Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

Blog Archives

Snap Out of It,Uncategorized

November 20, 2015

Snap Out of It: Bipolar Catalan Shopping

Here’s a not so uncommon scenario: I’m going for a walk in Madrid with a local and discussing Spanish politics, and handful of topics which essentially has not changed in the past 30 to 40 years.  These include scandals, fraud, embezzlement, money-laundering, inside trading, tax evasion, contract bidding favoritism and other forms of abuse of power, mostly related to increasing one’s personal wealth, or the general state of the economy, which hasn’t seen the best of times lately, to the role of the monarchy in modern Spain and, invariably, nationalism…a thorn so big in Spain’s back, it’s practically a spike.

     And the conversation could run along the lines of “Those bastard Catalans, who do they think they are?  They’ve never been their own nation, they have no legitimate claim to be independent.  At the very best, they could be considered to be a part of Aragon, and the Aragonese don’t won’t to leave Spain.”  And least most of them don’t.  “Catalonia is a part of Spain and that’s all there is to say about it, and there are millions who live there who want it to stay that way.

     Then we stop at a supermarket and I get told not to go in because the store is owned by a Catalan company.  Given the time and the distance to the next grocery store, I talk him into giving just this once, and then we enter.  Once inside, many of the familiar products that have produced so many moment of joy and happiness to my mind, soul and stomach, are quickly banned from immediate consumption because they are either owned or produced within the territory of Catalonia.  Oh, it goes beyond cava, sparkling wine which mostly comes from that region, or fuet, the local salamiCatalan products and international products produced in Catalonia have essentially infested your average Spanish market.  It’s been like that for years.  And here are just a few worth naming to prove my point:

  • Water: Font D’or, Font del Regas, Fuente Liviana, Malabella, Mondariz, Veri, Acquapanna, Aquarel, Badoit, Evian, Font Vella, Fontvella, Lanjarón, Perrier, S. Pellegrino, Salus, San Narciso, Viladrau, Vitell, Volvic
  • Olive Oil: Borges
  • Snack foods: Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos, Lays, Matutano, Pringles, Ruffles, Santa Ana, Tuc
  • Rice: Nomen
  • Coffee: Bonka, Nobel, Bonka, Cafitesse, Dolce Gusto, Marcilla, Nescafe, Nestle Gold, Piazza d’Oro, Pilao, Ricoré, Soley
  • Sweets: Golia, Pez(2), Smint, Solano, Chupachups, Mentos
  • Cereal: Cheerios, Chocapic, Crunch, Estrellitas, Fibre, Fitness, Golden Grahams, La lechera, Nesquik
  • Chocolate: Colacao, Ferrero rocher, Gnutella, Kinder, Lindt, Nocilla, Paladin, After eight, Bounty, Caja Roja, Choclait chips, Crunch, Dolca, Kitkat, M&M’s, Maltesers, Mars, Milkybar, Nesquik, Netsle, Quality Street, Snickers, Twix
  • Meats and sausages: Argal, Casa Tarradellas, Casademont, Embutidos Mercadona, Espetec, Fuet Espuña, La selva, Noel, Vic
  • Cookies: Artiach, Artisabores, Chiquilín, Cuetara, Dinosaurus, Filipinos, Marbú Dorada, Rio, Fontaneda, Marie Lu, Principe, Yayitas
  • Ice Cream: Camy, Carte D’Or, Cornetto, Extreme, Frigo, La lechera, Magnum, Mars, Maxibon, Miko, Nesquik, Nestle, Pirulo
  • Dairy Products: Ato, El castillo, Okey, Quesos Hotchland, Actimel, Activia, Dan’up, Danone, Flora, Ideal, La lechera, Ligeresa, Royal, Sveltesse, Vitalinea
  • Butter: Artúa, Flora, Ligeresa, Tulipan
  • Bread: Brooks American Sandwich, Panrico, Bimbo
  • Pizza and Pasta:  Buitoni, Casa Tarradellas(3), Hacendado Pizzas, La cocinera
  • Soft drinks:  Nestea, Kas, Ice tea, Tang
  • Cakes: Bollycao, Dip Dip, Donetes, Donuts, Eidetesa, Horno de Oro, Mañanitos, Qé!, Bimbo cao, Martinez, Tigretón
  • Soup: Knorr, Maggi
  • Sauces:  Solis, Calvé, Hellmans, Ligeresa, Maggi
  • Tomato paste:  Solis, Calvé, Hellmans
  • Frozen products: La Sirena, Maheso
  • Wine: Alella, Ampurdán, Bach, Conde Caralt, Costers del Segre, Ederra, Heredad Torresano, La vicalanda, Legaris, Leiras, Marraso, Nauta, Nuviana, Oroya, Penedés, René Barbier, Scala dei, Septima, Solar viejo, Terra Nova, Valdubon, Viento sur, Vionta, Viña Pomal

    And that’s just a reduced list.  We haven’t even gotten to the rest of the home.  Most of those brands are household names and half of them have found their way on to my shelves at one time or another. To leave them out would mean to exclude a substantial portion of everyday foodstuff in Spain.  And yet, radical pro-Spain supporters, sometimes known as españolistas in quarters where many people aren’t in favor of staying within the union, are willing to boycott anything that has been manufactured in that region.  Whole websites exist devoted to making the consumer aware of just what brands not to patronize and provide a Spain-friendly alternative.   They even provide insight into how to detect on the label if the product is of Catalan origin.

     The irony of this is that the majority are furious at Catalonia for wanting to become independent.  “Don’t you blame them?” I ask. “You treat them like shit.  You don’t want to support their economy, but you insist they stay in Spain.”

     Somehow, like so many things in life, they have a ready answer.  “We don’t wsnt to give them our money, because then they turn around and use it to backstab us.”

     Oh, brother.  That’s a tough knot to undo.  It’s no wonder things have reached the point they have.  Many companies are threatening with abandoning the region, while others have joined the cause.  As for the profits being used to boost the Independence movement, that most certainly is an exaggeration, and doesn’t help improve relations between the two.


Forensic Files

November 17, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 18

I was up and gazing at caskets and sipping my first cup of coffee. Maybe my second.  We were leaning towards incinerating Dad.  I have had a preferences for the kiln ever since I read a long time ago, or at least I think I read it, about some cemetery becoming unearthed during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1993 and when the people, the living that is, began to recover the coffins, occupied or not, they noticed that something atrocious like 25% of those interred were actually alive when the dirt was tossed on the wooden lid of the box and that this was evident because scratch marks from desperate finger nails were found on the inside.  Is this one of our most primal fears, as writer Jan Bondeson put it in his book on the subject?  Quite possibly, and doubly so because it has actually happened…and not so rarely.   Confirmation of this occurrence can be found in places like Snopes, a website not partial to falling for legend. While 25% might exceed the number I recalled, there have been reports of 2% of the deceased and encased in a casket actually suffering from a state of suspended animation rather than crossing the River Styx.

       Stories, and apparently true ones, of screams from within or sudden stirring to life can be found in chronicles throughout the centuries. And while the now common custom of embalming is seen as a determiner in ensuring no one quite makes it back the world of the living, it’s not required by law and, in some cases, triggers other previously unforeseen scenarios.  I say this knowing full well that there is probably nothing less predictable than coming to and discovering all of your acquaintances and family, as well as some pretty negligent members of the medical sector, have deemed you, beyond any reasonable doubt, expired and have stuck you six feet underground to spend your final moments suffocating and feeling rather disappointed with your choice of friendships over the years.

      Did you know, by the way, that there are still coffins sets which include systems for the deceased to alert the living, lest the former should suddenly resuscitate?  Some corpses are even supplied with cell phones.  One can only hope that they device hasn’t been pin locked.  Can you just imagine preparing a roast chicken for dinner and being interrupted by the phone ring whose tone has been set to the tune of Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” and bark, “Honey, call the undertaker.  Your Dad is asking to be brought up to the surface.”

      And that’s if we even get to stage; there have been cases where the postmortem revision turned out to be place of discovery, like the time they opened a corpse’s chest and realized the heart was still beating.  Unfortunately, the rather large incision put a stop to that.  Or, my favorite, the born-again patient whose sudden and, so they say, violent reaction to being poked at by the pathologist, caused the man to fully return to his former state and the doctor to keel over and die.  Now that’s what I call a twist of fate.

       Being declared dead can occur for a number of reasons.  One may be that you are simply no longer reachable.  Missing, as they say.  Legally it’s known as in “in absentia”, and it applies to people whose whereabouts can no longer be accounted for, and due to the circumstances, can be assumed dead. This was the case with people like Henry Hudson who, along with his teenage son and several sick crew members, was callously booted off the mutineed ship he captained in the bay that would eventually bear his name and they were left to fend for themselves in the wilderness of northern Canada.  Chances of survival were remote and the fact they were never heard from again pretty much confirmed that prediction.  In any event, that occurred in 1611 and we can safely assume they won’t be appearing at any local convenience store trying to cash in a lottery ticket.

      Actually, there can be nothing more inconvenient than disappearing when issues concerning money come into play.  Of the many tragedies surrounding the Titanic, or just Titanic (that annoying tendency to remove the definite article just to sound more like an expert makes me want to puke), one had to do with a young but very, very wealthy Spanish couple -the were wrapping up 18 months of honeymoon traveling-  who had essentially snuck on the ship without their families realizing it.  The husband had ordered his butler in Paris to send home a postcard every day just so his mother thought they were in the city of lights.  Anyway, the ship as we all know sank in record time.  The young wife and her handmaid were put on a lifeboat and survived but the man presumably drowned.  I say presumably because no one really knew for sure, and while the authorities were quick to declare the missing as deceased, in Spain not only did they require physical proof, when none can be produced, a person had to wait an astounding 20 years!  That’s a long time to keep people on the edge.  Especially when someone’s mindboggling inheritence is at stake. So, if a body was what they wanted, a body is what they got.  The woman’s family sent an envoy to Canada where the cementary is, located an individual of similar features, said, “That’s him.” and returned with the cadaver which they used, I assume, to cash the windfall.

        Even if the body is available, the whole process can become muddled.  Even in our day.  Just how is it possible to look and feel dead but not actually be it?  Why are their cases of people kicking from inside a body bag sending morgue personnel scattering?  One good reason migh be body temperature.  Cold temperature reduces the effect a stopped heart can have on cells, which means, people may appear to be dead, but organ failure, especially in the brain, has not taken effect.  To think that if my father had suffered his stroke in Antartica, he might well have had time to allow the doctors to remedy the problem.  Sultry Connecticut in August didn’t help matters.  Another reason might a nervous disorder called catalepsy, which provokes the body to stiffen up, the heart to decrease and the nerves to exhibit a reduced sensitivity to pain.  So traditional methods to test if a person is alive, like sticking a needle underneath a fingernail, just might not be enough.

         Dad needed to be cremated, that was that.  Like an ancient Roman emperor.  Like a wise Native American medicine man.  Like a venerable judge for humanity.  Dust to dust.

Snap Out of It

November 15, 2015

Snap Out of It: Jaume Joycet, the Catalan

24 years ago, on April 23 to be exact, I was flipping through a weekday edition of the International Herald Tribune during my first true spring in Spain.  Back then, the daily  was practically the only way to keep abreast of what was happening outside the Iberian Peninsula, and I was startled to come upon a full-page advertisement with a headline that read something like “Today, even Joyce would have felt Catalan”.  I’ve tried to track down the exact wording, the internet is great at retrieving past archives, but I think even this one has slipped through the web’s sticky trap. Trust me, though, it went something to that effect.

      What I do recall vividly was that a not-so-short string of writers of universal prestige was included as candidates for Catalan-pride Day, none of whom were living at the time making it conveniently difficult for them to refute the claim.   was the fact a region in Spain was promoting itself as a separate entity.

      First of all, allow me to set the stage for you:

     April 23 is World Book Day, which is why I can recall the date, not because I have a prodigious memory.  This celebration did not become official since the UN declared it so in 1995, but in Spain it goes back decades, where it has taken greater popularity than in other countries, especially in Catalonia.

     The reason this date was chosen has to do with oft-claimed, though poorly verified, rumor that Cervantes and Shakespeare both died on the same day of the same year.  This is a close call but no cigar. The author of Don Quixote actually passed away on April 22, and was buried on the 23rd, while the Bard departed from this world on April 23, but according to the Julian Calendar, which was still in effect in England at the time, meaning he really held on for another days before kicking the bucket.    The point it is, it wasn’t the literary world took a shot that year.   Wordsworth, by the way, would also join this club in 1850.

     Not all Catalans were aware of this, but they did already have their own tradition linked to this date: St. George’s Day, or San Jordi (as it is known here), the patron saint of Catalonia.  Celebrations go back centuries, as did one particular custom, that of giving a rose as a present to a loved one.  This apparently started back in the 15th Century.  Then in 1923, a union of that tradition with literature was established thanks to a bookseller who decided that a book could be there perfect gift for a man, to complement the flower for his beau.  A tad of machismo there, if you get my drift, but a nice touch all the same, and a pleasant removal from a toolkit.  It also represented a poetic angle so typical of the artistically-inclined and refined Barcelona.  The practice has been growing in popularity ever since and even extended into other parts of Spain.

      This bit of background helps us to understand why on earth such a an advertisement would ever even exist.  What it doesn’t explain, is why it would find its way into the most important international newspaper of the day and take up so much space.  That’s where politics slip in.  You see, this was no mere chance to take pride in local custom, no call to end world illiteracy, no gratuitous display of cultural selflessness. It was an orchestrated action to put Catalonia on the map…not the map of Spain.   No one I knew had even heard of Catalonia and, before I set foot in the country, I hadn’t either.  Its anonymity was common knowledge.

       As I look back at it now, I am ever more convinced that it was not the product of a hair-brained attempt to make the world think that the land which was home to the great city of Barcelona was its own country in 1991, but a patient and deliberate campaign to make Catalonia known as an independent nation at some point in the future.  Any point.  When, was the the question.  And the timing could not have been more deliberate. Barcelona was just a year away from becoming the center of global attention for two weeks during the 1992 Summer Olympics.  Now was the time to get the ball rolling.

        Was I the only one who realized this?  Would anyone in Manchester pick up on the detail?  What about the Americsn expat in Singapore? Would they detect what the message was all about?  In Madrid it would have plowed through like a bulldozer, but how many Spaniards read the Herald Tribune?  How many knew enough English?  Who would have cared?  It was just those pesky Catalans pretending to be their own country.  Dream on.  I still hear Spaniards swear that the Catalans are just playing hardball so that they can get more autonomy as a region.  Better autonomy?  A region?  Just a week ago they pronounced what amounted to be a declaration of independence. Just how deep can you stick your head?  That’s when the Cher within me, and I’ll have you know I don’t feel like Cher very often, comes out and recalls the moment when she lays one of the best slaps in movie history on Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck as she coolly advises with her best New York accent, “Snap out of it!”

        That’s what so many people have needed to hear over the years.  So after more than 20 years of putting off talking about the subject because, as a rule, I avoid writing about political issues because, as a rule, they hardly change over the years and because, as a rule, people’s political opinions are a generation behind the times and because, as a rule, it’s risky business for a foreigner to get involved.

       But that quarter century has gone by and I feel equipped enough to take on the challenge, and because I feel it’s time now.   I am drawn not to the debate of whether or not Catalonia should be independent, it doesn’t really matter at this point, but by all that surrounds the confrontation.  Just like the story of human of the Titanic, every possible element of human nature emerges in those final fateful minutes; and just like Bob Dylan observed with acerbic accuracy in Desolation Row, “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn / Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”


Forensic Files

November 8, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 17

According the Mayo Clinic, approximately 100,000 people are at any one time waiting for an organ donation.  6,775 Americans die every day, based on the 2008 statistics, so must be even closer to 7,000 by now.  That would suggest that within a fortnight, every one of those patients in need of an organ replacement would have at least a shot at a second chance in life.  But that clearly isn’t the case.  In fact, finding the dying individual who is both suited and willing to provide you with a spare kidney or liver is often a disparagingly fruitless task.  Here is to confirm that reality:

  • Each day, an average of 79 people receive organ transplants. However, an average of 22 people die each day waiting for transplants that can’t take place because of the shortage of donated organs.

While that may give the impression that more people are receiving transplants than are listed, this graph might help you get a better perspective of things.


The gap isn’t just getting wider; it’s increased by whopping dimensions. While the number of transplants hasn’t even doubled in almost twenty-five years, the number of patients in need has shot more than fivefold.  So, America is far from exemplary in this sense, though there are some bright spots:

  • People of every age give and receive organ donations. In 2014, 29,532 people received organ transplants. Below is the number of recipients by age group followed by the number who received organs from deceased and living donors:
  • < 1 Year Old: 280 (261 deceased, 19 living donors)
  • 1 – 5 Years: 503 (417 deceased, 86 living donors)
  • 6 – 10 Years: 284 (226 deceased, 58 living donors)
  • 11 – 17 Years: 728 (594 deceased, 134 living donors)
  • 18 – 34 Years: 3,148 (2,087 deceased, 1,061 living donors)
  • 35 – 49 Years: 6,407   (4,780 deceased, 1,627 living donors)
  • 50 – 64 Years: 12,791 (10,758 deceased, 2,033 living donors)
  • 65+ Years: 5,391 (4,592 deceased, 799 living donors)

     As you can see, you don’t need to have met your Maker to exert your generosity, and from a medical standpoint, living donors are generally preferable to deceased ones.  It’s generally a question of freshness.  Organs are extremely perishable.  Sadly, living donations are still a minority.  The reason is that many are just naturally reluctant to go ahead with it; and the reason for that in part has to do with an old nagging problem in the United States: insurance.  This act of goodwill might mean being turned down for private health insurance (7%) or life insurance (25%).  In some countries, giving a organ is compensated by free healthcare for you and your family for life.

       Donations by deceased bodies is obviously understandably more common, but even then, support is far from widespread.  Hesitance is brought on by urban myths about evil doctors knowingly allowing a patient to die in order to get at those innards which are in such high demand in the lucrative organ donation market; or simply what is known as the “ick” factor, which is that natural distaste for tampering with dead organisms.  They all contribute to the lackluster response to this growing need.  In other words, everyone is all for the idea, as long as it’s someone else’s chest that’s being dissected.

     To my surprise, and probably to that of every living Spaniard, Spain leads the world in organ donors, 35.5 generous souls per million forfeiting a chunk of their body for thy neighbor.  That, coupled with its top-notch, highly coordinated, organ bank network, make the system here a global model of efficiency and effectiveness.  Those are words the Spanish aren’t used to hearing those words mentioned regarding anything official.

     Some say that, like many European countries, this has to do with the fact that all legal adults are automatically considered potential donors unless they officially indicate otherwise.  To do so is known as opting out.  It’s also believed that Spain, a Mediterranean country where kinship ties are often stronger, helping out a relative in any way is just a part of being “good to the family”.

      In the United States, no one can carve out your liver without prior consent. It’s called opting in.  The moment of truth comes at a time when you are doing something entirely unrelated: confirming your personal details for the department of motor vehicles when you renew your license.  But I’ll tell you about that a little later.

     The point is, kidneys, pancreases and lungs are scarce, but dead people aren’t.  That brings us to one of the most undeniably unenviable jobs in the world: cold calling for internal organs.  The fact that time is of essence, as the deteriorating tissue must be swept away and inserted in a desperate donee, makes the inappropriateness of the act that much more accentuated, but the immediacy of the action that much greater.  In short, the person who has been hired to perform this heinous task has to do so practically, as Dickens would delightfully put it, “when the body is still warm.”

     And so it was, just five minutes after arriving home, with mom having to face the fact that her husband and companion of nearly 60 years would never return, and my sister trying to wash off the shock that had overcome her body, that I crashed out on the living room couch, to find comfort from being half-orphaned in the shelter of a baseball game.  The pitcher firing down the line methodically; the dull judgement of the umpire; the slow toss back to the mound by the catcher.  The pitch; the call; the toss.  Pitch, call, toss. Over and over like swinging under a maple tree.

    It was then as I was saying, that the phone rang.  When this happens, the television has a feature that displays caller information. My mother and sister are not terribly technology literate, and they had never realized this exists nor did they ever understand how I could so accurately predict who was on the other end of the call without taking my eyes off a double-play.  That was neither here nor there, the thing was I saw the word “bank” and called to mom that the bank was calling and muttered something about the bastards getting wind of Dad dying before the day was out, and that they were just trying to freeze his account…all $47 of it.  Thank God I had taken out the other $50 just the day before.  They were heartless jack-asses.

      Well, it turned out that heartless was what the phoners wanted my dad to be. Or liverless. Or kidneyless.  It was the New England Organ Bank  -I had neglected to pay enough attention to that key third word- and they were just checking to see if we had any intention of doing a good deed for a sick patient.  That’s what I figure they planned on saying but I don’t think my mother let them get halfway through their statement before she started revealing her feelings on the social etiquette of asking for someone’s insides when hardly an hour had gone by.  The association is the oldest of its kind in the country and probably used to that sort of response, and the urgency of the matter did require early contact.  But I feel confident when expressing a great deal of reservation regarding procedure.  Someone at the hospital should have brought this option to our attention when we were there, after all they seemed to have no qualms about letting the NEOB know about Dad passing away, and perhaps a greater time frame between terminal breath and renal request should be allowed for.  The caller made a few attempts to convince my mother, but they had no idea who they were dealing with.  Dad, at nearly 90, probably had little to offer, and I get the feeling he wouldn’t have agreed to it.  Otherwise he would have opted in years before.  The NEOB was trying to opt him in in death what he clearly had declined to do in life.

    Mom hung up, preached to me, and rightly so, about the impropriety of requesting a gall bladder at that time of night, and I wholeheartedly agreed.  “Damn right, Mom!” At least for that night, Dad was going to stay in one piece.  She went on to repeat her astonishment, and I concurred for a second time…maybe a third.  Then we called it a night.  The Mets were pitching, now.  Pitch. Call. Toss. Pitch. Call. Toss.

Forensic Files

November 6, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 16

The doctors told us to depart for a few minutes while they began to remove Dad from the life support system, drugged him a little further and prepped him for our return, where we could behold nature taking its course first hand.  Nature took its course while I sat in the waiting room and played checkers with one of my brothers, but I guess that didn’t count.  It wasn’t as if I expected to see Dad flailing his arms around and gasping for air like some astronaut who’d just lost his oxygen supply, but you never know, and I didn’t want to be around for that. Just in case, I think we all prudently stepped out of the room because, I don’t know about you, this was a first for me.

     While we were gathered in the waiting room, we received two visits, one from the doctor who had tried to save Dad that first day but was unable to unplug the clot, incapable of restoring some degree of normal blood flow to the brain, hindered in her efforts to supply the cerebrum with the oxygen it needs to survive.  There was nothing she could do.  Not for her or the priest who had been so nice the day before.  The one who may not have slept well in that puffy rectory bed. He had returned at that moment to listen to Mom once again and provide us with some kind of support.  He did his best.

     Dad was doing his best too, though it wasn’t easy for him.  We had just been called back into the room and I immediately realized that his life had been a lot gentler with that ventilator inserted in his windpipe.  His mouth was now wider open and every ten seconds or so, or at least it seemed to me, he would draw in as deep a breath as his weakening body could.  It would make a horrid and tinny sound.  He was unconscious and pumped with enough drugs to dope a rock band, and I truly think he was not suffering, but struggling, he was, which kind of made sense. After all, he couldn’t breathe.

      Mom stood for the most part right near his head.  I stroked his arm, though I was somehow afraid to touch the skin of his hand.  My other brothers and sisters sat and watched over like faithful soldiers next to their wounded general’s cot, or mourning dogs at the feet of a fading Viking, and only on occasion interrupted the serenity with a few seconds of tears or weeping.

     The hospital had provided us with refreshments of all sorts, tea and coffee, soda, an assortment of chocolate and energy snacks, which I guess was a thoughtful gesture to help us get through the moment, but I was nagged by the idea that they were saying, “We’ve just removed your father’s life support system, treating you to a Twix bar is the least we can do.”  And it certainly was, I just didn’t actually think they would go through with it.  Since I am always one to take a person up on their offer, unless that means running me over with a truck, I poured myself a cup of coffee and went for the energy bar to help keep me going.

   I offered some to the rest with the thermos in my hand, “Coffee?” between my Dad’s wheezing, but they declined.  One brother, the medical expert of the family, more out of fear than fancy, handled his greatest phobia, death, by bombarding the nurse with some six hundred questions and she, God bless her, fielded them with the greatest of patience.  I returned to stroking the sleeve.  The room was chilly.  The sky was was darkening outside as it approached seven in the evening.

      We turned most of our attention to the screen on the other side of the bed, next to the nurse who was controlling the administrating of drugs to keep the stress levels lower.  We watched like heartbeats rise to 125 then down to 90, then back up to 115, 120, 130, and beyond.  Dad was sprinting around New Haven, Connecticut, through the Sterling Library, the Cross Campus, The Old Campus and Timothy Dwight.  Forty or fifty laps he must have done so far, and his heart still pumped away.  It’s a resilient goddamn muscle, you have to admit.  They say it drums along about 2.21 billion times in a lifetime of 70 years.  That seems pretty astonishing but when you think that a chicken’s heart thumps 2.17 billion times in just fifteen years, the figure appears more modest.  That’s because chicken hearts fly at the rate of about 275 beats per minute, which probably explains why they are always so freaked out about everything, and certainly helps you to understand how they die so young.  Dad’s heart marched on for another 18 years, so his total was closer to 3 billion.  It appeared he was trying to break a record before the final bell.

      I kept stroking his arm.

      After about an hour and twenty minutes, he began to get quieter, which was a kind of relief, but also meant we were reaching the final stages.  In addition to the drinks and finger food, the hospital had the thoughtfulness to disengage the sound on the electronic equipment, so that the long and merciless monotoned beep wouldn’t kick in, the way it does in the movies.  You didn’t need that.

     The screen still showed occasional spikes as if the heart were still softly tapping away, but the main nurse who had just arrived told us that it was just electrical charges inside the body traveling around the ghostly deserted roads.  I kept stroking his arm.

       My brothers and sisters and I and mom hugged each other again and then went up to Dad to say goodbye for the last time.  At least in his presence.  I kissed him on the forehead and was oddly reminding of the time my friend Tom did the same years before one New Year’s Eve after downing fifteen shots of rum.

     The medical staff disappeared to leave us on our own.  Then, little by little, the family peeled itself away from the room, before dad’s face got too white.  I called my daughters and talked for a few minutes.  When I got off, I saw I was alone in the room.  The electrical charges had zipped away for good.  Dad looked slightly stunned, the way deceased people can appear, I guess.  I guess you never quite want it to happen.  I went over and stroked his arm one more time.  I hadn’t shed a single tear yet.

Images of Spain

November 2, 2015

Santos y Almas (y algún que otro muerto)

¿Entonces por qué temen tanto a Halloween los españoles?  ¿La invasión de los bárbaros?  No es ninguna broma.  Este sentimiento quedó reflejado en la inolvidable “Bienvenido, Mr. Marshall” cuando el cura del pueblo enumeró todos los defectos que tiene el país, y no eran pocos.  La ansiada llegada de los norteamericanos por motivos económicos fue contrastada por el miedo a que su degenerada sociedad fuera a provocar la destrucción de la santísima cultura conservadora y católica que tuvo en jaque el progreso mental de la nación de entonces.  El inmortal, aunque ya fallecido, director Luís García Berlanga, no andaba lejos cuando puso en palabras del religioso un futuro nada esperanzador.  La modernidad y la postmodernidad y el Internet han conseguido deestructurar numerosos aspectos de muchas culturas…pero no no engañemos, ha habido muchos factores.  Pero muchos.

      Aquí en estas fechas se celebra Todos los Santos, que es el 1 de noviembre.  Hay más de 10.000 de ellos, así que no es precisamente un club exclusivo, si quieres saber mi opinión. Pero los españoles no lo hacen tanto por los santos, que parece que tienen todo bien montado en el cielo, sino por los difuntos, los antepasados, los muertos.  Es el día en que va la gente a los cementerios a homenajear a sus queridos, y quizás no tan queridos.  También es un evento muy importante para las floristerías que, junto con san valentín (otra importación inventada) y el día de la madre (también una nueva incorporación foránea – no se estableció hasta 1965, cuando los Beatles sacaron Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), suponen grandes ingresos. Estos sí tienen un motivo para quejarse.

      Esta solemne y bonita tradición, la de recordar a los que han sido tan importantes en tu vida, me parece un gesto precioso que no se debería perder.  Hay gente que aún la observa, madrileños que se acercan al gigantesco cementerio de la Almudena, o que vuelven a sus pueblos para llevar unas flores a la tumba de algún pariente.  Difuntos…difuntos todos…algunos con alma y otros ya santos.  O eso creen.

      El caso es que, técnicamente, el día para honrar a los tuyos debería ser hoy, el 2 de noviembre, La Conmemoración de los Fieles Difuntos, o simplemente de los Difuntos, porque algunos habrán sido menos fieles que otros.  Esta fecha es tan importante en países como México que UNESCO la ha declarado Patrimonio de la Humanidad.  Por lo visto, esta organización ortoga el honor a casi cualquier cosa…podría hacer lo mismo para mi coche que, a pesar de sus años, kilómetros y trato laxo por parte de su dueño, sigue arrancando.

     En fin, parece ser que es un día no solo para recordar a nuestros antepasados sino también para rezar por ellos, no vaya ser que se encuentran en el Purgatorio y necesitan un aval de buenaconducta de un querido vivo.   Yo pensé que el Vaticano ya se había deshecho de ese concepto, pero veo que no tengo razón.  Simplemente han dicho que no es un lugar en concreto (es decir que no es la M-30 por la mañana ni mi piso en julio, dos buenos candidatos) sino un estado del alma.  Yo la llamo “vida”.

 Jakub_Schikaneder_-_All_Souls'_DayEsta mujer, desde luego, no parece estar disfrutando del momento durante su visita al cementerio el Día de los Difuntos.  Parece que está contemplando unirse a los vecinos de lugar de aquí a poco.

Curiosamente, dicen que uno de los orígenes del famoso “trick-or-treat” son las “souls cakes” (pasteles para las almas) que se tenían que repartir como gesto de generosidad, a cambio de beneficiar las almas de los difuntos.  Así que, además de las comidas, la bebida, los ramos de flores y las lápidas recién lavadas, hay todo tipo de negociones espirituales sucediendo.  No sé.  Lo mismo me equivoco.

     Pero lo que sí parece claro es que el día, o los días, del 31 de Octubre al 2 de Noviembre, fueron elegidos porque la ya existente festividad celta Samhain (el año nuevo), y una fiesta romana también relacionada con los muertos.  La tradición pasó a esas fechas allá por el 980 DC.  Y las creencias de una Europa Se creía que los fallecidos salían esos días para volver a sus casas y cenar con sus familias.  Sabiendo lo importante que es comer en este país, me parece perfectamente plausible.  ¡Vaya por Dios! Esto me suena a algo pagano y Halloweenesco.

      Hablando de comida, una de las grandes ventajas de estar en España en esta fechas es la oportunidad de disfrutar de los deliciosos buñuelos, rellenos de todo tipo de sabores, y de los huesos de santo, demasiado dulces para mí gusto, pero sabrosos en pequeñas dosis.

Images of Spain

November 1, 2015

Trucado y Tratado

¡Ay, Dios!  Ha pasado el último día de octubre y yo ya llevo unas cuantas charlas sobre este fenómeno que se está apoderando de España, o por lo menos de Madrid: Halloween (o jalogüín, como algunos lo deletrean).   Con el paso de cada año, son más las tiendas que se apuntan a vender productos y parafanelia relaionada con la festividad, son más los niños que se disfrazan, son más fiestas que se celebran, son más los debates sobre su presencia en nuestras vidas…hasta tal punto que ya no se le puede considerar una costumbre pasajera ni limitada a cuatro extranjeros que no saben olvidar sus raíces ni un puñado de profesores de inglés que están envenando los colegios con costumbres foráneos, ni al PP por promover el bilingüismo.  La verdad es que se h convertido en una moda que ha ido a más y parece que no se va a ningún lado, por lo menos, de momento.  It’s here to stay.

     No os creáis que me alegro.  Es simplemente una observación sobre cómo han cambiado algunas tradiciones aquí en los años que llevo.  La primera vez que la celebré fue en el 91, y entonces era prácticamente imposible dar con una calabaza en Madrid, por no hablar de una que asemejaba a el orbe naranja que simboliza el día.  Por fin encontré una en el Jumbo, para que te hagas una idea de los años que han pasado, y conseguí (otro verbo no sería apto para describir la odisea que exprimentamos) comprar una especie de fruta grande, algo aplastada y de un color verde-gris.  Parecía una garrapata gigantesca…la pobre…poco digna para el gremio de de calabazas, aunque visto desde el punto de vista del asco, totalmente apropriado.  Mucho ha llovido desde entonces.

   Los españoles siempre han sido rápidos a la hora de acusar a los norteamericanos por proliferar esta actividad profana y pagana que nada tiene que ver con su cultura y que desprecia un día tan sagrado y loable como es Todos Los Santos.  No les quito razón…en parte.   Halloween es una festividad cuyos orígines remontan 3.000 años, en el mundo celta, quizás una de las tradiciones más antiguas del mundo, pero la versión moderna es un producto de una evolución larga y sinuosa que ha llegado a arraigarse en los Estados Unidos y que poco tiene que ver con la idea original.

       Como cualquier cultura dominante, las costumbres de dicha nación tienden a incidir en las de las otras culturas.  El impacto de las cultura greco-romana aún está presente en nuestras vida, miles de años después, y es innegable la profunda e intencionada influencia que la cristianidad ha ejercido sobre múltiples pueblos del mundo, imponiendo sus creencias y tradiciones. O no. Muchas fiestas y celebraciones cristianas son mezclas de su propia fe con las costumbres locales, muchas de ellas, he de decir, eran paganas.  La elección de la fecha de Navidad sin ir más lejos.

     De hecho, el propio nombre hace alusión a Todos los Santos, ya que “halloween” significa “vísperas de todos los santos”, y era un intento por parte de la Iglesia de hacerse con los paganos mediante la tolerancia a cambio de la conversión.  Parece que funcionó, lo cual hace que parezca especialmente irónico que siglos después encontramos al Obispo de Cádiz intentnado prohibir la celebración de Halloween.   Si tanto les preocupaba a los prelados ya tenían tiempo para remediarlo…hace 1.500 años.

        Es verdad que hay algo que no acaba de cuajar conmigo respecto a este día en España.  Quizás le falte la hondura de una tradición bien arraigado.  Pero también es verdad que los niños se lo pasan bomba, el comercio aumenta y una costumbre que empezó en Europa hace miles de años, dio el salto al Nuevo Continente y ahora está de vuelta, disfrazada de algo bastante diferente…pero de vuelta de todas formas.  Las tradiciones pueden ser a veces muy viajeras y no pasa nada. San Patricio es una de las fiestas más populares del planeta, en España ha pegado un subidón de popularidad impresionante.  Pero ahí, nadie dice nada.  Total, es simplemente una noche más para ponerse algo hortera con la marca Guinness escrita encima.  Pero con el Halloween, resulta ser diferente.  No sé si es porque afecta a los niños y eso inquieta a los mayores.  No lo sé.  Algún truco debe de haber.

Forensic Files

October 31, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 15

I’ve done a lot of things only once in my life.  Watched a sunset in Key West, for example; been atop a Swiss Alp; sat through Casablanca from beginning to end (for some reason I had only pieced it together for the first 35 years of my life); scaled an Aztec pyramid in Mexico; dipped my feet in the icy Baltic Sea; eaten steak tartar (didn’t think much of it); or …

     Then there is a whole slew of things I’ve never experienced; I still haven’t managed to get my ass over to Rome, and it’s little more than a stone’s throw from Madrid; listened first-hand to an opera; walked through a birch forest in Russia; sunk my teeth in real Southern barbecue; give my jaw the chance to drop before the awesome sight of the Grand Canyon; taken a bungee-jumping leap off of a bridge; or finished reading Ulysses (I left off on page 137 about twelve years ago). I’d never seen another human die, made it nearly half a century before that moment, until that August 18th when I stood bedside my father and watched him expire before my very eyes.

     Essentially what had been keeping him from passing on days before and, in all probability, would have prolonged his state of unconscious inertia indefinitely was a machine known as a ventilator.  In Spanish they call it a “respirador” which I conveniently translated into “respirator”, a reasonable description from my perspective but apparently an erroneous choice and one, I’ve been led to believe, that indicates a certain degree of ignorance when it comes to knowledge of medical care.  “Ventilator” sounds to me like kind of machine you turn on when someone in the room hasn’t showered in a week, but if that’s what the hosptial staff uses, I’m no one to question their choice of jargon.

     Keeping people alive through artificial respiration, apparently now called mechanical ventilation, has been the concern of humans since all the way back in ancient times, though, like so many aspects of Medicine, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that serious advances were made.  Even then, the road to a successful system has been rather winding.  The first ventilators were invented in 1928.  They were called Drinker respirators, but were known in layman’s terms as “iron lungs”.  The intended patients were polio victims whose breathing muscles had become paralized by the disease.  The technique worked via negative pressure, a system in which the body in placed in an airtight metallic chamber and the air pressure inside is lower, thereby forcing the lungs to expand.  You might be more familiar with the effects of air pressure when you take a shower and notice that once the water is running and steaming up the room, the curtain is pushed inward because the hot air reduces the pressure.  Of course, that’s assuming that you have a curtain.  In any event, that’s how they managed to get air into the lungs.

     In the 1950s, a marked switch towards positive-pressure ventilation took over.  A number of individuals can right claim their contributions to the development of the modern ventilator, but it was a man by the name of the Forrest Bird who, it should be noted, worked a great deal on making high altitude flying possible for pilots who did not wish to suffer from hypoxia, as my father had, though from the very low altitude of this bed.  Bird created the Bird Respirator, a model which is still used around the world today in places where a reliable electrical supply may not be available.   Bird lived to the ripe old age of 94.  In fact, he had just passed away on August 4, 5 days before Frank Gifford.  He died of natural causes too.  The jury was still out on what would be the cause of our father’s demise.

     A positive-pressure ventilator, the kind that is used mainly today, with all the sophisticated technology to ensure breathing is controlled to a T, entails literally sticking a tube down the patient’s trachea and introducing the air into the lungs.  Its assisted pulmonary ventilation; the gas exchange in the alveoli takes over from there.  The was the peacekeeper. This was the machine that made Dad seem so quiet and unfazed by life.

     It also kept him from suffocating, as his brain was only able to perform about 30% of task.  Removing the tube means death, but not instantaneous by any stretch of the imagination.  Depending on the strength of the patient and, especially the heart, the body will struggle to stay alive for 30 minutes, and hour, several hours, even days.  From the expression on the doctor’s face when we asked, that last estimate went beyond the limits of reality.

      Once the patient is taken off the ventilator, the body immediately reacts to the sudden limited oxygen being taken in by having the heart beat faster to increase the amount of that gas being reached to every corner.  It’s like being forced to sprint and sprint until it finally gives out. To my shock, I learned that some patient’s may actually be awake for this, though, most, like my father, are unconscious.  Even then, generous doses of morphine and anti-anxiety medicine both help to regulate what little breathing is going on and used to keep the body from suffering.  The body is suffering, no doubt.  We are just comforted by the thought that Dad wasn’t aware of it.  Comforted by the hope.

Forensic Files

October 26, 2015

Files, Fueds and Funerals 14

At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be a lot in common between my father, a lowkey lawyer from Connecticut, and Cole Porter, the high strung composer-writer from Indiana, many of whose songs can still be hummed, when not sung, by people from different walks of life, from all over the globe and of different ages…though especially those over a certain one.  The fact that I am familiar with so many is not only a tad disconcerting buit it also makes me at least a reference for a cutoff year – so we’ll say 48.  But I was able to find two – to my astonishment. One was that he was went to Yale University and majored in English, just like Dad, and the other was that he went on to study law at Harvard Law School, which was the identical trajectory that my procreator took.

     But that may be just about where the similarities end.  Both seemed to have come from stern fathers, Cole’s grandfather was especially rigid, but they soon took very different paths.  My father settled in New York and kicked off his professional career at the law firm of Whitman, Ransom & Coulson.  I knew nothing of this period of my father’s life, as it would be another fifteen years before I even drew in my first breath of Manhattan air.  It was supposedly a reputable house, with a former governer, a former judge and a former army colonel as founding fathers.  I get the feeling they didn’t put up with much crap from anyone.  Porter, albeit 30 years before, forsook his legal training and dashed off to Paris where he could continue to play music and, in additon, live a lavish life of soirees for entertaining the likes of which only a few could afford.  This is part was a result of his marrying a wealthy divorced American woman who suited her needs to have a formal partner as well as his to appear heterosexual, while he indulged in his true pursuation in private.

     We gathered again at the hospital.  Dad’s heartbeat was stable…stably weak, that is, but stable all the same.  I was relieved to know that we would be able spend a little more time with him, though the doctor’s came him to check him out one more time.  The fiddled around with his body and made him twitch from time to time.  Some of my brothers and sisters thought that might be a good sign, but in reality it was a kind of cruel joke.  “It’s nothing,” they said.  “Just reflexes.”

     I knew what they were talking about because I had become a science teacher that very year for the first time.  It wasn’t easy because I had spent much of my life on the other end of the intellectual spectrum.  But I did learn the basics about the body, and when my 5th grade class got to the part about the central nervous system, we learned that the spinal cord handled a lot of the automatic responses with the need of the brain to get involved.  When I was kid I used to see that when the pediatrician would tap below my knee to see it bounce forward a little.  It was kind of cool, but it didn’t transcend any further.  But that was the kind of thing I had to explain to my kids.  That’s what the book said.  That’s what it said.

     I guess I had a chance to try it first hand with my limp father molded into the bed’s mattress.  His brain was thinking its own thoughts with no one or nothing to recieve them.  The spinal cord made things here and there move.  “So that’s what it does,” I said to myself.  Like some many things, life needs failures to show how it works.

     For an hour before we decided to put Dad down, let nature take its course, we played music for him, pretty sure he couldn’t hear any of it but kind of wishing he could.  Then again, I realized that if he could hear that, he could hear just about everything else we had in store for him, and that would have sucked.

     We played lots of Cole Porter because that’s the kind of music he liked, just like so many other people from his generation did.  I think it was his favorite, and if it wasn’t, it was tough luck, we were going to play it for him anyway.  Then we got into a few classics from musicals, “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins was a close to being the top of the list as you can get, for reasons that I have never quite understood.  We also knew that he was keen on the musical version of A Christmas Carol, called aptly Scrooge, with Albert Finney looking bizzarely beyond his real years in life.  There’s a lively tune in the slection called “Thank You very Much”, which my brother Pat quickly found on YouTube and played for all to hear and enjoy.  Seconds after the sequence had started, it dawned on me that there was an inconvenient truth surrounding the song: it’s performed during the visit of the third spirit, when all the townspeople are rejoicing the fact Scrooge has died and therefore freed them of their obligations to pay off their debts.  That is certainly a 19th Century approach to getting out of a loan.  I doubt expiring would suffice today.

      Regardless, that being said, despite the cheeriness of the tune, it must go down as one of the most inappropriate songs ever to be chirped at the bedside of a moribund father.  I think at one point all of us in chorus were crroning, “Thank you very much! Thank you very much!   That’s the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for us.”    I’d like to think that’s why Dad loved his children so much.

      Then we wrapped up the session with the “Bull Dog” fight cheer, created – I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say composed, by Cole Porter, and capped it off with the Whiffenpoof song, or “To the Tables Down at Mory’s”, which is variation of a Rudyard Kipling poem, but just who came up with it, no one seems to know for sure.  For sure, though, they are no longer with us.

        And the corner sign
        Says it’s closing time
        So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road

Forensic Files

October 24, 2015

Files, Feuds and Funerals 13

    “Kathy Lee drinks wine in the morning!” spouted my sister with disdain.

    “What?!!”  Maybe my dad needed the right funeral service for his once and future death, but this was jarring news.

    I moved from the desktop to the couch to seek refuge in the comfort of morning TV.  It was the Morning Show, no the Today Show, and Kathy Lee Gifford was greeting America for as long as decades have existed.

     What surprised me was not that women were imbibing fermented grape juice at an hour when most stores had not even opened in the East Coast, though that would have raised more than one eyebrow even in alcohol-friendly Europe; it wasn’t the fact that people were knocking back some drinks on live TV, though it was uncharacteristic for Americans to portray on the small screen what they spend most of their time doing in real life, if only to pretend that their life is pure and unaltered by impurities.  Mind you, they may have stirred my curiosity, but they didn’t floor me, like ten shots of tequila might.  In reality, what really got me over to the sofa was the realization that Kathy Lee was still presenting morning talk shows in a year when I thought she would have long been nestled in a villa in southern California, or wherever she lived (it happened to be my hometown, if that is any indicator of how little involved I am in following her life) because she had been around for as long as I could remember.  For as long as decades were decades.  Then again, if Harper Lee is still among us and publishing, then maybe just about anything is possible.

     “And her husband just died.  It’s disgraceful, though I admit I shouldn’t be saying anything at the moment,” added my sister.

     That, I didn’t know. Her spouse, the famous former football player and TV sportscaster, Frank Gifford, had just passed away on August 9, also in my hometown.  He was just about to turn 85.  He died from natural causes which I used to think was one of those queer vague terms to sugarcoat perishing from this planet, but it’s actually a valid legal term, often a vital distinction, if you’ll excuse the paradoxical adjective I have chosen, to clarify why the person is no longer with us.  Accidents, reckless conduct, negligence, suicide, manslaughter or homicide, are all causes, but are occurrences that, had the circumstances been entirely different, the victim would have been otherwise living a normal life.  It’s true that if you hold a knife the wrong way, trip and fall on it, one might argue that it be only natural that you die.  But in the greater order of things, in the higher harmony of the universe, you and your death become an anomaly.  Horrific.  Horrifying.  Horrendous.

     But they deviate from the former situation.  For natural causes to be typed onto your death certificate, you need to be killed by microscopic assassins, viral or bacterial.  Or your internal body, a section of your innards, a weary organ, has to give in.  Give up.  Give out.

     Old age is not acceptable as a cause of death.  Naturalness is.

     Dad was not a big sports fan, at least that’s what I recall.  He didn’t disdain it, and he knew the rules to most of the games, so he must have followed it enough as a young man. He may have even recalled Gifford’s glory days as a running back for the Giants and even the year they won the championship back in 1957.  He maybe would have enjoyed spending more time watching the final round of a golf tournament or catching a college bowl game, had it not been for the fact he had eight children to provide for and maintaining a Greenwich lifestyle which was no easy task to tackle.  Those were very natural causes.  As were the clots in his arteries.  As was the ictus.  As was his weary body.

    Mom said she was ready.  She was ready today.  She was ready that day.  I ran down to the Stop & Shop for a Dunkin Donuts coffee, and with an luck, I would have a chance to get another Starbuck’s cup before heading up to the room.  To see dad die of natural causes live for the first and last time.