its repetitive, low-status, mind-numbing duties -- threw together excellent feeds, meals I remember to this day with an automatic drool-response. And the combination of the staggering expanse of excellent food and guests brought out the best in the family. Hilarious conversation, exchanges that burst into one-liner fests, abundant laughter, good cheer. Times that stand out in my memory as genuine fun, times when I saw the best aspects of my family. Rich memories, memories that make me smile.

Here in Spain, it is often the custom to linger over a meal, drawing out the time together with conversation and long, relaxed eating/drinking. The time after the meal proper when the diners relax and enjoy being with other is called sobremesa -- literally, over table. It reminds me of the way holiday dinners in our home lingered on, through all the various courses, the second and third rounds, the dessert and beyond. Just sitting, enjoying. When I think back on it, that to me best embodied the holidays -- time together when we could, however tense and fractious our life in general may have been, create some fun together. Fun -- often a rare commodity in our family, or at least that's how it stands in my memory. Except during the holidays.

[continued in next entry]

rws 1:50 PM [+]

Sunday, December 15, 2002

A Non-Gentile Night Before Christmas (Boston Style):

EREV CHRISTMAS (Christmas Eve) -- by Bruce Marcus
and Lori Factor

‘Twas the night before Christmas and we, being Jews,
My girlfriend and me -- we had nothing to do.
The gentiles were home, hanging stockings with care,
Secure in their knowledge that St. Nick would be there.
But for us, once the Hanukkah candles burned down,
There was nothing but boredom all over the town.

The malls and the theaters were all closed up tight,
There weren't any concerts to go to that night.
A dance would have saved us, some ballroom or swing,
But we searched through the papers -- there wasn't a thing.

Outside the window sat two feet of snow;
With the wind-chill, they said it was fifteen below.
And while I then sat on my tuchus to brood,
My sweetie saved the night, calling out "CHINESE FOOD!"

So we ran to the closet, grabbed hats, mitts and boots
To cover our heads and our hands and our foots.
We pulled on our jackets, all puffy with down,
And ran for the T, bound for old Chinatown.

The train, nearly empty, rolled through the stops,
While visions of wontons danced through our kopfs.
We hopped off at Park Street, the Common was bright
with fresh-fallen snow and the trees strung with lights,

Then crept through "The Zone" with its bums and its thugs
And entrepreneurs selling ladies and drugs.
At last we reached Chinatown and rushed through the gates,
Past bakeries, past markets, past shops and cafes,

In search of a restaurant: "Which one? Let's decide!"
We chose "Hunan Chozer" and ventured inside.
Around us sat other Jews, their platters piled high
With the finest of foods that their money could buy.

There was roast duck and fried squid (sweet, sour and spiced),
Dried kosher beef and mixed veggies, lo mein and fried rice,
Whole fish and moo shi and "shrimp" chow mee foon,
And General Gau's chicken and ma po tofu.

When at last we decided and the waiter did call,
We said: "Skip the menu!" and ordered it all.
And when in due time the food was all made,
It came to the table in a sort of parade.

Before us sat dim sum, spare ribs and egg rolls,
And four different soups in four different huge bowls.
The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild,
And higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled.

And while this went on, we became aware
Every diner around us had started to stare.
Their jaws hanging open, they looked on unblinking,
Some dropped their teacups, some drooled without thinking.

So much piled up, one dish after another,
My girlfriend and I couldn't see one another.
Now we sat there, we two, without proper utensils,
While they handed us something that looked like two pencils.

We poked and we jabbed till our fingers were sore
And half of our dinner wound up on the floor.
We tried -- how we tried! -- but, and truth to tell,
Ten long minutes later and still hungry as well,

We swallowed our pride, feeling vaguely like dorks,
And called to our waiter to bring us two forks.
We fressed and we feasted, we slurped and we munched,
We noshed and we supped on breakfast and lunch.

We ate till we couldn't and drank down our teas
And barely had room for our fortune cookies.
But my fortune was perfect, it summed up the mood
Saying, "Even if it was kosher, it was real Chinese food!"
And my sweetie -- well, she got a true winner.
Hers said, "Your companion will pay for the dinner."

Our bellies were full and at last it was time
To travel back home and write some bad rhyme
Of our Chinatown trek (and to privately speak
About trying to refine our chopstick technique).

The MSG spun round and round in our heads,
As we tripped and we laughed and gaily we said,
As we carried our leftovers home through the night,
"Good Yom Tov to all, and to all a good night!"

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bruce Marcus is a storyteller in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Lori Factor works at the Community Action Agency in
Somerville, Massachusetts.
'Erev Christmas' originally appeared in the Boston Globe on
December 24, 1993.

rws 1:29 PM [+]

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Science blazes new trails in the quest to improve the quality of life on planet Earth:

Scientists search for perfect pizza
December 14, 2002

COMPUTERISED scanners and "fuzzy logic" software have been harnessed by food scientists to yield the mathematically perfect pizza.

The pizza of the future will have sauce spread evenly and lushly across its base and its mushrooms, ham, sweetcorn and other toppings will be positioned with millimetric accuracy, thanks to the culinary efforts of Sun Da-Wen and Tadhg Brosnan at Ireland's University College, Dublin.

The breakthrough was derived from digital snapshots of 25 pizzas which were then broken down and transformed into a mathematical formula to define the optimal pizza's base area, spatial ratio between toppings and circularity.

The study is reported in next Saturday's New Scientist. It is published in full in a specialist publication, Journal of Food Engineering.

The findings should be useful for ensuring quality control in pizza factories, enabling cameras to instantly pick out a pie with sparse toppings or which is skimpy or patchy on sauce.

Agence France-Presse

**************

See that? Nice people in clean white coats are working day and night to bring us a wonderful existence. Life is good, isn't it?

Or is it? Dear God, what am I going on about? Maybe things aren't quite as bright and hopeful as I thought. After all, it's mid-December -- Christmas is galloping relentlessly in our direction. Everyone -- that's right, even you, buster -- is feeling the stress of all that holiday cheer. Peanut brittle, greeting cards, eggnog, office parties, people in red suits (who are NOWHERE NEAR FAT ENOUGH to be the genuine Christmas fat man) standing on city corners ringing little teeny bells for hours and hours on end trying to weasel your hard-earned pocket change out of your pockets into that goddam kettle/tripod thingie they've got. Stores so packed with crazed gift-shoppers that you have to elbow them out of your way so you can wrap your cold, chapped hands around that perfect gift for, er, Auntie Em. Heck, who am I kidding? Who even gets close enough to the display shelves that they can actually apply the elbow to an inviting nearby rib cage? Who even actually figures out what to buy the deadbeats who people our miserable lives? No one knows what to get anyone, so they wind up with far too many lameass gifts in a desperate attempt to compensate for crippling feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

Relax. Breathe. Take a look at Dave Barry's 2002 Gift Guide, where you'll find a farkin' plethora of brilliant gift ideas.

Then take a moment to put things in perspective. You think you have problems? Right now I've got channel 3 from Madrid playing in the background, and as I write this Lex Luther has hoodwinked Superman into opening up a lead-lined chest that contains a huge chunk of kryptonite (the only known substance that can weaken and kill the Man of Steel!) mounted on a huge gold chain, just like vintage '70s pimp apparel imported directly from the planet Krypton (before its untimely complete and utter destruction). And as if that weren't bad enough, Lex Luther is wearing a leisure suit with alarmingly wide lapels. And both he and Superman are talking in Spanish!

See what I mean? How bad can your life be? No evil genius is going to force you to wear cheap-looking extraterrestrial pimp gear.

What's that, Mr./Ms. Whiner? Still not convinced? Right, well, in that case get a load of the following news article. Then get down on your knees and give thanks for your boring, ordinary life with its boring, ordinary sources of holiday stress:

Out-Of-Control Holiday Revelers Deck Shit Out Of Area Halls

AMES, IA -- Holiday celebrations took an extreme turn Friday evening as an unruly mob of out-of-control holiday revelers observed the shit out of the Christmas season, violently decking 21 area halls.

According to police reports, at approximately 9 p.m., after consuming large quantities of 60-proof egg nog, the frenzied throng of 40 to 50 revelers broke into the home of resident Milton Krajcek, aggressively decking his halls with wreaths, garlands, ribbons, ceramic nativity scenes, tree ornaments, mistletoe, candy canes, and "shitloads" of boughs of holly.

Once their supplies were exhausted, the crazed merrymakers rode in pickup trucks to a local ShopKo outlet to restock, only to return and continue decking the already overburdened halls.

"I begged them to stop," Krajcek said, "but they wouldn't until every last inch of my halls was decked beyond all recognition."

Not satisfied with forcibly festooning Krajcek's halls, the slavering, nightmarishly cheerful horde then turned to those of other locals, posing as holiday carolers to lure residents to their doors.

"I heard an ancient yuletide carol coming from the front porch," said Millicent Slopes, 53, "and was pretty worried because they were really tolling the hell out of it. I decided to acknowledge them so that maybe they would leave, but as soon as I opened the door, they poured into the house and went batshit on the halls. I mean, look at my halls! I can barely squeeze through there, such was the force and vigor of their decking."

"It was horrible," said Francine Eppard, whose halls were also brutally decorated. "There was tinsel everywhere."

Local police officials are still searching for the binge revelers. If caught, they will be charged with breaking-and-entering, reckless and wanton decoration, second-degree festivity, and willful construction of toyland towns around eleven Christmas trees.

"The scum who did this will pay," police chief Carl Torvaldsen said. "No punishment could be too severe for perpetrators of this kind of shameful, senseless decking."

The wanted celebrants are described as inebriated suburbanites clad in gay apparel which they allegedly "donned the living fuck out of," according to Torvaldsen. Added the police chief: "We have reason to believe they may be armed and extremely joyous."

Until the revelers are captured, Torvaldsen warned homeowners not to open their doors for carolers, strongly advising that nuts and cocoa instead be lowered from an upstairs window or pushed through a mail slot.

rws 3:05 PM [+]

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Yesterday, on arriving back here after the movie, I saw that the wall across the street remained free of posters – the first and only time that's been the case for a prolonged period of time in the 16 or 17 months I've had this piso. (And when I say "free," I'm ignoring the splotches of white, the remnants of posters past left in the wake of the city crew's last cleaning fit, bits of white that pepper the surface of the wall.) A small splash of decoration had materialized, however – a clothes hanger, hooked to a hollow in the wall's surface, from which, secured at one end by two clothes pins, hung a kitchen towel. Your garden variety kitchen hand towel, nothing fancy or distinctive about it. A bit faded from use, bearing your standard design of homey images and a few words, most of its text composed of blocks of the word "Apples," two columns wide, six words deep, along with images of tea kettles, herbs, wooden spoons, text and graphics all fitting neatly together. Hanging on the wall, like a teensy, lonely, particularly ineffectual and undistinctive tapestry, covering less than a square foot of surface. Completely dwarfed by the wall's long expanse.

I stood staring, a silly smile pasted on my face at the thought that not only had someone gotten the idea for this odd bit of installation art but they'd actually taken the time to put the bugger together. A nicely dressed 30-something woman walked by, possibly on her way home from work, not seeing the hand towel until she drew even with it. For the briefest instant, she stopped, eyes fastened first on the towel/clothes hanger, then taking in the mostly gray, posterless wall, then jerking back to the towel -- her body moving in classic double-take style -- completely, deeply baffled by what she saw, to judge by her expression. The she ignored it, forward motion immediately resuming as her gears re-engaged, high-heeled feed moving on with fast, resolute steps, herself never looking back.

When I stepped out of the building this morning, the clothes hanger/hand towel were gone, the wall bare. On my return from class a short time ago, the first of block of posters had appeared, the normal cycle of local life finally reasserting itself.


rws 3:23 PM [+]

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Over at McSweeneys, where they manage to both publish loads of good writing and maintain an extremely goofy sense of humor, they continue to publish a series of letters to the President, an ongoing project which will actually at some point be printed out and delivered to the White House. The letters cut across a wide spectrum of style, content, and intent. Two examples follow:

Dear Mr. President,

If you're backing out of a really busy parking lot, be sure to check your rear-view mirror, or you might end up pinning a fat man against a fence.

Every year at Christmas I worry that our chimney is going to choke to death on Santa.

My mother always said she wanted me to grow up with big healthy fingers. I never run from a button.

Sincerely,
Gretchen Valder

- - - -

Dear Mr. President,

I am the submissions editor at the Texas International Law Journal. I help choose which articles we publish. Recently, authors have been saying to me things like, "Texas International Law Journal? I thought Texans didn't believe in international law!"

They think it's funny, but it's really bad for business.

Sincerely,
Brannon Andrews


The entire current installment, along with a brief explanation of the project, can be found here. Easily worth investigating. In fact, this being the season of giving, you should go to McSweeney's online store and give them some money, in return for which they'll send you some seriously quirky material.

***********************

The clouds that kept rain falling on Madrid for a couple of days slowly gave way this morning, finally yielding to skies of deep, dramatic blue and abundant sunlight. A spectacular day. Later in the afternoon I headed over to Princesa once more to take in a film, this time Hable Con Ella, the latest by Pedro Almodóvar, released in Spain earlier this year. I have no idea if it's made the rounds in the States yet, but should it find its way to a theater near you, make the time to see it. We're talking about a seriously accomplished piece of work here, and unlike any film you'll see this year.

Afterward, outside, afternoon had given way to early evening, the daylight slowly fading. I crossed the Princesa courtyard toward the main drag. A line of American fast food dumps stand shoulder to shoulder there between the theater and the street, and as I rounded the corner of the last one, a 20-something guy stood by a trash can -- clearly not a hrinker or someone to be wary of, more like someone suddenly down on his luck. A bit unkempt, with a beard, long hair, wearing a tired hooded cold weather coat, strapped into a full-size, tightly-stuffed backpack. He asked for money, saying he hadn't had anything to eat. I paused and asked him if he would actually use the money for something to eat or drink. He said yes and, pointing into the fast-food joint, said that right at that moment what he wanted most was a hot cup of café con leche. It was clear he meant it, so I went inside and took the three or four minutes it took to get on line, order, pick up and pay, bringing a large, hot cup of joe out to the guy who waited patiently in the Princesa plaza with his backpack. I handed it off, he accepted it like one who'd unexpectedly been given something of value, we exchanged well-wishes, I went on my way. Down the block at la Plaza de España, the sun was long out of sight, the western sky draped in clouds, gray except the ones nearest the horizon, bright red. Off to the south, Grand Vía extended away, lined with tall, elegant white buildings, Christmas decorations arching across the street and shining softly in the falling evening.

rws 4:37 PM [+]

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Last night, as I lay in bed alternately studying class notes and reading the second Harry Potter novel in Spanish (for me, far better than the movie), a couple of now familiar sounds started up -- those of (a) a generator and (b) spraying water, indicating that a city crew had shown up to clear the posters off the wall across the street, despite the heavy rainfall. They appear in a pumping truck, park it on la Calle de Pelayo, toss a few bright orange cones around the vehicle to make it look official – which means local traffic is bollocksed for the duration of the job, as the streets are barely wide enough for one vehicle – get out a spraying unit, hook it up to the truck's tank, and begin directing pressurized water at the yards of posters. The noise lasted an hour or so, maybe a bit more. When I left for class this morning, the wall stood free of commercial messages. The paint that's underlain the posters has, over time, with the steady cycle of posters/spraying&scraping, grown a bit faint, so that the wall itself is becoming more visible with each workover. It's a strange wall – a combo of bricks, plaster and large concrete blocks. Kind of an ad hoc affair as far as building materials, though it's solid enough.

I confess I'm glad it doesn't remain in its quasi-virginal state very long, though as of this evening no poster-pasters have been around to start the next leg of the cycle. Probably due to the rain, which commenced again after a few dry hours this morning and a brief, flirtatious appearance by the sun just before midday.

Spanish classes have become an unpredictable, sometimes hilarious affair with the current crop of young woman sitting around the classroom table, specifically the four German women, whose ongoing free-form patter/conversation flows from Spanish to German and back to Spanish again as they feel like it, and they've taken to giving the instructor for the class's second half-- a bright, interesting, good-humored 30-something woman named Raquel -- as much shit as they can, most of it in the spirit of provoking comedy. Which Raquel, to her credit, generally flows with, often handing out as good as she gets. And as might be anticipated in a room full of young women, there is at times a fair amount of complaining/joking about men, along with the occasional bout of out and out male bashing, especially from the youngest of the lot, a 17-year-old who makes a point of directing some of it at me, the lone representative of the other gender.

For the record, I am not a warrior in the imaginary conflict between the sexes that some folks get into. We're all in this together, and I'm not going to buy into the scapegoating of males (or get worked up about someone getting off on male-bashing) any more than I'm going to engage in the scapegoating of females. Life's too short.

Know what I mean?

*****************************

To get an eyeful of some recent spectacular entries from the Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive, go here, here and here.


rws 1:40 PM [+]

Local newspaper headline from last Thursday: "The long weekend will bring traffic jams and bad weather." A safe prediction, given that half the city tried to bolt at more or less the same time. Nasty weather never arrived, though, at least in Madrid. Until yesterday. The day dawned overcast, with a damp chill in the air. In class, Patricia (nuestra profesora durante la primara mitad) fretted about whether the weather report had indicated that the clouds would actually start behaving badly at some point. Mid-afternoon they started.

Rain fell into the evening, then into the night. A strange sight, considering that most of the Madrid's calendar year is rain-free. Looks kind of like London when it rains here, except for all the, er, Spaniards. And all Spanish-language signage everywhere. And some of the architecture. Apart from that, the city looks like surprisingly like London in the rain.

One other difference, now that I think about it: far fewer people use umbrellas here than in London. Here they just seem to carry on with whatever they're doing, getting wetter and wetter. The younger folks hunch up their shoulders, the older ones simply trudge along. Resigned. I suppose if one lived through any part of the Franco years, stoicism may come easily. (Or resignation.)

Took myself to a movie at a 9-screen theater up the hill from la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, to the first showing of the day. One of the theaters that show foreign films in the original voice, subtitled in Spanish. Watched the latest Woody Allen film, "Hollywood Ending" (called "Un Final Made In Hollywood" here -- why they mix Spanish and English like that I couldn't tell you, but there there it is). Good film -- great story, funny, fine acting, an inspired twist at the end. Strong stuff, really (though I will confess it's been a while since I believed him as the guy who gets the young, beautiful woman -- this is why "Sweet and Lowdown" worked so well for me: he gave the male lead to someone else, to a fine actor who could pull it off). Afterward, making my way down the hill in the rain toward Sol, I walked behind a 20-something couple, arms around each other, talking as they went. A small, white-haired, bent-over elderly gentleman approached from the other direction -- no umbrella, walking quickly, expression a tad goofy. As he neared the couple, he pulled something from a pocket, began talking into it -- no different from the rest of Spain's cellphone-obsessed population. When he passed, I could see he was talking into a harmonica, not a cellphone. The young woman in front of me also noticed and began cracking up. Walking in the rain with her guy, her lovely laugh rising into the falling evening.

A sweet moment.

rws 12:06 AM [+]

Sunday, December 08, 2002

GoogObits ("Obituaries and essays augmented by Google seaches. There is a lot to learn from the dead.") pays tribute in its most recent entry to Mal Waldron, the pianist, composer and arranger who passed away a week ago in Brussels.

An excerpt:

Mr. Waldron's long career as a pianist and arranger included leading his own bands around the world. For much of the last four decades he played and lived mostly in Europe, but his recordings with companions like Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Steve Lacy kept his ideas in the ears of American fans, especially other musicians.

Listening to Mr. Waldron was a fascinatingly dry, dark pleasure. He belonged to no particular school or style, and his curt piano style reflected that outsider status. He repeated short motifs endlessly, as if meaning to grind them into the keyboard; a stylistic descendant of Thelonious Monk, he pared down Monk's already quite cropped melodic lines to percussive nubs. He focused his attention toward the lower half of the keyboard, and completely avoided sentimentality.

Toward the end of his life he had a soft, muffled keyboard sound, almost as if he were playing parlor music — but a kind of parlor music infused with bebop harmony and rhythm.


GoogObits continues to be a great read.

**************************************

From the Someone-Has-Too-Much-Time-On-Their-Hands Department:

If a Borg cube were made of pennies....

rws 11:37 PM [+]

Yesterday I began catching up on the heap of articles on (a) technology and (b) the arts that the N.Y. Times is kind enough to send my way in installments every farkin' day. In the process I happened across an article on blogging by Lisa Guernsey – its unfortunate, stereotype-heavy theme: gender differences in blogging. Today, in nosing around the blogs at Salon.com (one of the two places this journal is maintained), I discovered that some members of the Salon blogging community have been on that article like a cheap suit -- for instance, Secular Blasphemy and its companion-blog-about-blogging Blasphemous Metablogging, the Reverse Cowgirl's Blog, and Radio Free Blogistan. Thoughtful and/or entertaining, all, with the comments on their comments also worth a gander.

Ms. Guernsey, it turns out, also maintains a blog at Salon, where she made some good-natured comments about the community's opinions. Take a look at the comments to that entry, where the community responded yet again with feedback that is by turns bluntly opinionated, evenhanded and extremely funny.

Interesting reading.

*********************

One more beautiful day here, cool with sunlight dipping down into the narrow streets. Walked back from lunch along la Calle de Hortaleza, one of this barrio's main drags, sticking to the sunny side of the street, which sent me under a balcón where a 20-something guy sat, legs hanging down through the metal grill, feet swinging back and forth a bit in the air. Next to him crouched a pure white cat, head thrust out between the grill, eyes half-closed, cat and human both watching the pedestrian traffic passing below, soaking up the December sunlight.

Later in the afternoon, took myself to see a film at Princesa, the complex of buildings near la Plaza de España that houses, among other things, four different multi-screen movie theaters that feature foreign films in the original language with Spanish subtitles. Got my ticket, grabbed a cheatsheet (a nice part of the filmgoing thing here: the theaters generally supply handouts for each feature that include a story summary, cast list/previous credits rundown, interview with the filmmaker, etc.), found a seat in the right sala. Began reading up on the film (8 Women) as Hollywood Nights by Bob Seger played on the sound system, realized I was in a Spanish theater, waiting on a French film, American music playing loudly in the background.

It's hard not to love a life that includes moments like that.

rws 3:10 PM [+]

Saturday, December 07, 2002

One of the things I've been enjoying these last few days is seeing what's changed and what appears to have remained the same since my last period of time here. The wall across the street, for example, is always in a state of change and in that way hasn't changed much. Except that the postering hasn't been quite as intense as in the past. Sections of the wall remain uncovered, the fever to keep it completely slathered with posters seems to have abated a bit. That right there is a notable shift.

The wall encloses an empty lot, remarkable in itself considering the population density of this barrio. In the past, the gate located at one end of the lot remained closed and locked. A pallet or two of neatly-piled bricks lay near one wall, a car usually sat parked just within the gate. The lot contains two large sumac trees which provide shade and color in the warm weather, falling leaves in the autumn. The abutting buildings are tan-colored, several stories high, looking down into this plot of undeveloped land. A nice bit of space to have in the middle of the barrio's urban life. At some point during the last four months, one of the two halves of the gate disappeared, leaving the lot open to any and all who cared to wander in. The pallets of bricks are gone, the walls of the surrounding buildings have been graffiti-ized (though, fortunately, no higher than ground level). Occasionally, a drunk wanders in to take a whiz in a corner. Other vehicles now park in there, though no more than one at a time since they're usually left at the entrance, blocking the way for any other vehicles. On the other hand, the sumacs remain, a graceful visual accent I appreciate from my location, one that marks the constant flow of the seasons.

Things change, even those that appear to remain the same.

Around the block from the lot, on the next street over, in amid the high-fashion shoe stores and shops dealing in leather coats and bags, a small sandwich shop I patronize has had a change in ownership. To be more accurate, it's not actually a sandwich shop – they make bocadillos, the local version of subs/heroes, only made on baguetes. The tastiest bocadillos I've found in Madrid. Under the old proprietors, a mother/son team, the sandwiches were excellent but the atmosphere in the place leaned toward the, well, depressing. The TV in the front room, where the small bar/counter is, ran constantly, generally playing game shows. Stacks of supplies almost always sat by the wall under the TV. The back room – half again as large as the small front room, with another television but without windows or wall adornments – felt like a clean, boring dungeon fitted out with tables and chairs.

The current owners appear to be a 30-something couple. The menu remains the same, but the walls are now covered with artwork, mostly pencil drawings of horses along with three or four photos of folks, a watercolor of a small mountain village, and two mirrors advertising liquid refreshment over on the wall near the TV, one for Trina (an intensely sweetened orange drink) that includes a clock and one for Bailey's. A step up, all that, from the previous adonrments, which tended toward the cheerfully tacky, including one truly cheesy small painting of a naked, brown-skinned woman lounging happily and provocatively on a tropical beach.

I picked up two bocadillos when I stopped in three nights back, one chicken, one tortilla with pimiento. Both tasty.

It's a beautiful, sunny Saturday in Madrid, temperature in the 40s F. Many shops closed for the day at 2 p.m., 30 minutes ago, so that the midday activity has downshifted a bit. The streets have become a bit more sedate, the flow of people more relaxed as they window-shop or stand in the plaza (la Plaza de Chueca, just down the block from here) drinking a coffee or a beer, conversing or listening to a band that hit the plaza about ten minutes ago, playing languid, dramatic Mexican numbers.

A good way to pass a long holiday weekend.

rws 8:42 AM [+]

Friday, December 06, 2002

Being that today's a holiday here, there was some partying in the neighborhood streets last night. Good-natured, even polite partying, people roaming happily around, moving from one night spot to another. I stayed in, using the start of the long weekend as an opportunity to begin catching up on sleep, meaning the bedside light went off around 1:30 a.m. Voices of revelers woke me from time to time, the last instance happening around 6:20, after which quiet reigned until the sound of the street-cleaning crews and the first people making their slow way out into the morning light around 9. Turned over, went back to sleep, where I had strange dreams of journeys by plane, of trying unsuccessfully to give information re: flights/airlines to someone seeking it, and of singing Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire" with a male I don't know (and a decent rendition it was, except that for some reason we sang the lyrics to "Ring of Fire" to the tune of another Cash classic, "I Walk The Line"). In that last dream, I knew something about the song was off kilter but couldn't figure out what until we were almost done, at which point I woke up, my teeny brain rattling blearily around in my skull.

Got myself up around 11, did the a.m. shower/shave bit, wandered outside into a beautiful morning -- yesterday's hint of winter having given way to the mild, sunlit deal of Tuesday and Wednesday. The streets remained relatively quiet, 11:30 still a bit early for un día de fiesta in Madrid. Still, a surprising number of shops were open and doing business.

Yesterday in school, we were admonished to remember that everything would be closed today, which is the usual caution re: holidays in these parts. And maybe that's the case in other barrios. Around here, though, loads of people will be out enjoying themselves later in the day, and many businesses are geared to that -- the large supermarkets are closed, but the small neighborhood grocery shops are open. Restaurantes, cafeterías, bakeries (pastelerías), pharmacies (farmacias), some gift shops, even some footwear tiendas are up and running. (This neighborhood, for some reason, is heaving with shoe stores -- from the down and dirty to the high-priced/high-style -- and with shops dealing in high quality leather items (coats, jackets, bags). If only a fraction of them are open for biz, those shops will number more than the total you'll find in most districts on any given day.) Even Madrid Rock, a major independent record store, is open today, and I found myself drawn into it like an errant, slightly foggy iron filing to a gaudy magnet with a good beat.

Later: went to a film which entailed a walk through la Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, the very center of the city, by then crowded with people out enjoying the day and lines of cars looking for parking. Went intending to see a French film ("Eight Women"), arrived at the theater to find the film was no longer there, decided to see "Changing Lanes." When the lights went down, I discovered I'd instead been sold a ticket for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," a film I'd somehow managed to avoid during my months in the States. I had to cross the Atlantic to see the bugger (by mistake, no less). When I emerged from the theater just after 5:30, the day was just beginning to turn toward dusk, the sun out of view but still high enough to render the top floor of the taller buildings a quiet, glowing shade of rose. The sidewalks were packed with people -- groups of young folks, couples, families walking together -- the air nearly vibrating with the sound of a city filled with life. On my way back through Sol, I found myself where I'd first been smitten by this city, at nearly the same time of day. [See journal entry for 5 August, 2001.] Since I got here on Tuesday, the municipality has gotten Christmas lights up and they were ablaze, extending down the major avenues and pedestrian walkways that stretch away from the plaza like spokes on a huge wheel. It's a shot of energy, Sol, and I remained there for a while, soaking it up.

At some point, I waded through the crowds up into one of the pedestrian avenues where I discovered that someone, during my last few months in Vermont, had snuck a Ben & Jerry's into one of the storefronts. A Ben & Jerry's shop, dropped directly into the heart of Madrid, right across from the Hotel Europa, about 200 feet from la Plaza de La Puerta del Sol, where people swirled around the statue of the bear, the symbol of Madrid. A brand new shop, still clean and shiny, with the usual Ben & Jerry's sign shining brightly above the door and a young Latino couple standing out in front taking a photo of it. I've seen plenty of Ben & Jerry's shops -- hell, I have a Christmas postcard from those knuckleheads hanging on my refrigerator in Vermont, from back in the pre-ice-cream days when it was Ben, Jerry & Vinny (no, I'm not kidding) and they were debating starting a bagel business -- so I continued on my way, around the corner to an intersection of the next pedestrian way over, where el Corte Inglés buildings comprise three of the four corners and the building housing the main store is now aglow with a huge, eye-catching Christmas light display. So huge, so eye-catching that the river of pedestrians passing through swirled around in the intersection, movement nearly stopped by families with children taking in the display, cameras held aloft and working away.


120403-1.jpg

Up past el Cortes Inglés, foot traffic had grown so intense that I veered back to the avenue I'd started out on where I passed two musicians -- a heavyset, hairy yet balding violinist and a smaller guy sitting at synthesizer -- doing a pretty passable version of "Summer" from The Four Seasons, the synth providing a startlingly realistic imitation of an orchestra. I paused to listen, realizing as I did that I was standing just across from the corner of the hotel I stayed at during my first visit to Madrid.

Man, I love it here.

*******************

Addendum, for those who might be interested, some CDs picked up today at Madrid Rock:
José Mercé, "Del Amanecer" ("Of the Sunrise")
La Cabra Mecanica, "Vestidos de Domingo" ("Sunday Clothes")
Los Secretos, Grandes Éxitos Vols. I & II
Estopa, a reissue of their second disc "Más Destrangis" (I have no idea what Destrangis means) with additional tracks and a DVD with ten video clips and 7 tracks from their tour earlier this year)
The Dandy Warhols, "Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia"

rws 3:36 PM [+]

Thursday, December 05, 2002

Remember what I wrote in yesterday's numerous duplicate entries re: the mellowness here – the lack of people, the relative tranquility? Turns out that tomorrow is Constitution Day (el Día de la Constitutión), a national holiday. Which creates a long weekend. Many Madrileños have apparently undertaken to turn it into a long, long weekend. Hence the decreased number of people on the streets and in the Metro -- loads of folks have fled the city in advance of the actual holiday, creating a Madrid that feels more relaxed and leisurely than normal. I like it.

Class today also proved to be a bit more congenial, a bit more laid back. In part because at least two of the four young German women were out most of last night partying and apparently engaging in amative pastimes. They showed for class late, nicely mellow and sleepy.

I add that bit about the amative pastimes because the two women put a number of questions to our instructor for the second leg of the day's classes -- a bright, vivacious woman named María -- re: colloquial terms for amorous activity. Which led to the disclosure of a whole poopload of terminology that could come in handy for those in search of something to spice up their conversational Spanish. For instance, a normal term for having sex is hacer amor (to make love). A slang term for the same thing: echar un polvo (as in "Anoche mi novia y yo intentamos echar un polvo en mi coche, pero no hubo espacio suficiente para bajar mis pantalones y en lugar de eso fuimos al cine" – ("Last night my girlfriend and I tried to make love in my car, but there wasn't enough space to lower my pants so we went to the movies instead.") Another slang term for the same thing: Echar un kiki.

So. A nice day, one that started out feeling mild with the slightest edge of coolness, but as the day progressed, clouds began trading off with the sun and the temperature edged its way down. By late this afternoon, the day had become distinctly cool, and by early this evening, when I emerged from the day's first showing of the new Harry Potter thingie (in English with Spanish subtitles), a cold wind had sprung up, the mercury had dropped substantially.

And the Harry Potter film? Hmm. Well, the kids do a good job, as does Kenneth Branagh. (Man, a flying car would be fun. Y un buen lugar para echar un polvo.)

************************

Notes from the trip from Vermont to Madrid of a few days ago:

Sunday, December 1: Woke up way too early, as often happens on days in which I'll be traveling, way too early in this case being 3:30 a.m. Read for a bit, then turned over and mimicked sleep for an hour, hoping my body would give up and drift off into unconsciousness. No go, though it was nice to lay there like that for a while, knowing what was coming.

Got up around 6, finished packing, blahblahblah. Snow fell all morning. When I left the house, the temperature outside hovered around 15 F. (Aiiieeee!) Which actually felt invigorating. Kit, the capable and extremely responsible person who'll be living in the house while I'm gone, drove me in to Montpelier where the bus showed up a couple of minutes after I got there. I was out there in the snow alone, waiting -- as soon as the bus driver emerged and took my ticket a crowd of other travelers descended on the bus like December locusts. I copped a seat by a window, next to a college-age woman wearing headphones and doing homework from a Developmental Biology textbook.

Out on I-89, the bus worked its way up the long grade that stretches south from Montpelier, the Green Mountains rising into view to the west as we gained elevation, Vermont gradually presenting a long, sprawling view of its central range, its north-south axis, in a cold, somber show of early winter beauty.

[this piece in progress – more to come]


rws 3:35 PM [+]

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

Well, so far Madrid has not let me down. My first full day back was an extravaganza of sunlight, blue sky, temperatures in the low to mid-50s F. The kind of day that gets people shedding their cool weather gear, pouring out into the streets to soak up the light, the mild air.

I had lunch in a vegetarian restaurant around the corner from here, a place with good food but little in the way of windows and therefore light from the outside world. When I emerged from there the day was in full flower, and you could see its effect on the people passing by. It's hard to maintain a dark frame of mind or sour expression when the world around one insists on partying like that. Glorious sunlight, the kind that falls between the buildings into the narrow streets like a golden mist. Some folks had put their caged songbirds – canaries are exceedingly popular here – out on their balcones, and those sweet feathered buggers sang their hearts out.

I woke up late after a night that began the process of recouping sleep, something that had been a bit skimpy over the last month or so. Yesterday, after my arrival, I had an enormous lunch at a neighborhood restaurant, which included major quantities of liquids, so I was out of bed to empty the ballast at regular intervals during the nighttime hours. At one point, I woke up and rolled over, not realizing I'd moved to the edge of the bed in my sleep. So that before my teensy brain could register the change in my situation I'd rolled right off the mattress to the bedroom floor, the managed that particular move in this lifetime. It's a nice floor -- a parquet job, finished with a thick, nicely glossy finish -- but not the destination I'd intended for myself at 4 or so a.m. That had me cracking up for a few minutes. I am so glad this piso isn't fitted out with videocams.

When I finally opened my eyes to find the growing light of the day seeping tentatively in the bedroom windows, the hour was 8:20, not giving me a lot of time to shower/shave/etc. then drag my patoot to the language school to begin a few weeks worth of classes and get my flabby Spanish back into something approximating decent condition. Somehow I zipped through the morning routine, ‘cause I walked into the building that houses the school just as a nearby clock was tolling 9 a.m., even managing to collar a fine cup of espresso at a café near the school. (Real coffee! Real, full-bodied, aromatic, delicious European coffee! I pause here to give the Universe groveling thanks for simple but substantial pleasures.)

I hadn't made any prior arrangements with the school before showing up there this morning, so the three brothers who run the place met me with genuine smiling surprise, seeming sincerely glad to see my humble, half-awake self. Which felt just fine until my butt was planted in a classroom chair and I'd discovered that those three characters had once again condemned me to weeks of classes centered around the infinite uses and varieties of the subjunctive verb form, a form of slow torture that can wear one slowly down, resulting in a progressively confused, passive state in which the student hands over wads of euros to an increasingly prosperous school and devotes an inordinately large part of one's day trying to master a verb form that likely doesn't exist except as a mode of torture employed to break the will and spirit of unwitting furriners. [See journal entry for 23 July, 2002.] On top of which I found myself the only male in a group of four very young 20-something German women and a young, mighty serious 20-something Polish woman, along with la profesora, a smart, charming 20-something woman named Patricia, a few years older than the other females. Not that being the only male in a group of babes is a problem. On the contrary. It's more that the other students seemed at times to consider me an ancient, gray-haired fart – me being somewhere in the neighborhood of twice their age – a doddering old codger whose faculties are waning, particularly the higher processing abilities. If I'd been fully awake that might not have been a problem either. But since I was functioning in a bit of a post-travel, sleep-deprived haze, I think I reinforced the impression of limited mental capacities a few unfortunate times, something I will correct in the coming days as I catch up on shuteye and reassert control over this doddering, weakened mind and body.

During the course of the day -- school in the morning, lunch, a trip to the gym during the afternoon -- it became apparent that the city, at least today, didn't seem to be its normal crowded self. I saw far fewer people than normal using the Metro during my trips in various directions, cafes and restaurants were less crowded. Even here in this barrio, the street life has been quieter, more sedate, from the number of folks wandering around to the noise level, to the quantity of posters on the wall across the street ("Alice Cooper -- the Descent Into Dragonland Tour -- el 12 de Diciembre"; "HAY QUE VOLVER A EMPERZAR II – Artistas Unidas En Defensa De Las Mujeres Maltratadas – CD YA A La VENTA" [ONE HAS TO RETURN TO BEGIN II -- Artists United In Defense of Battered Women -- CD Now On Sale]; "PEARL JAM – Riot Act – Nuevo Disco"; "Los Secretos – Nuevo Disco: Solo Para Escuchar – 11 Nuevas Canciones – A La Venta Desde El 18 De Noviember" [The Secrets -- New CD: ‘Only For Listening' -- 11 New Songs -- On Sale from November 18th]). Life here right now, for some reason, is being conducted at a lower, more relaxed pitch. There's a long weekend coming up, I think, this one or the next one. That could conceivably have something to do with it. But I can't say for sure. I'll have to bother one of my Spanish acquaintances about it and see what they say.

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying the slightly mellow intro to my return.

******************

A quick note: you may have noticed this entry has been posted twice. It's due to some quirk in Blogger, possibly having to do with their Department of Redundancy Department. It's a bit goofy in that if I make changes to one of the duplicate entries the changes do not show up in its, er, twin. If I try to delete the duplicate entry, however, both entries disappear. Go figure.

I have hopes that this will be addressed and fixed soon.


rws 2:34 PM [+]

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

Hey! Hot damn! I made it! (As the Firesign Theater once put it, "I'm down! I'm grounded safe and sound! Trailing clouds of glory, I'm down!" Or, er, something like that.)

Man, that felt like a long haul. Mainly 'cause it was. And at the end of it all I find myself in Madrid, which is looking remarkably green, the product of a rainy autumn. When I stepped out of the arrival terminal at Barajas Airport this afternoon a few minutes shy of 2 o'clock, the sun shone brightly in a blue sky, the temperature hovered in the upper 40s. Down the access road that ran between the airport buildings, leaves gracefully came down at the urging of a breeze. It felt fine to be back, even through the slight haze from lack of sleep.

Was in my piso by 2:30, did a bit of dazed settling in, went out for a good meal, came home and crashed until around 10. Got my 'puter up and running, have sat here since then gradually adjusting to being in this space once more.

This relocation may turn out to be a teensy adjustment. I'll find out after I get some shuteye under my belt.

For anyone who may be interested, the headlines from today's edition of El Mundo, both concerning the recent massive oil spill off the northwest coast of Spain:
-- "El Rey pide a lot políticos 'menos fotos demagóticas' y más 'unidad.'" ("The King asks politicians for 'less demagogic photos' and more 'unity.'")
-- "Técnicos británicos detectan y miden dos manchas recientes de más de dos kilómetros cada uno donde se hundió el 'Prestige.'" ("British experts detect and measure two recent slicks of more than two kilometers each where the 'Prestige' sank.")

I'm for bed. More tomorrow.

rws 5:52 PM [+]

BLATHERINGS

August 2001
September 2001
October 2001
November 2001
December 2001
January 2002
February 2002
March 2002
April 2002
May 2002
June 2002
July 2002
August 2002
September 2002
October 2002
November 2002
December 2002
January 2003
February 2003
March 2003
April 2003
May 2003
June 2003
July 2003
August 2003
September 2003
October 2003
November 2003
December 2003
January 2004
February 2004
March 2004
April 2004
May 2004
June 2004
July 2004
August 2004
September 2004
October 2004
November 2004
December 2004
January 2005
February 2005
March 2005
April 2005
May 2005
June 2005
July 2005
August 2005
September 2005
October 2005
November 2005
December 2005
January 2006
February 2006
March 2006
April 2006
May 2006
June 2006
July 2006
August 2006
September 2006
October 2006
November 2006
December 2006
January 2007
February 2007
March 2007
April 2007
May 2007
June 2007
July 2007
August 2007
September 2007
October 2007
November 2007
December 2007
January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008
September 2008
October 2008
November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
March 2009
April 2009
June 2009
July 2009

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


MORE FOCUSED BLATHERINGS


Travels:
London '01
Pamplona
Italy '03
U.K. '03
Sevilla
Casablanca
Stoke-on-Trent
Barcelona
Québec/Ottawa
Boston/Lisbon/Madrid
Italy '04
Montréal
La Sierra

Events:
Madrid -- arrival
9/11
Emergency Room I
Holidays 2001
Holidays 2002
Holidays 2003
Holidays 2004
Holidays 2005
A neighbor's passing
Madrid -- March 11 bombings
  and aftermath
Emergency Room II
Israeli friend/Madrid Marathon
Madrid -- Royal Wedding
The DELE exam

GONE, a novel:
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

THE BASTARD CHILDREN OF
JOE ROCCO, a novella:
-- Part 1
-- Part 2
-- Part 3

BURBANK SHRUGGED,
a screenplay:
-- Part 1
-- Part 2
-- Part 3
-- Part 4

Short stories:
Murphy's Wife
Another Autumn
La Queja de Una
  Hermanastra Muy Conocida

Autobiography
-- Personal History
-- Hormones On Parade
-- Accidents, Random Mishaps,
    Personal Problems

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


OTHER SOURCES OF WHOLESOME ENTERTAINMENT

People/Weblogs:
dooce
foxvox
fudge it
fear not
rebekka
bookslut
802online
idle words
madhaiku
wockerjabby
grow-a-brain
rebel market
letting me be
out and about
kung fu grippe
fanatical apathy
baghdad burning
wfuv's music blog
kexp's music blog
mimi smartypants
between the miles
just a hippie gypsy
the impossible cool
tomato can brushes
vermont homestead
sugar mountain farm

Good Clean Fun:
gizmodo
futurismic
postsecret
dave barry
human clock
mcsweeney's
spaceweather
book-a-minute
internet archive
self-portrait day
my cat hates you
out of context quotes
surrealist compliment
  generator
strindberg and helium

Makin' Musical Whoopee:
last fm
stereo8
pandora
soma fm

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .


ABOUT RWS/CONTACT





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