Yeah, right! - Writings by Brian Murdock

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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.

Uncategorized

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?”

 

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 organdonor.gov 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.

gapgraph

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.