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

sábado, abril 29, 2006

An Important Message From Manuel Acero

On May 1, in desde Desdemona and across North America, we are calling for No Work, No School, No Sales, and No Buying, and also to have rallies around symbols of economic trade in your areas (stock exchanges, anti-immigrant corporations, etc.) to protest the anti-immigrant movements across the country.

On May 1, we will wear "white" a T-Shirt and/or white arm bands, we can paint and write our political demands (and creative arts) at the T-shirt go to rally, protest, strike, vigil, work or school--we will have a ocean of white T-shirts with our political demands from east coast to west coast, at the street, work place, school, bus station & store... and our voice will be LOUD AND CLEAR AND CANNOT BE SILENT FOR EVER!

We will settle for nothing less than full amnesty and dignity for the millions of undocumented workers presently in the U.S. We believe that increased enforcement is a step in the wrong direction and will only serve to facilitate more tragedies along the Mexican-U.S. border in terms of deaths and family separation.

Appoyamos un dia sin immigrante y el gran Paro Americano 2006!

sábado, abril 22, 2006

Falling Down

I’m not the first 59-year old man who’s been arrested for something other people think is stupid. And I’m not the first by any means to fake remorse, or to say with false contrition that what I did was wrong. But the truth is something entirely different.

For my entire life I have been afraid of heights. As a kid, I’d only climb to the first big limb of a tree, and only then if the branches were low. I didn’t like climbing over fences. Later, I’d stand back an arm’s length from wobbly railings that overlooked motel parking lots. I’ve studiously avoided the Empire State Building observation deck, though I’ve lived near it for my entire life. I once ate at the Windows on the World Restaurant once, but I sat with my back to the view. I did walk across the roof of the Duomo in Milan and climb up a tall ladder at Bandilero in New Mexico, but I don’t understand how I accomplished these aberrations.

So when the 200 year old church in town decided to repair its steeple, I paid no real attention to it. I did notice that the steeple seemed to be tilting ever so slightly, probably because of rotted timbers, and that some day it might decide to plunge through the abyss and into the tiny town square below it. But considering the few people who live in our town, the even smaller number who ever enter the park, and the remote chance that anyone would actually be hit by the plunging, 2 century old steeple, I didn’t think the repairs were needed for at least another decade or two. There was no real emergency. The members of the church apparently felt differently.

About a month ago, they put up a gigantic, metal scaffold that towered in front of the church and extended to the middle of the high steeple. And it wasn’t like those ones you see in cities with narrow ladders and thin walkways. No. It had metal stairs that ascended from the sidewalk all the way to the top. And, more amazing, when the workers went home for the day, they didn’t remove the stairs, or post signs, or hire a cop to prevent access to the Tower of Babel. Any lunatic who wanted to could climb to the top and jump.

A couple weeks ago, I drove past the tower in the early evening. The windows of my car were down. Birds were singing, the breeze was warm. There was a bearded man standing near the entrance to the scaffolding. I wondered whether he would be the person to shatter our sleepy town’s tranquility by diving from the steeple into the park. I wondered if he would leave a note explaining his despair. I wondered whether there might be literary allusions in his suicide note to the painting of a similar steeple in Empire Falls, or cinematic ones to the climbing of the water tower in Gilbert Grape. Or whether he was so impatient to embark on his final swan dive that he would leave only incoherent rambling on the envelope of an overdue electric bill. Or worse, no note at all. I didn’t think he looked particularly distressed, I didn’t stick around to see how his suicide would unfold.

That night I had a dream. In the dream I learned that there were “portals” I could enter, and that in them I’d find various stories. In some, I’d find just shreds of a story, a snippet, a paragraph. But in others I’d find stories so elaborate, so complete, so ingeniously constructed that all I would have to do was pull gently, as if the story were wool yarn, and I would receive a complete novel. It would be easy. If I found the first sentences in the portal, and pulled on them, the next 120,000 words attached to it were sure to follow.

And where are these portals? They’re everywhere. I found one walking in a field with the dog, and I found another in the city while I was waiting for a light to change. You just step into them and see what story is in them. You have to remember the first sentences when you leave the portal, so you can retrieve the complete story. I don’t know whether the portals move around, or whether you can find them at the same place at a later time, if you forget the first sentence, or the strand somehow breaks.

Yesterday in the early evening, I went for a walk to search for some portals. I didn’t find any good ones near the house, so I thought I’d walk into town and look around. I was carrying with me in a backpack my 10-year old laptop. The idea was that when I found a really good portal, I’d take down the first 3 or 4 sentences before the ancient battery gave out. Later, I’d have access to the entire story, and I’d have a new book, a novel, in record time and with little effort.

When I got to the Tower, I thought I might as well step over the three pieces of ratty duct tape blocking access to the stairs and sample the portals at the front of the 250 year old church. I had no intention of climbing higher than 10 feet. In fact, the prospect of climbing higher than the middle of the first floor windows filled me with dread. But I didn’t find any portals I liked on the first level of the scaffold. So I continued on.

Eventually, on the top floor of the scaffold, I found a portal that was simply incredible. It held an amazing, long, complicated story of love, sorcery, intrigue, devotion and enlightenment. I had been crawling on my knees on the metal for what felt like hours before finding this portal. I was afraid to look down from the scaffold: I was high in the air, next to the leaning Tower, the earth was far, far below. When I tried to get out my laptop to record the first few sentences of the story, my laptop slipped out of my backpack, slid across the metal floor of the scaffold, and fell into the open space. I watched as it plummeted to earth, and I watched as it crashed through the front windshield of an SUV belonging to the Sheriff’s Department.

The deputy was standing outside the SUV looking up at me when the laptop hit. He, apparently, had been summoned by neighbors who called 911 to say that a lunatic, me, was climbing on the scaffold and might be planning on jumping to his death. How anyone could believe that someone, in this case a 59-year old man, who was afraid to stand up and was crawling on the scaffolding, was going to jump is beyond me. Nor do I understand why the deputy may have felt that I was trying to drop a heavy, decade old laptop computer on him. Or trying for some bizarre reason to destroy his patrol car. Everyone knows I have no animosity toward law enforcement and despise acts of violence.

The worst part of all of this isn’t my embarrassment at being arrested, or the arrest report in the local police blotter, or having to appear before the town judge, or appearing to dispassionate observers to be a crackpot or eccentric or lunatic. No. The worst part is that tonight I have to sneak back to the portal, this time with a Moleskine notebook and a pencil, to retrieve this astounding story. And I have to do it before they move the scaffold or disturb the portal. So tonight, Saturday night, even though it’s raining and cold, I have to wait until after dark, again pass the duct tape, again climb the scaffold, again crawl on my hands and knees to the portal, and take down the first paragraph.

viernes, abril 21, 2006


Imagine my surprise! My alumni magazine's class news refers readers here. If you got here by this unusual route, please leave a comment and feel free to wander around. And remember, as JRR Tolkien said, not all those who wander are lost.

jueves, abril 20, 2006

Remembering Tito Puente

This from Garrison Keillor:

It's the birthday of musician (Ernest Anthony) Tito Puente, (books by this author) born in New York, New York (1923-2000). He became known as El Rey, the Mambo King.

Puente always saw his music in terms of dance. He said, "I think as a dancer, not a musician. [I ask], 'How would it look as a dance?'" Even when recording his hundredth album, he insisted that the music be recorded live, with the entire orchestra present, as opposed to one section at a time, the way most recording is now done. When his agent suggested this might waste time, Puente replied, "You don't understand. ... I'm a dancer. I must dance in the studio while the whole thing is playing to see if it really works."

His obituary from the BBC provides background:

Musician Tito Puente, who was widely credited with shaping the sound of Latin jazz, has died in hospital in New York aged 77.

Puente recorded more than 100 albums in more than 60 years in the music industry.
He won his fifth Grammy earlier this year for Mambo Birdland, which won best traditional tropical Latin performance.

Among the artists he inspired was Carlos Santana, who recorded Puente's 1946 track Oye Como Va early in his career.

"Every time he plays Oye Como Va, I get a nice royalty cheque," Puente said.

The eldest son of Puerto Rican parents, he was born Ernest Anthony Puente Junior in New York on 20 April 1923.

His father, Ernest Senior, was a foreman in a razor blade factory, and his mother called their son Ernestito - little Ernest - which was later shortened to Tito.

She enrolled him in a piano class at the age of seven. He later studied drums before switching to the timbales - a pair of single-headed drums mounted on stands and played with sticks.
He changed jazz by bringing the timbales to the front of the stage, playing them standing up. Previously, they had been played behind the band.

"In front of a bandstand, you've got to be a showman," he said.

He had been released from a Puerto Rico hospital on 2 May after treatment for an irregular heartbeat, and had been resting during the month.

He leaves a wife, Margie, two sons and a daughter.

lunes, abril 17, 2006

Just Follow The Directions

The gentleman with the pipe is Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), poet extraordinaire, who wrote this remarkable poem:

What's wrong with you, with us,
what's happening to us?
Ah our love is a harsh cord
that binds us wounding us
and if we want
to leave our wound,
to separate,
it makes a new knot for us and condemns us
to drain our blood and burn together.

What's wrong with you? I look at you
and I find nothing in you but two eyes
like all eyes, a mouth
lost among a thousand mouths that I have kissed, more beautiful,
a body just like those that have slipped
beneath my body without leaving any memory.

And how empty you went through the world
like a wheat-colored jar
without air, without sound, without substance!
I vainly sought in you
depth for my arms
that dig, without cease, beneath the earth:
beneath your skin, beneath your eyes,
beneath your double breast scarcely
a current of crystalline order
that does not know why it flows singing.
Why, why, why,
my love, why?

And who also said, "Anyone who doesn't read Cortázar is doomed."

The gentleman with the bushy hair and intense beard is Julio Cortazar (1914-1984). He explained his fiction and himself this way:

"Yo creo que desde muy pequeño mi desdicha y mi dicha al mismo tiempo fue el no aceptar las cosas como dadas. A mí no me bastaba con que me dijeran que eso era una mesa, o que la palabra "madre" era la palabra "madre" y ahí se acaba todo.
Al contrario, en el objeto mesa y en la palabra madre empezaba para mi un itinerario misterioso que a veces llegaba a franquear y en el que a veces me estrellaba.

En suma, desde pequeño, mi relación con las palabras, con la escritura, no se diferencia de mi relación con el mundo en general. Yo parezco haber nacido para no aceptar las cosas tal como me son dadas."

Which might, if we let it, bring us to Borges. Borges wrote about Cortazar, "No one can retell the plot of a Cortázar story; each one consists of determined words in a determined order. If we try to summarize them, we realize that something precious has been lost." And, of course, Cortazar wrote about Borges here.

So we go round and round following the yellow brick road. Saved for another day, a long discussion of Neruda's and Cortazar's politics, which I, and Manuel Acero, just love!

lunes, abril 10, 2006

Y tambien en memoria

After yesterday's posting, it seemed incomplete not to remember as well Ruben Gonzalez (top) and Compay Segundo (bottom), whose music I love. The world is a poorer place without them. May we find joy in their recordings.

domingo, abril 09, 2006

Ibrahim Ferrer Vive en mi Corazon

It's just beginning to be spring in the Hudson Valley. The dog, uncoaxed, went for a swim in the pond. And I awoke this morning with a song stuck in my head, playing over and over, round and round. The song is a sentimental, Cuban one, Dos Gardenias:

Dos gardenias para ti
con ellas quiero decir
te quiero, te adoro, mi vida.
Ponles toda tu atencion
porque son tu corazon y el mio.

Dos gardenias para ti
que tendran todo el calor de un beso
de esos que te di
y que jamas encontraras
en el calor de otro querer.

A tu lado viviran y te hablaran
como cuando estas conmigo
y hasta creeras
que te diran te quiero.

Pero si un atardecer
las gardenias de mi amor se mueren
es porque han adivinado
que tu amor se ha marchitado
porque existe otro querer.

Dos gardenias...para ti.

Simple, old and beautiful. And it reminds me that Ibrahim Ferrer, who recorded this old tune has been gone for less than a year. I miss him.

You can see him, "rediscovered" by Ry Cooder, in Wim Wender's remarkable 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club, and you can hear him on the Buena Vista Social Club cd album, and on the cd bearing his name. An incredible performer. These are must see, must hear performances.

The obituary from the Boston Globe only hints at the challenges of his life and the 20 years he didn't sing. To explain the 20 years requires a long dissertation on life in Cuba in the 70's and 80's, a discussion I happily leave to others or for another time. His obit:

Ibrahim Ferrer, 78; performed with Buena Vista Social Club
By Anita Snow, Associated Press August 7, 2005
HAVANA -- Ibrahim Ferrer, a leading voice with the hugely popular Buena Vista Social Club of vintage Cuban performers, died yesterday, his representative in Cuba said. He was 78.

The Montuno production company did not give a cause of death, but Mr. Ferrer's colleagues said he suffered from emphysema and was feeling ill earlier in the week.
Known for his trademark cap and graying mustache, Mr. Ferrer was a wiry, animated figure who clearly enjoyed performing Cuba's traditional ''son" music of the 1940s and 1950s for new generations of fans.

Among a group of older Cuban performers recruited by US musician Ry Cooder, Mr. Ferrer performed on the ''Buena Vista Social Club album" that won a Grammy in 1999, and was among those appearing in the film of the same name.

''I felt like he was my brother," said fellow Buena Vista performer, the guitarist Manuel Galban. ''He was a great musician and a great companion."

Also in 1999, Mr. Ferrer was featured in one of a string of albums that followed, ''Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer," and won a Latin Grammy for best new artist in 2000.
Two other well-known members of the original Buena Vista group, singer Compay Segundo and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, died in 2003.

Originally from Cuba's eastern city of Santiago, Mr. Ferrer was born on Feb. 20, 1927, during a dance at a social club after his mother unexpectedly went into labor.

Mr. Ferrer was still a boy when he began singing professionally with Santiago groups in 1941. By the late 1950s, he was a well-known singer performing regularly with the late, great bandleader Pacho Alonso.

He also made guest appearances with other legendary names, including Benny More and Orquesta de Chepin.

Alonso's group moved to Havana in 1959, and Mr. Ferrer came along, remaining with the group for more than two decades. By the early 1980s, Mr. Ferrer had left the musical scene, but came out of retirement to perform with the Buena Vista group.

The details of his 20 year hiatus, and his shining shoes for a living during it, is noted in the movie. His consumate artistry and his talent remain. And the song goes on and on in my head.

Vive siempre en mi Corazon.

miércoles, abril 05, 2006

Frogs, Part 2

I was talking about the peepers here, but got carried away on something else. There's an important linguistic point I left out. If you're a frog, you make the same sound wherever you live, but, depending on where you are, the people living there will imitate the sound differently. Take this as an excellent example.

And how, one might ask, do the animals imitate the sounds of the human voice? Specifically, how do the dolphins imitate human singing? Stay tuned.

martes, abril 04, 2006

Hoaxes and Plagiarism

This is a great article. I just love the intersection of fiction and fact. I envy those whose fiction can sit quietly, confidently in the non-fiction section. Remember that between appearance and reality falls the shadow.

From today's New York Times Op-Ed:

Steal This Book
IN the next week or two, a British judge will rule on whether one of the biggest-selling novelists of all time is a thief.
The co-authors of a 1982 work of nonfiction, "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," are suing the novelist Dan Brown, author of "The Da Vinci Code," for breach of copyright. They charge that Mr. Brown's novel stole their hypothesis — which, in case you've been holed away for the past few years rereading Proust, is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married, and a shadowy group called the Priory of Sion has protected their descendants over the centuries, fending off dark, contending forces inside the
But what those in that London courtroom seem not to realize is that the novel has always been a confidence game. Early in the 18th century, the English novel came into being when a sometime jailbird gulled his readers with the counterfeit memoir of a certain Robinson Crusoe. Across the Channel, plenty of readers took narratives like "Manon Lescaut," by the Abbé Provost, a convicted forger, as the historical accounts they pretended to be. No surprise that our ancestors' mischief has lingered in the literary bloodline, especially when it comes to fiction masquerading as history.
"Writers have to avoid taking material from other writers," one of the plaintiffs, Michael Baigent, has declared, unappeased by the fact that Mr. Brown's book makes explicit reference to his. "It's part of the deal, really."
Tell that to the author of "A Tale of Two Cities," who not only boasted of having read Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution hundreds of times but also credited it with having "inspired me with the general fancy of that story."
The truth is that historical fiction has its roots in fictional history. So it is fitting that the "hypothesis" in the Brown dispute was largely the invention of a French hoaxster named Pierre Plantard, who died in 2000 at age 80. During the 1960's, he and his collaborators planted forged parchments in the French national library, the Bibliothèque Nationale, to provide spurious support for Plantard's wild tale about Jesus and his bloodline.
Alexandre Dumas would have smiled: In a preface to his "Three Musketeers," Dumas, a jovial showman, claimed to have discovered the text in the Royal Library, the forerunner to the national library. "The discovery of a completely unknown manuscript, at a time when historical science is at such a high level, seemed almost miraculous," he declared. In truth, the novel was largely a reworking of "The Memoirs of M. d'Artagnan," a fictionalized autobiography published much earlier. Once the novel became a blockbuster, the historian with whom Dumas collaborated sued him for royalties. We novelists call that foreshadowing.
So what's to be learned from a modern novelist whose plot involves conspiracies at the heart of the Roman Catholic church, and who finds himself accused of taking central plot elements from a previous work of nonfiction? I'm thinking, of course, of the French Nobel laureate André Gide and his brilliant 1914 novel, "The Vatican Cellars," first published in English under the title "The Vatican Swindle."
The novel revolved around a historical episode detailed in "The False Pope," by the distinguished Hebraist Jean de Pauly. In the early 1880's, Pauly wrote, a ring of con artists persuaded gullible Catholic traditionalists that Pope Leo VIII was being held captive in the Vatican cellars, while Masonic conspirators (possibly with Jesuit assistance) had replaced him with an impostor. The victims forked over hundreds of thousands of francs that were supposedly needed for a secret crusade to rescue God's vicar on earth.
Gide's detractors found their ammunition. In a nimbly insinuating article, the literary journalist Frédéric Lefèvre framed the matter this way: "When André Gide wrote 'The Vatican Cellars,' did he or did he not know 'The False Pope,' published 20 years before? Mr. Gide has enough talent that he does not need to plagiarize anybody, but there are coincidences, surprising points of convergence." So he felt obliged to address an issue of "capital importance," namely, "a writer's rights and duties in using, organizing, and transposing reality."
Turning the case of the false pope into the case of the false author, these critics were too literal-minded to see that the "reality" in question concerned a fabulation — that what drew Gide to the true story was that it was a lie. Gide wasn't writing a historical novel about a hoax. He thought the novel was a hoax. "Fiction there is — and history," Gide wrote in "The Vatican Swindle": "We are indeed, forced to acknowledge that the novelist's art often compels belief, just as reality sometimes defies it."
Maybe that's why "The Da Vinci Code" made Plantard's counterfeit history even more convincing than "Holy Blood" could, starting with its Dumas-style author's note: "Fact: The Priory of Sion — a European secret society founded in 1099 — is a real organization. In 1975 Paris's Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci."
The novel got its start because, whatever we claim, we've always hungered for fake true stories, or inventive lies we can pretend are real. Gide, for one, suspected that this hunger was actually the rock on which the Catholic Church was built. That's why his characters tend to be deluded, misinformed, confused, prone to false inferences, easily misled. Secret histories, hidden intrigues: he knew that people would always place their confidence in such things.
Another name for that confidence, Gide thought, was faith. Still another was fiction. Meanwhile, as the London litigants await the judge's verdict, you can at least be sure of this: the Vatican swindle goes on.