Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rock or Lion?

Every morning, while my uncle hitched the ancient farm horse to the cart, my grandmother would come out of the kitchen to supervise. "That horse," she would say, shaking her head,"is going to kill somebody one of these days." No matter that the horse hadn't broken into a trot within living memory: disaster could strike at any time.

Years later, I am in college and living at home. I am warming up the engine of my Renault Dauphine to get to my morning class across Birmingham, Alabama, when my mother runs out of the house and thrusts a hard-boiled egg through the driver's side window. "Here. Eat this on the way. You don't want to faint at the wheel and cause a tragedy." No matter that I have never fainted in my life, but it is best to be prepared.

Both my grandmother and my mother had lived through the terrors of the Spanish Civil War, so they had an excuse for their hyper vigilance. And they were convinced that it worked: after all, the cart horse never did kill anybody, and I never fainted at the wheel of that tiny car.

Unlike my mother and grandmother, however, I have led a peaceful existence, free (so far) from wars and other disasters. So there is no apparent reason for my own deep-seated conviction that it is only my constant watchfulness that keeps the world from falling to pieces.

Here is what goes through my mind on a routine trip to the market. At this season in Vermont the roads are rife with cyclists. What if one of them swerves in front of my car? What if, in the fruit aisle, the grapes I put in my cart are contaminated with a deadly bacterium? What if, at the checkout, I find out that our credit card's been hacked and we are now penniless?

When he was an old man, Mark Twain said that he had lived through many catastrophes, most of which never happened. Like the women in my family, Twain suffered from what scientists call the "negativity bias," a tendency towards pessimism and anxiety engraved in our DNA over millions of years by natural selection.

Say you are an early human wandering on the African savanna. Behind a tree in the distance, you see a beige-colored mass. It could be a rock, or it could be a lion. If you optimistically assume that it is a rock but it turns out to be a lion, you and your potential descendants are toast. If, on the other hand, you are an anxious type like Mark Twain, you will take to your heels immediately and, regardless of what the beige object actually turns out to be, you will live to pass on your genes, which will include a tendency to expect the worst.

The problem in our time is that, with lions on the wane, the negativity bias causes unwarranted stress and militates against the health and well being of millions of us modern Cassandras. It may even work against reproductive success, since deciding to become a parent requires at least a modicum of optimism. So the lesson for people like me might be to learn to imagine fewer lions, and trust in the ubiquitousness of rocks.

But the thing is that, for both optimists and Cassandras alike, there will ultimately be a lion behind the tree. It will be no use pretending that it is a rock, or hoping that it is old and toothless. That lion will catch us no matter how fast we flee.The closer I get to that final encounter, the more I think that the trick is not to run or struggle, but to face the beast and respectfully ask it to deliver the killing bite as quickly and kindly as possible.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Of Uncles And Equines


My favorite uncle, the husband of my grandmother's sister, was that rarity: a schoolmaster who adored kids. Early in our acquaintance we cast each other in roles which we never tired of playing: he as a devil (un dimoni!) and I as his intended victim. He only actually chased me once. After that, he merely had to look at me sideways to send me fleeing with terror and delight down the long dark hallway of my parents' Barcelona apartment. But this was just our urban entertainment. In the summer, we had my grandparents' entire farm for our adventures.

One summer my grandfather got a mother/daughter pair of donkeys to work on the farm. I don't remember the daughter's name, but we named the mother La Reverències ("Curtsies") after her habit of suddenly bending one of her knees.

My uncle one day got permission from my grandfather to take my visiting boy cousins from Barcelona and me to ride the donkeys on the threshing floor in front of the barn, which sat far from the house on a slight rise beyond the vegetable garden and the wheat field. A bare flat space, the threshing floor had been baked granite-hard over the centuries by the sun and the enormous stone rollers that crushed the wheat at harvest time.

My grandfather agreed, with the proviso that my uncle ride with me, to prevent accidents. So while my cousins took turns riding the younger donkey, my uncle and I got on La Reverències. The sun was beating down on our heads, the cicadas were going full blast, and the sky was so clear that I could see the Pyrenees in the distance as we made our way round and round the threshing ground.

The sun, the cicadas, and the slow clip-clop of the donkey's hooves had me in a kind of trance when, out of the blue, La Reverències curtsied and my uncle and I tobogganed neatly over her neck and crashed to the ground. It could not have happened faster if the donkey's neck had been drenched in olive oil. I can still feel the hardness of the ground on landing, and hear the laughter of my cousins as my uncle and I dusted ourselves off, while, nearby, the culprit munched serenely on some tufts of summer-dry grass.


La Reverències, left, and her daughter, right. Between them, my cousins and I, in our summer espadrilles. In the background, the back of the barn. Both my cousins and the donkeys seemed like giants to me. When did they shrink so much?

My other uncle, my mother's youngest sibling, was barely out of his teens when I was a toddler. He lived with my grandparents, rode a big motorcycle, hunted partridge and quail in season, and had curly blondish hair and a small straight nose. In the summer, the sun would turn his face bright red.

One evening, he and I were leading the carthorse from the barn back to the stable, which was across the courtyard from the house, for his dinner of oats and hay. As a special treat, my uncle said that I could ride the horse, on the condition that I hold tightly on to his mane. This was a first for me, and I was thrilled by the motion of the great beast, the smell of horse sweat and the prickly feel of his hair on my bare legs. The sun was going down, a cool breeze had come up, and in the pear trees that bordered the path a nightingale began to sing. Inspired by the bird, my uncle also broke into song: Oh Susana, no llores más por mí/Con mi banjo y mi caballo a Alabama me marché...

Then, perhaps carried away by the beauty of the evening and the prospect of dinner, he gave the horse a friendly slap on the rump. The usually lethargic beast misunderstood and broke into a trot. My uncle ran alongside, looking terrified, and I tried to hold on, but the sudden jolting and the sensation of my seat losing contact with the horse were so disconcerting that I lost my head, let go of the mane, and flew through the air and into the arms of my uncle, who fortunately had excellent eye-hand coordination and whose face, I noticed, had turned beet red.

He set me down, caught the horse, stopped to catch his breath, then squatted to look me in the eye and whispered, "Do not ever tell your parents what just happened."

And this, if my parents read this blog somewhere in the cosmos, is the first they'll hear of it.                                                  
                                                     



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Relativity, continued

Now I am fifteen, sitting in my American History class, in a Catholic high school in the Deep South. I am a little nervous because we are studying the discovery of America and I fear that my teacher, like my Ecuadorian teacher before him, will attack me for Spain's role in the conquest. But I needn't have worried. The talk here is all about Columbus, which makes the Italian kids in the class feel important. Just before the bell rings, almost in passing, the teacher briefly mentions the queen of Spain.

How is this possible? In my Spanish school, Isabel, la Reina Católica, was presented to us girls as a paragon of womanhood, a queen who shared equal power with her husband, Fernando de Aragón. She unified the squabbling kingdoms of the peninsula into one great country, won a decisive victory over the Moors, and was the only European ruler who listened to Columbus and gave him the money, the men, and the ships to embark on his crazy adventure. But in this American classroom, the queen and her magnificent enterprise are dismissed with barely a word. Perhaps, I tell myself, we will learn more about Spain's role in America in the next class.

But instead, in the next class we celebrate the arrival of the English in North America, and the establishment of the New England colonies. Not much is said about the the Indians that the colonists encountered, and I wonder what happened to them, since there don't seem to be nearly as many around as there are in South America...

I have now studied the events of 1492 in three different countries. In Spain, we were taught the discovery and conquest of the New World as a glorious chapter in the history of humanity. In Ecuador, my teacher presented Spain as a cruel and greedy imperialist power. Now, in my American classroom, Spanish history is all but ignored. One historical era, and three completely different versions of it--my adolescent brain is beginning to suspect that history class may not be all that different from literature class.

Three years pass, and now I'm sitting in Western Civ, in my liberal arts college, also in the Deep South. We are back to 1492, and the professor, unlike my high school teacher, does pay Queen Isabella some attention. But now she is presented as a monster who expelled the Moors and the Jews from Spain and gave the Inquisition the power to torture and kill in the name of the Catholic faith. Oddly, I don't remember being taught about the Inquisition in  my Catholic high school.

Soon we get to Elizabeth I, and I am amazed to hear her described as a powerful, enlightened monarch who vanquished Spain and put England at the head of the civilized world. I dimly recall my teacher in Spain describing the Virgin Queen as a thief who paid pirates to sink Spanish ships...

I am older now and these discrepancies no longer upset me like they used to. I realize that Western Civ is a handy framework on which to hang what I am learning in other classes on European art, philosophy, and literature. And for relief from the treacherous sands of history there is always my Biology major, which I have chosen because it seems to offer firm ground for my wobbly mind. In my white lab coat, inhaling formaldehyde fumes, I can put a slide under the microscope and identify this tiny swimming animal as a Paramecium and that tiny photosynthesizing plant as a Euglena, and take comfort in the belief that scientists all over the world agree with my identification.

This is the 1960s, however, and Biology is changing rapidly. Little do I suspect that by the end of the decade both Paramecium and Euglena, no longer clearly identified as either animal or plant, will be dumped into that swamp of uncertainty, the kingdom Protista. But by then I am in graduate school, studying French literature, which everyone agrees is just words anyway.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Relativity


"You, Benejam, stand up, please," says Madre Mercedes del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús ("Corazón," for short). "Tell us what you think about what I have just said."

She teaches the fifth-grade class in Quito, Ecuador, where I have recently arrived from Spain. And what she has just said is that, shortly after Columbus discovered America, Francisco Pizarro and two-hundred Spanish soldiers, impelled by greed and blood-lust, conquered the Inca empire that extended from Colombia to Chile. They captured the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, and, even though Atahualpa offered them a room filled with gold to a man's height in exchange for his life, they basely murdered him and untold thousands of others.

What, Corazón  wants to know, do I, as a Spaniard, have to say to that?

Standing in the back of the room, with my classmates' eyes upon me, I open my mouth and quickly close it. My ten-year-old mind is blank. Corazón's account of my country's conquest of America is strangely different from what I learned just a few months ago in my history class in Barcelona.

There I was taught that the conquest of the Americas was one of the greatest achievements not only in the history of Spain, but in the history of mankind. Braving the dangers of an unknown ocean in ridiculously small boats, our fearless ancestors sallied forth to bring to the new continent our language, our culture, and, most important, the Catholic faith, thanks to which the natives stopped offering human sacrifices to their gods and started going to heaven after they died. We should feel proud, our teacher said, of what Spain did for America, and the proof was that our former colonies call Spain la madre patria and have become our friends and allies.

Right now, Corazón, all but sneering as I squirm, doesn't seem very friendly to me. Neither do my staring classmates, even the ones who have told me proudly that there was "a real Spaniard" somewhere in their family tree.

I scour my brain for clues from the bits of history I know. Before the conquest of America, Spain herself had been conquered in turn by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors. They had swept over the peninsula leaving blood and carnage, but also roads, temples, aqueducts, and mosques, in their wake. Just two centuries ago the French under Napoleon had invaded Spain. Does this mean that I should hate Françoise, the pianist from the Paris Conservatoire who plays sonatas with my father the way that Corazón seems to hate me?

I stare out the classroom window at the light glinting on the snows of Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, and think of ways to defend myself. "But wait!" I say, "haven't killed any Indians. Neither did my parents, or my grandparents, or my..."

"Sit down, Benejam," says the nun, "and be quiet. The conquistadores were from your country, and you should be ashamed."

It strikes me, as the lesson continues and I sit fuming, that there are strong parallels between Corazón's train of thought and the doctrine of Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate an apple a million years ago, I now bear the taint of sin on my soul, which means that, as a "daughter of Eve," I will be punished with menstrual periods and labor pains. How much more unfair can you get?

From that day on, whenever the subject of Spain comes up, I keep a low profile. This is especially important when we sing the Ecuadorian national anthem, which with its references to Spain as a bloody monster (monstruo sangriento), a defeated lion (león destrozado) roaring with impotence and spite, may cause my classmates to turn on me in a fit of patriotic fervor.

I was neither sophisticated nor carefree enough to navigate these choppy international waters. If I had stayed in Spain, I would have continued to think comfortably of the conquest of America as one of the glories of European civilization. But now, despite my anger at the way Corazón had embarrassed me in front of my classmates, I had to admit that she might be right. Did the "gifts" of "civilization" and the one true faith really compensate all those poor Indians for their terrible losses?

Nobody explained these things to me, but I soon began to suspect that history might not always be an exact account of what really happened. Perhaps what I read in the history textbooks had been written to make children grow up to be patriots who would defend their country no matter what. But if one nation's story of glory and heroism could be another nation's story of suffering and pain, what did patriotism really mean? (To be continued.)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Birds In Blizzard

While the nor'easter rages outside, I'm watching the birds at the feeder under the eaves. Long past the time when they usually retire to their roosts, they're flying in for a few last bits of energy to get them through the night. Titmice, their little crests down from the cold; feisty chickadees; and winter-dull goldfinches swoop in, perch, grab a single sunflower or nyger seed and fly off into the trees to feast in peace. You'd think that they would use way more energy in those flights than a single seed could supply, but the yard is not littered with bird corpses, so they must know what they're doing.

Slate-colored juncos--elegant little birds with deep-gray backs and wings, white bellies and yellow beaks--are ground feeders, gleaning what our obese squirrels have left of the seeds that drop from the seed containers. Just now, as the agile titmice dove at the feeders swaying in the gale, I saw a pathetic sight: a junco fluttered up from the ground towards the trove of sunflower fuel, fell short, fluttered down, then fluttered up again. What was he thinking? That is the last thing he should have been doing, wasting energy pursuing an impossible goal.

After watching five or six of these vain flutterings, I filled a plastic tub with sunflower seeds and flung them into the shrieking wind. "Those seeds will be covered up in no time," said my husband. As it happened, the wind was blowing against the direction in which I had thrown the seeds, and they stuck fast to the surface of the snow. Soon four, five, six juncos appeared, feeding greedily. For a few minutes even a female cardinal came by, her feathers ruffling in the gusts. Cardinals are scarce in these latitudes, so even I, who used to get a dozen at a time at my Maryland feeder, have taken to gasping with wonder when I see one. I hoped she would stay, but she didn't.

It's almost dusk now, and although the titmice, etc. have gone home, the juncos are still out there, in the midst of the weather hoopla, pecking the ground like hens. But one little clever one, wing feathers tending to brown, beak a paler yellow--a female--is hanging out in the one-inch-wide strip of bare ground right against the house. Except that that ground is not really bare, but covered in sunflower husks and seeds fallen days and even weeks ago. She's filling up on these, feeding contentedly next to the wall, away from the males battling the storm. Bon appetit, junquette. I have high hopes for you. May you live to fledge a nestful of babies in the spring.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Paper Protest

Ten nasty, persistent women, one (v. nice) man, and a little red dog spent Sunday afternoon writing messages to the President, in anticipation of #TheIdesofTrump. Bisou wrote a card of her own (the one with the paw print), which I will be forwarding for her on Wednesday, March 15.


It was as much fun as a protest march, and warmer, since we were indoors with the gas fire on while outside the wind chill was well below zero. Two stalwart women showed up on foot, so swaddled in coats, boots, hats and scarves that at first I didn't recognize them.

A couple of days before the card-writing marathon I went to the Shelburne, Vermont post office and asked for sixty stamped postcards. The clerk said, "I don't think we have any left, but I'll check." She was gone a while, and when she came back she said "Nope. Not a single one. People have been buying them for that thing on March 15."

I got nervous. Where, if anywhere, would I find sixty stamped postcards? The clerk advised me to try the Charlotte (pronounced a la francaise, Char-lotte) post office. So I drove over, tempering my irritation with chilly views of Lake Champlain on my right.

When I told the Charlotte postman--four-feet tall and with uneven brown teeth, but beautiful to me--what I wanted, he smiled a cunning smile: "We got wind of what was coming, so we ordered extra." Tiny Charlotte, Vermont, voted to impeach Trump at its recent Town Meeting.

"I want to be prepared. Where will these be going, and when?" the postman asked, counting cards into little piles. I explained about #TheIdesofTrump, handed him my VISA, and drove back with the slate colored Lake Ch. on my left, to saute chicken livers for pate to sustain the card writers.

In the end, thanks to the Char-lotte P.O., all went swimmingly. We wrote and laughed and planned for the next paper protest (Show Us Your Taxes? Save ObamaCare? Hands-Off Planned Parenthood? Climate Change Is Real?). I'll know where to get my stamped cards from now on.

It looks like a promising spring for nasty, persisting women, v. nice men, and little red dogs.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Don't Link, Think!

At breakfast, sipping coffee, I said to my spouse, "Did you hear that thing on NPR about cyborgs?"

"What about them?" he asked, measuring honey into green tea.

If this had been the 1980s, I would have rummaged in my short-term memory and retrieved whatever shreds of the story I had retained. Then, flexing the muscles of my frontal lobes, I would have turned those concepts into coherent speech and voiced the results, thus giving myself a tiny intellectual workout before even starting my day.

"Cyborgs," I might have said, "are created by combining organic and inorganic parts in a single being. For instance, I became a partial cyborg when I got an artificial hip ten years ago. Merging the human brain with computers, which is already beginning to happen, will create the ultimate cyborg, with potentially alarming results."

But, this being 2017, I just said, "I'll send you a link."

(Here, in case you're interested, is the link to the cyborg story: http://www.npr.org/2017/02/21/516484639/are-cyborgs-in-our-future-homo-deus-author-thinks-so)

I'm suspicious of all this linking. Of course, the advent of hypertext has expanded our access to knowledge in ways undreamed-of in the era of shoulder pads. One click and I can read about Hildegard of Bingen's migraine-induced mystical visions, or find out how to make yogurt in a crock-pot. How can we not love this?

But this ease of access risks turning us into spectators of knowledge, passive enjoyers of an endless cornucopia of facts. And it's changing the way we interact with each other, as we increasingly express ourselves by posting links to what third parties have said or written rather going through the admittedly taxing process of putting things into our own words.

Consider Facebook. If you're like me, most of the posts on your news feed consist not of your friends' own ideas and opinions, but of links to videos and articles made by unknown others. I often click on these links, and laugh and cry along with the everyone else, but, unless we increasingly are what we link, they strike me only as indirect communications, at best, from my Facebook friends.

True, even before the hypertext era, few people managed to come up with really original ideas. Most of us just rehashed stuff we'd read, or heard others say. But even at its worst, rehashing is more mentally demanding than clicking.

Of course I know that fighting links is a losing battle. We Googlers and linkers are already cyborgs, letting the machine articulate and express many of our thoughts and feelings for us. But for those who would like to cling to the old ways of being human for a few more years, the strategy is clear: think, write, paint, sculpt, and compose more...and link less.