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Snap Out of It

December 6, 2015

Snap Out of It: 80%! 80%! 80%!

You know, if the Spanish government ever had a chance to try and put the Catalan issue to rest once and for all, if there had ever been a golden opportunity to hush the tide of independence enthusiasm, the period right after the 2014 illegal referendum, slyly renamed “Consulta”, was the perfect time.  But before I get to that point, let me enlighten you on how the vote came to being, because it really is quite comical.

    The Catalan separatists had petitioned the Spanish government the right to hold a referendum on self-determination.  The national parliament rejected the proposal on the grounds the constitution did not allow for it.  As a consequence, a playful battle of terms and nuances invaded the process.  Instead of calling it a “referendum”, Catalan leader Artur Mas, a man who seems bent on becoming the founding father of his own country, decided to refer to the plebiscite as a “consultation”.  In other words, they were just asking the people what they thought, on a Sunday, in the hope they could circumvent the prohibition. However, since the whole idea was being promoted by the regional government (which seemed wholley bent on being its own nation), Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, appealed to the Spanish Constituional Court to impose a determination, and the judicial body, in foreseeable fashion, concluded the plan was illegal.  Totally bogus.

      Mas, who, in addition to being bent of become the first president of a new nation, was almost equally bent on outwitting the rest of Spain, immediately called off the “consultation” but suggested that an “alternative consultation” be celebrated which could only be organized by non-official groups and associations.  From the nationalists point-of-view, the scheme was pure genius; from a centralist’s perspective, it was painfully frustrating and a touch childish.  For the Rajoy administration, it was a first-class conundrum.  Tension continued to rise as the date approached, but short of intervening directly through the use of force, a measure which would have spelled disaster for the national government no matter how you sliced it and was both strategically and historically unthinkable, there was little for the pro-Spain supporters to do but let it take place.

       From a pro-Catalan standpoint, this pretty much amounted to a win-win situation.  The faction based its actions on the ground they were defending their constitutional right to freedom of speech, and there is certainly something to be said for that.  As much as it irritates the rest of Spain, the Catalans do have a right to express their opinions and feelings.  And, no matter what happened, they knew that was going to be their sole argument.

       They also knew beforehand that the results were going to be in their favor by a landslide because the majority of the voters were going to be pro-independence.  Wouldn’t this be an ideal opportunity for the opposition to voice its, well, opposition?  Indeed, but that would also mean legitimizing a vote which had been rendered unconstitutional by the country’s highest court, so that option was pointless.

        What happened in the end?

        Approximately 6,300,000 people had the right to vote.  The pro-Catalan goups had extended suffrage to 16- and 17-year-olds, possibly figuring that the younger generations owned a deeper sense of independence since they had been born and educated in a highly pro-Catalan climate.  Of that number, 2,305,290 individuals exercised that right, of which 1,861,753 voters said “yes” to independence.  That constituted 81%.  A walloping 81%.

        The nationalists jumped for joy as they championed a victory for freedom of speech and their cause.  The central government cried foul, dismissed the consultation and its results as a non-factor, and vowed to take everyone and their grandmother to court for civil disobedience.

         Now, what I like about this information survey is that it brings together so many elements of this major national affair, and explains why the Catalans want to leave, why the Spanish are making it easy for them to leave, how the Catalans manage to capitalize on what is in reality terrible news, and how the central government bumbles flubs every time they actually have victory at hand.

          First of all, let’s look at the numbers.  That 81% which appeared to represent a resounding triumph (even the BBC plastered the number as the number that “backed independence” in a bizarre showing of shoddy journalism) is based on the percentage of those who voted, which was little more than 37%.   While there is no, nor should there be, a minimum voter turnout to make a referendum valid, considering the separatists were working hard to prove to Spain and the world that the people of Catalonia were sick and tired of being run by Madrid, they certainly didn’t show it.  In fact, 81% of that number, means a paltry 29% of the potential voting population actually favored leaving Spain.  Those aren’t just discreet numbers, they are outright pathetic when pitted against other great movements of the world, like Scotland and Ireland.  If we were to sense that the nationalists were really as numerous as their proponents claimed, you’d expect something like at least 40% pushing to say “adios!”.  Instead, they could even get that percentage to the polls in the first place.

        Did the political pundits and members of government point this out and throw it in the Catalans face?  Nope.  They just went on about the vote being illegal, illegal, illegal.  And the pro-Catalans kept shouting, “80%! 80%! 80%!”  And that’s what reporters from international channels like the BBC sent over the waves.   Essentially, the Catalans got their butts kicked all over the field, but still won the game.  Often that’s all that counts.

         And that’s what I meant when I said all the way up top about 900 words ago, remember there was a point to this, that the Spanish government had a golden opportunity to say, “OK.  Let’s go for it.  We’ll hold a referendum in a month.”  Those in favor of remaining with Spain probably would have won hands down.  Or at least by a margin larger than the slim advantages that kept Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the United Kingdom.  While it’s not totally impossible, it certainly seems very unlikely that there is a hidden 21% of pro-independence supporters lurking that simply didn’t bother to voice their opinion.

       But who cares?  The Catalans still won, and in so many ways.  They did so by stealing hours of national and international TV coverage, which is just the kind of free publicity they like.  They also got a great deal of sympathy from the world for defending their right to exercise their freedom of speech.  Moreover, the civil disobedience lawsuits that followed did little more than fuel the movement even more.  People thrive on these actions and foster more ways frustrate.  They thrive on their opponents’ frustration.

       The event also made the separatists look like underdogs (which they are anything but intheir region), and everyone likes to root for the underdog.

Forensic Files

Files, Feuds and Funerals 21

We sat down and talked about Dad.  From an administrative perspective.  Richard produced several forms and pulled a pen, clicked it and began to jot down all the information that we needed to provide.  The personal data, his education, his identity numbers.  All sort of details which seemed irrelevant at the time but which actually told us something about him.  Starting with his birth.  Dad was born and raised in Meriden, Connecticut, a small and unassuming town in the middle of the state.  He lived on a street called Windsor Avenue, where he belonged to a neighborhood gang of childhood pals aptly known as the Windsor Avenue Gang.  Typical childhood conduct, probably coupled with classic childhood antics, I assume.  His father was a physician and highly regarded in Connecticut.

       I don’t think I remember very much more of the town or that street other than the fact my father vividly recalled the day the 1938 Hurricane (back then they still weren’t named), which is still the deadliest tropical storm on record to strike New England.  More than 600 people perished in the cyclone.  The center made landfall somewhere around Bridgeport which meant quiet Meriden was placed right in the path of the most destructive winds just to the east.  According to Dad, not a single tree on the street was standing in the end.  Sounds to me the product of an impressionable 11-year-old’s mind, but it does give you a pretty good idea of the amount of destruction inflicted on the town.  Nothing like it has devastated the region in such a way since, it gladdens me to say.

     Other than that, and the fact my uncle lived there until he died just about ten years ago, he was a fanatic of the Sunday word jumble puzzles, Meriden meant very little to me.  As it did to Dad.  Though his family’s plot was just about 15 miles away, he had expressed a desire to be buried in my mother’s hometown of Davenport, Iowa.  That pretty much says it all.

     During our talk with Richard, I also learned that Dad could also receive some benefits from the federal government as a war veteran.  Dad didn’t go to fight, he didn’t watch his buddy have his cheek blown off in his face, he didn’t have to pick up someone’s arm and return it to them. My Uncle Keat, his brother, saw active duty.  He was picked up by the navy, ascended to the rank of officer, and served on the USS New Jersey.  He didn’t talk much about it, but I remember he said he was unnerved by the enemy shells that  had been fired from so far away you couldn’t even see the ship they came from.

     Dad, on the other hand, was drafted at the end of World War II and stationed at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, and helped supervise the demilitarization of a nation.  Apparently the fort was comprised mainly of Georgians, but why in hell they would ship a Yalie down there is beyond me.  But they were unusual times, I must admit.  Like so many parts of my father’s past, details were sparse.  I know the military asked him to stay on for clerical work, which would have suited his preparation, far more than trying to stick a bayonet in a combatant’s chest, but he declined.  I also know he was appalled by the language he heard, all that swearing, words he had never heard before.  It slipped out at a time when he was getting a lot off his mind.  It just slipped out.  It told me a lot about my father, in just a handful of words.

     We planned out a bunch of matters in that session.  We ironed them out too.  There was a lot to do, and a short span of time to perform the task.   Pending tasks were: settling on a day and time for the funeral, preparations for the funeral, cremation, viewing or no viewing (and if so, what clothes to bring down), urn, obituary, media outlets, financing by the state, future pensions, insurance, final resting place, people to be notified, people not to be notified, and, of course, who is paying for it and how.  No matter how gracious Richard was, and he excelled as a human being, that little issue had to be settled almost before we could walk out the door.  It was a matter of custom.  It was expected.

Forensic Files

December 5, 2015

Files, Fueds and Funerals 20

If you check with the American Board of Funeral Service Education, about eighty-five percent of students enrolled in funeral service education had no prior relationship, be it via family or friend, with the sector of preparing the deceased for final disposition and assisting the family with dealing with the loss, which naturally brings me to inquiry: what in God’s name would possess anyone to come to that unequivocal moment of illumination and say, “You know what? I’d really like to be a funeral director.”

     But the calling apparently comes to a fairly large portion of the population.  More than anyone could possibly imagine.  In 2012, the number of occupations rounded off at about 33,200.  And while it’s safe to say that this is a sector that will never become obsolete, as long as there are humans around to pass away, the outlook for the profession is particularly bright thanks to the ever-increasing population in America and the ever-aging Baby Boomers who are reaching the final stages of life.  I am waiting for a pilot episode of “Dying Something” to air at any time.  The government projects the number of jobs to increase by 12% over the next ten years.

      In fact, you could say that never was there a better time to buy a shovel and start practicing digging holes.

     While disposing of corpses may not seem to require demanding formal training, for centuries in established civilizations like England’s gravediggers used to pile bodies upon bodies in the most haphazard way (regardless of lifelong achievements), and cementaries were notorius for their rotting stench, filth, and pestilence.  Honoring the dead, back then, seemed to be the last thing on people’s minds.

       Nowadays, you will need to spend some time at the higher education level if you want to have a fighting chance at landing a job.  There are 57 accredited Mortuary Science degree programs, most of which are two-year programs, but 7 are apparently full bachelor degrees.  That’s a long time to spend learning about cadavers and their final resting place.  I can only imagine the hours of practicum sessions.  The following is a list of some of the subjects that students have to sign up for to complete the academic requirements:

  • Sciences, including microbiology, pathology, chemistry, anatomy, embalming andrestorative art
  • Business and funeral home management, funeral directing, accounting, business communications and computer applications for funeral service
  • Social Sciences, including history and sociology of funeral service, funeral service psychology and counseling
  • Law and Ethics, including business law, funeral service law and funeral service ethics

    Another unquestionable skill which doesn’t appear to figure anywhere there but must be inserted some place is sympathy.  And even empathy at times.

     The minute my brother, sister, Mom and I walked into the funeral home, this quality was made evident by the level-headed, soft-spoken, practical and yet sympathetic kindness of the man who received us.  His name was Richard.  Beecher & Bennett is located in one of those classic 1960s plain brick one-story buildings that seemed so popular in New England towns years ago.  Some people find them appalling, but I am equally unnerved by the trend toward southern mansions as a way of dignifying death, as if fat white Doric columns are really going to make the difference between a humble a departure and one that has bizarrely resembles an epic Hollywood film about antebellum America.  You half-expect to see Scarlett O’Hara herself pressing the button labeled “Start Incineration”.

     Richard, just like his place of employment, brought everything down to a ground level.  And underground one, in fact.  He invited us to meet in a conference room in the basement, which meant descending a steep stairway that made us feel like we were entering a crypt.  It was a fitting setting to talk about what to do with Dad.

Images of Spain

November 27, 2015

Dando Calabazas

Uno de los productos más cotizados en el mercado madrileño esta semana se encuentra dentro de una pequeña lata.  Es un producto que en tierras norteamericanas apenas lograría una pestañada de interés del consumidor, pero que aquí cobra una importancia que jamás sospecharían los españoles.  Se trata de una lata de calabaza.  La calabaza para hacer las famosas tartas de Thanksgiving que llevan su nombre.  La bote que se vende solo contiene, por muy sorprendente que parezca, 100% calabaza.  El resto lo tienes que añadir después.

     La verdad es que no es fácil encontrar calabaza siempre en ningún sitio, estés donde estés.  Ni siquiera en Estados Unidos.  La verdura/fruta tiene la mala costumbre de caer víctima de todo tipo de enfermedad y responde mal a ciertos cambios climáticos.  La producción puede ser volátil.  En 2009, fuertes lluvias afectaban las cosechas en em Medioeste, y la mayor productora de calabaza envasada, Libby’s, se vio obligada a confesar que a lo mejor no llegaban a alcanzar los números para satisfacer todo el hambre Thanksgiviano en USA.  Por lo visto, algo así ocurrió de nuevo en el 2011, a causa del huracán Irene, y en el presente año, por no sé qué razón, la planta tampoco ha dado que se esperaba de ella y nuestros amigos en Libby nos advierte que va a ser un año de escasez de nuevo.  Por lo que veo, ser agricultor de calabazas es casi más precario que ser dueño de un video-club.

     Thanksgiving es una tradición tremendamente americana que intriga a los españoles porque se trata de reunirse con la familia y comer hasta reventarse la tripa, dos pilares de la vida de aquí.  Aquí muchos norteamericanos preparan la comida pero la sociedad local lo observa con curiosidad y envidia (mis alumnos se cabrean cuando se enteran de que no hay colegio allí), pero no lo han acogido con las ganas habituales que muestran hacia una festividad.  Lo que sí ha logrado arraigarse es el temido Viernes Negro, o Black Friday.  Es el día de shopping por excelencia.  Lleva pocos años pero ha tenido una evolución extraordinaria.

      Desde que era pequeño se le conocía el día después de Thanksgiving como la jornada de mayor ventas de todo el años.  O eso decían.  Pero poco más.  No la llamábamos Black Friday, ni había colas kilométricas fuera de las tiendas.  Por lo visto, el nombre originó en la zona de Filadelfia en los 70 y se extendió a partir de ahí.  En los 80 empezó a extenderse por todo el país.  Se cuenta que el apodo viene de los números negros, es decir, los beneficios que sacaban las tiendas ese día.  Esa teoría siempre me ha sorprendido, porque el costumbre de juntar el color negro con un día siempre se ha hecho por un motivo negativo, como una masacre u otra tragedia.  Sin embargo, esto era todo lo contrario, desde el punto de vista de los negociantes.  Y así se lo he contado muchas veces, convencido de esta ironía.  Pero resulta que el día sí que está relacionado con el horror de las compras, del tráfico infernal en las calles y con el agobio de las tiendas.  Eso sí tiene sentido.

       En los años 90, el Black Friday despegó como la incuestionable etapa reina de compras.  Todos los años, las furgonetas con sus parabólicas montadas encima y los cameras y reporteros descendían a las puertas de los grandes superficies de carácter barato para mostrar al mundo las colas de gente de todas edades esperando pacientemente al comienzo de la jornada.  Y, en algunos casos, no tan pacientemente.  En 2008, en el Walmart de Valley Stream, en el estado de Nueva York, 2.000 nerviosos clientes literalmente asaltaron la tienda al abrirse las puertas, tirando al suelo el único vigilante allí.  En vez de echarle una mano, la masa de consumidores hambrientos atropellaron al hombre, de 34 años, y seguían pasando por encima de él, pisándole en el acto hasta causarle la muerte.  Pocos hicieron nada para salvarle.  Pocos se pararon.  Solo tenían una cosa en la cabeza: ese televisor plasma Samsung de 50″ y con HDTV, esa camera Canon, esa aspiradora a mitad de precio.  A nadie le importaba la vida que se les iba delante de ellos. Los compañeros de trabajo intervinieron para evitar que la ola de humanidad aplastasen al hombre, pero ya era tarde.   Y después, cuando la tienda cerró sus puertas para atender a la víctima, aunque poco pudo hacer, algunos incluso protestaron.   Sigue siendo para mí uno de los actos de captalismo, del consumismo, de la avaricia más viles que jamás he conocido.

      Ese fervor.  Ese ansia por comprar.  Eso es lo que se ha popularizado aquí en España.  No el encuentro familiar en el que se dan las gracias por la suerte que tenemos en la vida.  No ese momento para reflexionar sobre realmente nos importa en la vida.  En el fondo, no lo pido para España.  No necesita un Thanksgiving, además, al igual que Halloween, es una tradición que nada tiene que ver con este país.  ¿Y el Black Friday?  ¿Por qué tiene que prosperar ese día?  Quizás, como algunos dicen, el dinero es el lenguaje que mejor se traduce entre los idiomas del mundo, que mejor cruza las fronteras con más facilidad.  Así acabamos dando calabazas a las mayores virtudes de nuestra forma de ser.

      Happy Thanksgiving.


November 23, 2015

Snap Out of It: Don’t Know Much about Catalan History

I am a confessed Wikipedia user.  For some time it’s become taboo for people to admit this because someone out there has spread the rumor that you can’t rely on its truthfulness because the they had done something like embed that some famous person had died when it was obviously not true.  A point well made, sort of.  People go into schools and on occasion start blasting away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t trust the education system.  There is plenty to complain about with Wiki, mainly the fact that the format varies so greatly from entry to entry that you get things like, Leonardo Da Vinci competing head-to-head with, say, Jennifer Lopez, in terms of numbers of words used to cover their lives.  About 8,500 a piece.  Then there is Tom Walsh, born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1886, and who played professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs in 1906.  Here are his stats:

      MLB debut: August 15, 1906, for the Chicago Cubs

      Last MLB appearance: September 26, 1906, for the Chicago Cubs

      Number of Games: 2

      Batting Average: .000

Here’s his bio as lifted verbatim from the page:

     Thomas Joseph Walsh was a Major League Baseball player. He was a catcher who played for the Chicago Cubs in the 1906 season. He was born on February 28, 1886 in Davenport, Iowa. Tom played just 2 games in his career, going 0 for 2 in just 2 plate appearances and an average of .000. He died on March 16, 1963 in Naples, Florida.

    What is not mentioned between that late September day and the moment he passed away due to a stroke, was the time he invested running a construction company that helped build such memorable structures as the Grand Coulie Dam, Yankee Stadium, The Queens Midtown Tunnel, and the United Nations Headquarters, all achievements that could have earned him a place in digital eternity…but didn’t.  Instead, people can read about his rather stunted career behind the plate and modest performance while wielding a bat.  Word had it he wanted to stay on, but when he sent his father tickets to the World Series, his old man declined saying he wanted him to drop his aspirations to excel on the diamond and return to the family business.  That wasn’t an entirely cockeyed request back then, seeing that baseball wasn’t the glamorous sport we know it to be today.  It was a shame, though, because the Cubs lost that series, but went on to win in 1907 and 1908.  It is, to date, the last time they would be crowned champions.

     Who was Tom Walsh and why in hell is he there?  Why the hell is he being mentioned here?  He was my grandfather, and while I am proud to see his brief stint in professional sports recognized by some evidently very, very avid baseball buff, with a lot of free time on his hands, he really has no business appearing. Not for those reasons, at least.  But what they heck.  This is Wikipedia.

     Nor should Victor Cucurull, for that matter.  But he is.  Victor belongs to the ANC, which does not stand for the African National Congress in this case, but rather the Asamblea Nacional Catalana, an organization devoted to promoting Catalan independence.  That’s fair enough, as people who wish to secede from Spain are naturally going to want to do so in an orderly fashion. Victor is a professor and

     I get the feeling he is, unless someone can otherwise prove me wrong, an instutionalized liar.  And he probably knows it.  Either that, or he is a lunatic.  Either that, or he’s a brillant provacateur coming up with outlandish claims just to piss the rest of the Spaniards off.  A look at his Youtube videos suggests the first two to be the most likely.  In any event, here are a number of his postures on a very revised history of just about everything:

     The legendary lost civilization of Tartessos, placed by every serious scholar to be located somewhere in southern Spain, was really founded in the otherwise modest Catalan city of Tortosa.  I believe the relative similarity in the letters used constitutes definitive proof.  Other jaw-dropping assertions include Catalonia being the world’s first nation, Ancient Rome reaching its greatness thanks to the incorporation of Catalonia, Catalonia rising as the world’s most powerful nation in the 16th Century, America being discovered by Catalans, and so on.

      But wait, there’s more.  Like what? Well, famous Catalans were (but really aren’t) St. Ignatius Loyola, Christopher Columbus, Leonardo Da Vinci, Amerigo Vespucci, and Miguel de Cervantes. To name just a few.  Speaking of Cervantes, apparently Don Quijote was penned in Catalan, translated into English and finally Spanish.

     These preposterous claims certainly trigger laughter, but they also instill a deep sense of sadness and indignation.  It’s pathetic to have to lie about your past to give it prestige.  It’s dangerous that people do it.  It represents the extreme to which the nationalists will sometimes go to justify their existence.  I should add that no entry for the Catalan version of Wikipedia about this man has ever been posted, thus suggesting that not even his own people take him seriously.  And they shouldn’t.

    Nor should the person who added his bio to the global resource website.  He was obviously pro-Spain and clearly doing his best to ridicule the man.  And while Cucurull probably deserves it, using a formal fact-finding website normally devoted to truly encyclopedia-worthy individuals, as a way of networking your frustration defeats the purpose and does little for your cause.  Plus, it gives publicity and importance to someone who is about as worthy of such an honor as my poor grandfather, who essentially did little more than toss a few baseballs back to the pitcher.

In Spanish

November 22, 2015

La Amenaza del Bilingüismo

Ayer tuve una conversación de esas que vienen siendo corrientes en estos tiempos: la presencia del inglés como el mal de todos los males.  En dos palabras: Una amenaza.

     Es curioso.  Tantos años lamentando que en este país el nivel de inglés es vergonzosamente bajo, ahora que todo empieza a cambiar, me enfrento con todo tipo de pegas.  Había la protesta a nivel infantil cuando se decía que los alumnos iban a empezar a tener dificultades para hablar su lengua materna si aprendían el inglés demasiado pronto, creencia sin ningún fundamento científico ni académico.  Luego surgió la sospecha en primaria de que los alumnos iban a tener menos nivel de conocimientos en ciencias naturales si estudiaban la asignatura en inglés, también un argumento que carece de pruebas.  “¡No saben decir ‘vejiga’ en inglés!’, protestó un amigo hace tiempo.  Era curioso porque me acuerdo de una actividad que hice hace muchos años cuando les ponía palabras en inglés que yo sabía que no sabían y dio la casualidad de que una de esos vocablos era “bladder”.  Cuando al final les revelé que “bladder” significaba “vejiga”, me miraron perplejos y dijeron, “¿Eso qué es?”

      Yo no niego la posibilidad de que esos alumnos reciban algo menos de información al aprenderlo en otro idioma, pero ¿tanto que les va a suponer un handicap más adelante?  Por favor.  Encima, y esto sí que está demostrado neurológicamente, los alumnos se encuentran beneficiados en cuanto a su actividad cerebral, al saber trabajar en más de un idioma, por no hablar de las destrezas que vayan a adquirir de cara al futuro.   Tiene todo el sentido en el mundo.

        Aún así, muchos no están convencidos.  Una me confesó exasperademente, “Pero nadie hace lo que estamos haciendo con el bilingüismo.  Somos el único país.”

        Dicha afirmación podría parecer un cumplido, pero nada más lejos.  Me lo dijo en plan, solo se les ocurre a los españoles inventar semejante estupidez.  Y yo pensando, ¿pero por qué?  ¿Desde cuándo una idea novedosa que nace de estas tierras tiene que equivaler una insensatez?  ¿Qué pasa?  ¿Si no lo hacen los finlandeses primero, es una mala idea?  ¿Dónde está el orgullo en tomar una iniciativa y en ser un ejemplo para los demás?  Por primera vez, la deseada y antes inalcanzable meta de superar “ese tema pendiente” se está superando, y parece que estamos cometiendo una especie de suicidio colectivo.  Una autoinmolación, como si todo un pueblo estuviera gritando, “¡Lo sentimos! ¡Lo sentimos! ¡No hemos querido decir eso de aprender inglés!”

       Sorry!  Ya es tarde, seguramente.  Pero no pasa nada.  Esto es como cuando tienes hijos adolescentes.  Piensas que no va a acabar nunca y un día todo cambia para bien.  Es normal que haya miedo. Es normal que haya nerviosismo. Es normal que la gente se muestre conservadora antes un cambio profundo…pero podría ser peor.

     “Yo también soy profe de Lengua.  Lengua castellena.”

     Me miró incrédula.  “¿Cómo?”

     “Sí.  ¿Por qué no?  Casi todos los profesores de inglés son españoles, ¿por qué no puede ser un americano un profesor de español?”

     “¿Es no es ilegal?”

     Eso sí que es una amenaza.  : )

Forensic Files,Uncategorized

Files, Feuds and Funerals 19

The day after Dad died I went for a jog for the first time in about ten days.  Just down the hill from where my parents live, you can zig-zag along a planked path to the Farmington Canal Trail which, when completed, will be comprised of no fewer than 84 miles of carefully laid route for cyclists and runners alike.   As the name clearly indicates, it was a canal, of the kind that was typically built in the first half of the 19th Century, and like those canals built in the first half of the 19th Century, it was quickly replaced by the railroad.  The track was literally laid where the boats once navigated.  Train travel lasted all the way up to  the 1980s, when flooding put the via beyond repair.  It was if the canal had distantly had the last laugh.  It was not long after that new potential as a recreational path became evident, and construction has been underway ever since.

       I didn’t have a bike nor was I a cyclist, but I did try to get a few k’s in to keep my body going.  The heat wasn’t too bad but the humidity was atrocious, and before I had reached a mile and a half, I humbly decided to turn around and limped back home with a quiet whimper, comforted by the thought this pathetic show of athleticism was not made too public.  During the march of tears, I did have a chance to sense that, despite the unquestionable beauty of the path, all lined with an amazing array of deep green New England summer foliage, there was also no doubt that if there ever was a place that was apt for the type of heinous crime that would eventually end up being featured on Forensic Files, that was it.  Any kind of weapon seemed suitable, and there were scores of ideal ditches for a body to be buried in.  It was unnerving.

      We then planned out the day.  There was no longer a need to go to the hospital, but the funeral home was a must.  We set up a time with the manager in the afternoon.  In the meantime, I returned to the supermarket to load up on food for the next few days.  I also took the opportunity to purchase a lottery ticket, which is something I do from time to time, just in case there is an outside chance a bit of good news will fall my way.  The chances are remote indeed.  About 1 in 176 million.  Someone told me there was a better chance of you getting struck by lightening something like 16 times than hitting the jackpot.  One study in California, because this is the kind of thing scientists in California sometimes dabble in, even spent some time, and I presume someone’s money, to analyze the success rate of winning if you bet on the most frequently called numbers, the underused numbers and the random numbers to see if any one of those  proved itself  to be a superior strategy.

     Not so surprisingly, none outdid the rest, making it clear once again that gambling is just as unpredictable as we always thought it was.  The only exception was the underused numbers which performed better than the rest but by a margin so small you would have to wait  until the Sun burned out for any noticeable results to make themselves known.  And by then, obviously, it would be too late to reap the benefits.  I have always thought it would be great to win the lottery so that we could help my parents out in these times of hardhip for them, times which have only gotten worse with the passing of more times.  I could buy them a decent condo, and set it up as such that they wouldn’t ever have to deal with this situation again.  That would provide some happiness to everyone.  People should be allowed to land the big prize just once in their lives on the condition that they use the proceeds to help someone out you is worse off than them.

    But that didn’t seemed to make a difference, according to the girl at the supermarket who sold me my potentially winning number.  She claimed, “They say winning the jackpot is said to bring you happiness for only about three months. So, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.”

     “I’d say it is.  ‘Cause winning $267 million is great.  But every three months to ensure my happiness.”

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?”