Yes, They Are a Little Thick

Yes, They Are a Little Thick

When Martine and I were in Calgary in 2010, Martine and I saw an exhibit entitled “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” at the city’s Glenbow Museum. (Other than the fish and chips, it was the only thing I remember really liking about the city.) It was my first acquaintance with the Colombian artist other than an odd book cover or two, and I found myself liking his vertically challenged and horizontally enhanced vision. Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, Fernando Botero has developed a unique style in both painting and sculpture. To see a gallery of his work, click here.

For your enjoyment, here is what Botero does to the art of ballet:

Botero Ballerina

Botero Ballerina

Is that an apple atop her head?


Things Not Worth Doing: One of a Series

Do You Know Anyone Whose Opinion Was Changed by One?

Do You Know Anyone Whose Opinion Was Changed by One?

I have always wondered why people are so willing to advertise their political opinions, especially by sticking bumper stickers on their cars. I can think of at least three reasons why this is not such a good idea:

  1. There are parts of town where I would not like to advertise my political beliefs, such as in Orange or San Diego Counties. My car is not a new one, but at least it still runs for now.
  2. IIt is distinctively possible that your favorite candidate could turn out to be an unregenerate louse. After all, why would someone want to go into politics any more unless one is on a power trip? (It didn’t used to be that way, but it is today.)
  3. Bumper stickers are a lot like tattoos: They’re a lot easier to apply than to remove.

As for myself, this blog is my bumper sticker. If, after reading it, you think I am a political conservative, you must not have read it very carefully.


The Gringo Trail

The Volcano El Misti Rises Above the Cathedral of Arequipa

The Volcano El Misti Rises Above the Cathedral of Arequipa

Most tourists visiting South America tend to follow a well-beaten path to such destinations as Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu. This is so pronounced in Peru that there is a roughly U-Shaped itinerary known as the Gringo Trail. It stretches from Lima south to Arequipa, occasionally taking in such stopovers as Paracas, Nazca, and the Oasis of Huacachina. Then, around Arequipa, there is Colca Canyon (twice as deep as our Grand Canyon), and the even more remote and even deeper canyon at Cotahuasi. From there, the tourist usually heads of Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca. Backpackers frequently continue on to Copacabana and La Paz in Bolivia and on south.

In September, I myself will be hitting the Gringo Trail. The difference is that I will be avoiding two groups of people that constitute most of the tourists: backpackers and charter bus tour groups. I will probably encounter some of the same people several times, but I will likely not be traveling with them; and I won’t be staying in neither youth hostels nor five star hotels. I don’t mind the backpackers that much, but I dislike getting stuck in a party hostel in which the drinking and loud talk continue far into the wee hours of the morning. It will actually b quite a challenge to be taking the Gringo Trail while avoiding other travelers.

There are other sights in Peru beyond the Gringo Trail, but first I have to see to what extent I am affected by soroche, acut mountain sickness. It would be nice some day to visit Ancash, Huancayo, and Huancavelica. As for the Amazon areas, no thanks: I loathe mosquitoes.

When Hungarians Picnic

My Father and My Uncle at a Picnic

My Father and My Uncle at a Picnic

Set your Wayback Machine to about seventy-five years ago. At one of Cleveland’s many parks, you would see those two irrepressible Slovak twins—Elek (Alex) and Emil Paris—and their girls having a Hungarian-style picnic. The entrée of choice is likely to be szalonnás kenjer, or sliced rye bread with chopped onions, paprika, and smoked bacon drippings. On the left is Elek, my father, with either a girlfriend or his first wife, who was said to be overweight. Next to her are my Aunt Annabelle (née Herbaj) and Uncle Emil. It was a scene to be repeated well into my teen years, except the girlfriend/first wife was replaced by my mother.

Speaking of Hungarian picnics, allow me to quote Carl Sandburg to you. His short poem is called “Happiness”:

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life
      to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
      thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
      I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
      the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
      their women and children and a keg of beer and an

I’m not altogether sure about the accordion. The Paris brothers were too busy eating to sing. On the other hand, when I went to Slovakia with my parents in 1977 (it was then part of Czechoslovakia), we sang all the old songs with my pretty cousins Gabriela, Margit, and Marinka (the last two being themselves twins).

A brief note about nationality: Like the Kurds, the Slovaks were a cohesive people for hundreds of years before ever having a country of their own, until Vaclav Havel, last President of Czechoslovakia, granted them their independence in 1993. When my father and uncle were born in 1911, Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that was administered by the Hungarians. In the end, my father spoke better Hungarian than Slovak; though I found out as early as 1977, Hungarian was spoken only by the old people.


Denial and Nullification

How Can We Stop Thinking of Them?

How Can We Stop Thinking of Them?

In the minds of many Americans who live in the so-called Red States, their values are under siege. They believe that what made this country great was heterosexuality, Evangelical Christianity, racial and ethnic homogeneity, unregulated gun ownership, and overall lack of government interference in their lives. Back in some Golden Age, people did not need a handout to survive. Of course, many did not survive because life was hard and old Doc Peabody just didn’t know how to do anything but dispense aspirin.

Then, over time, corporations took over the farms; and the more promising youth left for the coastal states. Those who were left behind continued to espouse the same values as their fathers. Suddenly, however, it seems that most Americans were no longer in the Grant Wood American Gothic mold. They were Black, Asian, Mexican, Muslim, Liberal, Queer, Educated, Feminists—in short “Not Our Kind of People.”

One result is the growth of a political movement to turn back the tide of history. So we have people whose main strategy is denial. Denial of science, of demographic change, of agnosticism, of the urban poor. Life for the Tea Party and their camp followers is one of nullification of what they do not understand. And since they do not try to understand anything outside their narrow orbit, it is an ultimately defeatist stance of a party in retreat.

Yesterday, I read an interesting article by Christopher S. Parker called “Whither the Tea Party? The Future of a Political Movement,” published by the Brookings Institution. Click the link labelled “Download the paper” for the complete text.

Parker does not think the Tea Party is going away soon, irrespective how many times it is bloodied at the polls:

Some may question whether or not this is really an “astroturf” [as opposed to grassroots] movement, one that wouldn’t survive in the absence of support from the Koch Brothers, or other big-money funding sources. But Tea Party membership has continued to grow over the last year. As IREHR [Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights] indicates, this was during a time when big-money donors were all but absent: 82 percent of the donations to five Tea Party affiliated organizations were un-itemized individual donations, which are capped at $200, and 97 percent of the itemized contributions to three national Tea Party affiliated Super PACs—Freedom Works for America, Patriot Super PAC, and Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund—failed to exceed $1,000. This suggests that the Tea Party movement isn’t “astroturf.” It’s a real grassroots movement, one that will likely be around a while.

As long as there are white Americans in the former Confederate States of America and Great Plains who feel disenfranchised, there will either be a Tea Party to minister to their needs. Or else, more likely over time, their needs will act as yeast in a Republican Party that has been largely taken over by their political and social agenda.

Change will not stop because it is in the interests of a large bloc of the U.S. population to halt it in its tracks. Over the long haul, there will be a continuing battle that will resemble some of the political battles of the Nineteenth Century over Free Silver and the Nativists. I expect it will be ugly, even if it is a losing battle: There will still be casualties on both sides.


The High Point of My Trip


Puno on the Shore of Lake Titicaca

Puno on the Shores of Lake Titicaca

If my upcoming Peru vacation is a success, it will be because I was able to withstand life at 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) altitude. The high point (both literally and figuratively) of my trip will be at Puno, a somewhat ungainly city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There will be short times during which I will be at 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) or more as I go over mountain passes between Arequipa and Chivay, between Arequipa and Puno, and between Puno and Cusco.

The hotel at which I will be staying—the Casa Andina Classic Tikarani on Jirón Independencia—provides oxygen for its guests as well as mate de coca if I am beginning to feel the onset of acute mountain sickness, or soroche, as the natives call it.

In the end, it is possible I am making too much of all this, but I will be traveling by myself. I have to be prepared to take immediate action in case I am one of the 1-2% of travelers in danger of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). If that happens, I will immediately return to Arequipa and figure out a Plan B that involves visits to Tacna, Peru and Arica, Chile, cities that figured in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), in which Bolivia lost its seacoast. (Even so, they still have admirals.)

If I find I can take the altitude, I’ll spend a night on Isla Taquile, which involves a 400 foot climb up a trail to reach the center of town. There, I will spend a night with one of the local families before returning to Puno by launch the next day.

After Puno, I head downhill to Cusco, and later still further downhill to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.



Post-Soviet Russia

Vladimir Sorokin

Vladimir Sorokin

If you compare the post-Soviet bear to the Soviet one, the only thing they have in common is the imperial roar. However, the post-Soviet bear is teeming with corrupt parasites that infected it during the 1990s, and have multiplied exponentially in the last decade. The are consuming the bear from within. Some might mistake their fevered movement under the bear’s hide for the working of powerful muscles. But in truth, it’s an illusion. There are no muscles, the bear’s teeth have worn down, and its brain is buffeted by the random firing of contradictory neurological impulses: “Get rich!” “Modernize!” “Steal!” “Pray!” “Build Great Mother Russia!” “Resurrect the USSR!” “Beware of the West!” “Invest in Western real estate!” “Keep your savings in dollars and euros!“ “Vacation in Courchevel [in the French Alps]!” “Be patriotic!” “Search and destroy the enemies within!”—Vladimir Sorokin writing in The New York Review of Books


Better Than American Football?

Better Than American Football?

Frankly, I think that most American spectator sports are there strictly for the commercial breaks. There is a brief spurt of intense activity, followed by several interminable ads directed at selling junk to macho males and hip females. The only exception is baseball, which is too much like watching grass grow. There is a pitcher, a batter, a catcher; and, very occasionally, some other players are briefly involved.

While I was in the hospital on Saturday, I watched the Argentina-Iran game in the morning. I was impressed. Despite the fact that the Argentinians won it 1-0 (superstar Lionel Messi finally came alive), it was beautiful to see the ball handling. The Iranian goalkeeper, Alireza Haghighi, frustrated all of Argentina’s many shots at goal until late in the Second Period. It was beautiful to watch the action, from the setup in the backfield to the elegant passing back and forth, along with the numerous interceptions that forced the other side to begin all over again.

The thing I loved was that something was always happening, like waves starting far out in the ocean and crashing on the shore.

Why do I love soccer football so much? For one thing, it was a tie to my father which I remember with great fondness. Elek (Alex) Paris and his brother Emil were identical twins who played the same position in the semi-pro nationality club teams of the 1930s. There were stories from my youth about my father forcing a referee to swallow a whistle (while inhaling to blow it), requiring him to pull it out by the lanyard while choking. Numerous players told me of my father’s powerful kicks that broke other players’ legs.

In the long run, I think that soccer football will replace the mayhem of American armored football. Parents just don’t want their sons to have to deal with concussions leading possibly to death or other serous head injuries. The next generation will be much more receptive to the game—unless they have to play someone like Elek Paris.

There are three reasons why, for the time being, soccer will take second place to the prolate spheroid pigskin, at least for the time being.

The main reason is that games can end in ties. Americans don’t like ties. When the USA-Portugal match ended in a 2-2 tie, newspapers around the country weighed in and harshly criticized the American effort. That was too bad, because the US really outplayed Portugal: Unfortunately, they left a brief opening for Ronaldo to set up a strike at the net. It didn’t matter to me: The Americans played a great game that showed that they deserve their 11th place world ranking. (“What only 11th place?” say the critics.) They’ll be better anon. Whether they ever reach the top spot is a different matter. First they have to pay some dues.

Another thing that drives many American fans crazy is the “expandable clock” of regulation play. A game runs 90 minutes, but referees can add minutes at the end for injuries and whatnot. In the US-Portugal game, there was a time-out at the end of the First Half as a water break. The jungle city of Manaus was hot and sticky, and the players were seriously drenched and dehydrated. In the end, the game ran approximately 95 minutes. It’s not over until the referee whistles the game over.

Finally, many Americans want more bathroom and snack breaks. Well, then, they can watch baseball, which is a lot of nothing—or some other sport with numerous breaks for ads.


Slipping Off the Pedestal

Jorge Luis Borges Flanked by His Mother and His Wife Elsa

Jorge Luis Borges Flanked by His Mother and His Wife Elsa

It was bound to happen sooner or later: After worshiping the man for over forty years, I am finally beginning to have my doubts about Jorge Luis Borges the man. But not, by any means, of Borges the poet and writer of short stories and essays. I still think he deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature on merit alone, but I begin to understand why he cheesed off the liberal-minded Nobel Prize Selection Committee.

Perhaps my favorite translator of Borges is Norman Thomas di Giovanni, whose book Georgie and Elsa: Jorge Luis Borges and His Wife, The Untold Story has just recently been published. Di Giovanni worked closely with Borges during the 1960s, shortly after he married Elsa Astete Millán, and through the divorce. What Di Giovanni discovered was that Borges was fatally naive when it came to women, politics, and social life. In fact, he was incredibly feckless in many ways. Di Giovanni writes:

[I]n later years, he travelled to Chile to receive a medal from the hands of Augusto Pinochet. This was one of the worst decisions of his life. But, he maintained, in his digging-his-heels-in mode that no one was going to tell him what he could or could not do. I imagine that it would never have occurred to Borges to question and be horrified by Pinochet’s well-oiled programme of eliminating Communists and other left-wingers. Borges was so universally condemned for his action that I think he came to realize his colossal mistake. But to justify it and himself, when I mentioned his folly to him, he said, ‘But I thought the medal was a gift of the Chilean people.’

Equally, if not more disastrous, was Borges’s marriage to Elsa. Years earlier, he had mooned over her; but, typically, someone else married her. (“Georgie” was not prime marriage material, as he lived with his mother well into his old age.) Then, one day, he met her again and—discovering that she was now widowed—took up with her again. By now, Borges was a famous literary figure; and, Elsa, being a social climber, thought that she was now about to enter the high life.

Her behavior during visits to the United States was execrable. She would steal silverware and other “souvenirs” from Borges’s friends and associates. During a visit to the Rockefellers, she insisted in photographing every room and asking about all the furnishings. It got to the point that people stopped inviting Borges lest Elsa come along. When she accidentally left a nutria coat in Cambridge after one trip, she made the return of the coat into an international incident involving U.S. and Argentinian ambassadorial and consular staffs.

Not that Borges was an ideal husband. He was an elderly blind man who happened to be impotent (which Elsa had known earlier) and incredibly old fashioned, a sort of Anglo-Argentinian who was neither all one thing or all the other. Finally, with di Giovanni’s help, Borges divorced her. He later re-married, with Maria Kodama, who now controls his esate.

Di Giovanni’s book is mandatory reading to supplement all the hagiographical biographies of the author who never quite get at the man’s character.




(Almost) Never at a Loss for Words

Ho I Wound Up in the Emergency  Room This Weekend

How I Wound Up in the Emergency Room This Weekend

It all started at work 45 minutes before quitting time. Our deranged boss had left, and I was chatting with one of the accountants about accommodations and food service at Death Valley National Park.

All of a sudden, although I knew very well what I wanted to say, it all came out as inarticulate babbling of the village idiot variety. For about three minutes, I could not translate my thoughts into words. That frankly freaked me out. The accountant suggested I call 9-1-1, which is exactly what I did. Within twenty minutes, I was hauled out of my workplace in a gurney and taken by ambulance to UCLA Medical Center, which is only about five blocks away.

No sooner was I wheeled into the emergency room than I was surrounded by doctors questioning me and testing my reactions. I thought I had suffered a mild stroke, but there was no drooping of one side of my face or difference how I felt being touched on my right or my left. I was asked to touch my nose, touch the doctor’s finger. (Fortunately he did not ask me to pull it.) The tests kept on for several hours and were even resumed this morning. UCLA is a teaching hospital, and my case appeared to be a good instructional vehicle.

I was given an MRI scan, X-Rayed, electrocardiogramed, and marinated. in olive oil The upshot was that I had not in fact suffered a stroke, but merely a temporary clot that had deprived me of the ability to speak and be understood. The whole thing lasted only about three minutes. By the time the Fire Department paramedics came, I was able to pronounce terms like panhypopituitarism and chromophobe adenoma without batting an eyelash.

The way I see it, I was once again nicked ever so slightly by the Grim Reaper’s scythe as it whooshed by me and hit someone else. What I had was called a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA). I know  now that I have to watch my step carefully. The next whoosh of the scythe could wind up removing my head from my shoulders.