Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

sábado, abril 30, 2011

Ernesto Sabato, RIP

Ernesto Sabato (1911-2011)

The New York Times reports:

Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato, whose novel "The Tunnel" is hailed as an existentialist classic and who presided over a probe into the crimes committed by the nation's military rulers, died on Saturday at age 99.

"Humankind cannot live without heroes, martyrs and saints," Sabato, an intellectual known as a tireless activist for justice and human rights, once said....

Sabato, who trained as a physicist before becoming a writer, had three novels to his name -- "The Tunnel" published in 1948, "On Heroes and Graves" published in 1961 and "Abaddon, The Exterminator" in 1974.

Known for his bald pate, tinted glasses, brush mustache and open-necked shirts, he was viewed as a hero by many in his South American homeland.

After the end of Argentina's notorious 1976-83 military rule, Sabato was chosen to preside over the National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP), which investigated the fate of tens of thousands of Argentines who disappeared at the hands of the military -- kidnapped, tortured and killed.

The Buenos Aires Herald adds this:

British newspaper 'The Independent', recently re-reviewed his book, "The Tunnel", and said, "the book belongs among the existential landmarks of post-war fiction." It was also honoured by being placed in the Penguin Publishers Hall of Fame.

“I’ve never considered myself a professional writer, in the way that of those who publish one book per year. To the contrary actually, many times I’d go ahead and burn what I had written that very morning,” mentioned Sabato on more than one occasion.

He will be missed.

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viernes, abril 29, 2011

Tungurahua Erupts

Tungurahua, whose name in Quechua means "Throat of Fire," has again erupted. Alternet/Reuters reports:

Ecuador on Tuesday closed schools and evacuated towns in areas near Tungurahua, after the volcano spewed ash clouds miles into the air, damaging crops and endangering the health of residents in nearby villages, according to local media. The country's geophysical institute has reported increased volcano activity since last Thursday, and has detected six eruptions so far.


martes, abril 26, 2011

Phoebe Snow, RIP

Reuters reports:

Phoebe Snow, the bluesy singer-songwriter known for her song "Poetry Man," died on Tuesday at age 60 of complications from a stroke she suffered last year, her manager said.

Snow released 16 albums, composed more than 100 songs and was nominated for a best new artist Grammy Award in 1975.

The New Jersey-born singer's "Poetry Man," about her infatuation with a man, was released on a self-titled 1974 album and was her first big hit. It led to her landing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

Snow also had a hit song with another track, "Harpo's Blues," from the same album.

Soon after, Snow put her career on hold to care for her daughter, Valerie, who was born with a brain injury. Valerie died at age 31 in 2007, and Snow considered caring for her daughter to be her greatest accomplishment, her manager Sue Cameron said.

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lunes, abril 25, 2011

A Dangerous Idea

Not long ago, I wrote about my desire to be a human cannonball:

I'd rather be a rocket than a launching pad. I'd rather be a hammer than a nail. I'd rather be a human cannonball. That would be best. That would be unbelievably exciting. That would be the way to live. No safety nets. No crash helmets. Blasted through the air. But first before the launch, there's some important research. Research, as Mr. Toad once said, is my life.

Today that exaltation, all that giddiness was deflated. I found a corresponding sobriety about the topic. I was saddened to learn of a human cannonball fatality in England. MSNBC reports from AP:

British police say a man has died
after a safety net gave way during a human
cannonball performance at a "daredevil" stunt
show in southern England.

Police in Kent said Monday the show was
canceled after the 23-year-old died.

They said they believe the death was caused
by the safety net "failing to engage," but did not
provide further details.

The article didn't give the young man's name, apparently because he had not yet been formally identified by kin. All of the scheduled daredevil shows have now been canceled.

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domingo, abril 24, 2011

A Victory Cigar

Red Auerbach gets credit for the idea of the Victory Cigar. As coach of the Boston Celtics, Auerbach smoked a victory cigar whenever he thought a game was decided, a habit that became cult-like in popularity in the Boston area. He didn’t wait until the game was actually over and the buzzer had sounded to light up. No. He lit up while the game was still being played, when he knew that his team’s victory was assured. Back then, you could smoke in public buildings like the Boston Garden.

So today, I fired up a Victory Cigar of my own. In my backyard. My new, second novel, Tulum, isn’t entirely finished. It still needs some work. Some revisions. Some editing. Some cleaning up. But today was the big day. It was the day on which I first knew for sure that the end of my work on this book was within my reach. I think I will be finished later this week. The end is at long last, after more than five years of work, just ahead of me. I can actually sense it.

The idea for the book was ambitious. And innovative. And difficult to realize. And the manuscript isn’t perfect. The book has its flaws. It has its problems. But, for better or worse, I’ve now exhausted what I can do with it. It’s time to stop, to get it out, to have readers take over.

The book, set in Tulum in Mexico’s Yucatan and in Cuba, is at once a travelogue, a love story, and the story of the unlikely friendship of a Mayan Curandero and a middle aged, gringo expat with a shady past, who ultimately embarks, as an apprentice, on the path of becoming a Shaman. There will be no spoiler here. The book, drawn from the deep cenote of Magical Realism, adopts Carlos Fuentes’s guidance:

A writer should never know the whole story. He imagines one part and asks the reader to finish it. A book should never close. The reader should continue it.

And now, it is time to turn this project over. For better or worse, I have done my part. It’s time for the reader to continue the story.

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sábado, abril 23, 2011

Today Is The Bard's Birthday

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1

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jueves, abril 21, 2011

This Is The One Thousandth Post On The Dream Antilles

This is quite a milestone. This is the one thousandth post at the Dream Antilles.

The DA began in August, 2005, as a way to promote my 2005 novel, The Dream Antilles. It did that for a while, but it quickly morphed into something else entirely: a quirky, eccentric, idiosyncratic collection of posts about books, writers, writing, politics, Latin America, law, culture, music and all kinds of other things. I haven’t worried much about whether what I was writing was on topic. Or whether it fit in the DA. Or whether there were any readers. If I had something to say, I wrote. What I’ve been concerned with most is telling these stories. And then putting them up.

Because the commenting on the DA is en Espanol, and because it is moderated, it’s not easy just to read and drop a quick a comment. That would be too simple. You have to really want to comment at the DA. And there are several incentives to getting frustrated and dropping the idea. Especially if the reader doesn’t have a basic command of Romance Languages 101. This wasn’t intended. It’s just how it developed. Strangely, obstructing readers from commenting has become important to the DA. I can’t really tell whether anybody is reading the DA or whether the pieces are liked. Very few people challenge or compliment my views. I don’t get the kind of feedback that I imagine blogs were originally supposed to provide. There’s not a lot of interaction among me and the readers, if any. The truth is that I keep writing the DA because I’m concerned with telling these stories. It’s important for me to write them. Yes, I hope they are being read. I’d love it if they were being appreciated. But, no, that’s not the reason for my doing it. I’d do it anyway. Even if I were one of just a few readers.

I’ve tried to keep the DA pure. The DA has never been about making money. I’ve never tried to monetize (a transitive (?) verb I have doubts about). And I haven’t tried to become famous. Nor have I tried to remain anonymous, or mysterious. I’ve just showed up and written. And I haven’t really tried to promote the DA. Yes, I’ve cross posted pieces. That was because for them I wanted a wider audience. If readers then came to the DA to find what else I was writing, I was happy with that. If the DA has grown, it has done so organically. Because readers by hook or by crook found it and perhaps returned to it.

There are no secrets in the DA about who is writing it. People who care about this can find out all about me if they want to. If anything, my opinions in the DA make what I think an open book. If anybody cares what I think, s/he can easily find out. As a friend said recently, “I’m out about my beliefs and my thinking.” This, as it turns out, is a recipe for my personal comfort. And for the freedom to write whatever I choose. I like the smoothness of that. It’s pure.

So I am celebrating this milestone. To be frank, I didn’t realize I was approaching it until last week. And then I was astonished. How, I wondered, could I write all of those pieces? How could I have such an outpouring? Isn’t that incredible? I thought. The muse, the creative muse, the dream muse have all been fabulously kind to me. Bless them for not taking extended vacations and for helping me with this. And for not teasing me too much. And for not trying unnecessarily to teach me about humility. I am so grateful.

How did I do it? I wrote prophetically on the very first day at the DA. In response to the question, “You have to dig a hole to China. Where do you start?” I wrote, “At the beginning.” And that's what I did. I wrote. And I didn't look in the rear view mirror.

When the celebration is complete, I will continue to write the DA.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. I look forward to whatever’s next.

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Step Right Up And Meet The Mets

Your Bloguero tries to refrain from bringing up baseball and particularly the New York Mets, but sometimes even his massive restraint is overcome by circumstance. He could have written this post a week ago, but he didn't. Why? Because his natural optimism, his love of Spring, his natural cultivation of hopefulness counseled silence. Maybe, his inner dialogue told him, just maybe things will change. For the better. Alas, alas, and alack.

Today the New York Mets are at the very bottom of the National League East with a record of 5 wins and 13 losses. They have been hammered at home for two games by the Houston Astros, who at 7 wins and 11 losses, your Bloguero thought were sure to be the very worst team in the league. But, lo, your Bloguero was wrong about that.

To meet this evening's challenge of not be swept at home in a three game series by the (other) worst team in baseball, the Mets have as a starting pitcher on Chris Capuano, who has an ERA of 8.53. Allow your host to translate. This means that he is giving up about a run for every inning he has pitched, for a grant total of almost 9 in a full game, if he ever makes it that far. He has not had a complete game in recent memory. Your Bloguero is not optimistic about this evening's battery.

Nor does today's supposed return of Jason Bay in left field appear to be the Mets' salvation from this disaster. Here's what the NY Post says:

And, now, here comes Bay today; who has a chance to be yet another booby prize from the old administration. He is just a year and a month into a four-year, $66 million contract. He could not -- as Mets executives promised -- defy Citi Field's dimensions in 2010, producing just six homers in 348 at-bats. He did not play the final two months last year after suffering a concussion and strained his ribcage this spring to land on the disabled list.

In other words, the guy is an expensive question mark.

To put this aggregation of pathetic news into an appropriate context, let your Bloguero do the arithmetic. The Mets are winning .278 of their games. There are 162 games in the regular season. That is very, very many. At this rate, the Mets could be projected to win a grand total of, wait for it, 45 games, and that would mean they would lose 117 games. The Mets' worst record ever? In 1962, their first year as a franchise, the Mets lost 120 games, and finished 60.5 games out of first place. Could they beat this record this year? Maybe. Depends on whether things get any better. And that depends in turn on changes to the lineup that don't seem to be on the horizon.

Your Bloguero regrets it, but the conclusion your Bloguero draws from all of this is that the Mets's season is over. It's over, and it's not even May 1. It is completely over. Citifield's seats are going to remain empty for the rest of the year, even if management keeps the present 50% price reduction in effect all summer.

Citiifield should now be considered an outdoor restaurant theme park that provides a simulacrum of baseball.

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miércoles, abril 20, 2011

Today Is 420 Day

Today, April 20, that is, 4/20 is now a nationwide celebration. Nationwide. Proof of this assertion is this blog in the Huntsville, Alabama newspaper. Nationwide.

Unfortunately, despite the celebration, the idiotic War on Drugs continues unabated. And it's been forty years since Richard M. Nixon first coined the phrase. I'm not going to recount now the number of lives that have been upset by imprisonment for possession and use of what I consider a substance more benign than alcohol. Suffice it to say that advocates of legalization have failed so far adequately to overhaul the nation's drug policy. That's why today's celebration is beclouded not just by smoke, but by Neanderthal politics as well.

So before striking the first match today, before commencing whatever celebration you may have planned, it would be a really good idea to make a donation to NORML, the National Organization To Reform Marijuana Laws. Remember: this is the internet. Many donations of small amounts of money, amounts so small you won't even feel it, can build the kind of organized program of advocacy that can repeal the antiquated, ineffective, expensive, groundless laws that make possession and use of marijuana illegal.

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martes, abril 19, 2011

Straunge Strondes

Must be April. More than 600 years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) got it right in Middle English:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

or in far less beautiful modern English:

When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
5When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.

If there were a contest for all time greatest early Spring stanzas, this would be in the running. Has it been topped in the past 6 Centuries? Doubtful.

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lunes, abril 18, 2011

The Memoir Genre Takes Another Beating

Last night, 60 Minutes ran a piece about inaccuracies in Greg Mortensen's book, Three Cups of Tea. Today, the New York Times reported on the controversy. The memoir genre is taking yet another beating.

What emerges is that those inspiring, charming stories people always tell when they are at a cocktail party or sitting around drinking beer, telling anecdotes and stories from the past, exaggerating, making stuff up, having a great time, making themselves bigger or smaller than they really are, those products of the raconteur's art, they don't work when they are written down and called "memoirs" and are alleged to be 100% factual. There's a big problem. A memoir is supposed to be 100% factual. And the genre absolutely depends on this. If you want to inflate or deflate a story, or make something up, or spin it around, your book should be in the fiction aisle. It shouldn't be called a memoir. This is not a radical proposition.

“It really is the responsibility of the author to write the truth,” said David Black, a literary agent. “If a publisher were to establish a fact-checking department the way a magazine fact checks, given the length of the works and the number of books they are dealing with, it would become very difficult to publish a lot of nonfiction.”

William Zinsser, who is the author of “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past,” said on Sunday that publishers have had a “slippery” standard for accuracy in memoirs.

“I don’t think they much care whether it’s true or not,” Mr. Zinsser said. “To me, the essence of memoir writing is absolute truth because I think everybody gains that way.”

One has to assume that the writer, in this case Greg Mortensen, knows whether what he is saying is completely accurate. There are, of course, people who can't pass this entry level threshold, but I don't think Mortensen is one of them. People who don't know the difference between truth and falsehood definitely should not quit their day jobs to become memoirists. The rest of us presumably know an inaccuracy (a lie, if you will) when we write it down. Supposedly we know it when we tell it, we know when we're being inaccurate.

There is, of course, nothing the matter with making up stories, creating simulacra, telling outrageous lies. I do it all the time in my stories. And so do my characters. They do that because like most humans they tell lies, to themselves, to others, to everyone. Anybody who can write, though, knows whether s/he is writing facts or fiction.

If it's fiction, it should be labeled fiction. That grand dame, memoir, shouldn't have to put up with another beating by somebody whose understanding of the rules is impaired.

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domingo, abril 17, 2011

An Itinerary For A Digression

Macedonio Fernandez (1874-1952)

Macedonio Fernandez’s great work, Museo de la Novela de la Eterna, The Museum of Eterna’s Novel, was first published in Spanish in 1967, fifteen years after his death. He started working on it in 1925 and continued working on it for his entire life in five different versions. He never published it himself. And it wasn’t translated into English until 2010.

Museo is an experimental novel beginning with 50 prologues, and it is a difficult, perplexing but often touching and funny read. There can be no spoiler here. Macedonio seeks to transform the reader into fiction. He seeks to overcome impermanence. That’s his intention. Here, there can only be the announcement of my embarkation on the book. And my good intentions somehow to write about the journey. Or perhaps send a postcard. Or a photo.

Already the book has brought a small, quite unintended, very coincidental surprise. A gift. The kind of digression that makes reading on a rainy, windy April Sunday such a pleasure. I share that here. I hope my not filling in all the blanks can be easily forgiven.

In the Translator’s Introduction to the English volume, Margaret Schwartz writes,

In his classic book of Buenos Aires essays, The Man Who Is Alone and Waits (El hombre que esta solo y espera), Raul Scalabrini Ortiz writes: “Buenos Aires’s first metaphysician and its only authentic philosopher is Macedonia Fernandez.”

I knew the name, Scalabrini Ortiz, from an avenue in Buenos Aires in the Palermo neighborhood. I had no idea who SO might actually have been.

Scalabrini Ortiz (1898-1959) was an Argentine writer, essayist, and poet. He was also a Marxist. But, it turns out, the name of the Avenue has been changed. Frequently. These changes are emblematic of the past 150 years’ struggles in Argentina. They reflect Argentina’s dramatic history:

In 1867, when this avenue was still a dirt track, it was named El Camino del Ministro Inglés (English Minister's Road), because English diplomat Henry Southern used it to go downtown from the country house where he lived with his family.

A decree on November 27, 1893 changed its name for the first time to Canning, as a tribute to George Canning, former Secretary of Foreign Relations of the United Kingdom.

Another decree, dictated on May 31, 1974 by the government of Juan Domingo Perón, stated that Canning Ave. changed its name into Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz Ave. as a tribute to Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz....

Two years later, during the military dictatorship, the name of this avenue was changed again into Canning Ave.

Finally, with the arrival of democracy, Canning Ave. was renamed again to Raúl Scalabrini Ortiz Ave., on December 29, 1985.

It remains Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz. I wonder in passing about other oscillating changes in the names of streets. In Buenos Aires. In Havana. In New York. And what that says about how history and public remembrance is controlled by its authors.

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viernes, abril 15, 2011

The Dream Machine

I'm sure I am dreaming. There are telltale signs. I’m sitting at a sidewalk café. I’m not sure who the gray bearded, rumpled, bespeckled guy sitting with me is. That is a sign. The table is right on the street. People are placing small packages of Kleenex on its edge as they do in Buenos Aires and then collecting them, but this café seems to be in Brooklyn. Maybe Williamsburg. That is a sign. The waiter, who is smoking and ogling two young women across the street, is ignoring us even though our glasses have been empty for a while. My companion strums his fingers on the table top, makes a noise of impatience, excuses himself, walks up to the waiter, places his arm around his shoulder and walks him back to our table. The waiter is smiling, passive. That is a sign.

We order more red wine. I want an empanada. They don’t have that. Do I want to see the menu? I don’t. What do you have that is like an empanada? I ask. Insouciance, says my companion. Be nice, says the waiter. I can’t eat that, I say. How, I wonder, can there be no empanadas? I’ll bring your wine and the menu, the waiter says, as he escapes. I have the thought that he will never come back. My companion shakes his head wearily.

“As I was saying,” my companion continues, ”people just don’t share and participate in the big dreams now the way the used to. Yeah, they can quote from The Big Lebowski or Seinfeld or other artifacts of pop culture, but they don’t know the books. They don’t know the ideas, the concepts. The canon. The history. The foundation. And if they don’t know the foundation, how can they possibly share the dreams? Their dreams are untethered, confused, ill formed because they’re not properly educated to participate in these big dreams.” He stares across the street at passers by. “Their dreams are about things, not inspiration. Know what I mean?”

I have no idea what he’s talking about. I look at him. He really is a wild man. He needs a shave. His hair is mussed. His clothing is out of date. No, I don’t want a cigarette. He fires one up. “I don’t know,” I say softly. “Oh,” he raises an eyebrow. “Sure you do,” he whispers Silence.

I begin. “You mean we don’t share dreams and ideals because we’re not educated about them? We don't know the history?” I ask him. He nods. “Maybe we think about consumer goods instead of ideology because we’re trained to do that. Maybe people just care about themselves and their things because we’re in a deep trance, we’re totally drugged, we’re sound asleep.” He nods and pulls his beard a little. "Maybe we've lost our souls," I say.

“Listen,” he says. “There’s something I want to show you. It’s in the basement. It will remind you of what it was like before the trance.”

We walk through the café. The waiter passes us carrying our two glasses of wine. He has no menu. We walk to the back, and my companion opens the door to the basement stairway that says, “No Entrance,” in two languages.

He flips on a light, we descend a wooden stariway. In the middle of the room, under a clear plastic sheet, is a black and silver machine. He pulls the plastic off of it. He points at it.

“What is it?”

“It’s a mimeograph machine. It’s like a printing press. Or a copy machine. It’s what we used to make copies of papers about fifty years ago. And this is a very special one. It ran all day and all night long putting out broadsides calling for the overthrow of the military government. And for solidarity with the workers. And in opposition to the police. It poured out inspiration, and news, and organization, and ideas, and of course, dreams.”

“We don’t have this any more. We don’t have people to carry the papers and pass them out and put them under doors and paste them on the walls and put them under windshield wipers. We don’t have people passing out poems and arguments in cafes. We don’t have physical communities and discussions with strangers. Now we have blogging. Instead. This is gone. Isn’t that sad?”

I put my nose up against the machine to see whether any of that distinctive alcohol smell from decades ago, the intoxicating smell that used to be on school test papers, remained. It was all gone.

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lunes, abril 11, 2011



Talking to the clouds,
be humble, always whisper,
never ask for sun.


Raven's ill-fitting,
torn, ragged overcoat.
I wish I had one.



domingo, abril 10, 2011

A Plague Of Forgetting

This story begins in 1928 with bananas. On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, campesinos who are employed by United Fruit are paid less than $1 per day for backbreaking work. They live in filthy hovels. And they die of malaria and tuberculosis. Then they form a union. Then they go on strike and paralyze the exportation of bananas.

General Carlos Cortez Vargas announces in Aracataca at a dinner put on by United Fruit that he will end the strike.

The workers are told that a manager of United Fruit will arrive to accede to their demands, so they gather together to hear the announcement of their victory. Instead of a United Fruit manager, General Cortez Vargas appears. He doesn’t issue a concession. Not at all. He issues instead an ultimatum: get back to work, end the strike right now. Or else.

When nobody moves, the shooting begins from all sides. Nobody knows exactly how many workers are killed. After the shooting the soldiers spend the evening throwing bodies in the ocean and scrubbing the plaza. In the morning there is no evidence of the massacre. Immediately, hundreds of strikers who escaped the massacre are also rounded up and killed.

About these events, Eduardo Galeano cites Cien anos de soledad, written by Garcia Marquez, who was a child in Aracataca at the time :

“In Macondo nothing has happened, nor is happening, nor ever will happen.”

About Garcia Marquez and this event, Galeano writes:

The years will pass and [Marquez] will reveal to the world the secrets of a region so attacked by a plague of forgetfulness that it lost the names of things. He will discover the documents that tell how the workers were shot in the plaza, and how Big Mama is the owner of lives and haciendas and of the rain that has fallen and will fall, and how between rain and rain Remedios the Beautiful goes to heaven, and in the air passes a little old plucked angel who is falling into a henhouse

A plague of forgetfulness. If it were not for Eduardo Galeano’s masterful “Memory of Fire” trilogy, and his recitation of the above in volume 3, “Century of the Wind,” I wouldn’t know this story. It is not in any of the history books I was directed to read in school. It is not something most people in the United States have heard about. It was apparently consigned to being forgotten.

The story transforms the piles of bananas in the supermarket. Before they were a common fruit wearing its own package. They were something we mash and feed to babies. Their peels were a slapstick joke. They were the title of a funny Woody Allen movie. They were something used to demonstrate condom use. They were so wonderful. And humorous. And multifaceted. And now it is impossible to look at them without recalling the massacre, and the many murders, and blood that is responsible for them. A plague of forgetfulness.

Bananas aren’t alone in this forgetting.

The list of horrors in this hemisphere is long and painful. One example and then a list. We drink rum, but have apparently forgotten that it was a leg of the triangle trade and that slaves from Africa were its hypotenuse. We don’t think about the Middle Voyage and the cramped ships and the fetid smell and the abuse and the broken families and the horror of working under the lash. We don’t think about branding slaves. All of that, all of that that went into making the product, we omit. We forget it. We overlook it. And, of course, we also don’t think about the history of cotton, sugar, gold, silver, tin, phosphates, on and on and on and on. A plague of forgetfulness.

As time goes by, the forgetfulness inevitably grows. Virtually all of those who were involved in these events have by now died. And their stories. What about the stories? The stories, if they are retold at all, if they are remembered at all, compete, often unsuccessfully for attention with so many distractions. We live in a society that produces spectacles and distractions, and inevitably forgets. A plague of forgetfulness.

Forgetfulness is the Petri dish in which cruelty grows to its full virulence. And it is its own justification:

“In Macondo nothing has happened, nor is happening, nor ever will happen.”

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martes, abril 05, 2011

The Newark Space Flight Center

He used to sit on the couch on Sunday afternoon and fiddle with the TV. The TV at the time was an RCA. It had a tiny, oval black and white screen, and it was in a huge, heavy oak case. It looked like furniture. Only it wasn't. He’d sit near it and click from channel 9, the Dodgers, snap, snap to channel 11, the Yankees, and then, snap, snap the Dodgers again, and snap snap, back and forth. The clicking made it so he probably wasn’t able to follow either game. No matter. He seemed to enjoy it, and best of all, it made him impenetrable to conversation, it made him out of bounds. “Pops,” I’d ask, “Can I have a soda?” "What?" "A soda?" “Ask your grandmother.” Snap, snap. The adults would make sure that he wasn’t disturbed while snapping.

He deserved these moments of peaceful, summer, Sunday afternoon isolation. After all, in addition to his job as a pharmacist, he was building a rocketship in the backyard out of a 1949 Dodge and several piles of strange, shiny metal he got at a dilapidated warehouse on Freylinghuysen Avenue. There were piles of wires in the yard. And welding equipment. And tools. And gauges. And aircraft rivets. And a high scaffold. He worked on the ship and smoked his cigars. He paced around the piles of material muttering to himself and gesturing. Clouds of smoke. Banging. Sparks.

Building a rocketship was an enormous, messy, time consuming task. But it wasn’t unusual in Newark. Not at all. Other people in the Weequahic Section were building their own rocketships, too. “This rocket,” he told me, “is going to be the best. It’s going to be really special. We alone are going to Mars. Why would anybody want to go to the moon like these other people? These moon people don’t have the right vision. I bet these moon people are Giants fans. Or Republicans.” Smoke from the cigar. Muttering. All of this made no sense to me, but he was quite convincing. “Well,” he asked, “Am I right about this? Of course I am.” That was the kind of question he liked.

When a teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told her I wanted to be a scientist. What I meant was that I wanted to fly to Mars with my grandfather in the rocketship. I’m pretty sure that back then the word “astronaut” wasn’t yet in use. At least in Newark. She didn’t ask me to elaborate about my scientific aspirations. No. She gave me a weird look. Why didn’t I want to be a fireman or a cop like my classmates? Why indeed. I guess she didn’t know about the rocketship. Or that I was going to Mars. I didn’t need to concern myself with petty, terrestrial concerns. I was worried instead about how to navigate the rocket so that I’d be able to make the return trip safely. I was pretty sure that nobody wanted to get stuck on Mars, especially because they couldn’t figure out how to get back to Earth.

When the summer was coming to an end, Pops still hadn’t finished the rocketship. I thought it would be done by then, but it wasn’t. There were still enormous piles of sheet metal and wires and parts, and the frame from the Dodge in the yard. The rocketship was beginning to shape up, but it had a long, long way to go. “Pops,” I said, “I thought we’d be ready to take off by the end of summer. Looks like we’re not going to make it, are we?” “Oh,” he said. “You know, kid,” he said, “This project, overcoming gravity, going a long way off this planet, finishing a safe rocketship, that’s going to take a while longer. I’m going to keep working on it. Meanwhile, I think we should start watching the Giants, they have this kid named Willie Mays, who’s going to be one of the best ball players ever. Am I right about this? Of course I am.”

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At Last

Let it be recorded: last night was the first Spring Peeper. I heard it in the early evening, just after dark. A solitary peeper singing near the pond. Awake from its winter slumber, the first to sing its body electric:

The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

And tonight, several more singing the sleigh bell chorus, all together. And in the next week, if I am lucky, an entire celestial choir jingling rounds throughout the night. To be joined by bullfrogs and dozens of green pond frogs, all singing out their electricity.

A sure sign of Spring.

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lunes, abril 04, 2011

In Memoriam

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968)

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

May he rest in peace.

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