Files, Feuds and Funerals 6

As I see it, there were three reasons why I woke up at four in the morning.  One was that I had jet-lag and in Madrid-time that was about ten in the morning, and I don’t recall the last time I had slept to ten in the morning.  That was due to the second reason, which was because I was a parent and once you become one, that’s to say, once you have children, you never recall what it’s like to have sleep late or long again.  You say to yourself, when I get older, everything will go back to normal, but it doesn’t.  You never recover that habit of sleeping endless hours in a state of unconscious bliss.  That will only happen when you are dead.  And that was due to the third reason, which is that when you get older, you don’t need to sleep that much anymore.  I think I read that Kissinger used to get something like three hours of sleep a night when he was Secretary of State.  That’s all he needed.  And that was before the days of cable television.

    Most Americans don’t appreciate cable television anymore, which is a shame because they don’t know just how engrossing all that crap TV can get.  Most people like to say they are repulsed by all that’s on, but I think they are lying because they are afraid. I think that’s why a lot of people lie in general.

    When I was growing up in the 80s, we had about forty different channels.  Now the digital TV companies provide hundreds.  Frontier is a firm which is based out of nearby Stamford, Connecticut, and it had just bought out AT&T’s service in the state in 2014. My parents have done nothing but complain about it since then, though Dad doesn’t do much complaining now.  I don’t think it mattered much to him, anyway.  Except for an occasional movie, he was content watching FOX News, and that channel never seems to go.

     Mom couldn’t stand the change.  But that might have been because she against change in general.   She says that TV hasn’t been the same since Frontier took over.  Now it’s a mess.  I bet the people at Frontier wouldn’t like to hear that.

     I wanted to give the offer a good look, so I flipped through about two hundred channels when I finally came to one that featured crime shows, especially true ones.  I have an affinity for these shows but I’m not really sure why.  Maybe it’s because I’m afraid too.  Maybe.   There are a lot of shows on this subject I guess because a lot of people have been murdered in this country, and just about every way and every motive has been used.  That night Forensic Files was on the agenda.  Each episode lasts about half an hour including the frequent commercial interruptions, which I am normally freed of in Spain.

     Peter Thomas’ unwavering narration kicks off the forthcoming story.  Thomas is 91 years old and has been around the voice-off business for five decades, which means he didn’t even start until he was forty.  When he was born, Coolidge was our president, man had yet to cross the Atlantic in an airplane, and it would be three years before The Jazz Singer, the first feature length talkie, would be released.   Yes, a lot has happened since then.

     Thomas is three years my father’s senior and he still makes a living recounting some of the most heinous crimes that have ever rocked this country’s rather rich of history of brutal violence.  He calmly discusses the dismemberment of a 25-year-old woman and then probably spends the afternoon making paper flowers with his great granddaughter.

     One episode talked about a guy who kidnapped and killed a teenager girl and her half-brother.  The perpetrator was a rather confused dropout from the town who everyone knew.  He shot the boy in the head.  The girl ran out of the car and into the woods.  So he chased after her, caught up and shot her in the back.  Seeing that she wasn’t dead yet, he walked up to her and shot her in the head to finish her off.  They call it a coup de grace because it’s supposed to be some kind of show of mercy.  Then he left and returned a little while later to decapitate her and cut off her hands.  He threw those parts into a lake.  They caught him and sentenced him to death because they found several notebooks he had written about how much he liked to kill animals and lop off their heads.  The day they executed him, he said sorry for what he had done and that he promised the two kids didn’t suffer.  He asked the family for forgiveness, but I don’t they ever granted it.

     This and other tales kept me occupied before until the day’s light arrived.  Lots were about spouses doing each other in for insurance claims.  Others retold events concerning parents, children, siblings, and other members of the extended family inflicting some of the most unimaginable acts of violence on each other for some of the most inexplicable reasons.

    I came to the conclusion that if you were having issues with your kin and money was at the root of the problem, your life expectancy forecast dropped dramatically.  I made a point of it to be extra nice to everyone while Dad was still alive. And even beyond.

     Only cable TV could teach you these things.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 5

Dad wasn’t a huge pizza fan, he preferred burgers, but he was known to chomp down a good slice when the opportunity arose.  My brother Pat had decided to get two pies for home since no one here was in any real mood to start cooking.  Eli’s, seemingly the only real decent restaurant around Hamden, as far as standard American fare went, provided the goods and got the job done.  I really love American pizza.  It’s the dough, I think, or the cheese.  It’s so thin.

    I was snacking away at a triangle of sausage pizza and listening to mom as she told me how dad stopped talking for ever.

     He was reading to her a book called the Tudors.  I think it was more historically accurate than the show on TV which captured so much audience thanks to its gratuitous sex scenes.   Dad was asking her to lie down so he could go back to reading.  I can’t recall what part of the book they were in.  I can’t recall her ever telling me.  Maybe she couldn’t recall either.  Then he suddenly just stopped talking.   And he looked at her with begging eyes.  And gripped her hand.  They called one brother and then a sister and both insisted they call 911.  Call 911. The ambulance didn’t take very long to come, apparently, I wasn’t there to greet it or its occupants.  My mom and sister were anguished because they felt they hadn’t acted quickly enough, but I don’t know.  I think they did a fine job. Couldn’t have been more expeditious.  The stroke performed to T, too.  It just operated faster.  Sometimes there’s really just nothing you can do.  There really is nothing you can do.

     Then she went on to tell the story about another brother wanting to go to the Getty Museum in California because we had some cousin who was curator there, but it turned out he had left the position in 2000, or some 15 years before, and I figured that chances were he wouldn’t be available.

     Maybe it was the jetlag.  I hadn’t slept for nearly thirty-five hours and facts and figures were becoming blurred in my head.   My father stopped talking.  All of a sudden.  That’s all I could remember.

     I let those thought stew in my head as I finished off my fourth slice of za.  Why couldn’t they make pizza this good in Spain?  They make lots of it.  It just ain’t the same.  Eli’s didn’t start out making Italian food.  Across the street, the flagship restaurant catered to your usual notch-above burgers and a island bar lined with TVs for sports lovers.  There’s a sense it’s there to entice students from the local university, Quinnipiac, but my guess is that the prices don’t match the target customer. The pizza joint covers that department.  If I had to guess, I’d say that the owners chose the name because their establishment is on Whitney Street, one of the main arteries leading out of New Haven to Hamden and beyond.  That road gets its name from Eli Whitney, former resident of New Haven and inventor of the cotton gin, a machine designed to separate the cottonseed from from the fluffy material itself…apparently one of the most painstaking tasks in all of agriculture.  It was also extremely time-consuming.  So much so that plantation owners were beginning to abandon the use practice of forced human slave labor, not out of moral disgust obviously, but rather because it was no longer cost efficient.  Whitney’s cotton gin changed that, unfortunately.  While still in need of a great deal of perfecting, it did boost the production of clean, seedless cotton by tenfold, thereby giving it the breath of fresh air it needed to resuscitate.  Instead of free labor, it intensified it.  To this day, Whitney’s invention has been cited as one of the reasons the South continued to defend the horrid custom, which led to a war the caused the death of some 600,000 people.  Certainly not something you’d like to put on your résumé.  Whitney, by the way, came from one of the oldest families in New England.  He died in New Haven, at the age of 57, of prostate cancer, though I don’t think much of the medical world could actually determine that at the time.  Back then, they probably just said he died.

     I finished my pìzza and announced I was no longer available for conversation, as I would soon be falling asleep.  It was time for bed and I settled down to a long summer’s night of cable TV.

A Mal Tiempo, Buena Cara

Hace varios años yo pertenecía a un grupo de élite en el cuerpo de enseñanza al ser un profesor nativo de inglés con magisterio.  Vamos, estaba más solicitado que George Clooney en Alegoría un sábado por la noche.  Pero últimamente, con tanto extranjero consiguiendo el título universitario necesario pasar impartir clase, me he convertido en un chico del montón.  Para colmo, este año estoy dando lengua española a chicos nativos del español.  Hay que ver.

       En fin.  A veces pienso que más que instruir sobre morfemas deritativos, estoy enseñando morales delictivos.   Veamos el ejemplo del primer tema, que se titula igual que este post.  La unidad esta llena de referencias sobre cómo ver las cosas del lado positivo.  Y para ilustrar semejante idea, incluye un extracto de la novela “Tom Sawyer” que habla de la famosa escena de la valla en la que el niño travieso consigue que todos sus compañeros hagan el trabajo por él, con el añadido que le regalan algo para poder hacerlo.  En resumen, les estafaba, haciéndoles creer que estaban haciendo una cosa divertida (es decir, realizar una tarea que le correspondía a otro, sin cobrar) e incluso dar algo de propiedad a cambio.   ¡Joder!  Me dije.  Como la mismísima vida aquí en España.  Ya lo pillo.  Es que llevamos todos estos años educándolos así.

       Encima, Tom debería sentirse orgulloso de haber sido capaz de cambiar de actitud y convertir una situación desesperada, como puede ser tener que pintar una valla de treinta metros por dos metros de alto, en un éxito total, palabras textuales, mediante una genialidad llamada “la picardía”, española, añaden algunos con orgullo.  Solo al final se nos invita a reflexionar y decir si Tom lo podía haber hecho mejor.  ¿En qué sentido?  ¿Ayudar?    No me jodas.  ¿Qué te parece si cumple el castigo solito, en vez de conseguir que sus amigos lo realicen por él (con numerosos beneficios materiales)?  El problema es, la mayoría de las estafas, siempre que estén bien hechas por supuesto, son genialidades.

        Pues nada.  Dentro de 30 años cuando uno de mis alumnos se encuentra delante de un juez declarándose inocente ante las acusaciones de haber embolsado 33 mil millones de euros de los contribuyentes para comprarse un chalet en los alpes, un bungalo en Bora Bora, por no hablar del asunto de unos amigos que tienen una constructora que acaba de hacer un aeropuerto en Cáceres, alegando que será el perfecto lugar para turistas que pretenden viajar entre Portugal y Madrid.  Todos lo delitos han sido obras de arte, obras maestras, fruto de la imaginación y genialidad.  Antes no tenía ni un duro, y acabó teniendo una fortuna.  Antes de ser arrestado, por supuesto.

         Ese mismo hombre dirá, “Pero, señorilla, en mi clase de profe Brian, me dijo que Tom Sawyer supo poner buena cara a mal tiempo.”  A que reconocer que sería un alumno bien atento y aplicado.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 4

Dad looked great, for a guy who could only survive on life support.  If you managed to block out the breathing tube entering his mouth and descending into his windpipe, he didn’t look bad at all.  His cheeks were full, not puffy, and his skin color healthy, as if he had just enjoyed a fine Sunday breakfast.

    I can’t really say what I was expecting as I went through the wide halls of the intensive care unit on the 7th floor at Yale-New Haven Hospital, passed the reception desk and zig-zagged around machines and computer screens where the nurses could monitor the different patients, but past experiences had prepared me for the worst.  My mom looked dreadful before she had her mitral valve replacement 15 years before.  That’s because she was in a dreadful state.  But she survived…she still does.  Roger Ebert spent his final years looking like a Francis Bacon painting, or perhaps a Munch.  Just that awful.  Some might find that offensive, but I’d like to think he’d appreciate my candor.  You know, as someone who had been frank all his life.

    But Dad emanated a restful air about him.  He was peaceful.  He was always such a calm man, barely ever riled.  It took the best we eight children had in us to get him to bark out some kind of angry response.  Otherwise, he approached life quietly, unruffled and unbothered.  That was the way he was approaching death, from what I could tell, though there was no word from the doctor.   He was waiting for me to arrive…not because he was waiting for me in particular, but because I was the only one from out-of-town who was arriving early enough that day.  Two other brothers and two sisters, a couple of sister-in-laws and a nephew and niece were already there.  We hugged and talked about what had happened, and then spent some time talking about our summers, the way people do when they are in uncharted territory.

      The doctor sat us down in a conference room and rolled in a computer on a cart.  With this he was going to explain to just what had happened to Brian S. Murdock, esq.  But he didn’t stop there.  First he gave us a crash course on how the brain works.  I happened to have little trouble following him because I had recently become a primary school science teacher based on the qualification that I could speak English, not tell you the difference between an angiosperm and a gymnosperm, but I did brush up on my basics and knew enough about the functions of the brain keep up with the man.  stem, which included control over breathing and consciousness, to realize that .

    My father had suffered from a stroke, which is a very broad term that refers to afflictions which are almost opposite in meaning.  In basic understanding, a stroke can be anything from a brain hemorrhage to a clotted artery which blocks blood from flowing to the brain.  In my father’s case, it was the latter, more specifically known as BOA, Basilar Artery Occlusion, not Bank of America.   The problem with this type of cerebral “heart attack” is that its effects are often devastating, with brain tissue dying, or necrosis, within minutes from the commencement of the attack, due to lack of oxygen. This is called infarction.  The damage is irreversible.  Like time itself.  It’s a disparaging word, that.  Irreversible.

    The doctor tried to unclog the the blockage by inserting a very fine wire in the artery to remove whatever it was that was in the way.  Had this been the Simpsons, it would have been Homer with a burger stuck inside.  But I never found out what had done Dad in.  The surgeon told us the obstacle was so large, there was nothing she could do.  In fact, most of the neighboring minor arteries around there had been destroyed years ago.  Nothing had been going anywhere for a long time.

      It was like the Van Wyck Expressway on a bad day.

Files, Feuds and Funerals 3

Whenever I arrive in the United States, I am never really sure just what kinds of changes I will encounter.  I’m sometimes afraid I will return one day and hardly recognise this country at all.

     I have to admit, however, that I am comforted by the assurance that there are certain aspects of life here that will never, ever change for as long as the troposphere allows people to survive on the planet.  One of the most persistent traditions in the New York area is the traffic jam on the Van Wyck Expressway.  I guess the term “expressway” was coined to convey intent rather than actual confluence.  Yes, the vehicles come together…but then they stop.  This 14-mile stretch of road has been home to fifty years of continuous backup. While there are times when I have been known to exaggerate a point or two, in this case I shit you not.  It’s like watching decades of Blade Runner. I can’t recall there ever being a time when my car didn’t have to come to a complete standstill at least once.

    The driver of the car that came to pick me up, a friendly man from Uruguay who had lived in America since the 80s and was planning on returning in October for a wedding, and it was stop and go, for a half a mile or so, while we exchanged impressions about the heat, which had been horrendous in Madrid that year.  At least it was dry, I told him, and he agreed it was better.  Somehow, though, he managed to thread us through much of the sluggish transit without too much delay.  Then, as usual, we picked up speed and coasted by Citi Field and the New York Times.  The Lincoln bobbed up and down over the potholes with muted thumps, another timeless piece of local music.

    Once we got to the Whitestone Bridge, I looked left because the span affords one of the most magnificent views of the New York skyline that a person can have.  Expecting to find the usual cutout of a string of concrete, iron and glass mountains at the lower end, capped by the the new World Trade Center, then blocks of foothills before the Empire State Building crowned the lofty middle of the island, I was struck by the presence of a needle-like stick towering above what I would guess to be Central Park.  Towering above the city.  Towering above the Empire State Building.  It was so skinny, it looked as if it would blow over in a breeze.

    “That wasn’t there last year, was it?”  I asked in Spanish thinking he might appreciate my effort.

    “No, it wasn’t,” he replied in English.  I guess he didn’t share my enthusiasm, so I returned to my native tongue.

“It’s not something Trump is building,” I furthered disparagingly.

“Nope. Not this time.  It was built for the Russians.”

    I was supposed to be going to Russia the very next day.  Only something extreme, like my father suffering a stroke, could have changed that.

    “What do you mean it was built for the Russians?”  Hadn’t we just sent our latest and most sophisticated warplanes over to Europe to make Putin tremble in his shoes, why would we be dethroning the city’s most famous landmark to cater to their whims?  That couldn’t be right.  And it wasn’t, really.  47 Park Avenue, as it has been plainly dubbed, has become the tallest residential building in the United States, and apparently the third highest overall.  The reason the Russians are implicated in this all is that they are supposed to be the only ones who can afford to pay for the astronomical prices being listed, especially for the upper floors.  Apparently, one flat per story.  And one story per flat.

     “I can’t believe anyone would even allow that to happen in that part of New York.  I don’t even think Trump would be so sacrilegious.”

     What Trump was doing instead was build a golf course on top of an old dump. You can see it right next to the Whitestone Bridge toll booth.  It’s called “Trump Links”.  Every time I think of links golf I think of Payne Stewart, the player who wore knickerbockers, a vest and a cap.  In 1999, Payne’s learjet depressurized with him and four others on board.  They all died, but the plane kept going in the same direction until it ran out of fuel and nosedived into a remote field in South Dakota.  That’s a fairly far away place for anyone to perish.  Thank God he was already dead. I guess.

Forensic Files, Family Fueds and Funerals 2

If someone were to stop any mother or father on a street and asked them just what they considered to be the most important innovation in travel, most would probably say seatbelts, airbags, and individualized entertainment screens on long distance airlines.  As a result of their creation, childcare suddenly ceased to become an issue since children no longer looked to you for onboard entertainment.  Nor did they look to each other for nonstop bickering to help them pass the time.  Everyone’s needs were tended to and one could safely say that a certain sense of harmony reigned throughout the cabin.  Only the most unsuspecting advances in technology have made the world a better place.

     I actually came upon my first personal IFE screen on an Air France flight I took all by myself, without my daughters, that is, so I couldn’t fully exploit all of its benefits.  Iberia was sorely behind the times in this department and it seemed that its only in-flight entertainment they were offering was a chance to watch the duty-free cart get pushed up and down the aisle.

       It wasn’t until a Delta flight, just like the one we was on now, that this dream was fully realized.  In part.  My girls were ecstatic about plopping on their headsets and crossing the ocean to the joy of watching endless episodes of Glee.  They could barely contain their emotions.  Neither could I.  We hugged each effusively, but for very different reasons.  Then, came the “in part” part of the story.  It turned out that some of the individual systems weren’t working so the flight attendant announced they would be resetting the system to see if all would return to normal.  I could immediately sense where this was taking us all.  I wanted to stand up and scream “Don’t do it! This isn’t a goddamn bowling alley!  Resetting doesn’t do anything!”

       But I was wrong.  It did do something.  It turned off all the screens…for the remainder of the flight.  There were seven and a half hours left.  It ended up being one of the longest flights I could recall.  The plane moved forward so slowly, it thought it was going to have to stop to refuel in Newfoundland.  And, what was worse, not only were my daughters left with their personal IFE; they were pissed too.

        This time, there were no unpleasant surprises.  Everything pretty much worked the way you’d expect them to, except for maybe the fact the tactile screens were not what I would call particularly sensitive to human touch, and you had the feeling you were poking the person in front of you in the back of the neck.

         Aside from that, things went smoothly enough.  I picked up a few inspirational tips from TED TV, futilely tried to reign as champ of the in-cabin trivial game contest, and then settled down with some long documentaries.  One was about the eccentric managers of the Who, another told the story of a celebrated group of California sessions musicians in the 1960s known as the Wrecking Crew, and the last took us through the life of the now deceased film critic, Roger Ebert, who departed from this world after a long, painful, losing bout against cancer.  In the end, he couldn’t even speak.

           By the end, he couldn’t even speak.  I think, and I could swear this, the plane arrived before I had finished.

Forensic Files, Family Feuds and Funerals 1

No matter how many times I’ve floated over the Atlantic Ocean at inhuman speeds, in order to be ferried from Madrid to New York, and we are talking dozens of trips at this point in my life, the flight from continental Europe to the northeast corridor of the United States never ceases to bring me to the brink over either slipping into an irreversible bout of depression or doing something juvenile but nonetheless satisfactory like stick my foot out in the aisle as a young child walked by.  And, what is worse, the flight crew simply don’t offer enough wine to ameliorate the situation.

       It’s not just that extra hour-and-a-half difference in the duration of the crossing.  That’s a lie.  It pretty much has everything to do with the extra hour and a half.  Sometimes it’s two.   The increased time is a result of the direction of the wind, in this case it pushes against the nose of the plane with such force it literally prevents it from advancing easily; but a surprisingly large number of people believe that it is the turning of the earth that causes this difference.

       On a very superficial level, this sounds as if it could make sense, but simple observation rather quickly dismantles this theory for a couple of reasons.  One, and this is a big reason, is that objects that become airborne don’t separate from the earth’s rotation because the air in which they are sailing is rotating at the same time.  If not, something as harmless as, say, a grain of rice, might suddenly become a potentially lethal projectile as it hurdles at no less that 1,040 kph against a wall or, what is worse, someone’s chest.  And let’s not even try to imagine the effects of tossing pizza dough.

       That doesn’t happen, obviously, and we can thank the troposphere for it.  That is the name of the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere and it’s this concentration of mixed gases that, in addition to keeping our bodies from bludgeoned by simple beach ball, provides other universally accepted benefits such as the oxygen we breathe and or the protection needed to prevent our skin from falling off.

        Most objects stick within the realms of the troposphere, even planes, though they often reach the upper edge that joins with the next level up, known as the stratosphere.  Somewhere in the 10,000 to 11,000 meter range.

         I mention this, of course, fully aware that if there is one thing that isn’t easy to determine, it’s the actual width of the troposphere.  A quick googling for an image of the word evokes scores of charts that map out the different sections of the atmosphere, most of which also indicate their size in kilometers.  At first glance, my impression was that the jury was still out on the matter.  Experts knew just about everything on this matter except for what I had figured would be as standard as establishing the temperature at which water freezes.   I mean, given the nature of the information I was looking for and the technology available at this stage, you’d think some kind of reliable consensus would be met, if only for the sake of pride in scientific accuracy, but apparently that was wishful thinking.  A brief look at the numbers clearly illustrates this point:

          Chart 1 – 11km

          Chart 2 – 7 to 16km

          Chart 3 – 20 km

          Chart 4 – 10 km

          Chart 5 – 12 km

          Chart 6 – 11 km

          Chart 7 – 7 km

          Chart 8 – 10 km

          Chart 9 – 9.5 km

          So, according to this data, that means something in the neighborhood of a 65% variation in size, which personally seems a little unprofessional.  It’s as if I told someone the distance between Madrid and Segovia is about 80 to 130 kilometers away.  It’s actually 95.

         Further investigation cleared up this disparity.  It turns out there isn’t a fixed width of the troposphere, but rather it varies depending on, among other things, it’s position over the planet.  It is svelter at the poles and more bulgy where the girth is widest…the equator.  The makers of the charts just threw out a few figures, some more random than others.

          I didn’t know this as we departed Spanish air space.  All I was considering was whether or not I should watch my first episode of the Walking Dead or not on the tiny screen lodged in the back of the seat in front of me.

           An entire ocean stretched out ahead of us.  An eternity of time.  It was like a massive River Styx whose banks had been pushed 3,000 miles apart.   On the other side, in a small struggling New England costal city called New Haven, saved almost solely by the fact it was the home to Yale University, my father lay in a hospital bed in the intensive care unit and was hooked up to every possible machine that would keep him alive.

          He had suffered a stroke two days before and had just three more to live.